Very Fine Day #39: Osman Faruqi
OSMAN FARUQI is the editor of the daily news podcast 7AM. I listen to it every morning when I shave, or when I think about shaving. Osman and I are similar in that we both made names for ourselves in that first “digital media boom” where companies tied their entire publishing strategies to social media algorithms. That was smart. I really enjoyed talking to Osman about what it takes to find any sort of room to experiment in the Australian media. I know for a lot of Americans and British people etc. reading this you might think you know what I mean (and maybe you do, sorta), but the Australian media is largely owned by two companies and has a real… heritage to it. And I think, as a young person (I’m still young I swear), it has always been something I think about. The internet is full of ways to experiment — why do we have to watch all these people in other countries doing it, wait 5 years, and then maybe, if we’re really lucky have a small version of that for ourselves.
VFD: Not to start by blasting you up, but it’s funny for me to hear your voice and be talking to you, because I hear your voice every morning when I listen to the 7AM Podcast.
How was it running all that through the pandemic?
Osman Faruqi: Man, it's wild. You probably feel this in the work you do as well. If you said to me before the pandemic that you could make a daily news podcast, in a lockdown, with everyone working remotely, and pivot to doing that in a matter of a few days, I would have said: no fucking way. Like, that's crazy, right?
But it's pretty amazing. It's really impressive how adaptable humans are, but also just working with really smart people - who care a lot about things - is really enjoyable. When the news hits, people can get a bit earnest about it. They can sometimes get a little bit too much like “The Newsroom”. Which is like: It’s our duty to tell people this!
And I'm not trying to talk about this in those kinds of terms, but the best people I work with in this industry are people that care about what they do. And most of the places I've worked – and 7AM is a similar thing where we are largely young and our audience is people like us, people we go out with, people we hang out with who don’t feel satisfied by most of what they see… And we have this obligation to help them understand what’s happening. So when shit hits the fan, like with the pandemic, there is this sense of obligation. It’s like: we’ve got to do this. We’ve gotta help our mates understand what’s going on in the world. Because no one else is.
So that helped us push through a lot of points this year. And doing daily news in a moment where the pandemic hit was interesting. My gig before this was ABC Life. Like, lifestyle journalism at the public sector broadcaster. And that was really enjoyable but it wasn’t reporting daily news in a lockdown. And the audience has been crazy. It has nearly quadrupled since we started last year – Ruby Jones and I - when we moved down to Melbourne.
And again, you know this from your work in media: It’s obviously not all about numbers at all, but when you word hard and make stuff you care about and then also get people engaging. That’s the sweet spot.
VFD: Yeah, it’s not about numbers, but when the numbers come in it’s pretty nice. It kind of is about the numbers.
Osman Faruqi: Exactly.
VFD: You’re just sitting there refreshing the page views.
Osman Faruqi: Hook it to my veins.
VFD: Did you make a conscious decision at any point to be like: All we're doing is writing about the pandemic and COVID is overtaking everything. Like, running a show where the news cycle of the day is always taken over by COVID is repetitive. And I feel like I know the answer to this, and that’s that you didn’t only just do that. But I do wonder how you approached it. Were you like: we have to tell other stories…
Osman Faruqi: Yeah, it’s a really great question. It was interesting, because ABC launched “Coronacast”, right? And that was so immensely successful and it made us all think: OK, what does this mean? It’s clearly feeding an audience hunger for this stuff -- is that what we need to do as well? But then we made a pretty deliberate decision to not do COVID at the expense of everything else and to not be too breathless in our reporting of COVID.
And that’s a really interesting thing, right? Because I've worked in enough media organisations, and I've seen enough news metrics, to know that fear and hype and exaggeration and hyperbole drive engagement and clicks - regardless of accuracy. Everyone says that they want to read factual, independent, unbiased journalism - but stuff that scares the shit out of you, or sounds terrifying, gets clicks and engagement. That is just a reality. And as much as possible, in the jobs that I've had, within the boundaries of: you need to tell the real stories and you need to make sure that people engage with your work because you have bills to pay, I've tried to resist that. And I think we benefited from that because so much of the media in the past couple of years was just leaning so heavily on “what is the scariest headline we can put up here?” and getting rewarded for it! And then chasing the tail.
I think there was a moment in which people just wanted either sane analysis or they were just like: I need a break from this, man. I'm living this every day of my life, give me a story about fishing, or what's going on in regional New South Wales on a completely different issue?
