Very Fine Day #10: Charlie Warzel
CHARLIE WARZEL is a writer-at-large for the New York Times’ Opinion section. He writes a lot about technology, platforms, and the meeting point between the physical and digital worlds. He also has a blog about dogs.
VFD: Alright Charlie: Where are you right now?
Charlie Warzel: I’m in Missoula, Montana, which is where I moved with my partner Annie in 2017.
VFD: Why'd you do that?
Charlie Warzel: Ha,
VFD: Not that I don't….
Charlie Warzel: It’s a good question.
VFD: I mean… I do think it’s probably nice.
Charlie Warzel: So basically, she was writing a lot about the West. Like, the Mountain West region in the States and covering the politics in that area in the post-Trump election, and there's lots of good interesting stories there. She's kind of from this region of the country. And I joined her, tagging along on a reporting trip, and we came out here and it was like, the start of the Summer and it was just gorgeous. And New York City was just hot and smelling like garbage and the subway was broken all the time and we were just… I've always lived on the east coast of the States, and I was looking for an adventure.
Weirdly enough, everyone at BuzzFeed, just like… kind of let us do it. We did not think it was gonna happen. And we mentioned trying to do it and within a month we had moved. They were just like: yeah, whatever you want.
And then ever since we’ve been on the front lines of the remote work thing, right? Because you can do the job from anywhere.
That's one thing I just don't understand: So many newsrooms are so weird about where you live. And I just think it only behoves every institution to have more people spread out. Especially if that's what they want - like, you're gonna get a happier worker, too.
VFD: Did you get into it straight away, though? Or did it take you a few weeks to figure out?
Charlie Warzel: It's almost like you're setting up the premise of this book that we're working on…
Charlie Warzel: No, we just wrote a book on the future of work and remote work. And it's mostly not about us at all, but the germ of it came because when we moved Annie had a pretty decent transition to the work from remote work thing. And then for me, it was just like, horrible. Like, all I did is I worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week. I was just getting, like, cold sweats on the couch, all the time. It was very bad. And then I slowly figured out how to do it, basically.
Like, you have to actually “work from home”. You have to go to a room in your house, you know, do all that crap.
But anyway, we noticed when the pandemic hit and everyone was going through this that people were just replaying that eight months of my life before I figured out what was going on. And how to actually find balance and do the thing where you, say, work out in the middle of the day and all that kind of jazz.
VFD: Yeah, I have multiple health conditions - not health conditions - but things as a result of – not even as bad as in the US – but in Australia, it was probably like three to four months of working from home. And it’s stuff that has never made me feel more old than going into the physio and they're like: Oh, yeah, your glutes don't activate anymore, which is why your hamstrings keep falling apart. I’m like: Okay, cool. That's it.
And then I did my neck few weeks ago, and they were like: yeah, we're getting a lot of these from everyone working from home and looking at their computer.
Charlie Warzel: Oh, yeah. It's crazy. I mean, do you remember the thing a while back – I can't remember if it's true or not – where people were getting a deformed part of their hands, like it's a second limb or whatever, from just playing Candy Crush? It was just horror stories.
VFD: You said you're from the east coast. Have you been in New York always?
Charlie Warzel: Yeah, I was in New York… After college, I went to DC and I worked in NBC News as a researcher on the TV side. Cable – and stuff in the news division.
And I was basically like a glorified production assistant. I got a lot of coffee and did a lot of research and stuff. But I kind of got into politics and stuff like that and was really interested in the political news cycle.
This is sort of right around Obama's first term, and we were covering the inauguration. Things like that. It is cool to sort of be at the centre of things. And TV news is really kind of intoxicating that way, even though it's not my favourite, and I got out. But then… the DC to New York media pipeline,
VFD: Yeah, seems like a lot of people do that.
Charlie Warzel: Well, it's just, if you can't get the job that you want in DC, like, if it’s not politically centric, then yeah. I mean, I think it's actually a lot easier now. Or it was maybe easier during the Trump era to find a niche in the political nightmare landscape.
