Los Angeles Review of Books

The following is a feature article from the new intern issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books: The Magazine. The issue, which our interns produced as part of this past summer’s LARB Publishing Course, will be mailed to subscribing LARB members in September. Click here to get your subscription today.

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“So, I had a pretty weird day yesterday,” Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Pearce tweeted in late June. Linked to the tweet was an article he’d just written about the publisher of the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer, who had agreed to talk to Pearce only because he had coincidentally just read the same book that Pearce had tweeted about reading the night before. “That neonazi thing,” as Pearce refers to it below, might not be a typical day’s work, but it’s indicative of what happens when journalism and Twitter combine; even when a journalist is off duty, they’re on duty; even once an article is finished, a stack of tweets from the public line up in response, ready to keep the conversation going. 

This sort of conversation is familiar to Pearce, whose national coverage includes the topics that keep Twitter, and his 43,000 followers, fired up: protests in Ferguson, South Carolina’s Confederate flag debate, and the escape of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, just to name a few.

The same goes for Julia Carrie Wong, who has written in the past for publications like Salon, The New Yorker online, and The Nation about eminently tweetable subjects such as the tech industry, gentrification, and housing in San Francisco. Now a staff writer at SF Weekly, her recent profile of transgender matriarch Miss Major Griffin-Gracy was deservingly well-received both on Twitter and off. 

Their appeal to the denizens of Twitter doesn’t lie only in their work; their accounts are both generously seasoned with observations and conversation at turns wry (“Metaphor Sighted In New York,” Pearce tweeted a few weeks ago in response to an article about a sinkhole in Brooklyn), engaging, and just the right side of absurd (“i’m dead inside, who are you? / are you dead inside, too?” Wong tweeted around the same time, parodying an Emily Dickinson poem). Their collective more-than-50,000 followers span the gamut from Roxane Gay to Lena Dunham.

We asked Wong and Pearce, both well acquainted with interviewing, to interview each other about how they practice journalism — and how they use Twitter — in a time when Twitter is integral not just to sharing news, but to making it. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation. True to form, Wong responded to Pearce’s first inquiry not directly, but on Twitter. “Part of the interview briefly wandered onto Twitter at the beginning because Julia definitely sub-tweeted me and obviously I was deeply distraught,” Pearce wrote.

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MATT PEARCE, on email: What’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you on Twitter?

JULIA CARRIE WONG, on Twitter: @juliacarriew  Jul 22

has anything weird ever happened to me on Twitter I can’t remember

MATT, on Twitter: @mattdpearce  Jul 22

@juliacarriew hi julia

Julia Carrie Wong ‏@juliacarriew  Jul 22

@mattdpearce i might be a bad interview

Matt Pearce ‏@mattdpearce  Jul 22

@juliacarriew do you want me to ask a different question 

Julia Carrie Wong ‏@juliacarriew  Jul 22

@mattdpearce well has anything weird ever happened to you on twitter

Matt Pearce ‏@mattdpearce  Jul 22

@juliacarriew well there was that neonazi thing, also one time I tweeted with George Carlin’s daughter. also all Twitter use is weird. 

Julia Carrie Wong ‏@juliacarriew  Jul 22

@mattdpearce it’s totes weird that george carlin has a daughter. kinda like tim geithner having a brother. who knew

Matt Pearce ‏@mattdpearce  Jul 22

@juliacarriew I had this thought about humblebrags when they were big, that they were half ego and half context collapse. 

Matt Pearce ‏@mattdpearce  Jul 22

@juliacarriew like, hi, Silicon Valley has weaponized a noxious way to talk about myself…

Matt Pearce ‏@mattdpearce  Jul 22

@juliacarriew …but Harris Wittels would also sometimes use the humblebrag account to extract out of context tweets from normal people. 

Julia Carrie Wong ‏@juliacarriew  Jul 22

@mattdpearce I really like the way it gives us a numerical value for how interesting and funny we are

Matt Pearce ‏@mattdpearce  Jul 22

@juliacarriew does it? I think a lot of popular accounts just got binge-followed by partaking in some kind of spectacle. 

