His new book is “The Encyclopedia of Misinformation.”
On this episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, writer Rex Sorgatz talks about his new book, “The Encyclopedia of Misinformation: A Compendium of Imitations, Spoofs, Delusions, Simulations, Counterfeits, Impostors, Illusions, Confabulations, Skullduggery, Frauds, Pseudoscience, Propaganda, Hoaxes, Flimflam, Pranks, Hornswoggle, Conspiracies & Miscellaneous Fakery.” Sorgatz says he doesn’t expect readers to move through the book in order; instead, they can open it to a random page, read an article and then see where the footnotes at the bottom of the page tell them to go next.
Below, you’ll also find a lightly edited transcript of the full episode.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That is me. I am part of the Vox Media podcast network. I’m here at Vox Media headquarters in New York City. I’m with Rex Sorgatz. Before I formally introduce him, I have one request for you, the Recode Media listener: Tell someone about this show. You know how to tell someone about the show, so I will not tell you how to tell someone about this show. Okay, that’s my ask.
Rex Sorgatz: Tweet it, tweet it.
Tweet it, you can tell someone in person. You can email me and tell me you like the show, that’s great; my ego always loves buffing. But it’s better if you tell someone who’s not me about the show. Even better.
Glad to be here. I’m gonna tell everyone about it.
Thank you, Rex. We’re gonna tell everyone about your book, which you are here to promote. We want to talk about other things as well. The book is called “The Encyclopedia of Misinformation.” It’s got a very, very long what we call in publishing a dek, subhead. Can you repeat the dek by heart without looking?
It’s funny, my wife has actually memorized it.
But you have not memorized it?
I do not. It is “A Compendium of Imitations, Spoofs, Delusions, Simulations, Counterfeits, Imposters, Illusions, Confabulations, Skullduggery, Fraud, Pseudoscience, Propaganda, Hoaxes, Flim-Flam, Pranks, Hornswoggle, Conspiracies, and Miscellaneous Fakery.”
Or, as I said on Twitter, “This looks like something I can’t wait to read on the toilet.” And I meant that in the most praiseworthy way.
I like nothing more than hearing that analogy.
This is a book that is great, it’s awesome, it also seems entirely superfluous; it seems like the kind of thing that exists already on the web, it seems like the kind of thing you do when you’re avoiding working. You go and, especially in the older days, you screw around on the internet and you end up in a weird Wikipedia hole, and you end up on a weird YouTube channel, and you just sort of entertain yourself in a specific sort of non-productive way.
In this case … I’m trying to sell people on the idea of the book, but there is a theme around here, right? It’s bite-sized nuggets about the idea of misinformation.
Yes. Yeah, it definitely has like a Wiki-hole kind of quality to it, but … And it tries to envelope and take on the role of an actual encyclopedia; it’s organized A to Z, it has entries that are 10 words to 1,200 words, but once you get into it, you quickly realize that it’s also trying to disrupt this idea of encyclopedia. There are entries that are written as though they’re straightforward descriptions of, say, crisis actors or false flag operations, but at the same time you’ll turn the page and all of a sudden there will be a chart about tribute bands.
And so it’s a real mishmash of different kinds of ideas, and all around ultimately getting to how does misinformation work in society, but using examples from pop culture, cognitive science …
Rex, this is a fun thing to read for five, six, seven minutes at a time, right? That’s how I would pitch it.
Yeah. I think that you get down to the bottom of a …
It’s snackable content, but it’s in a book.
Yeah. You read an entry and it takes you three minutes, and then at the bottom of each entry there’s a see also, that you flip to that one and then you read that. And I guess, Peter, if you’re off the toilet at that point, you can put it down.
Or you stay on the toilet because sometimes you stay longer.
You keep going. It’s like that podcast you love so much, you don’t get out of the car.
Yeah. Or you listen to the podcast on the toilet, or wherever you listen to fun podcasts.
Why tackle the theme of misinformation? And just let me expand the question a little bit more: It is kind of the world, right? Like you could just call it an encyclopedia.