Y’know, during basically the entirety of the Trump time I wrote about politics and technology, like so many people did, but before that it was a little bit harder to do.
And it was definitely… I just remember being at NBC in 2010. And being like: I want to blog for you guys! As like a young person, y’know? Covering DC with some young person lens or whatever. And they're like: No.
Like, no interest.
I think there were a lot more entry points. I don't know, media is kind of in quite a pickle right now.
VFD: So are you still as inclined to write about politics given – I was thinking about you, in particular – you haven't been writing about Trump for just four years. I feel like Trump is part of a moment in history and a movement that you've been writing about for six or seven years?
Charlie Warzel: Yeah. I mean, okay, so it's all just this weird accident, right? I mean, not to be boring, but the way that I sort of see the accidental trajectory of what I did is: I got into covering technology because I was covering media companies, like digital media, for this advertising magazine: AdWeek.
And from there, I met a lot of BuzzFeed people, and then got hired there. And because I was doing digital media, they're like: write about technology. So they threw me in that bucket. And then from there the interest was these big platforms and how the platforms are influencing the way that we behave. They’re just changing social and cultural dynamics so much. And I think that there were certainly plenty of people writing about that, but it was still really small and historically siloed.
But I didn't think it was the next big thing, necessarily. It was just like: this is really fascinating, right?
Like, I think the first thing I wrote that was down this lens, or angle, or whatever, was: why doesn't Facebook let you see how many people saw your post? Something like that.
They show you how many people liked it, but I did this whole calculation and was like: basically, it's because the metrics are super not in your favour, right? 100,000 people saw your post, nine people liked it. Nobody wants people to know that. And it really pissed Facebook off.
And they responded to it. This is 2013 when the stakes of everything were just totally different than they are now. But this was a thing that really made them mad, right? And I just remember I ended up talking with the head engineer of Newsfeed. And in that conversation, which I think at the time it was off the record, but they were just telling me how they think about what they prioritise. And I just sort of realised in those types of conversations with people that it kind of jump started from that, like: Oh, there's so much more to this.
Facebook is involved in psychology and all these different kinds of patterns and analysis of behaviour to try to provoke these types of things. And it sort of was the first - maybe that was even too late - but it was a first understanding for me of: these platforms aren't neutral. They are pushing you in these directions, and they're being engineered to do that. And that sort of just changed everything right? I was like: OK, so then what is happening as a result of a lot of these opaque decisions?
And that just kind of led very organically to: OK, well let's see how people are behaving. And it was like: Oh, women and people of colour are constantly getting harassed on and off the internet. Why is that?
And so I tried to understand the dynamics at play. And then it became like… I got obsessed with their rules, too.
VFD: Very cool.
Charlie Warzel: These platforms, they say what they're trying to accomplish right here. This is what's allowed and not allowed. And they never enforce any of it.
So it was like: OK, well, let's find some examples and just bring it to them and try to get them to say what's going on. And that sort of became its own - not that just via me - but in general other people, alongside me, were doing that. And it became this cottage industry thing.
But there was this direct line from all the harassment stuff to the behaviours of these nascent, ironic communities that started to get populated with worse and worse people. So this is really a super long way of saying: I stumbled into this. Because I was like: Oh, these platforms are making us act a certain way.
VFD: It’s a lot.
Charlie Warzel: Yeah, but I didn't see any of it coming.
VFD: Do you… How much do you think that the algorithms and platforms affect people? I guess my question is, like: how much of it is just people being people? And we just didn't know that people were just… kind of… dicks?
Charlie Warzel: I don't think we're ever going to be able to like fully untangle it, right? Because I think to some degree there is just natural human behaviour, obviously. But I don't think we can discount how totally unnatural this level of connection is.
