Jenna Wortham is a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine. A graduate of the University of Virginia, she worked at Wired before joining the Times in 2008 and more recently, the New York Times magazine. Wortham is an important voice on digital culture and new technologies.
Like any popular mass medium, the internet often reflects the time and place as well as the people who use it. From the directory web to the search web to the social web to the mobile web, each shift in core internet behaviors has spawned its own set of stars: companies, investors, celebrities and journalists. Jenna Wortham is one of those rare writers who is able to explain the shapeshifting culture of the younger and newer internet.
A heady blend of smarts, skills, poise and sassiness, she is the voice of the Snapchat generation, throwing herself into the change before making it a story. Her work has always provided a glimpse into emergent internet behaviors, long before they become well-known and commonplace. However, though she lives such a public and social life on the internet, I didn’t know much about her in real life.
That all changed when we met for coffee in Manhattan recently. We ended up talking about technology, journalism and life on the internet as well as Beyonce. Here is a shorter version of our long and rambling chat.
Om: I read this piece in The California Sunday Magazine about Korean-American chef Roy Choi, and he talked about equality and American identity: the challenges, the rage and the anxiety of growing up. What was it like for you growing up, and how has it changed?
Jenna: I think about this all the time. I’m biracial, but I look black. That’s the identity people project onto me, and that’s fine and I just go with it. But how do you reconcile being in these different spaces, like being a woman of color and a woman of color who’s been writing about tech? I’ve always been in these environments where I am surrounded largely by people who don’t look like me. In many ways that has been advantageous, because everyone knows who I am in the tech world [laughs]. It has made my job easier the last couple of years.
But it’s also hard when you feel like you have a perspective that is not reflected in the places where you work or the stories people cover. You don’t feel like you can cover them and don’t know how to allocate yourself. There’s an appreciation of seeing or reading about other people that are like me in a largely white, male-dominated environment like media, music or literature.
Truthfully, that’s the experience of people of color who are working in any of these big niche areas. They are probably the only person that looks like them in their environment. Having access to those environments has been gratifying, or self-reinforcing. It’s like, “OK, this is how you aim for it. This is how you talk about these difficult issues.”
Om: I was chatting with Zach Klein [the founder of DIY and CollegeHumor], and he was talking about the idea of tribes going from online to offline, that instead of aggregating online, people with similar interests are coming together in real life and creating new offline groups.
Jenna: There’s this new global citizenship. Although, to be fair, we are talking about a select group. We are assuming they have [internet] access and can afford a data plan. Still, I am fascinated about this idea of what does it mean when you realize that you can look on Vine or YouTube and you are like, “Every kid in America has a bedroom that looks just like mine.”
If this is what the typical American experience looks like, does that lead to more marginalization? Or does it make us more comfortable with difference? I think it’s both; I think it’s good and bad. It’s exciting to think about what it means to grow up with that portal into each other’s worlds. Perhaps we can understand that, like, kids in Iran do the exact same things you do with their spare time, which is make dumb Vines or whatever. That’s powerful.
The most innovation is still happening online and is largely concentrated within ethnic groups. There are more black people on Twitter than white people. Is this just an updated version of exploitation of labor and black bodies, the same as at the turn of the last century? Because the makeup of Twitter does not look like the makeup of its management. In terms of people that work at Twitter, it’s a lot whiter than the people that use Twitter. That free labor is real.
I’m taking this class right now called Technologies of Feminism, and we spend a lot of time talking about whether or not software can be biased. It’s hard to explore in a print story. This is where my mind is right now. I’m thinking about how Facebook and Google are trying to get the rest of the world into their version of the internet. When you sign up somewhere in the developed world, do you sign up for Facebook’s version of the internet? Are you automatically ascribed to their version of data collection and privacy policies? Are we creating digital imperialism? Is this the new imperialism? I don’t know. These are the things I’m trying to understand.