That’s true. It is.
Or at least an encyclopedia of the internet.
It is about everything, in a way, which is part of the difficult task.
I suspect we’re going to see a lot of books coming out in the near future that are around the idea of disinformation, mal-information; I think those will all be very dry books and boring. And I started this before our current presidency, in fact I was halfway done with it when we elected some new guy into the office, and you can kinda see the tone transition throughout the book. And it starts off very playful and fun, not in like an A-to-Z way but some entries revel in the playfulness of culture, and other entries are much more serious and about how the internet is tricking us.
It is impossible to read this thing and not think about Donald Trump on every other page, right? Because sometimes you’re literally referencing him, like you’ve got one entry, here is John Barron, who then became John … What was the second one?
John Miller, both of whom are Donald Trump on the phone semi-disguising his voice and pretending to be his own spokesperson.
And then you’ve got false flags … Every article that you’ve read about misinformation on YouTube and Twitter and Facebook is all sort of baked into this, either explicitly or at least there’s an allusion to it.
Yeah. So I had a lot of discussions with my editor and publisher about how much Trump this should be. In fact, I’ve talked to other people in the book industry and I think that’s the big question right now, is how much they should include that both with what they’re buying new now and also kind of how much current books coming out should include it. I erred on the side of not including him very much. I tend to think of him as a Zelig-like character; he pops up in weird places, especially in footnotes. The most explicit place is that John Barron article and I had to include that because that’s just so insane.
Right. Everything you read here, again about false flag or … Do chemtrails make a …
Of course. So, you know, whenever you see Susan Wojcicki from YouTube sort of stumbling around a stage at South By Southwest, explaining that they want to have good news on YouTube but they’re not a news organization, and their genius plan is to bring in Wikipedia when there’s a controversy like what is a chemtrail, is it real? It’s all sort of around the idea of … Trump plays a big part in it.
Yeah, for sure. And there’s a good entry on Huey Long, the 1930s populist, and Trump isn’t mentioned at all in the entry. And it’s one of my favorite entries because you can’t read it and not think of him, and I do that a lot in the book where I don’t say his name and the reader has to come to the conclusion that this is very relevant to our time and that history is rhyming.
You didn’t get nearly enough Huey Long references during the Trump campaign. People sort of came to it late.
It’s true. And I went back and read all of the biographies and watched the movies, and he was a really important figure. It’s one of the pieces I’ll probably excerpt somewhere out there.
So you sent me this long, long pitch, which was in vain because I already told you that I was gonna have you on to talk about the podcast …
… but you were listing all the awesome entries in here that we could talk about. Should I pick one at random and then you can riff on it?
Sure. That’s the way I tell people to read the book, is sort of open it randomly and pick one.
It is definitely the way to do it. I was thinking we could actually do it with the book, but I’m gonna pull from your … I’m gonna give you a better shot here by pulling from the selections you selected.
Why are knock-off handbags relevant for this book?
So there’s a lot of stuff kind of pulled from pop culture and commerce in the book. And there’s a case where … Right around the corner here is Canal Street, and you can go down there and buy a handbag that should normally cost, a Louis Vuitton, that should cost $3,000 and buy it for $30.
Not a new idea. We understand it.
Yeah. And there’s been some interesting research done that shows that … That sounds like it’s economic fraud and it’s bad for the brand. I look at some studies — and a lot of this book is going and looking at economic and psychological studies and going, “Oh, how can I condense this down to 300 words that are good to digest and know about?” But the studies show that, well, in fact maybe it actually is beneficial for fake knock-offs to exist in the marketplace for those brands.
Because, in some cases, it acts as an advertisement effectively; that if you see people walking around with that object that it will spread its awareness and it’ll make some people more likely to go out and buy that brand.
There’s also some research that says that people will kind of use it as a starter drug. Like they’ll buy the knock-off and then try it out, and if they like it, they’ll elevate their drug experience to the next thing.