VFD: Yeah. Well, the good thing about chasing craziness, and chasing depression, and all the awful things happening in the world, is there definitely wasn't a trickle-down thing that affected how we engage with media! So nothing to worry about.
Osman Faruqi: Totally, one hundred percent.
VFD: So, how did you end up at 7AM doing that gig?
Osman Faruqi: Before I was at 7AM I was at the ABC. I started at ABC Life, and then I shifted to the audio team on a show called Background Briefing, which was a long form narrative audio documentary series. And I've done a bit of audio work before - my first ever semi professional gigs in media were community radio at FBI - and I always really enjoyed audio as a medium. But I had never really been able to work in it as a real paid job.
And the ABC was my turn into that. I was learning from these really smart people about what narrative audio looks like. It's so interesting, because Australia historically has killed it internationally in this field. Throughout the 70s, the 80s, and the 90s, the ABC, along with the BBC, was the benchmark for really smart audio storytelling. And it just so happened that the ABC, because of budget cuts and kind of because of terrible decisions, decided to completely eat away at their audio division just as podcasting became really, really, really popular. I think it's already been one of the dumbest decisions made.
But I was lucky enough to work with some of the best audio people, that still work there, and they brought me in. Then I got approached by Eric Jensen, who's the Editor-In-Chief here.
I wasn't necessarily looking for a job – I wasn't looking to leave the ABC or leave Sydney – but I liked the fact that they were willing to trust someone who was relatively young - I was 29 at the time - to run what was their flagship audio thing. One of the things about the ABC that I found frustrating in my short time, a couple of years, was that it was pretty clear to me that I was never going to be put in charge of something unless I did my time there for a very, very, long time. And I'm young, I'm impatient, and I have a lot of things I want to do. A lot of things in the media that I think are windows in which to make stuff good and solve problems. And it was really attractive to me.
So Ruby Jones - who I had never worked explicitly with but who was a friend in Sydney - got the hosting gig. And it was just like: This is fun! Let’s bring a different energy to it. The show was doing amazingly already and that’s what made me want to work here. But it was fun to bring a new vibe.
VFD: Yeah, I find it really interesting, particularly now that we’re in what I think is a new wave of media. The Facebook turning off the taps thing happened, and there were a whole bunch of redundancies and everything shut down, and then all the business models had to change. But now it feels like we're on a little bit of an upward curve, with a little bit more security. Well, not security, but smarter decisions are being made around the models being put in place.
But when I look at the parallels of skill sets in radio, and then working in digital media, they’re so much more aligned than a traditional reporter, or even just a writer, because of the ability to tell a story in audio form and write a script and think about things that way. It actually translates to making a story on Instagram.
It seems surprising at first, but then the more you think about it, you're like: Oh, yeah, that works out.
Osman Faruqi: That’s a really interesting comparison, because in so many ways, it's kind of like print writing is the anomaly here. What people really love is narrative and characters and story, right? And that's what you try to do with an Instagram story, or with anything. You want to hook people in and you want to send them on a journey. You want them to relate to things, you want them to have an emotional connection. All these things that have, since day one, been the reason why we tell stories and why we love stories. And when you can use that framework and those guidelines around journalism, it’s really satisfying.
It sounds so corny - and I'm a very cynical person so maybe I'm just wanting to grasp onto the one corny thing - But when you can tell a story in 15 minutes it’s something else. Just last week we had a story about refugees from Afghanistan that talked about the history of the [former Australian prime minister] John Howard government’s policy on asylum seekers. And it made you feel empathy, and a bit of frustration, and understand the world and Australia’s place in it. If you can do that in 15 minutes it’s like: Holy shit. This is great. This is ultimately what I got into the business for.
VFD: And It makes you think - not to be the guy that's like: people don't read, because I don't agree with that - but fewer people are going to read the 10,000 word report than listen to the 15 minute radio thing, right?
Osman Faruqi: That's exactly right.
One thing I find so interesting about audio right now, in Australia, is what I see as severe under-investment from the bigger media companies in it. I don't think people have really figured it out. These numbers are public, so I'm not giving anything away - and I'm not trying to say this to big ourselves up, I just think it's extraordinary because it shows that when you spend time you can do it - but we have nearly half a million unique listeners a month. On a podcast, right? Which is one of the newest forms of media consumption. A fraction of the market, in total size, as digital and even print and television.