Om: I have similar questions about Internet.org, Facebook’s stealthy way to control internet access in developing countries. So I am glad you are thinking about it. And there are challenges that are much bigger than that.
Jenna: There’s a slow collective awakening happening right now. With the Sony email leaks, the message is that you should never email something you don’t want other people to potentially read. Other countries have been faster to realize that the notion of privacy is not as ironclad as we like to believe or tend to think. Nothing is actually private. Nothing is actually secure. We are way more vulnerable than we think. That is actually my piece for the Times Magazine that I’m working on, which is about the Eric Garner video.
We’ve been told if you self-document, if you capture everything, that if you capture something bad happening you’ll have the evidence, you’ll have the proof. That video was clear as day; it was verified by medical examiners. There’s a sense that technology is a panacea for all of society’s problems, but there has been a realization that it doesn’t matter. [Nick] Bilton tweeted after the Trayvon Martin thing: He imagined [what would have happened] if [Martin] had Google Glass, which was a profound thing to say, which I think he got shit for, but I’m not sure why. Now we know it wouldn’t matter, because you can’t disrupt a century of systematic oppression.
Om: You were talking about Twitter or Facebook growing off the backs of people who are not like the people who are running those companies. If you go back to the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, the laborers who were making sweaters (or whatever) and other garments were all women and children. The people who were making money off them were all rich, male, white traders. There is a systematic history of using that lowest common-denominator workforce for the lowest possible price and then benefiting from that. That is what we’re seeing in the new service economy. (Editor’s note: I am referring to the so called share economy!)
Jenna: I’m trying to think about the ways in which the future looks like the past. We’re being told that anyone can run their own business when they decide to use Uber or become a TaskRabbit. It’s fine to talk about one narrative, but we also have to examine the other narrative, which is the much more unpleasant one: Who is benefiting and who’s not, and are they being exploited?
Om: Unfortunately the media reality of today doesn’t allow for that nuance. Everybody needs a 140-word tweet or a headline with maximum impact. Serious conversation is not happening, because even serious publications are not taking a deep look at the changes and instead end up being reactive.
Jenna: Print online ends up looking a lot like print offline, in the paper. That’s the problem. We haven’t realized that there is this middle area between reporting the news, like, commenting on the news. Not like I know what it should be, but we haven’t figured out that there can be this sort of middle area.
That’s the beauty of BuzzFeed, because it’s so big and they get to experiment. They are also doing this serious investigative reporting. They are doing a lot of fun stuff, which people kind of dismiss. To me that’s just as valid and totally fun and fine. It gives them a lot of area in the middle. The so-called lowbrow stuff pays for the so-called highbrow stuff.
Those two areas are taken care of. What else do we do? How else do we think about what we want to say and what we want to cover and how we want to do it? Those might not be the pieces that get the most page views, because they’re not crazy-long investigative stories or exclusives or the fun slideshows of 44 cat GIFs you can’t live without. It leaves them a lot of wiggle room to figure it out.
MEDIUM, NOT MEDIA
Om: I always struggle when people say, “Oh, BuzzFeed,” and have a snooty approach to it. I don’t need to read it every day, but there are 150 million people who are checking it out, so there must be a reason. Those people are not idiots. You can call the publication whatever you want, but people are rewarding them with attention. Both BuzzFeed and Business Insider have identified formats that people like to use. Just like Vine has essentially become an art form in six seconds.
Jenna: Vine is a universe unto itself. Vine has its complete own visual language and literacy, and it’s incredible. I don’t even have that app on my phone, but I look at vines all the time. People either text it to me or I see it on Twitter.
The New Yorker had that cover story about Vine being the future of entertainment. It was a great story, but they really focused on how Hollywood is approaching the medium, as though Hollywood will somehow adapt to six seconds, when Hollywood is just going to always be Hollywood.