It’s a pretty interesting thing, right? Because especially for a luxury product, the idea is it should be something that you really can’t get but you also want to make it … It should be aspirational, but also you need to put within the reach of somebody, right? So that’s why you have — and I won’t bother getting the brands because I’ll screw it up — but you’ll have a top brand and then you’ll have a lower brand that you could conceivably buy a $75 T-shirt version of. Or Tiffany’s had that silver heart locket that you could buy even though you probably could not afford the full-blown Tiffany’s ring, or whatever it was.
If I talk any more about fashion brands, we’re just gonna … I’m gonna screw up and everyone’s gonna shut the podcast off.
Esperanto and George Soros: Why do we care about those two ideas?
That’s a thing in the footnote. I hope this like … Because [there’s] a lot of data nuggets that people find interesting, but did you know that George Soros was … Oh, this would be a great case for me to speak Esperanto, but I don’t remember the word. There’s a word for native Esperanto speaker.
Denaskuloj, that’s it. And that is … It’s in the book. It is someone who is … Not born speaking it, but learns it as their native tongue, and George Soros was actually a native speaker of Esperanto. And in fact, he emigrated at an Esperanto conference. That was the location at which he escaped the Eastern European Communist regime.
These are all ideas that if you encounter them on the internet, you would stop and, if you had the time, go, “I want to know more about that.” And you either Google or you press the link, which you would have a hyperlink in there, and instead it’s a book.
That’s right. It is.
So if you like the idea of that and it’s a cool novelty, you should go buy “The Encyclopedia of Misinformation.” If you hate books, don’t buy this book.
Yeah. I mean, I think of it to as close as you can get to an interactive book. I know lots of people have said that about what they’re doing, but I tell people just open it up and move around through it, and then you’ll find a thread. And it’s not just facts; there are a lot of ideas and essays in there. I want to be careful about the word essay because that sounds drab. I really am trying to explore what misinformation means.
I want to ask you a dumb question about this book, but first, I’d like all of you to listen to this ad.
We’re back here with Rex Sorgatz. Welcome back, Rex.
Hasn’t some genius told you, “Hey Rex, this is a great idea, but it shouldn’t be a book, it should be an actual interactive thing”?
No, you’re the first genius to tell me that. Yeah, I think that there’s something still special about the book experience. You can get it on Kindle, too. But I think that the … First of all, there’s obviously the physical quality, but the illustrations really are pretty cool and the charts …
It’s super cool, but it’s 2018. This is something that I should be … I’m already going to be encountering this on the internet. This is basically you trying to take the internet and put it into a book.
Yeah, and the book is an idea that you will see in different forms in the future, hopefully. I’m in negotiations with video companies that — you can probably guess who — might turn this into a video series.
Hi-lu, Shmet-flix. Shm-amazon.
Things that you might get.
I hope it’s not Crackle.
And also potentially a competing podcast. But you can see that it is a multimedia product, potentially, and I made it with the intention that I want to sprawl it off into different places. And at the end of it, there is the idea in the back of my mind that I opensource it and then I just put it all on the internet, and it actually becomes a …
It actually becomes its own wiki.
I was thinking of another way to describe this book. You know how when you look at a Wikipedia entry about something you’re interested in, it’s both fascinating and very frustrating because Wikipedia entries suck? Because they’ve been written by a committee of people who actually want to spend time on Wikipedia, and so …
And it takes style out.
Everything good and interesting about it has been taken out and replaced with some sort of weird agreed-upon facts, which still aren’t always correct. Well, this is like that except Rex wrote it, and not by committee.
Yeah. It’s not striving toward the middle, as Wikipedia so much does.
What are you doing when you’re not writing an encyclopedia of the internet?
I’ve been doing that for over two years. It took way longer than I thought it would. And prior to that, I’ve been digital consulting with media companies primarily, startups, helping them launch new products. And over that time … I got rid of all clients but one while I was writing the book and I’m finalizing a product release for that one client still.
And then occasionally you write cool and interesting things?