And I’m definitely not trying to say we’ve done this incredible thing no one else could do. I’m proud of what we do. But I just think that lots of other people could be talking to these people, and they’re just not. Think of companies like The Ringer in the United States that have just figured out you can make 100 podcasts and there are people who will engage with content in that way.
Here, you talk to senior news executives and the percentage of their money that they would spend on audio versus everything else would be one of the smallest - I think - in the developed world.
VFD: It's also the way it tends to be done, too. The approach is just: here’s our usual talent and we’ll make this oldschool journalism thing. I mean: good luck! I wish you well.
Osman Faruqi: Yeah, and they’re still punching out True Crime. Like: great. That was the start of this wave seven years ago. Great – do True Crime - but what is good and compelling elsewhere in the world? Everyone's moved on from that. But that's not quite sunk in here.
VFD: I think it's funny, too, that comparison between social media storytelling, and the rise of radio, and the youth behind it. I've been thinking about it a lot with my job, but you look at The Daily Aus, and you look at Shit You Should Care About, you can even look at The Betoota Advocate, and the fact that they have succeeded so much in building big online audiences is great. But it’s also an indictment of larger companies that have so much more resources and just let it happen. They didn’t really compete. You can look at this newer stuff and it’s fantastic - it’s bright and new - but it’s nothing these larger companies couldn’t have done if they were just like: uh, maybe we should try that?
Osman Faruqi: Well, it’s the crazy thing right? The Daily Aus – I think they’ve worked hard and they have built this thing – but they’re pretty open about the fact that they’re taking other people’s journalism and putting it in Instagram format. And I know that’s ironic, having worked at places like Junkee and BuzzFeed. The criticism we got a lot of the time was that we were just juicing content. But I think that debate is boring in a lot of ways.
But something like The Daily Aus is pretty explicit. They read the news, they take the news, and they put it in a nice Instagram form. It’s just a few people. Why has no one else at any of these companies been like: why don’t we just do that? We’ve got the news. We could literally do this.
VFD: We are the news!
Osman Faruqi: Exactly. It speaks to a totally ossified mindset. What’s seen as exciting and groundbreaking in the leadership of our big news industries is just boring and depressing.
VFD: Why do you feel that way? I know that’s a big question.
Osman Faruqi: I think there's a couple of reasons. I think about this stuff a lot. Fundamentally, the capitalist thesis on this is that competition breeds innovation. I think there's a limit to that. I think lots of people innovate and come up with new ideas because they care about those things.
But in a broad sense, such a small number of companies own everything, and every time anything new does emerge they're so quick to swallow it up. That is an extraordinary situation. And smart people in those companies buy those other companies and hire smart talent, because they want their brains, they want their creativity, and they want their ability to do new things. But in my experience, and the experience of so many people I speak to, until you empower those people in real leadership roles and let them take risks you're not really getting that.
The leadership of those companies - by and large - are still pretty old, pretty boring, and have pretty narrow views of what journalism is. They live in the same suburbs that every editor and CEO has ever lived in. And they're just not that interested and engaged with doing something different. Taking risks is not rewarded. In fact, it's punished, more often, in my experience. And I think there's a general Australian cultural sense of not doing anything too radical.
Who in this country gets rewarded for taking risks and doing different things? I think it’s more obvious when you look at places like the United States and you see a plethora of brands. We went through this phase of media declining and there was this narrative of “print is dead, everyone’s getting fired, and everyone’s losing money.” But there’s more than a dozen companies that started up in the last 10 years that are now profitable and quite large. Places like The Ringer, places like Vox.
It sounds like I'm stanning American business culture, which sounds kind of gross.
VFD: Oh no, that’s definitely you.
Osman Faruqi: Oh totally, I just love entrepreneurship and people like Elon Musk getting a chance to do what they want to do. But seriously: I think there's an extremely American, independent, free-thinking venture capitalist element to it. But I also think that Australia - while it’s not some sort of socialist utopia - we still have these rapacious business people-run media, but without the one benefit of rapacious capitalism which is genuine competition that leads to new ideas.
VFD: You were at the ABC, was that a similar situation?
Osman Faruqi: Yeah, my time at the ABC was so interesting because it was a time where the board and the leadership had signed off on a project I was working on: ABC Life. I thought it was a very smart idea. The ABC’s biggest reason for audience loss is death, right? It’s boomers dying. It’s not like people grow up watching the ABC and then turn it off. If you start with the ABC, you stick with the ABC.
