An Interview with Casey Newton from The Verge

Please enjoy this interview with Casey Newton ! It originally came out in my weekly newsletter; you can subscribe here if you haven’t already.

Casey is one of my favourite people to follow on Twitter, read from, and learn from – both in his position as a journalist and editor at The Verge and also just as a generally astute observer of Silicon Valley society. 

Casey has been writing at The Verge for the past six years, and in that time he has established himself as one of the most-read people covering Silicon Valley, particularly among people inside trying to make sense of it all. This past year, his work led him to one of the thorniest issues at the fault line between tech, policy and human nature: the question of how, if at all, Facebook ought to be moderating the content that gets shared on their platform. And if they ought to be doing so, as they are currently, who are the people carrying out this work, and what kind of human cost is getting shunted out of sight, away from public consciousness?

Casey’s two pieces to date on the human toll of content moderation have been stunners, and if you haven’t read them yet I urge you to do so:

The Trauma Floor: the secret lives of Facebook moderators in America | Casey Newton, The Verge, February 25 2019

Bodies in Seats: At Facebook’s worst-performing Content Moderation site in North America, one contractor has died, and others say they fear for their lives | Casey Newton, The Verge, June 19 2019

Another great way to read Casey’s writing is to subscribe to his newsletter The Interface, which comes out every Monday through Thursday at 5 pm Pacific: 

The Interface: a daily newsletter about Facebook and democracy | Casey Newton, The Verge

Thank you so much to Casey for coming on, and I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.

You cover a lot of interesting stories about tech and social media, and you’ve recently emerged as one of the most insightful and must-read people covering Facebook. Facebook is such an enormous, multifaceted phenomenon – it’s one thing for us, quite another for our parents’ generation, and a whole different company entirely for people in other parts of the world for whom it is practically the entire internet. Who do you think of as your target audience, and who are they among Facebook’s sphere of influence? How has that influenced the work you’ve done, which has been phenomenal? 

Well thank you! Like most reporters, at a high level I want to reach as many people as possible. That means writing for a handful of big, loosely connected audiences: readers of The Verge, tech workers, policy makers, other journalists, and whoever platform recommendation algorithms serves my links to. When I’m publishing a big feature, I’m hoping that it will land in front of all those people and then some.

At the same time, I’ve become increasingly focused on building a direct distribution channel to readers who share my interests. In the fall of 2017 I started a newsletter, The Interface, which covers the intersection of social networks and democracy. It’s aimed at current and former employees of the companies I cover the closest: Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Snap. One, employees are often in the best position to address the problems I’m exploring in the newsletter — and to tell me things I don’t already know. And two, they’re an influential group! The fact that I have their attention helps attract the eyeballs of the other people I really want to reach: other tech workers, policy makers, journalists, and anyone else interested in the subject matter.

Writing The Interface with platform employees in mind has shaped every aspect of the product. It has to be useful to some of the smartest people in the world, which makes me take the role of curator really seriously. I read many more articles than I ever link to, and now regularly turn down pitches from talented reporters whose work falls outside my coverage area or doesn’t seem like it would interest the average social network product manager. The newsletter also has to be good company — no one wants to be screamed at in their inbox every day, even when their company is screwing up. And so while I write a lot of company criticism, I try to do it with a light touch.

I often refer back to a notion that there are two kinds of interesting stories: “We’ve seen this before” and “We haven’t seen this before”. Which of these do you think the Facebook Story™ circa 2019 falls into, and has that changed since you’ve been covering them?

For the most part, in 2019 Facebook strikes me as a “we haven’t seen this before” story. This wasn’t always true; in 2007 I thought it was basically a MySpace also-ran.

Today, Facebook is a company where a large handful of former top executives, along with co-founder Chris Hughes, have come forward to express grave reservations about the company’s effects on the world. That’s a brand-new phenomenon for Big Tech.

