Very Fine Day #4: Sara Yasin
SARA YASIN is the Managing Editor of BuzzFeed News and was previously the Director of News Curation. Her career has involved her working both for news outlets and human rights orgs, with the overall goal in both sectors being: how do you make people care about what you have to say online?
VFD: How's everyone at BuzzFeed going?
Sara Yasin: I think everyone's doing well, all things considered.
VFD: Yeah. You guys are working from home?
Sara Yasin: Yeah, yeah. I think some people are able to work from the office if they have specific conditions, or I think that maybe in LA some people are working. Some of the video folks are working from the office.
VFD: Ah OK, cool. Well that's fun. We’re back in the office full time over here – not to rub it in your face.
Sara Yasin: Oh, my God. Jealous.
VFD: Yeah, it’s pretty nice. OK, so: I guess I want to start… I think for a lot of people that aren’t online they might not really understand what it means to be in charge of distribution or curation, or setting the tone of how content flows through social media. So I just wanted to ask you first: how would you describe what you do? And not so much from a day to day perspective, but like, what is the overall goal given to you?
Sara Yasin: Yeah so, I was promoted into being the managing editor of BuzzFeed News. And what that means in the context of the newsroom right now is that I essentially manage every part of getting things prepared to be published and then actually distributing them.
So as you know I was Director of the Curation team, which was running literally every single platform that we were pushing stories out onto and then also managing the art, photo, and copy teams, which – obviously – all four of those teams have very capable leaders and so my job is to make sure that day to day there's enough coordination and overlap between those teams. But then I’m also strategically thinking about how to be efficient… but then also thinking about how, y’know, we can do things better and be ahead of the curve.
VFD: It sounds like a lot of work.
Sara Yasin: Well, thankfully I have very talented people on my team. So I feel like it makes my life easier.
VFD: How do you compartmentalise the different areas that you need to focus on – like art and news and everything else?
Sara Yasin: I think that part of the reason why we brought these teams together is because they actually have a lot in common when it comes to their relationship to the rest of the newsroom. Because essentially, everyone is trying to get everyone's copy and figure out how they should be presenting it.
For Art, they're thinking about presenting it on the website, Copy is thinking about what kind of language we're using and, like, literally making sure we don't have errors. And then Curation is thinking about how we should promote things. So we actually realised that all of these things are very interconnected. But the thing that I think is kind of different is the speed of things. I think that because I came out of Curation I was very used to being like: OK – this specific news event is happening, the inauguration is happening, this person do this, this person do that, and not really thinking ahead. And now I feel like I have to do both. Like I have to think ahead and also think in the moment.
VFD: Yeah. Geez. Sounds like what I'm doing as well. And I sympathise with you on navigating that in your own mind without it getting overwhelming?
Sara Yasin: What's your title right now?
VFD: I'm the Director of Content at a VC called Eucalyptus. So I kind of manage content that isn’t advertising, which is a lot of fun. But it's also a lot of work because we have multiple brands that require all sorts of different things. And it's across healthcare. So one day I'll be dealing with prescription skincare and the next day I'm working with, like, the fertility brand we have. Yeah, it's very, like, exciting. And you're always learning and doing new things every day. So that's good.
Sara Yasin: Yeah, that’s a lot.
VFD: Well y’know, that's life. It keeps you busy.
OK so tell me: how did you start? Because if I remember correctly from 2017, when we went and got lunch at one of those many places in New York City that does food from a specific culture and just puts it in a bowl, you were in charity if I remember correctly?
Sara Yasin: Yeah, so I started out in human rights. I started out working for a women's rights organisation that focused on Muslim women.
VFD: What were they called?
Sara Yasin: They're called Women Living Under Muslim Laws, which is what happens when you let academics name organisations. The thinking is that it's “Muslim law”. So meaning, like: law that is interpreted to be Islamic. So essentially man-made. Whereas “Islamic law” would mean like, the actual law from the Quran.
Sara Yasin: And so there I was doing really kind of boring administrative work. And I did my Masters in International Development and I didn't know what it meant to work in an organisation. I thought, I guess, that I would be saving the world. And then they were like: here's some spreadsheets. And it was really just a bucket of ice water. And then I was sort of writing… I was blogging quite a bit about the representation of Muslim women in the media.