Julia Carrie Wong ‏@juliacarriew  Jul 22

@mattdpearce no I just think I’m funny 

Matt Pearce ‏@mattdpearce  Jul 22

@juliacarriew should we do the whole interview on Twitter or would that everybody crazy.

Julia Carrie Wong ‏@juliacarriew  Jul 22

@mattdpearce probably not. I’m kind of incapable of tweeting without performing as *the self, tweeting* so I’ll just answer the email. 

Matt Pearce ‏@mattdpearce  Jul 22

@juliacarriew [switches corporations]

MATT, on email: So I’m curious why your Twitter self is ironically detached versus, say, email. I feel like I’ve gotten real earnest on Twitter over the last year or so, for journalism reasons. 

JULIA, on email: I’m not sure that I can recall a single “weirdest thing that’s ever happened” to me on Twitter. As you just said on Twitter, everything on Twitter is weird. Having an intimate conversation with a friend in front of an audience of thousands and leaving behind a permanent record of that conversation is very weird. The fact that I am one of thousands of people who has a cordial relationship with an anonymous Photoshop expert who loves potatoes, red pandas, and making people happy is also very weird, but feels normal on Twitter. People have offered me work on Twitter — that’s always weird; they know so little about me. Someone threatened to kill me once too — super weird. Probably the worst weird feeling I get from Twitter is when I’m talking to someone I know in real life and find out they started following my Twitter, or meet someone for the first time and find out they already follow me on Twitter. It’s hard to explain to people that I’m both always and never serious on Twitter because it’s Twitter and not real life. 

That might be the beginning of an explanation about detachment versus earnestness on Twitter. My current tendency toward detachment started as a corrective to what felt like some over-sharing last year, both in my paid writing and on Twitter. I used to be very earnest and at times very confessional on Twitter. I also used to write the occasional personal essay about race, usually because someone asked me to and was willing to pay. Then I wrote an essay about Serial, the podcast, and got some blowback, got upset, wrote a bunch of very sad and earnest tweets about how I didn’t feel like exposing myself to a certain kind of white angst anymore, felt embarrassed for having emotions in public, and decided to put up some defenses. At the same time I started focusing on more straightforward journalism and stopped writing as much personal/opinion stuff, so make of that what you will.  

So what about you? What does it mean to you to be earnest on Twitter? What are your journalism reasons? And why did you start tweeting in the first place?  

MP: That’s so interesting — the idea of journalists’ digital personas shaped as a defensive posture. I guess it’s somewhat similar for me? I’ve learned one of the most dangerous things I can do on Twitter is pretend I’m the smartest person in the room, because… I’m not. I report on inequality and race a lot, but I’m a white guy who grew up in rural Missouri, and so I feel like I’ve been ignorant of the broader world my entire life, always a step behind what everyone else is experiencing. Gender inequality, racial inequality — I’ve always had to study it, or someone had to explain it to me, because I just couldn’t see, I couldn’t understand why people were angry, or why something I said or thought was stupid. I have become haunted by what I don’t know. 

So I’ve become earnest. Hopefully not in a gooey way. I stick to the facts, stick to what I can show, and I avoid having too many opinions (partially because they are constantly wrong). I try to exercise a lot more empathy, especially during that void between when I see something outrageous on social media and when I pick up the phone to find out more about it. I used to bash other media on Twitter a lot back when I was writing for The New Inquiry and The Pitch, the alt-weekly in Kansas City, Missouri, during my more feral freelance days. Somebody was always screwing some story up or saying something totally oblivious. They were all people I didn’t know and they lived in New York or something. 