But more and more younger people just weren’t starting with the ABC. And the ABC realised, or some of them did, that they needed to find a way to create journalism and tell stories that connected with younger people and people of colour. And so they're like: we need to hire them. We need them to develop the strategy. And we need them to just create stuff on their own terms that works. And the resistance to that internal pivot was amazing.
It was like: the ABC shouldn’t do lifestyle journalism. The ABC shouldn’t be doing stories about XYZ. But it’s like: the ABC has always, and will always, do lifestyle journalism. What do you think “Gardening Australia” is? What do you think “Kitchen Cabinet” is? What do you think local radio is? It’s just old people calling up and complaining about lifestyle issues.
So the real issue was: the ABC shouldn’t do lifestyle journalism for young people. And I think that reflected two things. One: there’s a less cynical but still pretty disappointing attitude of disregard for what younger audiences want, and there’s almost a contempt for them amongst a lot of older media and a lot of older journalists. They just think Instagram is frothy and silly.
Here’s a crazy story. TikTok is so ubiquitous, right? It wasn’t that long ago - maybe 2018 - where I floated up the chain that the ABC should have a TikTok account. No one at the ABC had a TikTok account. I think it was around when The Washington Post had TikTok, but that’s it. And I’m like: this seems like we should be doing something here? And the response was just: oh, but no one uses TikTok. But think about Instagram. If you said - when Instagram first started - that news organisations would have huge platforms in a place where we were previously just taking photos of food, you would have been laughed out of the room. It was just so obvious that that’s what was happening. But the ABC took years to finally experiment in that space.
So there was, I think, cultural decay and lack of risk taking. But then there was also the political and commercial pressure that sections of the media - it’s a pretty brutal environment - they saw the ABC coming for their lunch. They were like: there’s one demographic that we make money from and that’s people aged 18-45 who read our lifestyle stuff and buy shit there. That’s where we get a lot of our traffic from. And if the ABC does this stuff we will lose traffic. And I do think that’s a risk. If someone else’s content is better that might happen. But I also genuinely think that there is a space for it.
Like, why do we agree that the ABC should be an independent, non-commercially funded news source? I think all of those arguments apply in the lifestyle and personal living space, too. Whether you’re talking about gardening, or food, or relationships. Because all of that stuff is so heavily dominated by commercial interests. Whether it’s advertisers, or whether it’s individual experts pushing their own thing.
Ultimately, it was completely gutted. It lives on in another form as ABC Everyday and is still making great stuff, but it’s a fraction of the resources. It has been reigned in. It has been put under other departments. And to me, that was a really sad example of all the things I was talking about before, where risk was punished - not celebrated - and where young people trying to do something different were given a message, like: sorry guys, this game isn’t for you. We’re running this show.
VFD: That's pretty heavy.
Osman Faruqi: Well, we also had [Australian politician] Eric Abetz in Senate estimates running through our headlines being like: what’s this story about?
And my attitude to that was like: who cares? We’re not making bets. We’ve explicitly been given a mission to bring in 30-year-old women from the western suburbs of Sydney - who don’t engage with the ABC at all because they don’t see themselves represented. We’re creating content for them. It would be weird if Eric Abetz was into that! Like, why the fuck would he be into that? But the ABC was very worried about the political climate. It was a stressful period.
VFD: I want to go back to what you said a little while ago about working within the ABC. And I don’t think it’s something that’s isolated to the ABC. But to be young and to have a feeling that there is no way for you to progress, or to be anything else unless you commit to 20 years and make a chance encounter with a friend who also happens to like you and decides to move you up… Do you feel like you would have been able to combat that if Eric Jensen hadn’t showed up and been like: come to 7AM? Like, what do you tell other people about moving beyond that?
Osman Faruqi: I think there were definitely people at the ABC who I had a lot of respect for, and who were really generous and kind and great mentors. I don't think that there aren’t people trying to do that, and I've benefited a lot from their support. But also, the point about an institution is it's not about individuals, it's about a culture. And that is really hard to push back against.
I think I was the trifecta in a lot of ways, right? I was a young person who wanted to try and push their business to do things differently. I was also a brown Muslim person, and I was someone who had previously expressed “controversial views”.