Something just snapped in my brain in like, 2018. I don't know what it was but I just remember reading about the cottage industry of misinformation in the US – people who were just creating totally fake news sites. This might have been 2017 or something.
But it was past the Macedonian trolls thing. Trump had been elected, but it was just the way that misinformation was going. And I think it was some of those stories about boomers who were just on their computer all the time, and were just being destroyed by garbage news.
And I just remember something had broken my brain and I was just like: I don't think we should be connected at this scale. And at this intensity.
And I don't think I've recovered from thinking that. And it's not to say it's all bad, and I hate painting any of this with a super broad brush, but there's just something wild to this. And I've tried to explore it a little in the past couple of years with the reporting myself and my colleague, Stuart Thompson, have done.
We did this piece on how, with COVID misinformation and with Stop The Steal stuff, we went back through people's Facebook histories and it was just people using the platform, trying to do whatever they could to catch some virality with nothing happening. And then one day, they're just like: I think COVID is hoax. It was like so much engagement. They were just like off to the races and insane.
And I just think those incentives are always there to some degree, right?
Like, let's go back to like Alex Jones in the analogue days, right.
He realised at one point that showing up at the Texas state legislator press conferences with a bullhorn was really advantageous and helped him become a local weirdo and he got some popularity. But the scale of this is just so mind boggling. I still don't think to some degree we - self included - really stop and think about Facebook, from the sense that there's never been anything this massively connecting so many people.
Charlie Warzel: And I don't think our brains can wrap our heads around it, to some degree, because it is preposterous and it's so new.
So, yeah. I mean, I think people are dicks. But I also think we have the ability to tap into such large reserves of attention in ways that were basically unfathomable 15 years ago, and that's tough to discount.
VFD: Yeah, I definitely feel like people don't recognise this kind of industrial revolution-era moment.
I feel like I spend a lot of my time explaining to people who complain about their parents online – or boomers online is another great example. Like: why don't they understand? Or even people struggling to make that jump to online social living. And it's just like: well, they… can't.
There's a level to it where they really are just not born into understanding in the way that you, a 20 something year old, are. And because of that they are so susceptible to a lot of the worst things going on.
Charlie Warzel: I think it can maybe go further too, right? It’s even the 18-year-old person who’s platform native to everything, and there's an intuitive understanding of the dynamics and the behaviours of these networks and how to use them really well.
But still, I don't think that even those individuals understand what's happening when you're putting this stuff out there. And I don't mean from a technical standpoint. But just the size of potential audience that you can court and the ways in which your message can be distorted or manipulated or taken out of context.
I just think a lot of times we open up all these different platforms and see it as a fun game. Like, OK: let’s try to like ride the wave, right? And I don't think most people know what it actually feels like when you catch the wave. And a lot of people realise that and are like: oh shit!
But how could you expect someone to understand? I think if we really, truly, with our feeble brains, could understand what is happening when we're about to hit send on a tweet or post or upload a video or something, I think if we really could understand the power there, we'd all just be like: man, I'm out.
VFD: Do you think it's inevitable that that'll happen? And like soonish, in the next 10 years?
Charlie Warzel: I don’t know.
It’s interesting, because I feel like I’m just starting to have this moment where some brain space is opening up, post the last five or six years. And I’m trying to think about questions like this, about the internet, in new ways.
I don't think I had a new or interesting thought about the internet, basically since Trump came down the escalator, right?
It was just like running around with a fire extinguisher, putting out fires. Being like: what was that thing? Okay: how did they do this? But it wasn't thinking through new consequences, or the evolution of something, or how it's going to go. It felt like it was all just responding to something.
And so now I'm really fascinated right now with the idea of what are we going to do with creators, broadly as a category. Are the lives of anyone who wants to create things on the internet just going to be increasingly financialized and sliced and diced? And, y’know, you basically have to sell every decision of yours to some crowdfunded platform? Or turn yourself into cryptocurrency or whatever. Is it going to be weird stuff like that?