What’s really happening — and I’m still trying to figure this out — it’s something like the next MTV won’t be on a television channel. It’ll be moderated through Vine. Snapchat’s making all those content deals. It’s not about the short format; it’s about the ubiquity of the phone and the playfulness of the media. There was a line in that New Yorker story that said, “I don’t know that kids can watch anything more than six seconds.” That’s a gross underestimation of anyone’s attention capacity and also rude to suggest that kids or people who like Vine have no attention capacity. It’s really about the playfulness, the humor and the way things resonate on Vine. A lot of it’s self-referential, and it’s about that quick punch line. It’s all about comedy, which I think that story kind of missed.
Om: I am still surprised that many media organizations are unable to adapt to new media formats and, more importantly, new network behaviors. Everybody’s trying to repeat the past with the new network, with new devices and new tools. Why not make something brand-new? Six seconds are perfect for a comic effect, and that’s why Vine works. Snapchat works because using a selfie is way easier than texting or tweeting. I see how my nieces use each app, and they have no baggage from past behaviors. Shouldn’t media outlets be adapting for these new networks and new apps? It seems like we suffer from the baggage of the past and have a set process on how stories should be crafted. I guess that is the long way of saying that the stories should adapt to the medium and do so without cheapening the story.
Jenna: There’s a huge opportunity to understand how people are consuming things with different purposes. Sometimes it’s to put a news event into context. Sometimes it’s for entertainment. Sometimes it’s for understanding. Stories can be told differently. There’s no such thing as highbrow or lowbrow content on the internet. You’re coming at it with different intentions in mind. You’re getting different value out of it.
I love watching BuzzFeed experiment with the slider tool, which they’ve mostly used for celebrity before and after, like, “Did this person have plastic surgery?” I also feel like you could see that with Brooklyn neighborhoods. “This is what this neighborhood looked like in 2013,” or “this is what this skyline looked like.” Anything with a time lapse means you don’t have to write 800 words about what you’re looking at. You can tell visually that we are talking about gentrification or economic development or urban renovation.
Om: We have a preconceived notion of media, that it should look like a paper or a magazine or a TV show. Why can’t we create a visual experience powered by check-ins, Instagram photos and reviews instead of a destination magazine? That is where the traditional media fails; they don’t really think, “Can we use a new tool to tell the same story?” Do you think that’s a necessary component of being a journalist, that you have to learn to use various tools to tell a story?
Jenna: Yeah! I have a journalist friend in Norway who has been using WhatsApp to report. It’s interesting to understand that there are lots of different tools at your disposal and ways to get interesting stories and widen your perspective.
There tends to be a little bit of dismissal of something like Snapchat, because it had this reputation of being a tool for teens or something that was used to send scandalous images to other people. But BuzzFeed and MTV and Vice are partnering with this company to start broadcasting stories. That’s something we should be thinking about.
Om: You often talk about offline and online and how people communicate. I like that with you: It is pretty much the same person, online and offline. That’s hard to do. Do you think we’ll ever come back to the point where we can converge into being the same person, both online and offline?
Jenna: It’s different for different people, because so many people use Instagram or whatever it is as their calling card. I watch my friends who are stylists or designers and they have to cultivate a lifestyle, or the appearance of a lifestyle, to get work. If you’re a party promoter, you have to seem very on the scene. That’s kind of cool, because it’s a new kind of resume. Sometimes I want to be more like that, and I’m too lazy.
I’m lucky because I have a job and I’m fairly well-established, so I don’t have to use that to build my reputation. But I just want to have fun and a little bit of intrigue. I’m scaling back how much of myself I put out online, because it’s easy to get drawn into it. Like, if you say something controversial on Twitter, you can get drawn into a long back-and-forth conversation. I get that that’s the point, but it is such a distraction. You have to make sure you’re getting out more than you’re putting in. If I was someone who was trying to build more of an image online, I guess I’d be invested in that, but I don’t know.
Om: Where are you from, originally?
Jenna: I grew up in Virginia, right outside D.C., and in Alexandria. I went to college at UVA. When I graduated, I was ready for something different, so I drove out west with my boyfriend, to California.