Yeah, I’ve always written kind of in the background for the last 10, 15 years. I try to write one big thing a year, is usually my goal. And I’ve written for Wired and New York Magazine, places like that. And I’d never been a full-time writer. This is the first time in my life I’ve said this is what I’m going to do for the near term, and it was something of an experiment to see if I liked it.
How do you like being a full-time writer?
I didn’t like it.
The money or the work or both?
The money part doesn’t bother me.
Yes. That bitcoin paid off.
No, it’s the … I’m not … Some people really love to get into an idea and they … Most people have a hard time starting, but once they’re in it, they really love it. I don’t love much of the process. And I think the hard part for me is I’ve been working collaboratively with people on startups, on media companies, magazines, radio stations, all kinds of stuff in my life, and all of those things were collaborative. And this is the first thing where you sit down, you do it yourself alone. You don’t show anyone; even your editor doesn’t really look at it until it’s done. And it was really hard for me. My wife will tell you that I was home for … I sometimes didn’t leave the house for a week, and may not have showered some of that time too.
Sounds like a writer.
Some people handle the process better. If I did it over again, and if I do another one, I’ll be better at it. I know how to do it now. But the first time, I was a very … I was a mess for two years. I was not good at it.
You just write shorter. Then you can cycle through it more quickly. Just write blog posts.
Well, this was kind of like writing blog posts. Like almost every entry was a day. I tried to do one a day, and I had a calculator that I’ve … An Excel spreadsheet that I had to follow to knock them off. The problem is that each one requires not so much writing but so much research, and my house is now full of all of these weird, terrible books that I had to read to get through it.
So it’s got a zodiac vibe?
It does. Like, you know, there’s an entry on OJ’s “If I Did It,” and I did not only read “If I Did It,” which the book that OJ wrote that hypothesized, “I’m not saying it …”
You didn’t want to go down the rabbit hole.
“Hypothetically, I did it.” Because I read the whole thing and then I read all of the books about and around that thing.
Yeah, even just watching the Fox show makes you feel a little skeevy.
Yeah. That’s a good example of something that happened since the book came out that I wish I could get in there, because the actual interview came out that was actually recorded back in the day.
Right, right. Which he just put out, which no one cared about because …
No one cared, and it was a huge deal back then.
Because now we’re in Trump.
I want to ask you about an article you wrote a couple years ago that really struck me. What’s it called? The premise is you’re from North Dakota — makes you the second person I ever met from North Dakota, the other was Chuck Klosterman — and you’re from a tiny, tiny town even by North Dakota standards.
And the premise is you go back to this tiny town, it is essential unchanged; same population, same economics, but the internet is now there.
And your conclusion is what?
I treated it like a scientific experiment.
It’s a Wired story. You should go read it.
Yeah. And the title is “Netflix and Chill,” which totally dates it. It’s a terrible thing. It’s my fault too; the editor tried to talk me out of it.
Wait, when I saw what I was Googling for you, it said, “The internet has changed everything. Here’s why.”
Well it was on Backchannel and then it moved to Wired and I think they actually changed it.
They thought better of it? Yeah.
They wisely overruled my stupid title.
It’s a very magazine headline.
Listen to your editors, people.
That is a classic example … We’re down a rabbit hole here. But “Netflix and Chill” for a story about going to a cold place and talking about the internet is the kind of headline that a magazine editor and newspaper editor puts on because puns are praised there. And also the idea that it would probably be splayed out against a photograph of someone being cold.
Yes. In fact …
And that makes sense in a magazine world, and on the internet that headline doesn’t work at all.
That’s right. In fact, even on the cover is what you might do it. A cover line is what they’re called on the covers of magazines.
Yeah, so it was a story that I went back to my hometown, which I don’t really see that often, and you know, 20-plus years later, and I tried to shoot it as a scientific experiment. And the premise was that everything about this place has stayed exactly the same; the main street has the same grocery store, it has the same café, the same bank. That’s the entire business economy of the town. The people are miraculously similar to what they had been while I was there, the population is still about the same. It still graduates 20 people a year from high school. My class was 27, I think it’s 22 this year. And so the thesis was that everything here is equal except one thing has changed, and that’s technology.