Or is it going to be this really interesting labour movement, where creators realise their power and exert authority over platforms, or unionise, or come together in these collectives? Or governments might have to declare, like, “Poster’s Unions”,
VFD: Oh I’d be getting that shirt so quickly.
Charlie Warzel: And right now these platforms have so much control just by how they can tweak an algorithm, or a set of policies that changes how someone gets paid. In some ways that's like taxation without representation, right? And what if there's some way where the kind of reform that we want for certain parts of the internet comes from creators being like: OK, well, I'm done. Or: I'm not going there. Or: you need to disclose how this part of the algorithm works so that I'm not left in the cold when you change something.
I don't know. It all depends on how crazy politics in the rest of the world gets.
VFD: Oh, it’s fine.
Charlie Warzel: Yeah, it’s going great.
But I do think there's probably… I think it's gonna be a really interesting next decade for the maturation of the internet.
VFD: I thought recently – and you don't have to comment on this, given it's your employer – but a few days ago The New York Times told its staff: no newsletters for any of you, please. And my first thought was, like: Everyone should just… leave?
And that power struggle is really coming to a point, it feels like. Or maybe it's at the foot of the hill. But that feels like something we're about to face as well: if we localise it to media and the creator economy as reporters and writers.
Charlie Warzel: Yeah… For my own safety I won't comment on the newsletter thing. But like, I do think that broadly in media it is a super interesting moment, especially as a lot of people are waking up to either their own ability to really quantify their own value as a creator of content. And then also watching other people wake up to their true value, right?
And I think the whole thing is incredibly uncomfortable. Because what you realise – which is the way that most places work – is that certain individual’s work always subsidises the work of others. And it's never fair like that. And I think that a lot of organisations – and this isn't even just media, this is broadly that any industry can kind of contain that. They can make it so you don’t really know and you can’t really see that kind of thing.
So, yeah, I think it's just super uncomfortable for lots of people. And I think it's going to cause a fair amount of turmoil, but also some really cool stuff, too.
VFD: Yeah, well, especially because it's like… I don't think it is a good indication of your individual value as a creator. But you still have to do a bunch of things before you get to that point, like generate a Twitter following or put out a lot of content for free on YouTube and hope people follow you there, before you even have this value.
So you're tied to these other platforms, and you're relying on them to give you that value. And it's just… the more I talk about, and think about, these things I'm just like: Oh my god,
Charlie Warzel: No, it’s wild. And some of it is just so random, too. Like, I noticed that if you just take some of the Substack stuff – like some of the people who are able to generate really big followings – you see a number of people who came from the blogosphere. Really prominent early bloggers.
And those people also stumbled into blogging at a really good time, right?
Like, I came into “being a professional online” and I got the very tail-end of blogging. I couldn't put my foot in there, but those people were able to.
And then I look at how when I got on Twitter, which was sort of near the beginnings of Twitter or at least the beginnings of when media people started getting on Twitter. And so as a result, I got in at the ground floor and I was able to build up a big enough following.
But a lot of this stuff is based off of luck. Of when you hit that one platform that sort of gives you the ability to then leverage these other ones down the road. So it's like: the the people who had the big blogs, they then went to Twitter, they got a lot of Twitter followers, and then they're able to use that Twitter following and the blog thing to get good jobs. And then when they want to go independent, they can do that, because they have those followings from porting them over.
It's like this game of like, I don't know…
VFD: Catch up.
Charlie Warzel: Yeah,
VFD: I think that it'll be interesting… The way I think it'll play out is: you'll have all these individual creators finding their value, making their own newsletters, and making a lot of money. And then you'll get a handful of them with big enough egos, or big enough ideas for the future, who are like: You know, I can put a bunch of these newsletters together, or I can like, get a bunch of these writers together.
And then you'll start – in the same way that the blog boom created a bunch of new media websites – we will have another boom, a bit further on.