Sara Yasin: Just a pretty academic blog called Muslimah Media Watch. And I just thought that was the only place where my voice was appropriate. Like, I didn't think that I could access any kind of mainstream – It didn't even cross my mind that I could access more mainstream platforms.
VFD: Why do you think you felt that way?
Sara Yasin: Because I didn't think that anyone cared what people who grew up Muslim or – I don't practice – but just people who are of the Muslim variety, I just thought people didn’t care about their opinion or about representation.
And so what had happened was that someone from Jezebel reposted one or two of my blogs, and then I was like: oh, maybe I’m also interested in writing for the internet. I just didn't even think this was an option.
And so then I went to go work – because I was in London at the time – for this organisation called Index On Censorship as an editorial assistant. And so my job was half editorial and half advocacy. And working in advocacy was both really interesting, because I got to meet really cool people, but also really, really, really, disheartening. I got really jaded really quickly, because it felt like, well: how many action statements could I write? Y’know,
VFD: So what was it, exactly? You say: “how many action statements can I write.” Were you just… not seeing any kind of progress from the work you were doing?
Sara Yasin: Yeah, like I was working specifically on Bahrain. And I felt like I was doing the same things over and over again, and not necessarily getting any results. And obviously I know and respect a lot of people in the human rights space. And I think that there are a lot of people who are doing really important work. But I think for me, personally, I was very obsessed with making things accessible for a wider audience. Like, I was always the person who was thinking about how to get more people to care about something. And sometimes I felt like that wasn't as important to other people.
VFD: What were they focused on then?
Sara Yasin: I think they were more focused on… I mean, I think the thing is, it makes sense, right: Like when you're in an advocacy-based situation you kind of care more about decision makers. And y’know, influential people understanding what you're saying.
You're gonna care more about writing a letter to an MP than you are about an op-ed, right?
Sara Yasin: But obviously you want both. Most human rights organisations want all the kinds of coverage they can get. But the problem that I found a lot of the time was that they didn't know how to frame things around what people actually want to learn and what they actually want to know and focussed more on what they thought people should care about. And there are plenty of things that people should care about that, y’know, but if you don't frame it in a way that makes sense, they're not going to latch on to it.
VFD: Sure. So what year was this?
Sara Yasin: I mean, it was a decade ago. So this was in 2011. So kind of half my job was running this advocacy programme on Bahrain.
Sara Yasin: And the other half,
VFD: When you say Bahrain, what specifically do you mean?
Sara Yasin: It was about freedom of expression. So the way that worked was I got to go on a mission trip to Bahrain and I met activists and worked with them and stuff. And so part of it was literally just talking to people and understanding their stories and putting things into reports and doing that kind of thing. And then the other half of it was writing stories – literally covering some of the freedom of expression issues that had happened. So one of the first big stories I wrote was about students who were kind of caught up in the protests and were being arrested. That kind of a thing.
Another one of the bigger stories I wrote, and honestly, this was one of the things that made me understand how important it is to figure out a wider audience. I had a scoop around Kim Kardashian being – and I’m slightly fuzzy on this because this is 2012 – but like…so one of the weird things in the Bahrain story was that at one point they had hired the guy who started Millions of Milkshakes, which was like this thing in Hollywood where it used to be this Big Deal paparazzi stop. Like, people who either were celebs or people who really wanted to be celebs would be pictured there and stuff.
So like, this guy was hired by the Bahraini Government to use celebrities to basically repair the public image of Bahrain. At least I think that the remit was repairing the public image of Bahrain, but it was kind of obvious that part of it was also bringing in celebrities. So they brought Kim Kardashian over to…I think Bahrain and Kuwait. And I wrote this story like: this is the guy who is responsible for Kim Kardashian going to Bahrain.
VFD: It's kind of hard to imagine that's what Kim Kardashian was at one point, when we're like, a decade later, and I think the general consensus is a bit different.
Sara Yasin: Yeah.
VFD: But okay, so in 2011… So at the moment I’m rereading one of my favourite books, which is Zeynep Tufekci’s “Twitter and Tear Gas”.
Sara Yasin: Yep.
VFD: It’s so good. And she talks a lot about the kind of the activism and social media crossover as well. And do you think that they have - as in, the industry of world affairs and activism – has the same issues now?