So when you're entering an institution that is culturally very homogenous and very conservative - and I do mean conservative. It's not about left or right politics, right? Most of these people might have voted for Labour, or The Greens, but culturally it’s very conservative. And the idea of someone who was an outspoken Muslim is a hard thing for some people to get their head around. I think about Yassmin Abdul-Magied and what happened to her.
There were people who would say very well-meaning things to me like “be careful what you tweet”. But I’m like, Barrie Cassidy is popping off on Twitter every day? What do you mean? What’s the rule here? And it became pretty clear that there are two rules: if you’re an older, established, high-paid person, you can say or do whatever you want and the organisation will put out media releases to defend you. But if you’re younger, and you’re someone who they think is not worth necessarily going to bat for, they'll do the opposite of that. And so to me, I found the ABC a place that was causing me more grief. I guess that was part of my decision making process, and I think I wanted to have that sense of independence and not feel like I was being second guessed.
VFD: Did you feel like that?
Osman Faruqi: Yeah, totally. I mean, no media organisation is perfect in any way, shape, or form. But I think working for a smaller place, in my experience, there's not that political pressure. It’s more like: The reason why we hire people like you is because we want you to be you. It's not about trying to get you to conform to this cultural thing.
I got my first full time job in media at Junkee. I thought they were very smart. They did something that I do: they found me expressing views, writing stuff, freelancing stuff, being involved in things, and saw that I had a bit of a profile and I had some experience. And they just said: we need you for who you are. Do that. And I think that was smart. I think too many media organisations in this country are not smart enough to figure out that's where you're gonna find your next best writers and journalists and storytellers. They’re already probably out there making good stuff.
VFD: It takes work as well. That's a big part of it, too. Sometimes it can be hard to find those people.
I think that I'm constantly haunted by the fact that I know there are people out there who are better than me. And I want to find them and hire them and platform them and give them attention. And they didn’t get afforded the platform I did, because of luck and circumstance and how we were raised. I think about that.
Osman Faruqi: I think you're right, they are out there. This is the thing that always frustrated me around conversations to do with diversity. People are like: where are these people? Who are they? Oh, they just don’t go to uni. They don’t study journalism. And that is such garbage.
All media organisations I’ve worked in are super white. In most of the jobs I’ve had, I’ve not only been the only person of colour in an editorial role, I have often been the first person they’ve ever hired. So I’ve tried to use whatever opportunity I’ve had to change that. In my current job – and I didn’t even do this necessarily deliberately - but the first two people I hired as audio producers when I had the opportunity to do that were women of colour. And I’m absolutely not saying I’m a fucking hero. I’m saying the opposite of that. Like: these people are THERE. It’s almost like you have to have a blind spot not to see them.
And I think that's often something that people don't think about: what are the things going through your brain that are stopping you from thinking of someone like that? Why aren’t they someone that you might take a risk on, because you've seen someone else like them take a risk and succeed. That’s exactly the person who you should be hiring.
VFD: Did you grow up in Sydney?
Osman Faruqi: No, I grew up in a town called Port Macquarie on the mid-north coast of New South Wales. It’s about five hours north of Sydney. It's a very, very nice town. A great town to grow up in if you want to work in media because you'll be very familiar with being the only non-white person in every room you’re in.
VFD: What was that like? Did you have a moment as a kid or anything where you were like: Oh fuck, this is weird...
Osman Faruqi: Yeah, it was so interesting, because up until sort of 9/11 in 2001 it was never a big deal. It was kind of like: Oh, you're a bit different, kind of curious. And then after that it was like - being Muslim particularly and having an Arabic name - went from being a curiosity to being: Oh, hang on, you're that Muslim kid. Like: you're the kid that's gonna blow us up, right? Why do you and your family want to blow us up? And that was a sense of feeling like an outsider that I felt for a long time. And it leaves its mark. Like all of us - we go through some pretty intense experiences in high school in all sorts of different ways - and It can stick with you for a very long time.
Why I feel so passionate, and get so distressed, when people bring up that same lazy, pathetic, racist stuff about my name or my background, it is because I was dealing with this in high school. Why do I still have to deal with this now? But I love the town I grew up in. I think as a journalist, I think about it a lot. Because I feel so lucky that I grew up in a normal town with normal people, rather than, you know…
VFD: The East.