Om: And ended up being a reporter?
Jenna: I always liked writing. I didn’t know how you transition that into a career. I wanted to write books, and beyond that I was like, “I have no idea how this works.” But I love magazines, and I love e-zines.
I was actually trying to be a doctor or work in public health. Then in my fourth year of college I took a class called Grassroots Publishing. We were putting out a feminist magazine, and I was like, “This is dope. This is what I want to do.” But I also wanted to take a little time off after school. I’d been waitressing in college, so I wanted to move somewhere interesting and be a waitress.
I got to San Francisco, and then I started interning at pretty much every magazine. I interned at San Francisco Magazine. I interned at Girlfriend Magazine, which is now defunct. It was a lesbian magazine. I wrote for SFist. I worked everywhere, and then I landed at Wired. And suddenly, I was like, “This is 100 percent what I’m interested in.”
Om: I had that moment too, as if I had suddenly discovered my tribe.
Jenna: At the time there was this idea of what it means to be a geek, that you’re into X, Y and Z. I watched Star Wars, sure. But I was also watching Facebook come up and thinking, “This is the new tech.” Everyone knows this now, but at the time it was clear to me that [being a geek] wasn’t about cultivating these niche interests, like comic books and certain kinds of films and certain sci-fi authors, all of which I was into. That’s not what it meant to be a geek. To me it was more about being interested in how people were communicating and interacting online.
I remember being maybe eight and at my best friend’s house, and his stepdad was using a BBS or some weird computer program. I was like, “What is this?” They were showing it to me. From that moment on, I was fascinated by the idea of using software to communicate. That’s always what my interest comes down to: how people are communicating with each other and how that plays out online and offline. The way we’re constantly using the internet as a medium. How it mediates interaction.
Om: When you went from all these magazines to Wired, what was that like?
Jenna: Wired was interesting because it’s trying to think ahead. When you’re writing about technology, you have to write about it in a way that’s going to be relevant in three months. That’s just the magazine-publishing timeline. You have to think about what your product will look like in three months. Maybe that shaped how I thought about always trying to have a fresher perspective and not just do reactive stories.
I’m always much more interested in the second-day story. At The New York Times we have day one, day two. The day one to me is the easiest thing to come up with, just sort of, “Here’s what happened, here’s why it’s important” kicker, and you’re done. But the day-two story is always more fascinating. I think about that with anything I approach, like, what are the themes that are interesting? But then what’s the broader, 50,000-foot perspective that no one else has thought of? Or the angle. Because that always has more currency, too, online. That’s the kind of thing that people want to spend time reading, anyway.
BONKERS ABOUT BEYONCE
Om: Let’s talk about Beyonce.
Jenna: Oh, my gosh. What do you want to know?
Om: Everything. When did you become obsessed with her? When she was in the group, or was it more recent?
Jenna: More recently. Last year I wrote a piece for the Nieman Journalism Lab about the future of news, and I said the future of news is Sasha Fierce. Beyonce had released an album that everybody had bought, her visual album. People signed up for iTunes, which I hadn’t used in a year. I don’t know if I’d ever bought an album with iTunes, but I bought that album the second it came out.
She created a totally new visual diary. It was such a crazy thing. It was a premium product. It was more money than I’d spent on music in years. It was totally worth it. I still think that’s something we should all be paying attention to: how she commands attention. Because you know it’s going to be worthwhile. She always does something new and innovative. She’s interesting to me because I think now she’s more a visual artist than a musical artist. She’s not even someone who uses the internet. She creates a new language through her videos and through the sets she designs. I like her music fine, but I love her visuals.
I’m impressed with how much she continues to innovate, how much she continues to redefine what it means to be a pop star. Not to take this metaphor too far, but this is as old as the media business. She’s constantly reinventing what it means to make money and how to be profitable in what is essentially a dying industry. That continued makeover is fascinating, because a lot of artists aren’t able to pull it off. I’m in awe of her and how she seems to have managed to figure it out.