But the interesting part of that will be individuals who have all the money for the first time, rather than being funded by multinational corporations or venture capitalists. Them having to make the decision of like: OK, I'm deliberately going to go from having this money just to myself and maybe an editor, and being ethical, maybe, about what I build out. But I just see a whole bunch of messy, broken, cancellation moments of internet darlings when they try to transition away.
Charlie Warzel: Well, there's also a really interesting, sustainable potential part there, which is: when you look at the folks over at Defector, who are creating this community-owned publication, because of the Deadspin stuff they know an audience is there. And also because they're really good at what they do.
But also, I saw one of them talking about the fallout that was happening at Medium. And they were like: The great thing about this is we're not trying to grow it to some massive scale. We're trying to do a good job, have good paying jobs for us and the people that we can afford to employ.
Again, it’s basically this idea of – I was just talking to this venture capitalist named Li Jin, and she wrote this piece about the creator middle class and how there’s no middle class on the internet. It's just like the top and the bottom, and the Defector thing seems to me like some potential path towards that.
And if you have a lot of people via a blog, or Substack, or whatever sort of individual thing is moving away from big publications, and then if they condense again, but they do it in a sustainable way, maybe that's… to me feels like a better future than all venture-backed media.
VFD: Well venture-backed media has worked so well I can’t see why we wouldn't keep doing it.
Charlie Warzel: Oh yeah, it’s fantastic stuff all around.
VFD: Where did you go to college? Sorry to rewind a bit, but I realised I didn’t ask.
Charlie Warzel: Oh, I went to this small liberal arts school called Hamilton College near Syracuse, New York.
VFD: Did you study journalism?
Charlie Warzel: No, they didn't have a journalism thing. I studied political science, but I went to a really competitive high school. And to be honest, kind of burned out in high school. Like, it was just so intensely focused on getting into colleges. That was just the whole thing. Your whole person was just like channelled towards that.
And so I got to college and kind of was pretty directionless there for for a while. And then I ended up doing a semester in Washington, DC, and they forced you to get an internship a couple days a week as part of the thing. You get some classes, but everyone interned at a House at the Senate and in their local politicians office or something like that. And that just sounded really boring to me. So I just tried to find something that would be fun and ended up with this internship at the TV show “Meet The Press” which I guess is a really warped version of what fun would be. But I was like: oh, media…
But I kind of stumbled into it, and then was like – sort of what I said earlier – I found what was interesting about journalism was being at the centre of big events, or having an excuse to pay attention to what was going on.
Again, I got to go to the inauguration. And I remember there were all these people taking time off from work, or travelling in from far away to go to this thing. And I was just, like, being paid to be there. And I have among the best seats in the house, and I was like: that's very cool.
And it was just that realisation and I naturally was always someone who if something happened, I would turn on the news and watch it. To have the excuse of having that be something you do was really appealing. And then it all just kind of…. it allllll went to shit from there!
VFD: Ha, yeah. Is this stuff about burning out and being in college like: what am I gonna do? Was that a present thing? Or was that a hindsight thing? Did you realise?
Charlie Warzel: I definitely realised that. I mean, it was super apparent that it was like: you gotta get to a good college or what is gonna happen to you?
It was a lot of pressure that I didn't know to rebel against, really. I should have. But anyway, the burnout thing is sort of hindsight. I mean, just looking at the fact that the first two years I just focused on learning how to be a person in college, and then being really interested in a specific topic or subject matter or something like that.
VFD: Can I tell you, and this will embarrass you a little bit, but the first memory I have of knowing about you is - it might be my one of my first days at BuzzFeed - and Katie Notopoulos and a few other people were tweeting out this video of you in a choir at College and it was all over my feed and I was like: who is this guy?
It's good video.
Charlie Warzel: Yeah, yeah… I sang in an acapella group in college as part of that journey to find myself…
No… man… I got trolled with that video so often. There was a point in 2014 when BuzzFeed was hiring like 100 people a week, and in the welcome email thread somebody would just post this video.