Osman Faruqi: Like so many journalists I know. They’re nice people. The eastern suburbs, or in Balmain, or the Inner West or whatever. I'm not “the working class whisperer” or whatever, but it's like: I know these people, I went to a school where 80% of people dropped out in Year 10. I'm friends with all these people. I talk to them. I know what they're like. I know what drives them, what motivates them. And that should be a basic thing, right? But that's so rare in journalism. An Australian who's not from Bondi.
VFD: Was it always journalism for you?
Osman Faruqi: No way, dude. I studied engineering at university. Environmental engineering. I wanted to save the planet. I was really just stressed about climate change.
VFD: Nothing wrong with that.
Osman Faruqi: Nothing wrong with that. But no one tells you that engineering is like just maths. It sounds fancy, but it's just fucking maths. A shitload of maths. And I was not good at maths and didn't really know what I was going to do. I did a Summer job at an engineering company. I was like: do I really wanna spend my life calculating how much steel I need, in spreadsheets to build a bridge? That's not me.
I love reading. I love the news. I don't know if you remember this, but when newspapers went online there were all these different ways in which the news would be updated. There was a period - it would have been 2007 to 2009, when I was in my first couple years of uni and just becoming a huge news nerd. And newspapers, at 12:01, all the news that was going to be in the news the next day would be uploaded onto the news websites. And there was a lot of news back then. There were no paywalls. And I would literally - for two fucking years - I'd stay up and I would read everything. I'’d read the Sydney Morning Morning Herald, The Age, I read the Adelaide Advertiser. I don't give a shit about Adelaide! I’d read the Hobart Mercury...
VFD: What did your parents think? They were just like, oh, there’s our son...
Osman Faruqi: I don't think they knew. I think they thought I was playing Counter Strike or games or whatever. I think they thought that was less worrying for them than this idea that I was just trawling through what's happening in the WA Legislative Council this weekend. I was super into it.
Then I started writing for the student paper, and ended up editing the student paper around the same time I was doing community radio, and all of these things were fun things. They were never things where I thought: this is a job that I will have. It's like: I'm studying engineering. I'm going to be an engineer. And until that happens - until I finish uni - I'm going to engage in this stuff for fun.
And my parents, it’s not that they were discouraging…
I think for them, and this is such a common migrant experience, their perspective was like: Look at the news, read the newspapers, is there anyone there like you? This is going to be a really disappointing thing. You want to study journalism? You’re gonna study that and you're going to get this big debt and you're not going to get a job.
My Dad had three degrees when he came to Australia, including two from American universities. He was extremely qualified but he still spent the first seven years here driving taxis because he couldn't get a job, despite his qualifications. And so that was really imprinted into his brain. He's like: we came to this country, you're at a good university, you're studying a good degree, just do this good, reliable job. And at the time, I didn't really understand their motivation was in my best interest. It was kind of frustrating.
I was like: my parents want me to be an engineer because every brown person is an engineer. Fuck that. But, yeah, I kind of just started writing. I think it was some column of mine in the student paper that went sort of viral on Twitter. And then maybe The Guardian got in touch.
Twitter is interesting, because my relationship with it is so mixed. But it’s completely undeniable that if it wasn’t for that website appearing at that time I would not have had a career. Because how the hell would anyone have ever known who I was? But I was able to write stuff, put it on the internet, people would share it, and they’d be like: this guy’s got something to say. So you do some storytelling and eventually you get work and off you go. It was interesting. It wasn’t until the ABC job that my parents were like: oh! The public sector! The ABC! We watch the news there! That’s great.
VFD: Yeah, you get that nice big government superannuation.
Osman Faruqi: Yeah.
VFD: The Twitter thing is weird. When I talk to young journalists - god I feel old saying that - but they’re often like: do I need to get Twitter? And it’s like: look, I know why you think you don’t. Because no one wants one. No one who’s sane wants one. But yeah… you kind of do. And you do for the same reason you think about things like gambling: there’s a 5% chance that in three and a half years you’re going to do ONE thing. Just one thing. And you’ll tweet about it and that one thing will set you up for the rest of your life. And I know that sounds insane, but trust me. It happens. It happens a lot. It happened to me.
Osman Faruqi: It totally does, dude. And this is the interesting thing: I take breaks from Twitter pretty regularly, and I’m beyond that “some personal news, I will be deactivating my Twitter” shit. I think that's all a bit weird. But I take long breaks. I haven't tweeted for a month.