She’s like a meme artist. She has a spectacular team around her, and I think it’s all her too. She is good at understanding how to get things to go viral. When Sasha Fierce came out, even if you weren’t a Beyonce fan — she’s so good at getting her base level of fans to talk about her. Excerpt parts of her video are used, GIFs of her or whatever, so you can’t help but get curious about her. That kind of ambient prevalence is powerful. That’s even what got me into Beyonce, because I kept hearing about her. I finally said, “Why is everyone so obsessed with Beyonce?” Then I got Beyonce-itis. I was like, “Oh, I get it now.”
Om: Have you adapted some of the things she’s done in your daily social existence?
Jenna: That’s a good question. I guess I had been trying to. I would like to be that mutable. You know that if Beyonce’s putting something out, it’s going to be interesting and probably worth the time it took you to watch it and seek it out.
As a journalist, it would be interesting to try to cultivate that as a brand, or maybe as a subconscious association: “If you click on this story, you’re going to like it.” Or maybe you won’t like it, but you’re going to find it interesting. That is incredibly hard to do, but not a bad challenge. But it’s like, How to be everywhere and not be annoying?
THE THIRD ACT
Jenna: It feels like I am in phase three of this arc of my career. I’m trying to get a little bit more in touch with the things that I’m really interested in: what it means to be a person in 2014 and also a person of color in 2014 and trying to think about those stories and tell them effectively, without being so explicit about it.
Om: As an immigrant, you turn a blind eye to a lot of things. You have a narrow vision of where you’re going. You don’t think about what happens. You block it out. But recently there have been so many public displays of anger around race. I find it challenging that we have a black president and we are still having so many issues around racism. That is a philosophical challenge. I don’t think our legislative institutions or our judiciary have understood that the internet changes the idea of protest. Even if it is short-lived, this has spilled over from the internet into the real world.
Jenna: The bubble has popped. Not the tech bubble, but this idea that we live in this techno-utopian-post-racial world. That’s deflating, and we’re quickly realizing that yeah, the problems we face run a lot deeper and are going to be a lot harder to change.
In terms of how the internet has changed protesting, I’m hearing people on Twitter talk about, “Oh, we’re going to go march. We’re going to do this.” Is that going to change anything? Who’s going to show up? I don’t have high hopes. Then I’m tuning in on Instagram, and I’m seeing these incredible aerial photos of just thousands, tens of thousands of people around the world, around the country. I don’t have a TV. I don’t really tune in. I don’t watch a lot of the news unless I’m in a cab, which is such a specific version of the news. It’s not even the real news. To see LeBron James wearing the “I Can’t Breathe” shirt and to see those pictures from Washington Square Park — it creates this feedback loop of caring.
Om: Do you feel that as a society we’ve become so self-obsessed, so narcissistic and self-centered and that social media helps propagate that? We all want to be in the center of change in society and yet, when you look at it, you realize that self is not going to change anything. Maybe we have atomized our whole society to a point that we are not able to achieve anything? For me that was the big takeaway of it. We have proof, and yet there is no justice. How does that work?
Jenna: I don’t buy that the internet has made us more narcissistic. It comes back to the division between how we present ourselves online and what we’re doing offline. I know I’m in a minority, and I probably will get laughed at for saying these things, but I see selfies as a version of how you present yourself online. It’s become the norm for better or for worse. And it’s easy to look at it in aggregate and think, “Uh, everyone who’s doing this is obsessed with themselves” rather than thinking about it in terms of something like an emoji, which is just a thing you use to express yourself and how you’re presenting yourself online. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing.
Photos of Jenna Wortham by Wesley Verhoeve, a Brooklyn-based photographer and writer, who is currently chronicling the stories of creatives & makers who choose to live far from the big urban centers. You can follow his adventures at Oneofmany.co