And it was like literally 100 random people across the world and just: watch this doofus, in 2008, sing a Marvin Gaye song. Oh, man.
VFD: It's good, though. Yeah. Are you okay for time by the way?
Charlie Warzel: Oh yeah, Friday afternoon. We’ve got time.
VFD: OK. Well, do you think we can fix the mess we’re in?
Charlie Warzel: Which mess?
VFD: Exactly, yeah, which mess! But probably like: platforms and the social internet and how, like you were saying before, partly because no one really knows how to deal with it or how much Facebook was kind of controlling their decisions, but can we actually train people to understand that?
And can we actually change the platforms themselves to be better? Or is it a matter of hoping competition comes in and Facebook doesn't buy them for a billion dollars or copy them so that it creates some sort of diverse environment online?
Charlie Warzel: I think there’s a number of …there's so many things in that.
One thing that I've been thinking about a lot is like: on some of the speech issues I think you can see that what's very apparent is how in its infancy a lot of these discussions are like. You look at them and it’s about content moderation stuff, like that has to get fixed, and it does, to some degree.
But like, we don't even have agreed upon language for what's going on here.
We talk about it as: Oh, these are issues of speech, right. But in reality, a lot of them are really issues of reach, and of amplification, and distribution, and access to large pools of attention.
And it's part of the reason, not all, but part of the reason why you have both sides of the aisle in United States Congress equally mad at the same people for completely different reasons. And not only are they mad for different reasons, they can’t even have a conversation about them, because there isn't good language to articulate some of the problems yet. And so I think that's a big impediment, but that will change.
But when I think about fixing stuff there's a couple things. I mean, one is like: I think a lot is going to be really difficult to change while Mark Zuckerberg is still…
Charlie Warzel: Just in total control of Facebook.
Like, I think that is just a real issue. And I don't see that changing. But I think that it's a much bigger roadblock than most people who are just kind of thinking about this realise. I sort of get the sense that a lot of these issues that seem super intractable, and maybe are, are probably going to get fixed in the most boring ways, or change in boring ways.
Like I think that certain data privacy laws or regulations, even just in terms of what companies need to disclose, or how they need to rewrite their policies, or how they need to show users what kind of information is being collected, or whatever that is, however that works out… I think that will happen over time.
Things that could possibly solve some really big and heavy problems – It could be like forced disclosures from platforms about the ways that their algorithms work in sneaky ways. And then that could ameliorate a lot of content moderation problems that feel so thorny right now.
Or, I think that some of the antitrust stuff always gets put under this umbrella of like: OK, are we gonna break WhatsApp and Instagram away from Facebook and turn it into several companies? And I don't think that really solves it necessarily. But there's so much more, y’know, nitty gritty. There's so many other potential solutions there.
And this is not really my expertise, so I don't feel comfortable coming into it, but I think there's a chance that the FTC can come in and start making some rules that make life miserable for these companies and start solving some of these issues on the margins. But they're so deeply unsexy. It's not just going to be like: we're going to stamp down this rule that forever changes speech on the internet. I just don't think that's gonna happen that way.
VFD: What do you think about when you're trying to put together something to write. Let's just say, assuming you need to write something once a week, do you just spend a lot of time looking at the sky just thinking about the internet?
Charlie Warzel: Ha. It’s… I think it’s harder and harder. There is no real rhyme or reason. And, y’know, sometimes… This is me trying to give you a non boring answer.
The ultimate thing that I'm always trying to reach for, at least lately - is like, a big idea about something and then the actual human being that represents. Or the struggle with it, right?
Like, OK, you have this idea of algorithmic incentives that are causing people to become election deniers almost overnight? Like: who's the guy, right? Where can we see it? How can you figure that out? Who's a person who's having that happen to them? And that's kind of just journalism to some degree, but I feel a little bit like a lot of stories right now have reached saturation. It doesn't mean it's over, or that they're not important. It's just like: you've told the same story quite a bit.
