Welcome to Galaxy Brain

Why I’m leaving (The) New York (Times).

Hello! Hi! I have a new job — you’re looking at it. Welcome to Galaxy Brain, my humble internet outpost. I am terribly excited. Before I arrived here, I spent a few great years as a writer at large for the New York Times Opinion section. If you’re here for a media screed I regret to inform you that I remain a deep admirer of the New York Times and my brilliant colleagues. It was an honor to work there and what follows has nothing to do with cancellations of any sort. But now I work here. Hi again. 

What does ‘Galaxy Brain’ mean?

It’s an ironic meme about people who have bad takes. This is my meager attempt to reclaim it for my own purposes. My hope for Galaxy Brain is that it can be a space for big, complicated ideas to be discussed iteratively and without the ‘voice of God’ pressure to render an immediate judgement. I’m really interested in what the theorist Timothy Morton calls hyperobjects,” a concept so all-encompassing that it is almost impossible to adequately describe. Much of what I write and think about tends to fall into these slippery categories. Lately, I feel like there’s less room for this kind of thinking out loud and ambiguity in traditional media. Let’s get Big Brains together!

Also: I should have a fancy logo and design soon — this all happened kind of fast, apologies.

Another Substack! Why?

What I love about the internet — and what keeps me writing about it — is how, if you’re thoughtful and intentional and don’t compromise your principles, you actually can forge a meaningful connection with other people. It’s a glorious type of chaos: so easily corrupted, but somehow still worth pursuing. I’ve felt that particular sliver of joy and excitement a handful of times — and it’s not a coincidence that it’s happened most recently with the the two newsletter projects I’ve run, first at BuzzFeed (Infowarzel), then at the Times (The Privacy Project). In both cases I had to give those up.

So much of the pleasure of this format comes from the intimacy of the reader-writer relationship. After a decade of writing mostly for the internet, I’ve grown increasingly exhausted by the notion of Chasing Audience™ or pinning every single story to a specific, perpetually-closing window of the news cycle. The things that are rattling around my brain at a given moment are almost always pieces of a long conversation that I want to have over weeks and months and years. I find myself struggling to hew to the traditional definitions of newsworthiness, which is already a choice masquerading as an inevitability. The last two places I worked were big, polarizing brands, which also meant that a huge chunk of my readers on a given story were there because they wanted to use what I’d written — usually just the headline — as ammunition in a culture war battle. That comes with the business card, I know. But it’s not what draws me to this work. And if I’m honest, it’s burned me out and left me feeling grim about the role of mainstream media. 

I often lament that I missed the golden era of blogging. I adored the informal, conversational experience — but also the way in which so much of what I read was curious and iterative, instead of defensive and definitive. A lot of those heyday bloggers have told me that they loved building up running conversations with their audience — really knowing them. They were people, not page views. And right now, I’m tired of my audience feeling like an abstraction. 

That sense of community is what I want to replicate with Galaxy Brain. Now feels like the time to do it. The relentless crush of the last five years of news offered few opportunities to do much more than keep up. But lately it’s felt like a piece of my brain is opening back up.

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. More about that in a minute.

Will this be any different than your past work/columns?

See, it didn’t even take a minute! The answer is yes. I will still be writing about the platforms and various hellish internet phenomena and the ways that our media, politics, and culture are changing. I’ll dissect the way information travels now, how it is frequently distorted in the process, and ultimately turns us into unrecognizable versions of ourselves. I’ll do frequent Q&A’s, profile of academics studying niche things you didn’t know you cared about, and use this platform to highlight the work of thinkers and researchers toiling on the margins of the information wars. 

Sometimes these posts will be feature-length; other times they’ll feel bloggy. Fellow Substacker and all-around genius Zeynep Tufekci described her newsletter, Insight, as “something between public writing and social media: some of both but neither.” Some important discussions no longer hew to traditional formats — but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth having.

If all of this sounds exciting, then smash that subscribe button.

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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That was a lot!

Thank you for humoring me! I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity — and to everyone who has read and supported my work throughout the years. You sharpen my ideas, expand my curiosities, challenge me, and make this an adventure I simply couldn’t pass up. I am terrified right now. And also probably as excited as I’ve been in my professional career. That’s how I know this is right. I appreciate you all more than you know, and can’t wait to do this together.