Who is Galaxy Brain?

Hey! I’m Charlie Warzel. I’m a journalist who writes about technology media and politics. My last job was as a writer-at-large for the New York Times Opinion section. Before that, I was a senior writer at BuzzFeed News. This is my new online experiment. Join me!

What is Galaxy Brain?

For the last 11 years I’ve dedicated my journalism to telling the story of how technology changes everything it touches. Specifically, how the modern internet harnesses huge pools of collective attention and influences the way that we behave. I care deeply how these forces shape and distort our culture, our politics, and how they reimagine our economies. It’s been an intentionally broad beat that lets me follow my curiosities to unexpected places. 

One of the names I was kicking around for this newsletter was Troubleshooter. The word’s origin comes from the “trouble men,” who were dispatched by phone companies back in the day to inspect the lines and find and fix the problems holding up various communications. If you stretch the definition a bit, it bears some resemblance to what I’ve tried to with my journalism: spot and diagnose weird problems that are distorting or blocking the way we communicate.

When I joined BuzzFeed, I became obsessed with trying to trace the way that hastily considered decisions by the people who design our technologies could ripple across the internet.

So I started reporting. It led me to extensively document the first decade of Twitter’s failure to tackle its harassment problem. I charted the upside down world of the pro-Trump media. I profiled one of its most ridiculous members (Bill Mitchell) and one of its most dangerous (Alex Jones). Sometimes my stories were absurd, like when I documented the great poop emoji feud of 2017 or the people who battle to reply to Trump tweets, and some of the work has been investigative — at the Times I was part of a team that revealed a massive smartphone location data set and its myriad security and privacy dangers.

But many of the stories I’m proudest of moved outside the realm of technology: I’ve written about my own struggles with the pandemic, the wildfires in the West, and my ability to eat an alarming quantity of cheap sandwiches. I’ve always loved “journalistic experiments,” aka stunts. In 2016 I flew to Sweden on a ticket purchased with Bitcoin and got an RFID microchip implanted into my hand for a story about the future of money. I once let Facebook’s algorithms tell me what to do for a month and ended up friending a few hundred people and throwing a birthday party for a guy I’d met only twice. What I’m trying to say is that this newsletter will bob and weave and periodically get weird and personal. 

All of my work is, ultimately, about attention and power: how people can commandeer once unthinkable amounts of attention and quickly translate it into staggering amounts of power, but also how the internet’s scale throws ordinary people into extraordinary situations. Galaxy Brain will be a continuation of this work, but in a different and, hopefully, more collaborative way.

Why should I pay for Galaxy Brain?

In 2013, I interviewed Paul Vidich, the man who convinced Steve Jobs to charge 99 cents for songs on the Apple Store back in 2003 in the shadow of Napster. I didn’t realize it then, but he laid out the whole proposition of the creator economy: 

"99 cents felt like the price point that would be just enticing enough,” he told me. "It was low enough that in that moment, when you're doing that value equation in your head, it's something you don't have to think twice about. If you give people the right things in the right window in the right time, they'll pay." 

There’s an optimism to Vidich’s pitch: People want to be honest. They want to pay for things they value. So here I am. Just a guy standing in front of the internet asking you to pay for something.

I’m thrilled to take this leap. But in order to do my best, I knew I had to devote my entire self to it. I didn’t take a lucrative Substack deal to come over (the company is subsidizing my health insurance and will reimburse me to pay editors/factcheckers/ and copy editors a generous freelance wage), which means that your subscription dollars will go to funding everything that I do. 

If my work has entertained, informed, or has helped you look at the internet in a different light, I’d be delighted and humbled by your generous support. If you’re not ready yet, that’s okay, too. You’ll still get a column each week while I try to coax you to join the community. For the first few weeks, all posts will be free so you can get a good sense of what you’ll be paying for. 

But what do you get when you subscribe? At least three newsletters a week. These will include subscriber discussion threads, Rabbit Holes (where you can be my assignment editor and tell me what burning questions you want answered — like journalistic tech support) and weekly or biweekly mailbags. I’m going to try to make my reading list public so you can see what I’m reading in real time. Should we do a book club? I’m in. None of this is static — I’ll constantly play around with ways to actually make your inbox enjoyable.

You’ll also get access to Sidechannel, a Discord chat server I’m launching with seven other newsletter writers who cover tech, media, and culture (Ryan Broderick, Delia Cai, Eric Newcomer, Casey Newton, Anne Helen Petersen, Nick Quah, and Kim Zetter.) The idea is that it will function a bit like a virtual newsroom/hangout space. We’ll share links and gossip and debate and do impromptu audio chats/podcasts and those conversations will, hopefully, influence Galaxy Brain and what I write about. 

It’s experiments like Sidechannel that ultimately drew me to starting Galaxy Brain. In the months leading up to and after the 2020 election, spent time chatting with Hasan Piker, a ridiculously popular Twitch streamer. I was in awe of the way he cultivated a devoted community that essentially helped him program his streams each day. This close personal connection between creators and audiences struck me as a brilliant template for our media. It is conversational and transparent. And it’s not just a love fest — many of these audiences make their creators better by keeping them honest, debating them in good faith , and helping to sharpen their ideas. If done right, it builds trust.

What you’re really paying for is access to help do this work with me. I want it to be insightful, meaningful, but also a lot of fun. That said, not everyone can afford this. If you are a contingent or gig worker, if you’re making minimum wage, if you’re an undergrad with no discretionary income, if you’re un- or underemployed, email me. You don’t have to tell me your story or make a case. Just ask. 

And if you’re somebody who can afford a subscription and can also underwrite someone else’s, there’s a way to do that, too. To donate a subscription, click the button below.

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To find out more about the company that provides the tech for this newsletter, visit Substack.com.

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Thinking out loud about the internet, media, politics...and big ideas.