And so I tried to study, have people changed because technology has been introduced into the environment?
And the conclusion is … ?
The conclusion is … I don’t want to be the person that draws huge conclusions …
Although there is a headline that says, “The internet has changed everything.”
Yes. So I did find that kids really did think differently than what I did.
I think about this all the time, because I’ve got kids now, I’m watching them, but I think about what my life would’ve been like if I had access to some version of the internet growing up. And I came from Minnesota where we had cable TV and stop lights. But still, if you wanted to encounter anything sort of beyond the Minneapolis Star Tribune or the New York Times, maybe you could do a deep dive in the library, but really you were pretty cut off from most things unless it came through the TV.
Yeah. My access to media was there’s three magazines in the library; Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated. And the daily paper was the Bismarck Tribune, which was always a delight, and that was it. We had network TV; we didn’t have cable. I didn’t get PBS, I didn’t get “Sesame Street” until I was 13, too old to appreciate “Sesame Street.” That’s how remote it was. And now, of course, kids can open their phone and hear the history of recorded music instantly.
And I think up until a couple years ago, I think most people, people like you and me for instance, would say, “Well that’s great. It’s good that those kids all have access to the world.”
Now, in early-ish 2018, there seems to be more and more “Hey, maybe there should be less internet,” and specifically social media. But less internet and less screens in all of our lives, and especially it can’t be good for kids. How do you feel about that when you go back and visit Rexville? What’s the name of the town?
Napoleon. It even has like a heroic name to it.
I like Rexville.
We grew up in an age of scarcity for some of the stuff that … The example that I always give is I never heard The Pixies until college, I never The Smiths or The Cure. Not only never heard, I never heard of them; and not only never heard of them, I never could have heard of them. There would’ve been nothing that would’ve brought them to me.
There was plenty of kids I went to college with who had never heard of The Pixies and probably graduated and didn’t know who The Pixies were, right? Because the idea … It was still very monoculture-y, and if someone didn’t show you a CD with The Pixies on it, you probably wouldn’t be exposed to it. So it wasn’t that different.
Yeah. And that opens up the question is are these kids today … Do they listen to The Pixies now that they have access to it? And the answer is nope, not really. It’s still like … There’s a lot of time spent asking the question about music because I think that’s a particularly good phenomenon to study, primarily because pop music is such a kid medium more than anyone else; if kids like it, that means it’s good, practically.
And I ask questions about do you know The Beatles, which was really funny because they had no interest in it, and it turns out they still basically listen to metal and country, which were the things that I listened to. I talked to two kids primarily, one a young girl and one boy, or teenage girl and boy, and the boy in particular was like still listening to the same AC/DC songs that I listened to growing up. And rap. Rap was thrown in there too. That was the new thing.
Do you think that the relative isolation … It’s very isolated, right? This town is very isolated? It’s in North Dakota.
Do you think that makes it harder for the internet to break through? It seems like … Well, it could go either way. Because I don’t think that if you went to another town and revisited it 25 years later that the culture … That people would still only be listening to metal and country. I think it would’ve diversified to some degree. My hunch is that the internet would have expanded some young minds more than the minds that you were visiting. Expand is the wrong word. I think that there’s something …
This is not a very fruitful discussion because I can’t really articulate what I’m saying, but it seems like you would expect people to be trying out other kinds of culture and music just because it’s being put in front of them.
Right. Does access equal taste or opportunity? And from what I saw, mostly no, it doesn’t; that culture overrides abundance, that there’s still a tendency toward tribalism of the community, and also being very, very, very careful with outsiders. I had brought a photographer with me and brought him to the café, and they kinda knew who I was and they would say, “Are you Dave Sorgatz’s boy?” Like they knew … That’s the way they talk there, is that you’re always someone’s son. But they were very suspicious of the photographer.