Like, do you think they understand social media a bit better and the internet a bit bit better? And if you were to go back you wouldn't have the same struggles because they'd know that, well: we can't just say what we want people to believe in, we have to give them a bit more.
Sara Yasin: Yeah, I think that people definitely see the light a lot more. Now, I think that there's a difference between activists and people who work at these bureaucratic organisations. I think that for younger activists it was really interesting to see how they harnessed social media to spotlight their ideas and amplify them. But then also, at the same time, feeling this really thorny relationship with the platforms. Because at the time, as you probably remember, there was a lot of weight placed on the social media platforms for the revolutions. And for a lot of the activists they felt like that really erased their work.
So I think that, similarly, the Old School people that were sitting around doing a lot of human rights work didn't really know how to think about social media. And actually, I would say that it's weird because I feel like people now recognise both how things happen on there but also maybe the harm a bit more.
I think it's difficult to talk about human rights issues in an open way on social media, just because you do have a bigger prevalence of things like these troll accounts and stuff, which a lot of people have documented.
VFD: I was gonna say: I recall - and maybe I'm recalling incorrectly - but you've been harassed and trolled quite a few times for stuff you've said, is that right?
Sara Yasin: Yeah. Yeah. It's not as bad as other people. But when I covered Bahrain I got trolled pretty significantly. Anyone who does Bahrain stuff has probably experienced that. But it wasn't as bad as things that other people have experienced. There was one point in 2016 where I got trolled a bit and weirdly there was a period where my avatar on Twitter was Lindsay Lohan in a hijab and I got a lot of hate then during that time period!
VFD: Were they Lindsey Lohan fans? Or were they anti-Muslim?
Sara Yasin: They were anti muslim, they thought that I was Lindsay Lohan, and they’d be like: you take this off - you're in a free country! And I'd be like: I can wear a hijab and so can Lindsay Lohan if she wants to!
But OK – I know that I'm not really, like, answering your question appropriately, but I feel like the thing is that back in those days in the early 2011-2012 era, I do think that a lot of human rights organisations were pointing out how different countries were using trolls and these sock puppet accounts to help manufacturer other narratives, or to spread disinformation, which was for sure a really big thing with the Gulf. And I feel like with the Gulf countries we saw that a lot around Jamal Khashoggi,
Sara Yasin: There was a whole bunch of Saudi… I mean obviously, there are people who are pro-regime and are earnestly pro-regime, but there was also a lot of sock puppets coming up.
VFD: Yeah. I mean… God.
Sorry, I'm taking a pause here because every time I talk about this stuff, it just, like, you want to be able to think of a solution. And the only solution I ever come to is like: you delete it all! And obviously, that’s not a solution at all.
Sara Yasin: Yeah. It’s tough…
VFD: So did you grow up in London?
Sara Yasin: No, I grew up in North Carolina, but I went to LSE for grad school and then I stayed there.
VFD: You stayed in London?
Sara Yasin: Yeah, I stayed there for four years. And then I moved back in 2013 to work at Mic which was then called PolicyMic.
VFD: Which no longer exists? Sadly. [Editor’s note: it kind of does]
Sara Yasin: RIP
VFD: So, from activism we went to BuzzFeed straightaway as a Curation Lead?
Sara Yasin: Well, Index was like half journalism, half advocacy. And then I was like: I'm gonna go down the journalism route. So I went to Mic. And there I started out as a Deputy Politics Editor, and then I was the World Editor. And so I created this world vertical where my job was literally like: how do I create the widest audience for World stories? which is really interesting. And then I went to Global Post, which now has been folded under PRI which is kind of like a public radio thing, and there I was the social media editor. And then I came to BuzzFeed in 2015 as a social news reporter. While I was there the curation team was formed, which was basically - they brought together the social team, the mobile team, and the homepage team.
VFD: So I just realised, and you can tell me I'm wrong and wag your finger and get angry at me, but it feels like your job – a way to describe it would be: trying to get people to care. And that goes from where you are now, to probably where you started as well with activism. So, if you agree with that, how do you think your approach to that has changed as your understanding of the internet, and people, and content, has changed as well?
Sara Yasin: Yeah, I mean I would say I don't think I'm an activist. I think that I worked in human rights orgs. But I wouldn't necessarily consider myself an activist. But I do think that I have always been obsessed with this idea of getting people to care, getting people to think about things, and kind of thinking about a wider audience.
