Skip to main content

Working at the intersection of technology, media, and democracy.
He / him.

benwerd

benwerd

benwerd

ben@benwerd.com

 

On writing in public

We get better at what we practice.

Although I would never claim to be a perfect blogger, this kind of writing comes easily to me: I've been writing blog posts since 1998, and can track almost every career progression to something I wrote online. I love sharing my thoughts in this way, and I wish more people would do it. My feed reader is usually my first digital stop of the day.

My personal project is to get better at writing fiction. Here, I'm far more awkward: I wrote widely when I was much younger, but I haven't been doing it for over a decade. I'm in awe of people like Eliot Peper and Cory Doctorow, who have been able to bridge a career in technology with careers as prolific novelists. And I have examples closer to home: my cousins Sarah Dessen and Jonathan Neale are both prolific authors. Sarah in particular has very kindly egged me on over the years, and I haven't quite followed through.

I think the first step is to get over the fear of starting something new - and move from the sinkhole of talking about writing to just doing it. Which is what I've been doing: over the last six months I've taken a handful of courses, which have forced me to produce work, and got to the final round of a fiction competition. These experiences have been positive: in particular, they've told me that I shouldn't throw in the towel, but also that I need to practice and improve. Being able to string a paragraph together is not the same skill as stringing a plot together.

One of the things I find addictive and compelling about blogging is you: it's a way to connect with people very immediately. These days it's rare for me to post something that doesn't generate a follow-on conversation. In contrast, writing creative work feels very isolated and time-delayed: you write something and iterate on it by yourself, maybe work with an editor, then submit it for publication or evaluation, which might come months later. That's the scary thing about it for me: unlike everything else I've ever done on the internet, the feedback loop is really offset and broken.

At the same time, your perceived worth as an author is still dependent on gatekeepers: while self-publishing has become more common, it remains important to be able to say "I've been published here, and here, and here." This is true throughout the creative world for forms that originated in legacy media: having a web series distributed by Netflix is markedly different to uploading it somewhere yourself, for example. Content forms that didn't originate in legacy media - TikTok clips, for example - have very different rules. But rules that have been established for decades or centuries are very hard to break through. Social norms are hard to change.

Ultimately, a reader doesn't want to have their time wasted, and I think the perception is that well-known publishers (or distributors) will protect their brands by standing for a certain level of quality. While self-published work can certainly be of the same or higher quality, it's a crapshoot. So finding a publisher for your work is important, and not a million miles away from finding a venture capitalist for your startup: you need to be able to find a coherent story for why your product will sell, and why they should bet on you. In the same way that many VCs only take warm introductions, many publishers will only accept work through an agent they already trust. Which, in turn, probably means establishing relationships.

For now, much of this is a problem for future me. Present me's problem is getting over the fear of sharing work, and finding ways to establish a productive feedback loop that will allow me to improve. (If you're a writer, I'd love to understand: how do you achieve this? Is it just that you're much braver than I am?)

I thought about creating a new community of beta readers, or establishing a new mailing list. I actually did create a mailing list some years ago for design fiction, but was never quite able to find a way to get it off the ground, perhaps because I'd defined its goals too formally, but perhaps also because I was scared that the work wasn't good enough to stand on its own in that way.

I think, instead, I'm going to use this space: I don't want to commit to a cadence or a particular style of work. But I want to have a place to put my experiments. It's categorically out of my comfort zone, and there's certainly a part of me that's worried I'll jettison all my subscribers. But this is a place I want to go, and I work better in the open, so that's how it's going to be.

Starting in March, expect regular fiction in this space. I find that idea really, really scary. But please do let me know what you think; you help me with your honesty.

 

I'm hiring engineers and product managers

Brass tacks: I have three roles at my company that I need to fill immediately. In each case, you'll be working with me directly.

The first is a Senior Product Manager. I'm looking for someone who is comfortable leading sprints, writing stories, and working in an interdisciplinary way across teams, but particularly with the engineering and design teams. You've got to be hands on; you've got to have direct experience as a Product Manager at a startup; it's preferable that you have Fintech experience. Apply here.