And I think that information is treated in much the same way. I think that they … Snapchat is not something that’s really huge with the kids there. It’s used, but mostly by edgier kids. And the girl I spoke to, her parents wouldn’t let her use Facebook.
This has been another episode of two middle-aged white guys talking about young people using the internet.
What the kids do.
And if you like that, there’s more where that came from. But hang on, we’ve gotta hear from a fine advertiser.
And we’re back with Rex Sorgatz. I want to keep going down this rabbit hole — I like saying rabbit hole — because I like to ask lots of people about how they imagine their professional life would be different without the internet and they’re usually not that interested in having that conversation; they don’t think about it a lot. But it seems like in your case, the internet was very important to you because you made your living doing it for the last how many years? Couple decades.
So you grew up in North Dakota, you live in New York now. How did you get from North Dakota to New York?
So after leaving my little tiny town of Napoleon, I moved as far away as I possibly could, or at least in my mind, and that was to Grand Forks, North Dakota, where I went to college at the University of North Dakota. I didn’t know anyone who had gone to …
It’s near-ish to Fargo, right?
Yeah, it’s an hour north of Fargo, near the Canadian border. And that literally is as far as my brain could go as distance. I didn’t know anyone who went to any college whatsoever; Harvard, much less University of Minnesota. University of Minnesota was an impossible idea; I wouldn’t even ever have thought of the idea to go there.
Growing up in Minnesota, I felt that way about New York. Chicago was the big city.
I think everyone puts a place in their head that’s one above where they are, and for me that was … Getting to UND was the big thing.
And I stayed in college for quite a long time because I loved it and I felt like I’d just discovered all of the information in the world, and got a few too many degrees there. But while I was there, I became the editor of the college newspaper, fell into media by accident. Got into the internet by going down to the computer lab and meeting some kids in trench coats who were playing computer games, and I thought these kids are the creepiest people in the world and I never want to hang out with them. And then, by the end of the week, they were my best friends.
And started working out of college at the daily paper, the Grand Forks Herald, and tragedy struck while I was there. This was 1996, ’97, and the biggest natural disaster of the 20th century hit the Red River Valley, and it’s a story that most people have forgotten. It was during the Clinton administration that there was a gigantic flood.
And the flood took down all of downtown, six feet of water under, and 50,000 people evacuated; the largest evacuation of an American city in the 20th century. There’s a stat. That little flood further south in Louisiana was next century.
And in the middle of the flood, a fire started and it raged through downtown, knocking down lots of buildings, and they couldn’t put it out because the fire hydrants were underwater. And the town slowly burned without being able to put out this fire, and it was this great irony that you couldn’t put it out.
Well we kept putting out the paper, somewhat miraculously, even though the printing press was underwater. Our fellow Knight Ridder publication — there’s a name from the past — which was in St. Paul, the Pioneer Press — no longer owned by Knight Ridder, Knight Ridder no longer exists — they printed the press and brought it into town for us.
And long story trying to make short …
Your newspaper was destroyed by God, not by Craigslist and Google.
Yes. And the title on the daily the day after was “Come Hell or High Water,” and the paper won a Pulitzer Prize. I was running the website and it got some special notation, and that was my ticket. My house also burned down, I lost everything I owned, and I was in my early 20s and had nothing and decided to move to Minneapolis because finally something bad had happened to me; I had owned nothing and I had notoriety as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
And then you knock around in Minneapolis doing internet stuff, this is the first wave of the web bubble where anyone who’s remotely competent and could turn on a computer and/or build a website and/or publish something could find work. And that worked out well for you?
Yeah. I banged around doing a couple magazines that were about the web and then landed at a company called Internet Broadcasting Systems.
It’s changed its named, actually.
Because IBS is a terrible name.
It’s a terrible name, terrible name. But they basically made websites for other media companies, particularly TV stations. So they did all of the …
Still what they do.
Yeah. They did all the of the NBC, all the Washington Post TV stations, Hearst/Cox TV stations. Basically if you had a local TV station in a market, it was pretty likely IBS … Terrible name.