I have oftentimes thought that people are way too cynical about what people want to consume, which I think goes beyond the internet. I think you see this with literally everything. I think that people are a lot smarter than we think they are. And I feel like that assumption that people aren't smart, or that they don't want to read anything that's complicated or intelligent, I think that that has led to some really bad decisions with journalism,
VFD: Like what?
Sara Yasin: I would say the kind of, like, condescending tone of a lot of the early Facebook gold-hunt traffic content.
I think that there was this push to tell people what to think. And I think that there was this combination of people finally getting to share their stories and actually seeing… it was incredible to see all sorts of people have platforms and get to share their stories through that time period. Like, I for sure don't think I would have been in media if the media hadn't changed the way that it did.
But I think on the other end of that…. it’s thinking that: well, people don't want to read things. People don't want to understand things. We're just gonna, y’know, put the most dramatic headline on this and really overly simplify this story, or act like our readers know absolutely nothing. And I feel like that really rubs people the wrong way. And I don't know if I'm right, I would be interested if someone - I would be interested if you agree with me - or if someone who understands the Zoomers agrees with me,
VFD: Definitely not me.
Sara Yasin: But Gen Z does find it very… it’s like they're very allergic to people being condescending towards them. And I think that's partially because they grew up immersed in that kind of content. And so they're like: stop telling me what to think, please.
VFD: That's really interesting. I think that probably I would agree with you. And I think also Gen Z as a whole is way more obviously internet savvy. And then the trickle down of that is that they have committed to progress and making change and addressing issues that would often get taken over by… bad actors is a catch all term… but people who didn't really have the best intentions in the coverage that they were giving to minority issues or issues that aren't getting enough attention.
Sara Yasin: Yeah.
VFD: I want to run a situation by you because I think we both were at one point in our careers Social News Reporters, which I described to people as: well, you just treat the internet like the playground, like it's a public sphere. And you're just writing about what happens on the internet. But also implicit with that role was that you wanted things that go viral, as we all do…
But do you ever feel kind of jaded? Because this is something I experienced when I started doing some, I guess, more traditional reporting about the medicinal cannabis movement in Australia. I'm talking to parents whose children have died, parents whose children are intensely sick and who can't get access to this medicine. I'm talking to kids who can't get access to this medicine. And so you spend a lot of energy working on this project and you write it up and you publish it. And then it's like: 400 people care. And then you write another thing in that same day that's like: Look At This Funny Chair That Kim Kardashian Sat On, and 500 million people want to look at this funny chair.
And I'm still not sure I've learned how to emotionally deal with that and figure out: OK, how do I get more attention towards the thing I really want people to pay attention to?
Sara Yasin: Yeah, I mean, honestly, I feel like one of the big parts of my job is that. Me and the Senior Audience Development analyst have regular conversations with desks about how their stories are performing and kind of thinking about what are the points of opportunity. Asking: what are the kind of things you could be thinking about? And like, one of the things that we feel really strongly about is that things are always about way more than the numbers.
Like, I do think that sometimes it's a matter of getting things in front of the right audience. Y’know, sometimes you're going to write a story that only has 10,000 views. And at the same time it was introduced as evidence in a Senate hearing. And to me, I feel like that is equal to a one million views story. Like, I just think that it's still important to publish the stories that don't travel as far.
But I do think that there is a way to make sure that those stories get their best shot. Because I know a lot of foreign correspondents and people in that space, one of the things I'm constantly saying to them and things that I've had conversations with journalists about in the past, is that a good story is a good story. So if you find the right angle, and if you find a headline, and you package it well, then you can get it to the right people and you can give it its best shot.
But I think that you have to balance that with maintaining the integrity of the story. I also think that one of the things that's interesting about being at BuzzFeed is that you are kind of forced to acknowledge that people live in a world where they want to consume both.
Sara Yasin: And so you don't have to choose one over the other. But that’s always constantly a problem, right? When you want people to engage with important stories and you want them to care.
You want people to care – I'm in the media because I wanted people to care about the human impact of things. Because for me, growing up Muslim in the US meant that I literally felt the impact of people like us making lazy decisions when they were reporting on Muslims.