Then I got hired at the Los Angeles Times and went to Ferguson and piled up like 30,000 Twitter followers in a few days, and then realized, oh shit, I am the mainstream media! It was like having a kid or something. I felt all this new responsibility in a way that was very visceral. If someone hates what I say or what I write, I might get dozens of tweets about me and my face and my stupid life. If it’s bad enough, I might get fired, or I might have a Gawker post that haunts my Google results for the rest of my life. And maybe deservedly so, because with this kind of platform, I could ruin somebody’s day or maybe even their careers with a single tweet. I’ve seen people delete their accounts because I re-tweeted something semi-obtuse they said and it took off and the trolls took over. I felt sick. It’s like crowd violence. We all have a little bit of the mob inside us, and we explode at the tiniest provocation.

JCW: It does sound like your earnestness is in part a product of self-defense, but also possibly of care and conscientiousness? All of which are probably good things. I see a lot of people on Twitter (and in media generally) abdicating responsibility for their words or feigning ignorance of their influence (I probably do my own share of this, à la ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ etc.), so it’s refreshing to hear you take seriously the platform you have, both on Twitter and with the Los Angeles Times

I’m curious to hear more about how going to Ferguson changed everything. Besides being a feral freelancer, can you describe your Twitter persona pre-Ferguson? Had you done the kind of live-tweeting journalism that you did in Ferguson before, on other stories? Or was it more commenting? When you got sent to Ferguson to report, did you have a conversation with your editors about how you would use Twitter on the ground? Were you encouraged to live-tweet protests? And do you think racking up all those Twitter followers has influenced your relationship with editors and/or co-workers? 

MP: I was more flippant before Ferguson. Before that, I didn’t really feel like I was being watched. Like, I had a few thousand followers, and if I tweeted something, maybe nobody would respond. My editors are all quite a bit older than me — hardcore print veterans — and they’ve taught me a lot, but they’re not social-media power users. So Twitter felt like a liberated space. Ferguson changed all that.  

I’ve covered and tweeted about other national stories before, but in Ferguson, the amount of audience attention was staggering. You’d tweet something and it’d get re-tweeted hundreds of times, especially if you were in the middle of what I’d call the Narrative — whatever story arc that the opinion writers will be editorializing about in the morning. When I tweeted about calling Ferguson’s police chief and getting Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly out of jail after they’d been arrested, it was like getting sucked into a vortex. At one point I was getting thousands of new followers every couple of minutes, because I was in close proximity to a spectacle and I became part of the story. My mentions have been noisy ever since, for better and worse.

I chose to tweet, to participate. When it was over, I think the newsroom, thank god, was mostly indifferent to how many followers I had. During Ferguson, my boss actually told me to stop tweeting so much and file more. But I could sense the conversation and the demand was on Twitter. This is the grimy, uncomfortable subplot that none of the reporters and activists in Ferguson really talk about much — how the spectacle offered them (and me) clear personal incentives in terms of racking up followers and TV appearances. There was an obvious celebrity-making dynamic at play. Twitter was a big part of that. It’s still uncomfortable for me to think about. I don’t know, maybe that’s how journalism or activism has always worked, where finding a spotlight is always a little gross. But I’ve also become aware that having this new, big audience on social media can be coercive. A lot of my new followers were obviously deeply liberal, and they will re-tweet me more if I tweet something that furthers their idea of what the Narrative is (or ignore me if I don’t). But I’m not there to be anybody’s friend. I’m there to tell them what I see. It’s the most important thing I can do. 

Do you feel like you get more out of Twitter than you put into it, as a journalist? 

JCW: It’s hard to me imagine having a career in journalism without Twitter, so I don’t know if I can overstate how important it’s been for me. I used to want to be a fiction writer. Throughout high school, college, and grad school, I identified as a writer, but the idea of reporting never even occurred to me (I wish it had; I don’t know why I was so dumb). After I moped my way through an MFA program when I was 23/24, I gave up on writing and went to work in the labor movement, where I was generally pretty happy doing research and communications. I started using Twitter for work, when my union made a concerted effort to get staffers and members engaging with other activists and reporters on Twitter to advance our campaigns.  

