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Episode 3 ● Part 2
Why the era of clickbait is coming to an end
Steven Levy first wrote about computer hackers for the Rolling Stone more than 30 years ago. Since then he’s written books and articles exploring a technological revolution that has changed just about everything—including Levy’s chosen profession of journalism.
One result is that we now have access to more information than ever before, more than we could consume in a single lifetime. Journalists are under intense pressure to produce more and more, resulting in a frenzy to publish that doesn’t always prioritize quality or originality. While Levy recognizes this dilemma, he also sees the era of clickbait coming to an end. People might consume the content that happens to cross their path, but Levy believes that people can distinguish quality content from clickbait and prefer to read something substantive and original.
Moving forward, Levy’s goal is to continue providing the kind of content readers deserve—deep dives into complex subjects and original perspectives, all while utilizing technology to increase access to this content.
Tech Journalist | Innovator | Editor-in-cheif
Steven Levy is the editor-in-chief of a Medium publication titled Backchannel. He is a former senior staff writer for Wired Magazine, contributor to Rolling Stone, a former senior editor at Newsweek, and the author of several books about technology including "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution"; "In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives"; "Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government Saving Privacy in the Digital Age"; and "Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything", among others. Perhaps most importantly, Levy had a first-row seat for some of the most significant technological advances of the 20th and 21st centuries.
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How did you get started in journalism?
At first I wrote a lot of music; I was a rock critic. I wrote about sports and all the the things that freelance writers write about. And in the early 1980s I was assigned a story about computer hackers and that blew my mind, because these people were amazing and it was clear that this was going to be a giant topic. I slowly began writing more and more about that until I was technology writer.
Did you learn anything from those hackers?
I wrote about that in the book but it wasn’t until many years after I wrote the book that I actually wound up at an internet startup, like Medium. I have been here less than a year. I joined last summer, and to me this is a place that really has that hacker mentality built-in, as a lot of these startups do. I really wanted to be part of that, and I’m able to be comfortable here because I’ve been intaking that hacker vibe through my reporting for so many years.
Tell me about that first article you wrote.
These people were amazing. And this technology was amazing. It was clear that it was gonna change all of our lives for the better, and that was a real revelation for me because when I went to college in the ’60s and early ’70s, we all thought computers were gonna dehumanize us. But it’s been quite the opposite. They’ve empowered us and allowed us to do things we couldn’t do otherwise, and let us connect with each other in ways we couldn’t do otherwise.
What did technology look like then?
I was working for Newsweek then. There’s two things that I really didn’t get right away. One was how the internet was going to impact where I was working. I knew it was going to have an impact, but I really wasn’t aware how devastating it would be to a lot of people in my industry. And the second thing was it was very hard to overestimate the impact of the internet. People thought I was nuts when I would say: “This is gonna be huge! You’re gonna have an email address. There could be like 100 million people on the internet, in this internet here, a hundred million!” And even that sounded so outlandish, I hardly believed it. But I never would’ve thought that it would be billions, and the vast majority of the world’s population where it’s eventually gonna go.
Was there a singular moment that signaled change for journalism?
How did you get involved with Medium?
I thought it would be interesting to try to start a publication on Medium, and a different kind of publication, one which didn’t try to do everything, but took advantage of the lithe aspect of Medium, and you could make an impact with very little resources. I mentioned that to Ev, who I ran into at a TED conference, and he picked up the ball and we started talking, and I eventually left Wired and came here to do something different in journalism.
Your announcement of your move mentions “experimentation.”
The idea was to invite some of these people who were writing interesting things about the Apple watch and their impressions, to move their pieces onto this collection and then invite other people to read the pieces and recommend them and highlight them, with the idea that eventually we would take some of the more interesting passages and weave them together into one sort of uber-review. My idea was it would read like a single person wrote it but actually there’d be multiple voices in there. And that’s what we did.
We just published the review from the Apple Watch Project, and it’s maybe 2,500 words, it reads like one review, but there’s 25 different voices in there. So we, the designers here, had a good idea to use a little icon, like an emoji for the Apple watch, and every time it appears in the story, a different speaker is carrying the baton to the finish line, and writing his or her little piece of the review. That just came out a couple days ago, and it’s gotten a tremendous response.
You like the Apple Watch?
Does the wide open format detract from the brand?
From the very first day of Backchannel I brought in what we call UGC–user generated content–to maybe play with the line between professional content and non-paid content that people wanted to contribute. Part of what I wanted to do here, because it is a platform, is sort of experiment with how permeable that membrane is between a professional journalist and a writer who just has something really good to say.
I want stuff that people can engage with, I want stuff that people don’t see everywhere else. One thing that is happening in journalism today is that it is kind of a commodity. A business model at a lot of places is to have have lot of content and try to write something about everything, whether your reporter did reporting or not.
Sometimes reporting is reading someone else’s story and writing a few paragraphs about it. Maybe if it’s a very diligent website, you will make a phone call or add an original thought about it, but there are a lot of places that in addition to what original reporting they do, feel that they have to weigh in on everything. If Microsoft buys a little company, they’ll write about it as soon as a press release comes out or somebody else writes a story about it.
People hunger for places to have the story you can’t find anywhere else. That’s what I always look for–whether it’s content that’s already organically on Medium, or stuff that I assign or stuff that I write myself–is stuff that you can’t find anywhere else on the internet.
Is there pressure to cover everything?
How do you keep up with the pace of tech journalism?
It’s really hard to find a really great story that goes unnoticed, and that’s one thing that’s been gratifying here. Even though we’re starting a publication from scratch, every time we’ve put the effort in and come up with something really good, it finds its audience. So that’s very gratifying.