Like, I can't tell you how many times - because I went to NC State, which is like a lot of people from very rural parts of North Carolina who in some cases have never seen a non white person. And there were so many people who told me that they thought that all Muslims were terrorists because they only watched Fox News growing up.
VFD: How does that come up in a conversation? Do they just like say: Hey, by the way,
Sara Yasin: They would eventually… it was so weird. Because I was wearing hijab it was like a lightning rod for people to come up to me and say really weird stuff. Like, it was really bizarre. Honestly, I'd be standing around and someone would just ask me really weird and intense questions about being Muslim. And I felt like I had to answer all of them because I was like: everyone thinks Muslims are terrorists, I have to answer everything. Even when it was violating of my boundaries.
Sometimes people would ask me if I wore a hijab in the shower and I felt like I couldn't sarcastically reply. I couldn't be like: Well, what do you think? What do you think the point of a shower is? Because I didn't want them to think I was an asshole. But then I would also kind of go out of my way to break the ice with people.
A couple of people eventually would confess that they… because I used to work at a camp, basically, when I was in college, and a lot of those kids, they were the ones who told me that they were assuming that I was probably a terrorist because of being Muslim. And it was interesting because when I would first meet them they would be so scared of me because they didn't know what to make of me. So it has had an effect. I do want people to become more… I feel like there's a way that a certain element of social media has made us kind of lose our ability to humanise people. And that's something that terrifies me, honestly.
I'm thinking back to conversations we had almost four years ago now. So my memory is a bit hazy. But I also have a memory of you talking to me about when you made the decision to stop wearing a hijab and how professionally other people spoke to you differently and treated you differently. And this was not… This is not like the early 2000s. You were talking about the middle of the 2010s?
Sara Yasin: So I stopped wearing it in ‘09. So it was before I started working, but I think just generally the attitude of people towards me changed once they thought I was white. Essentially, there were a lot of incidents that would happen to me on a daily basis, just like different microaggressions that just totally stopped happening. Whether it was someone being super rude to me, or someone assuming that I couldn't speak English. Just things that stopped happening completely. And people were just nicer to me. That was just kind of the general side of it.
VFD: That’s so depressing.
Sara Yasin: Yeah. And it wasn't that long ago.
VFD: Yeah, exactly. And I'd like to believe that situation has improved, but given the state of – particularly the United States over the last four years – I'm not convinced.
Sara Yasin: Yeah, it's… it's not great.
VFD: OK. So let's go towards the function of what you do and how you approach it. Part of the job is figuring out the algorithms right? And not breaking them, but being like: we've done it and we know what works. Do you ever have issues keeping yourself motivated to do that? Because it's just a non-stop process. It's not like you have a golden rule that exists forever. Like pivoting to video and saving media, for example.
Sara Yasin: Yeah I mean… woof.
I think that in my line of work, in particular, there are a lot of snake oil salesmen who pretend like they understand the algorithms. And I think the basic thing that anyone who has any shade of a social job knows is that we literally don't understand the algorithm, right? Like, we can optimise as much as we can, and we can try to position things as well as we can, and we have tools to understand how the algorithms have changed and what they might be prioritising or how they might be feeding thing or how the tech companies are thinking about changing them.
But at the same time they are changing so much that the way that we would hurt ourselves is by being really static… like having a really static mentality towards how the algorithm works. I just think that that's a fundamental problem with social media platforms: That there's no transparency. We kind of have a general sense of how people are seeing content, and we can guess how things are shifting. But if there's a big algorithm change, that really hurts digital organisations a lot.
VFD: So what do you think people get wrong about the internet?
Sara Yasin: I honestly think that they think it's static. Like I do think that things are constantly changing. I do also think that a lot of the stuff we're seeing with tech companies right now is the stuff that people have been yelling about for like a decade. Just different things, like their approach to moderation.
Frankly, something that I think about a lot is the fact that we sort of sleepwalked into handing over a lot of our rights to these organisations. There was not enough of an effort - I think in Europe, there was maybe more thoughtfulness about this than, like, in the US - I know that especially in Germany there was. And I think in the European Court of human rights there were a lot of effort to sort of push back on things around data and privacy and that kind of thing.
But I think that we don't even know where to start when it comes to reigning it in, and how these tech companies are now intertwined in our lives.