This is one of the things I think about a lot, right? So if you have access to the internet and you are in North Dakota or you’re in Minneapolis and you’re an ambitious and interesting and smart young person, why do you move to New York, right? And I asked that question 20 years ago because that’s what you did, it’s what I did eventually, and then I asked that question, sort of … Is there a point to moving to New York or Los Angeles or some metropolitan area like that? Or if you’re good at it and you’ve got access to the internet, do you have to leave that part of … Wherever you are, do you have to leave to get better or get more success or make more money?
Yeah, when I was coming up, I would say the answer is you don’t have to leave, and I think that’s why it took me quite awhile to get to New York. We’ll skip ahead. I went to Minneapolis, was there for awhile, then to Seattle, where I worked at MSNBC.com, and then eventually to New York; and it was only 10 years ago I got to New York.
And if it was still … If things were like they were back then now, I could still be in Minneapolis, and in fact I would like to. But the local news market has been completely decimated. There used to be magazines there, like the Utne Reader was there, and there was an actual like vibrant media culture there. Three successful TV stations, two daily newspapers, three magazines; like there was a real vibrant media community of people hanging out. Minnesota Public Radio is based there.
So that now … I mean, I know I’ll have friends from Minneapolis who will hear this, but it’s much more bleak now and I think it’s much, much more likely that you’re gonna have to get out if you want to get a …
I’ve been hearing for years from smart people, saying, “Oh, you know, one of the things the internet’s gonna do, and also tiny planes, is it’s gonna allow everyone to do work from wherever and you don’t have to move to New York, you don’t have to move to San Francisco if you want to do …” whatever kind of knowledge. And Vox Media has a big disruptive workforce; lots of people work from lots of places around the country. But if we went next door, we’d find most, at least half of the Vox Media workforce, is in New York City. And it’s interesting, right, that there’s still … I guess you’re even saying even more so, sort of a concentration of information workers in cities like this.
Which doesn’t make any sense because the real estate hasn’t gotten any cheaper. It’s gotten much more expensive.
Yeah, and there’s just been a massive shift from local news to national news. And for every Vox that pops up, and we can look at that as a positive rise in media culture because more is always better, there’s a Cleveland Plain Dealer on the fall. And there’s nothing to indicate that that’s gonna change any time soon.
No. Not even Laurene Powell Jobs can save all the local newspapers. And that’s pretty much the plan right now, is hope billionaires show up and save your newspaper, which they did in Minneapolis. We can spend a lot of time talking about the Midwest, but no one wants to hear that much.
You moved to New York, you became weirdly, briefly, an internet celebrity. Micro-celebrity. You became the object of Nick Denton’s fascination. This is when Gawker was still writing about sort of New York media as its main idea. So you can go Google this, you can go … It shows up in your first page of results.
I don’t recommend it.
What was it like to be written about, not just by Gawker, but by Nick Denton? He wrote a profile of you called Rex Sorgatz’s … was it “posse”? Is that the full name of the title?
I think so.
Yeah. This is literally about you and your love life and what you’re doing in the Hamptons with other young-ish people. Seems both exhilarating and terrifying.
Those would be two good words.
I guess I would be lying if I said that there wasn’t some kind of excitement around that era, and it wasn’t just personal. It was like there were all of these companies coming up in New York, and New York was going through its dot-com boom at that moment.
This was 2007-ish.
Yes, yeah. And so there was Tumblr and BuzzFeed and Foursquare and Huff Po and youth culture around that. And so it was really exciting. Media people were entrepreneurs, this was a new idea, you could start a blog and you could sell it, or at least make a bunch of money with ads, or some money off off ads, or pretend you make some money off of ads, or some version of that.
And you could play on the internet without really knowing anything about technology.
Yeah. Start up WordPress and you got a company. Or just learn some programming and hire a developer and you have an app and you check into places and all of a sudden it’s a $300 million dollar company, right?