Twitter played an outsize role in bringing me back to wanting to write in my own voice, and not just craft messaging or write white papers for an organization. Having an audience that rewarded my jokes or insights with favorites and re-tweets was pretty much the opposite of an MFA workshop where you get “compliment sandwiches” that usually tasted like two slices of stale white bread stuffed with razor blades and mayonnaise. On Twitter there were all these other tweeters who wanted to pat me on the back for saying something smart. It was nice. I started a snarky blog with a guy I met on Twitter where we wrote mean takedowns of New York Times articles, and people on Twitter seemed to like it.  

About two years ago, I got my first commission to write for money/publication from a Salon editor who saw some tweets I wrote and wanted me to expand them into an essay. When I quit my job with the union last January, I initially thought I would just do some freelancing for fun and to bridge the gap until I found a different union job. I can’t be completely sure, but I think that a lot of the editors who found their way to me and hired me over the past year came via Twitter, or through friends in journalism I’d made through Twitter. 

Twitter is where I met a cadre of women writers and journalists, many of whom have become amazing IRL (real life) friends and mentors — we read each other’s work, share editor contacts, compare pay rates, and generally support each other. Which is pretty impressive considering that these relationships began with 140 character misandry jokes. 

Another really important thing for me about Twitter was that it gave me a way to practice reporting when I didn’t have an actual platform or assignment. Live-tweeting protests — from San Francisco housing/eviction stuff to blockading the Port of Oakland to Bay Area #BlackLivesMatters civil disobedience actions and marches — was an opportunity to do straightforward reporting with instant feedback, often from other reporters who would prompt me with the kinds of questions I needed to be asking (i.e. were those people really arrested or just detained?). I’ve never taken a class in journalism and tweeting became a way for me to do some trial-by-fire reporting with an audience holding me to account for making mistakes or creating a false narrative of what was really happening. 

So yeah, a gimcrack approximation of journalism classes, a shadow network of friends and supporters advancing a misandrist agenda for media domination, a way to find sources and for sources/editors to find me: lots of good stuff coming out of twitter dot com for me. I guess it’s possible that I would have been able to find my way to a full-time journalism job at the age of 30 with no reporting experience if Twitter didn’t exist, but I have no idea what that way would have been. My guess is that I probably would have spent more time sending out cold pitches this past year and less time actually writing and reporting.

Back to you. 

How do you deal with the mob? You mentioned that you’ve found yourself giving in to its worst impulses at times. What happened there? Do you think having quotidian interactions with so many angry/mad/shouty/trolly people on Twitter has affected the way you do your job as a reporter? 

How do you use Twitter as a journalist? How does Twitter use you? 

MP: If anything, I think it’s teaching me about human nature. When Bill Buford wrote Among the Thugs, he couldn’t find an explanation for mob violence — why these British soccer hooligans were starting riots all over Europe. They just sort of did it for the thrill of it, to wake up from the tedium of their lives. I think social media anger is similar. We participate without really thinking about why, other than for experiencing the passion of it. I had a friend tell me that social media campaigns made him feel like he had more influence than voting. And I can see why. You have direct access to people; you get the gratification of immediate impact. I did some internet shaming in my day before actively trying to resist getting sucked in. Let he without sin cast the first tweet, etc. etc.

As with all mobs, it’s often worse being outside than in. Before Ferguson, I was like, “I’m not going to block or mute people on Twitter! I want to be open to all opinions so I can be a better journalist!” Then the troll horde arrived, and I couldn’t block/mute them fast enough. Twitter is affective labor, you know? You spend so much time on what I guess I’d call reputation management — constantly managing social ties, not to mention mob mitigation and abatement, making internalized micro-calculations of how to avoid becoming an even bigger target. The mob is always lurking out there. Otherwise, generally 50 percent of internet criticism is “you would never say this if you knew me,” 25 percent more or less has a grain of truth, and 25 percent is irreconcilable differences.

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Matt Pearce is a national reporter for the Los Angeles Times who often writes about violence, the justice system, and social movements.

Julia Carrie Wong is a staff writer for SF Weekly, where she covers news, politics, labor, and the tech industry.

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