The second is a Senior Ruby on Rails Engineer. This is an open role on my team. You'll be helping to build back-end systems and integrations that will allow regular people to save for retirement using the tools, assets, and advice normally reserved for the wealthy. You've worked at a few startups at a high level and have been an engineering lead. Apply here.

The third is a Mid-Level Ruby on Rails Engineer. This is a similar role to the previous, but you don't need to have been an engineering lead. Apply here.

To be very clear: you will not be filtered based on where you went to school, your identity, or where you came from. I do care deeply about whether you're hands-on and empathetic, with a bias towards action. I'd love to work with you.

If you'd like to have a quick chat about these positions, I'd love to jump on the phone. Click here to set up a meeting.

In all cases, I'm able to hire anywhere in the United States. (Unfortunately if you're not in the US, I have to rule you out for now.)

 

I’m looking forward to the moment when we can all get vaccines.

 

The Green New Deal

I'm terrified for the future and not sure where to begin.

I have a young, teenage cousin who has apparently been having panic attacks; not because of school or generalized anxiety, but because he has a real sense that the world will have disintegrated in his lifetime. The signs of climate change and our less than inadequate response to it are all around us.

I'm not scared because it's happening. We have to act swiftly, but I believe we can act. I'm scared because I don't think we will.

There are three distinct groups that I think are problematic. The first are the people directly making money from outdated technologies like fossil fuels, who will sabotage attempts to move us to more intelligent, renewable energy. The second are the people who refuse to believe that climate change exists, or who spread the lie that it's nothing to worry about. And the third are the people who are so addicted to capital that they can't imagine solving the problem outside of the markets.

I'm a proponent of the Green New Deal, which advocates a program of divestment from fossil fuels, government investments in renewable energy, and robust creation of public jobs to create sustainable infrastructure. Its comparison to the original New Deal is apt; the challenge we face is easily comparable to the devastating context of a world war.

It's a sensible and much-needed solution, but it's under attack from conservatives and centrists alike. Even Joe Biden said he didn't support it during the Presidential debates. The reason is simply that it upsets existing structures of power. A Green New Deal necessitates, in part, a redistribution of equity.

As Naomi Klein wrote recently, that doesn't go down well with free marketeers, despite the horrors we've seen in places like Texas:

The horrors currently unfolding in Texas expose both the reality of the climate crisis and the extreme vulnerability of fossil fuel infrastructure in the face of that crisis. So of course the Green New Deal finds itself under fierce attack.

Another cousin, the writer Jonathan Neale, has published a new book, Fight the Fire, which describes the Green New Deal in accessible terms. In some ways it's the antithesis of the market-driven approach espoused by businessmen like Bill Gates; it's also a realistic approach, endorsed by climate scientists and academics around the world. You can download it for free from The Ecologist (no registration required). It's worth reading - particularly if you're a skeptic, or looking for a way to share these ideas.

There are still a lot of reasons to hope. The activist Greta Thunberg is one of my heroes: both for her rhetoric and her ability to galvanize an entire generation. In a lot of ways, my young cousin's reaction is also positive; it shows an awareness of the problem, and is certainly more realistic than those who seek to gloss over it.

But we have to act; we have to act now; and we've got to do a lot more than just wait for the market to respond. The invisible hand of the market will see us all killed.

 

A social network entirely about making, keeping, and sharing food.

 

I dreamt I opened a coffee bar that let you add mixins above the filter to a pour-over: eggshell, cardamom, and the like. “I’ll take a Sumatra with shell.”

Anyway, raising a seed round now,

 

The excitement of figuring out how a story fits together is exactly how I used to feel back in the early days of building software. I feel like jumping up and down on my chair.

Unfortunately it’s midnight, and I have to figure out how to go to sleep.

 

Eventually, I'd really like to own a laptop with a keyboard that works again.

 

I cannot wait to get a vaccine.

I cannot wait for everyone to get a vaccine.

I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Let's do this.

 

Half my newsfeed this morning is about NFTs in one way or another. Either they’re having a really huge moment, or I need to diversify my newsfeed.