I think the one huge issue in journalism today is how a couple places, particularly Facebook, are becoming a major source of of news. In some ways it is an awkward fit because the Facebook newsfeed really began as a way to keep up with what your friends are doing, and everything you read that is a news article on your Facebook newsfeed means that’s one less piece of information, given your fixed amount of time, about something your friend is doing.
Facebook says, “We engineer the newsfeed to give people what they want.” If all you want is stuff about your friends, then that’s mainly what you are gonna see. But Facebook has expressed a desire to be a big source of news. They’re partnering with companies there.
One thing that has been a problem in the Facebook newsfeed that I know they’re trying to address, is something I call the dozen doughnuts theory, which means that if you start work at a new office, and they ask you the first day “would you like a dozen donuts delivered to your office” you’re probably gonna say no. I’d probably get fat if I had a dozen donuts in front of me everyday. So you wouldn’t want it. But if the dozen donuts were there when you walked into the office, you’d probably pick up a donut, because wow that looks really good, I’m gonna nibble on that donut there.
I think the Facebook news feed, traditionally is something similar, ’cause they reward your actions. When you click on something and read it, they’ll put out something which is the new equivalent of empty calories, right? Maybe a vapid story about a celebrity, or 10 outrageous prom pictures, or something sexual; you’ll click on it because of curiosity. There’s bonbons in front of you. What Facebook has to do is figure out that when we click on it, it doesn’t mean we really want that kind of stuff in volume there. And they’re doing different things to stop that. One thing that I read about in Backchannel is a project [that] actually asked people what you want to see, as opposed to just watching what they click on when it’s put in front of them.
What’s up with the heads up on time length?
We provide that. We’re trying to provide a lot of cues to readers because we don’t break up our stories on multiple pages. That’s one thing that a lot of places do in order to bolster pageviews, they’ll break a story, particularly a longer story. You’ll get to the bottom and you’ll have to click. We don’t do that. We just put it all on one page that you can scroll so it’s helpful to know just how long the scroll is.
Where do you see tech going in the future?
At Medium, we want our stories to be the center of conversations about important stuff. For instance, I had a really good story submitted to me couple months ago. It took a contrarian view of philanthropy and talked about how social impact investing where companies give some amount of their profits to some social cause really wasn’t a good thing. It really didn’t serve the cause too much, and gave the customer a false sense of satisfaction, and the writer had a spirited attack on this.
I was gonna publish it of course, but I also went through our network and asked a few people to write responses to it in hopes it would generate an organic conversation within the Medium community, which indeed it did. That’s one good thing about Medium is that our conversations aren’t trolling comments or people saying nasty things to each other or harassing each other, but actually commenting on the content of the story. We’ve managed to do that, and I hope as we scale out and becomes as big a company as we want to be, we maintain that quality in our discussions.
How did you stimulate those responses?
Has your writing changed?
“Or even go full blast and get this word processor, even have a computer on your desk. What?!” After I did that hacker story of course, it was resolved. I was getting a computer no matter what. I got an Apple II and did my writing on that. And over the years my style has changed, compiling a story has changed. Originally in the typewriter, of course, you’d write a draft beginning to end, and then you scroll a fresh piece paper in the slate and start over again. You look at the first draft and you rewrite the whole thing, and you would literally cut and paste stuff there so you wouldn’t have to type the whole thing over. Some people are shocked to learn that’s where cut-and-paste came from.
But as I used the word processor I realized that I didn’t have to start at the beginning, I can start anywhere. So now when I write I just sorta start at a point where I know this is something I want to get out there and sort of compile things. Before it was more like building brick by brick, my story, in a linear fashion. Now it’s more like developing a picture, like dipping it in and different parts come into focus, and I tweak the whole story as different parts come in.
Did you write your earliest hacker stories on a typewriter?
What advice would you give your 18 year old self?
Is there one piece of technology that you remember above others?
Some people compared it to some computer that IBM was working on, called the PCjr, the peanut, it was code-named, which turned to be totally uninteresting. But I convinced Rolling Stone to give me assignment to write about the Macintosh. I called Apple and said I’ve got this Rolling Stone assignment and I want to come in there and see it early so I can write about it and the story will come out when the computer comes out.
It was little problem for us because Steve Jobs wanted the cover of Rolling Stone, and in 1984 that wasn’t gonna happen. But he got over that and I remember very clearly the first day I went to Apple to see this computer, and I thought this is gonna change everything. This computer is totally different, it’s a computer that you don’t need a consultant to learn how to use, anyone can use it. It’s changed the way people write. Instead of having these phosphorescent letters, they had letters just like regular text on paper. Even the kinds of professional magazines and newspapers you could do. You could produce copy like that, it was amazing. You could draw on it. It was totally different.
That was an amazing day for me because the people who put it together were amazing. I always write about the people who do the technology. I find them fascinating and a great window into the technology, and the people I met that day–the Macintosh team–were amazing and that event was over 30 years ago. There are several people who I met that day who became my friends for life. Literally. I went to a birthday party for one of them a couple weeks ago. Our families know each other.
And, of course, I met Steve Jobs that day too, and interviewed him the first time. That was sort of memorable, and that was all one day that I met the computer that would change my life , the way I work. We all use Macintoshes now, no matter what you use because of the system, and I met people who projected us into the future.
What do you think about .NEWS?
Got any new ideas on how to tell stories?
Is there anything you’d like to leave readers with?
I think it’s a great time for people to enter journalism, whereas maybe 10 years ago the conventional wisdom was you are entering the buggy whip business. I don’t think so. I think that there’s always going to be an appetite for great, original work , and it’s going to show up in forms that we can’t anticipate now. It takes a certain amount of time for people find the native way to express yourself in a given form. And I think we’re just beginning to find that in journalism.
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