And so I'm always trying to find a way around that corner, if that's possible. And oftentimes, it’s not. You just kind of end up writing the next chapter in that story, or the sequel, as opposed to a whole new piece of intellectual property.
I mean, the first thing I always do is just – I only write good stories when I follow my interests.
And there's plenty of these stories that happen where you just kind of commit yourself to something because you're struggling to find something. Those are always just the ones where I like look back – I always look at my stories at the end of the year, what was good, what was bad – and there's always those ones where I'm like: Oh, yeah, I remember I halfheartedly pitched that and three or four hours of researching or reporting in I was like, I don't really like this.
And, y’know, there's always one or two of those every year and they're never awesome. Because of that.
So if I get excited about it, or think that it's really fascinating, and feel propulsive towards it. It's always going to be better.
VFD: How do you then convince your editor? Or is that quite easy?
Charlie Warzel: I have an interesting relationship with my editor because unlike a lot of editors that I've had he is not just straight out of the world of tech journalism. He covered wars in the Middle East and is, like, really steeped in history. Just an avid reader of history and things, and he sort of comes at all this as a really interested and engaged person - but isn't necessarily obsessed with whatever tech Twitter is talking about, right?
So there's more convincing that I've had to do, but usually that makes it stronger. And I will say I probably get waved off a little bit more on certain things. And then I will kind of come back to it, often, and it will be stronger.
A good example is this column I just wrote last week about NFTs. The original conception of it was… I was trying to tie 30 things together and trying to just, like, make fun of them. And he was just sort of like: This is a bit incomprehensible. I don't know what you're trying to do.
And it's possible that someone who is just hyper, you know, engaged in the internet conversation online would have just been like: OK, yeah, go with it! And I would have turned out something.
But instead, he was sort of like: you're really gonna have to come over here and do a little more work. And that made it better.
But normally, put it this way: My tastes seem to align like a pretty normie mainstream. If I'm really interested in something it tends to be that story does well, or if it aligns interest wise… I would say I don't have super esoteric tastes, in terms of stories. For whatever reason. So, I've learned to, like, trust that instinct a little bit. If I'm like: that's gonna be clever, or fun or interesting. And I think over time, editors have learned to sort of trust that a little bit, too. But yeah, every case is different. And I'm very grateful.
There's been a lot of conversations about editors lately. But I'm super grateful when someone tells me the idea is bad. Because you want the gatekeeper to be like: no, I don't understand what you're talking about.
VFD: Is that how you think about - to transition into one of the regular questions - failure and getting things wrong? An editor is a good example of that, I guess, in stopping you from going down that path. But how do you approach, in your professional life or in your personal life, making mistakes and then correcting them?
Charlie Warzel: I mean I screwed something up in that NFT column in the second sentence. And it was just… the crypto stuff is, especially for the New York Times audience which is expecting to come at something from a very generalist lens…
There's this process, and this happens a lot with writing about Internet stuff. You talk to somebody and then you're just slowly trying to bring that down to something my mom can understand. And in the process this time, I messed it up. Like, I just mixed the detail. And it was just incorrect. And somebody noted it. And they pointed it out in a way that was sort of like: oh, this is a huge bummer. This is a pretty bad, glaring correctable error in the second sentence of the piece about the fundamental thing.
It's not like I got the piece wrong, but it was a notable thing for people who understand and care about this technology. And so I was like…I mean I felt like shit, and really embarrassed but rather publicly I was like: walk me through what's wrong a little bit. And then asked them to also direct message me and I was like: OK, well, I just want to be clear – this is what you saw to be wrong.