VFD: Yeah. I mean, I think Ben talked about this when I spoke to him, but he put it so simply where it's like: these senators and the people in charge of perhaps regulating social media platforms on the internet have tried to wipe their hands clean of it, all the while saying that it's “too hard” or “not possible”, or it's “going to be a lot of work”, while they’re also regulating things like bio-nuclear industry and all this stuff that is definitely a lot harder to understand. And I think that's something that stuck with me since I heard it. Because it’s not as complicated an issue as people allow themselves to believe.
Sara Yasin: Yeah,
VFD: OK - Because I don't want to keep all your time. Last question. And this is one that everyone gets asked and that is: what scares you? And it’s open-ended deliberately. So it can be what scares you now, it could be what scares you about the future… And I guess if nothing scares you, you can say so, but that’s not very cool.
Sara Yasin: Oh everything scares me. Y’know, I think what scares me is the inability for people to hear each other at this specific point in time.
If I may go back to the beginning of my career, because it was around these revolutions in the Middle East, it felt like people were being heard. And this kind of naive, right, because I was in my early ‘20s and that's what that does to you.
And like, you think there's all this change that’s coming, blah, blah, blah. And now, just thinking about the opposite end of that where we're at a point where these platforms are not the places for amplifying voices that we don't hear from anymore.
In the same way, they can now be used very cynically and everyone has their own version of reality. There's no shared sense of reality, I think, and to even see that – even taking the Trump Administration out of it, which I think is impossible to do – but like, even if you take that out of the equation and think about this from the context of COVID, just the fact that wearing masks was a debate… having my family in other parts of the world calling and being like: why are people fighting against staying home? Because it was like: these people are educated, shouldn't they know better? And, y’know, that really scares me because it's one thing to argue about how to address a problem but it's really scary to not even agree that the thing exists.
The example I always use is, for example, homelessness. I grew up in Raleigh and it’s very purple… it's very, y’know, kind of [politically] split, but no one said homelessness doesn't exist. People argued over how to address homelessness. Now, it's like: is this even real?
Sara Yasin: Yeah, that's, that's terrifying.
VFD: That’s a great analogy.
Sara Yasin: Yeah.
VFD: Every time I ask someone that question the end result is another thing to add to my list. Anyway, self fulfilling prophecy though, so that's all good. I know I said it was the last question but I guess the final final question is: How do you stay motivated then?
Sara Yasin: I think that there are a lot of people who want this to change. And I think that a lot of people want to have good conversations. And y’know… I have a lot of issues with Tiktok in a lot of different ways. But one thing I like about teens and how teens are using Tiktok is that they seem to be surprised by the toxicity of comments on other platforms.
And so that, to me, suggests that there's like… for us, we were like: don't read the comments, we're just going to ignore this part of it. And they're like: Oh, no, we're embracing this. And also, no, this isn't going to be a toxic place. And I like that, because I feel like it shows that the next generation thinks that the internet is a real place because that's the thing – We almost conduct ourselves online as if it doesn't count in real life. And I think that Gen Z knows that there is some weight to what you say on the internet, because they've seen the consequences of that in every possible way.
VFD: Yeah, those poor kids. I have this image in my head of being 80-years-old, and the equivalent of me saying to my grandpa “I can't believe they put cocaine in Coca Cola!” And them being like: “I can't believe you just uploaded all of your information and commented freely and put all your photos online and now your life is ruined!” And I'll just be like: Yeah, well, everyone else was doing it.
Sara Yasin: What's your big fear?
VFD: Um…probably failure. If I'm honest. I know. That's a very broad thing. But I'm quite driven to succeed and often struggle to… to figure out what success looks like. And those two things can obviously conflict. So I spend a lot of time thinking about what I actually want to achieve and what I want to achieve to a level that will make me happy about it. So yeah, that's quite like “Eat, Pray, Love.”
I mean I’m also not into flying much! Aeroplanes scare the absolute shit out of me. So that's… that's probably a quicker answer.
Sara Yasin: How do you do that with your family being in the US?
VFD: A lot of prescription drugs to help me stay calm, or at the moment, not flying at all.
Sara Yasin: I mean, that that's probably a lot easier.
VFD: Yeah. All right. Well, thank you so much, Sara.
Sara Yasin: Of course.