Think about it: Facebook now has more than double the number of users than Catholicism has adherents; the network enables members to communicate with very little friction at a global scale; and it’s governed by algorithms that even the people who built them do not completely understand. (Or rather, they can’t fully explain the outcomes of the algorithm’s behavior.) Moreover, we still don’t really comprehend the sum total of Facebook’s externalities. To what extent has it enabled the surge of right-wing populism around the world? How should we consider its role in the spread of hate speech and the incitement of violence in countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka? Would Trump have won in 2016 if Facebook didn’t exist? 

We’ll likely be debating those questions for a long time to come. But we also get new clues every week, and connecting those dots has become one of my favorite pastimes. 

People often say that “people who can tell stories rule the world”. It seems to me that we’re at one of those historical inflection points where the ability to speak convincingly about what is going on and how we ought to feel about it are shifting towards an entirely new kind of competency and expertise on the part of the storyteller. The world (including the tech world we live in) is getting super complex!  So on the one hand, this compounding complexity makes it harder for journalists, PR people, salespeople, storytellers of all kinds, to actually have a complete understanding of what they’re talking about. But on the other hand, that very same complexity gives their stories more power: people need a narrative; they need explanations that make sense to them. How do you see this playing out in terms of the relative standing and roles of different kinds of storytellers in our industry, like journalists versus PR people and founders versus gatekeepers or whomever? 

It’s definitely a historical inflection point. The internet made publishing trivial, which is rewriting a lot of the relationships you describe. That has been an unqualified boon to me personally — The Verge couldn’t exist without it, obviously, and newsletters wouldn’t seem as interesting in a world where platforms had created sustainable business opportunities for publishers. 

The inflection point has also been really good for startups and big tech companies. The rise of content marketers and influencers have given them friendly new channels to promote their work — ones that won’t ask the more difficult questions that journalists will. Most founders still want to get legitimate press eventually, but I now regularly see founders avoiding us altogether. (TikTok in particular is blazing a trail on this front — the company has said almost nothing to American reporters, while reportedly spending $1 billion to acquire users in the United States.

So: good for some individual journalists, for creators, and for companies. At the same time, I think it’s been hard on average citizens and news consumers. There is much more high-quality information available to them at their fingertips, often for free, than there ever has been before. But there’s also an incalculable amount of bullshit all around them — much of it being pushed by those  influencers and content marketers and PR people. There are now six PR people for every working journalist in the United States, by the way, and it feels like most of them are in my inbox daily. Meanwhile, the US media industry has shed more than 3,000 jobs so far this year. 

All of that sucks, but I’m a chaos-is-a-ladder person, and so I think of this issue mostly in terms of opportunity for individual journalists. A weird phenomenon in our current era is that while trust in institutions is generally declining, trust in individuals is increasing. A journalist can become of those trusted individuals — either by gaining access to a big platform perch (anchoring a CNN show, say) or by developing deep expertise on a subject of growing importance. Either way, there are new ways to win now. Ezra Klein is one of my heroes here — he blogged so much about health care in the early 2000s that when the national spotlight turned to the subject in the Obama years, he was primed to become a leading voice in the discussion. I’m basically running the same playbook, substituting social networks for health care and a newsletter for blogging.   

In a similar vein, I’d love to hear what you think about how the relationship between startups and the tech press has changed. What’s new and different, and what’s the same as it ever was?

Same as it ever was: most founders crave attention from the press, and have no idea how to get it. And so they overpay big PR agencies to blast boilerplate emails to every conceivable outlet and hope for the best. The much better approach, particularly at the early stages, is for founders to email a handful of reporters who they respect directly and build relationships that begin long before the eve of a product launch. 

What’s different: the press is much less likely to give founders the benefit of the doubt about the inherent goodness of their product. Founders should expect to get a lot more questions about privacy, data storage, and the likely secondary consequences of their work. Who’s going to lose their job if this thing is successful? That’s a question that gets asked a lot more these days.

I’d also argue that the difficulty of getting coverage has likely gone up. When the iPhone was new, we couldn’t get enough new apps. Nowadays … it feels like there are enough apps. The areas where startups are focused these days are generally less sexy to reporters. (My apologies to the insurance industry.) And enough of the world is literally on fire that journalists’ attention is harder to come by. (Also, did I mention that 3,000 of them lost their jobs this year?)