And then I went to my editor and I was like: this is a kind of an in the weeds and nerdy correction, but like, it has to be done, obviously. And then we did it. And then I quote tweeted that person's tweet that was like: this is a correctable error. And I was like: we're going to correct it. And I was wrong. And it was a good faith mistake. I actually did understand it. I just used sloppy language and botched it. And I think being really transparent about that… and in any error it’s really hard. But it's just… I always find that admitting as early on as possible when you've done something, when you’ve screwed up, is good.
Ben Smith told me one time during the Facebook vs. Alex Jones “are they gonna ban him?” discussions… I remember we were just talking about it over Slack, or email, or the phone or something, and he was like: they're totally going to end up banning him at some point, because he's gonna cross the line. Which I agreed with.
And he was like: first rule of crisis PR – you figure out what you're going to have to do eventually and you just put as many steps to there as possible, and you just shorten the length of the crisis. And I feel that way about screwing up.
What's going to happen here? Right? Like, do I see that tweet and ignore it and hope it goes away? And then somebody else brings it up, or it gets put in some crypto forum… or like: I'm gonna nip this in the bud. It was corrected within an hour of it going up. Most people who came into that article saw a sentence that was correct. And the correction on the bottom.
But just in general, I think that's just something that you learn – and also in normal life the older you get – to admit to it sooner. We're all gonna screw up. And that kind of thing is a small issue, and almost everyone except your worst faith critics will care. But I'm much more worried about getting something wrong on a structural level, at the article level, or like, even just the conceptual level, and that kind of thing – that's where editors are really helpful.
But I often try – even if I don't include them in the piece – I often try to talk to people on a subject who are coming at it from a completely different angle. Because if they can convince me of even a part of the point of it, and I think of those as background calls. Like: I've done enough reporting, I believe that it’s this, but… sometimes that does happen and then I include it in the piece. But I think you definitely want to hear the best case against something you think.
Alright, last question. And this is a from a subscriber because I told them I was gonna talk to you – I always asked for any questions and the first one I got back, which was rapid, was: what's with the bear on Twitter?
Charlie Warzel: Okay, well, I'm gonna have to like, I'm gonna have to follow up with the name of the person. Okay. I want to give credit.
VFD note: The artist’s website can be found here.
But I don't think they're actually alive anymore. But I still want to credit. Basically what happened was everyone’s pages would always update their Twitter avatar. And one day – I can't remember what the reason was – but it was in the BuzzFeed offices, probably in 2014, or something like that. And I had the occasion to Google image search “cool bear”. And that bear with ‘80s sunglasses just like showed up. And it was this really cool Native American artist who made these things, and I don't think I really realised it at the time.
I've gone back and looked because it ended up becoming a thing. But at the time, I was just like: I like this bear with the ‘80s sunglasses. And then I think, probably six or seven months later, I just decided. I was getting a lot more Twitter followers, and I just decided: I'm just never gonna change this.
I always get really nervous when people change their avatars. Because for a minute, you're like: who is this? And I also felt like there was always - and I did this once - but like, so many people do that photo from the cable news screenshot, right? So it's like, hanging around with chyron and stuff.
I feel like there's something inscrutable and funny about it. But the cool part is, a while back, I basically asked myself what your subscribers question was, like: what's the bear? And I went, and I looked it up, and this person… they're just in Montana. Which is really cool.
And when I did that, I didn't live in Montana. And they live on the far side of the state. And I emailed their website a number of times, because you can actually get the bear as a print. And I was like: I really want to get it and I want to pay extra money. Basically licensing the image, essentially, because I've used it for free for so long.
But I have tried many ways to try to get in contact with this person. And they haven’t… none of the emails are going to return or anything. So I think they're kind of older. I hope that they're okay. And they're just living an internet free life.
VFD: You should tell them about NFTs and the potential that bear image has.
Charlie Warzel: Yeah, they could make hundreds of thousands of dollars!
VFD: Alright. Well, thanks, man. I really appreciate it.
Charlie Warzel: Yeah, it was really fun. Really fun to talk. Sorry if I just hammered on too much.
VFD: No, no, it was good. That's what we want.