I've done that a few times over the last couple of years. But at the same time, even though I've sort of experienced some good things on Twitter and I have this following, if you're a journalist and you have 50,000 people that will click your links and read your work... that's a pretty good asset to have, right? In a game where numbers mean a lot and it's pretty cutthroat.
Sources get in touch with me on Twitter. All sorts of stories - I get from Twitter. So it's an important place to be, and that's the positive. And then there is this intense negative, which is the toxicity and the abuse. It doesn't matter what I tweet. I could tweet something political, or I could tweet that I had a great beer, and I would still have 100 people calling me a dirty n-word who should die. And in some ways it’s just words, but what I’m trying to figure out now is what does it mean to be on Twitter? Is there actually a way to use it? It’s super mercenary. How can I use this to benefit me? And that’s it.
And people get mad because social media is about engagement, and journalists are there, and all you want to do is post a story and then leave. I spent a decade on Twitter not doing that. I spent a decade on Twitter making friends, getting jobs, and meeting all sorts of interesting people. And it was amazing! For a time. And I don’t know whether the platform itself has changed as it has grown or the intense focus of political engagement on all sides has done something. But when you tweet to 1000 followers - you can’t tweet the same way as when you have 50,000 followers. And that actually took me a long time to understand.
It sounds strange, but there’s never a moment in your life where you’re now someone who tens of thousands of people are either wanting to engage with you positively or engage with you negatively. So when you tweet to 1000 people most of those people are nice. They follow you because they’re in journalism or because they like you. They might like my views on Kanye West! I don’t know.
But when you reach that other level - you tweet the same thing you would have tweeted about Kanye West five years ago without really thinking about it and then you're in that kind of hell cycle for the next seventeen weeks where you're not only dealing with bad faith operators, you’re dealing with superfans as well. It's like: Jesus Christ, this is just not a thing our brains are capable of processing.
VFD: Yeah, definitely. Everyone in their mid-20s, I’d say 26, 27 and older, is just not equipped in the way younger people are who were born into the internet, right?
Osman Faruqi: Yeah, one hundred percent.
VFD: I think what you're saying about what happened to Twitter, and what happened to certain networks, is that it’s cool and fun because early adopters are on it. And then you get a large group - the majority group - that joins who are not internet literate to the same level and can never be. Ever. And it's not their fault. It's just like: you didn't have it. In the same way that when I play a record, I don't experience that like my dad or my grandpa probably does. Because he has this whole thing of when they used to press them and it was still warm or whatever. They have that kind of relationship with it. And that's what we have with early social platforms. Then you get these outsiders that come in and they treat it like a fucking Whirlpool forum. And they're like: Why do you talk this way to me on the internet? What is “lol”? Zuckerberg you are NOT ALLOWED to ban my page. And I'm like: what???? Because it's the internet. I don't know why I have to explain that to you. But yeah.
Osman Faruqi: What you're saying, in a very nice way, is that Boomers ruined Twitter.
VFD: 35+ I think, actually.
Osman Faruqi: Gen X, then. I’m interested in the connection between the internet and real culture and media in particular. And even though I find Twitter to be so exhausting - and kind of uninteresting - I mean you can pick the discourse of the day by 7:30 in the morning.
It has lost any appeal now, for me, even in a perverse sense of: what’s going on here? But it’s still interesting. It has been transformative for journalism. It has been transformative for many people. But my thing is: what’s the next thing, right? What are people who are growing up on Twitter… what are they going to do next? Because I think the fundamental thing that Twitter - or any social media platform does - is allow engagement and communication and networking across all sorts of different spheres. And that - in its purest form - is a nice thing. I don’t think that’s going away. The question is: can you get the benefits of that in a space without the negatives? And in so many ways I look back at Twitter and I think: Oh, shit, that was fucking crazy. You guys all were on the same little thing, and Trump was tweeting, and people were tweeting at him! This is ridiculous.
VFD: I always think it's gonna be how we talk to our parents about cigarette advertising and drinking and smoking in the car with your baby. And they're like: yeah, it was healthy, a doctor told me to do it.
Osman Faruqi: You would log on and poison your brain for eight to twelve hours a day??
VFD: Yeah, even MySpace. Oh, you’d upload a hundred photos of your face to the internet? Just terrible.
Well, thanks man.
Osman Faruqi: Was that helpful? That was very fun to just talk to you. It was like therapy.
VFD: Yeah, it’s therapeutic