Let’s talk about San Francisco. Every other week we get some brain genius take on whether San Francisco is dying, or becoming Monaco, or that this is just another chapter of what’s been happening there for a hundred fifty years. There’s no doubt that there’s a pretty distinct angst that’s saturated the place. Not just the inequality, the housing crisis, the homelessness; but also rich people problems like the social scene being so dominated by one monoculture, and all sorts of classic New Money Problems where the new Tech Titan power is constantly being pitted against the older, established power of aging hippie millionaire homeowners. Has anybody really captured this zeitgeist well? What is it that people with power in San Francisco really want? 

Oh man, I have no idea. I’m the stereotypical gay guy who showed up here in my 20s, took one look around, and decided I would live here the rest of my life. And nine years later, the city just feels incredibly brittle — like the middle class emptied out, and now the place is just waiting for some moderately heavy blow to shatter the whole dream. 

The Twitter timeline captures this better day to day than any individual work I’ve read. You see both the outsized successes and the grim failures (homelessness increased 30 percent over the past year, according to one count). For the connective tissue, you have to turn to books — and let me be extremely annoying and recommend two that haven’t come out yet. In Mike Isaac’s “Super Pumped,” Uber is depicted as a company that uniquely could be born in San Francisco, because of its tight concentration of wealthy smartphone users and subpar transit and taxi infrastructure. And yet it’s also a place where amoral thugs could access unlimited amounts of capital while remaining all but indifferent to the many negative externalities of their work. It comes out in September, and it’s a must read.

I also just started reading Anna Wiener’s “Uncanny Valley,” a memoir of life here during the coming tech boom. I’m still in the early chapters, but the picture it paints of San Francisco is despairing and surreal — which is how it feels to me a lot of the time.

All that said: I can’t imagine living anywhere else. San Francisco has been incredibly good to me, and whatever it takes to get the city back on a more sustainable course, I’d like to be part of the solution.

Finally, I’d love to hear any writing tips you have. What was advice that you were taught, whether in school or otherwise guided by other writers, that has stuck with you? Anything you’ve figured out for yourself about what makes you most productive at getting words on a page? What are characteristics of other people’s writing that you enjoy? If someone were to start writing their own blog or newsletter for the first time, what would be your one piece of advice as far as the writing part is concerned?

This is a request for a graduate level seminar in journalism, and you’re not paying me enough for this assignment for me to comply with it. So I’ll just say two things here that may be of some help.

One, revel in the shitty first draft. Whenever I’m confronted with a blank page for too long a time, I’ll write a placeholder sentence. (In the case of this answer, I might have begun the first paragraph with “Joke about the length of Alex’s prompt.”) For reasons yet to be answered by science, it is 100 percent easier to edit a sentence than to write one in the first place. This holds true even when the “sentence” you’re “editing” is barely more than a string of keywords. So if you find yourself stuck: write out the keywords. You’ll finagle a sentence out of them much faster than if you simply wait for the perfect sentence to spring from your fingers. 

Two, my advice to new bloggers and newsletter writers is to focus on the narrowest slice of a big subject that you can get away with, and then go 30 percent deeper than you had planned to originally. The world has more than enough hot takes; what it’s starving for is wisdom. The best way to serve your audience is to break off some chunk of a subject no one else has thought to examine yet, and then spend more time with it than anyone else is willing to. To borrow a crypto analogy that I stole from Eugene Wei talking about social networks, this is your proof of work. 

You should be skeptical of any blog post that contains fewer than 1,000 words, including your own. Concision is a worthy goal, but it’s a virtue unlikely to deliver you many benefits early in your career. As a new writer you’re likely to publish relatively infrequently, so you want to make sure your punches are big and heavy when they arrive. (Eugene Wei is a master at this approach, incidentally.)

When we meet a new writer we’re looking for an originality of voice — a freshness of perspective. The blog era produced many writers who achieved this aim with stylish prose and a frequent application of exclamation marks. I suspect the newsletter era will be more likely to reward those whose perspective originates from original research and synthesis.  

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