So that was all really exciting. I would say that the … It was a vibe more than anything else. There were just people that were all hanging out at each other and it was still the days of the party photographer; like you’d go out to places and people would take pictures of you. Thankfully I don’t go to those parties anymore so I don’t know, but I think that era has died. I don’t think that that happens. But at least for the nobodies … Like it happened for people that were nobodies, were getting pictures taken of them, and it’s gone back to just being a paparazzi culture.
And so I guess all of that was fun. I have nothing but regret and remorse and shame when I look back on it, but it was undeniably exciting and I think that it was fun to fall into something.
Because yeah, if you grew up in North Dakota or Minnesota or any town, you may well have a fantasy at some point when you’re a teenager or a tween or anything around that saying, “It’d be cool to be famous. It’d be cool if people paid attention to me. I don’t know how I would accomplish that, but that’d be cool.” And then fast-forward not that many years later and not only is Nick Denton writing about you, there’s a New York Times Style Section profile about you. It would seem both like, “Wow, I’ve fulfilled my fantasy,” and also, “I don’t know if this is a great idea.”
Yeah. There’s no business there. That’s not like … I mean, New York Magazine, early on in the process before those profiles were written, New York Magazine asked me to write a story called “How to Be Micro-Famous,” and I’m told it was the first time that it was the first web-only feature. It was early enough that they’re paying someone a big magazine salary to write a web-only feature.
Got rid of that idea.
Yeah. And that was exciting because I had lots of opinions and thoughts about how fame worked, and it was one of my kind of intellectual obsessions. And it’s really funny to look back on. I had no idea that I was writing this fake how-to. In some ways, I still like the form; I just wrote a fake encyclopedia in some capacity. I like kinda going into these forms and burrowing around in them and figuring out a new way to do them.
So I wrote this fake how-to about how to become micro-famous, and I didn’t realize the entire time that they kind of thought of my byline being an indicator of like I’m actually writing a how-to. I thought it was just like a joke piece that people would find funny, and they had me rewrite the lede and tell a personal story about myself. And I realized at that point, “Oh, you think that I’m actually into this culture,” whereas I only had like an intellectual appreciation of it. And that was the moment where I was like, “Oh no, this … Things are about to get out of control.”
Do you have any appreciation, having gone through fame on a small scale …
Very small, we should say.
But still, the New York Times writing about you, and people would write stories about the New York Times’ profile about you, and then they’d write stories about the stories about the New York Times’ profile. Very small world, but still, you were a big deal in a small world. When you’re looking out …
We were talking before we started taping about the YouTube celebrities who are massively famous but also sort of in their world; massively famous in a sort of cloistered level, right? Like lots of people know who Jake Paul is, or Logan Paul is, or both. A lot of people don’t know either, right? You’ve got a world where you could be both tremendously famous and then unknown, depending on who you’re talking to. Does that give you any insight into that world?
Sure. I’m not sure this is anything new to say, but you know, no one is gonna be talking about Logan Paul in 10 years; there’s just no way that that’s a lasting brand. And I am positive there’s someone on the other end of this, listening to this, going, “Who’s this guy? What? I’ve never heard …” The vast majority of people are like, “He was micro-famous? What?” And that’s just …
And when you’re caught in that moment, all that you’re thinking is like, “This is fun.” That’s all you’re thinking. And then if you’re the kind of person that gets hooked on it — which I definitely was not because by the end I was like just leave me alone, stop bugging me — but if you’re the kind of person that gets hooked on it, then you might have some remorse that you long for that attention.
Do you have any cool artifacts from that era? Like a regrettable tattoo or some other trophy?
I have stories but I can’t tell any of them.
That’s the second book.
So what have we learned today? You should go buy “The Encyclopedia of Misinformation” by Rex Sorgatz, you should not aspire to be micro-famous …
… you should write a book about Trump without mentioning Trump too many times, and it’s worth looking at books printed on paper in 2018.
All good lessons.
Did I miss anything? Golda? Golda says we covered it all.
Rex, you’re awesome. Thanks for joining us.
That was fun.
Thanks again, Rex. That was fun.
Recode – All Go to Source
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