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I work and write at the intersection of technology, media, and society.

I've been a startup founder, mission-driven VC, engineer, and product lead. Right now I'm Chief Technology Officer at The 19th.

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benwerd

benwerd

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What’s the last book you read and loved?

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Tonight

I have two things on my mind tonight.

First: the brutal murder of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police officers, far from the first or even the fiftieth murder by police so far this year.

Second: active shooter drills in schools, which aren’t proven to save lives but do lead to anxiety and depression in children.

This country has violence burned into its bones. It’s in the air and visible in the holsters on the belts of police officers, in open carry, in the ongoing injustice of the death penalty. It’s in its stoic men, in its value of strength over intelligence and brute force over creativity, and in the militarization of everyday life. It’s in its failure to repair the gaping wounds of slavery and segregation, and in tribalism over solidarity. It’s in its failure to care for the poor, to put a roof over the head of the homeless, and to heal the sick. It’s in the value it places in wealth over kindness and fairness.

It’s reductive to suggest there’s an easy answer. The rot is ingrained; a simultaneous equation made of simultaneous equations. But I can make some observations.

A different question is this: what should we do about our son?

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It's only a podcast if it's open

A podcasting setup with a microphone and a laptop

Quick PSA:

A podcast is only a podcast if you can listen to it anywhere.

Just like a newsletter isn’t a newsletter if you can’t subscribe using any email address, the point of a podcast is that you can listen to it in any podcast app. It just works.

If your podcast only works in Spotify or Apple Podcasts or another proprietary app, perhaps because of an exclusivity arrangement, it’s just serial audio. The content may be wonderful, but you’re missing out on the complete set of potential listeners in order to focus on one app’s existing username.

In some ways that’s fine - after all, you can’t watch a Netflix show in any app but Netflix’s - but it’s not a podcast. It’s something else. It’s just a show on someone’s channel.

The way podcasts work is by releasing episodes as attachments on an RSS feed. You don’t need to know that this is how it happens - all you need to know is that it doesn’t matter which podcast app you prefer, just as it doesn’t matter which browser you use to access your favorite website. The point of these platforms is that you have the choice.

That’s important for listeners, but it’s also important for producers. Tech companies are notoriously fickle, and signing an exclusivity deal with one inexorably ties your future into their evolving business strategies.

It might make sense to make an exclusive deal with a streaming platform if they’re going to give you $200 million like Joe Rogan. (I tend to think this is win-win: Spotify thinks it has something unique, while the rest of us aren’t bothered with Rogan’s show.) But if you’re making a deal for a fraction of that money, know that you’re losing out on reaching out to a whole ecosystem in exchange for tying yourself to the business model of a startup that might change business model on a dime and leave your show - or even your whole production company - in the dirt.

The media industry is littered with the graves of companies that tied themselves to onerous distribution contracts. There’s no need. Podcasts are open, available everywhere, and easily monetizable once you’ve got a subscribed audience. You don’t need to prostrate yourself for a company that, ultimately, doesn’t care about your future.

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Introducing WerdStore

I wanted to understand what’s involved in setting up an online store, so I’ve created an Etsy store to accompany my website. Everything is made and fulfilled by Printful, which seems to work pretty well.

Anyway, this is my favorite item in the store right now:

Holmes & Musk & Neumann & Bankman-Fried T-shirt

I’ll add new stuff from time to time. This is mostly for fun, but also, like I said, a bit for my own education.

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Finding that the cognitive load of plugging into Mastodon is approaching the cognitive load of being plugged into Twitter. It's not the content of the conversations; it's the river of content itself. I'm going to give myself a break today and see how it feels.

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I think it's a fair question to ask why the Washington Post is laying off journalists right now. Other orgs have activist investors or fragile bottom lines; it has Jeff Bezos. Given that layoffs don't really work, what's the point beyond optics?

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Organizing my blog

I’ve been wondering about adding more organization to my site. As of right now, the homepage is a mix of long-form posts, short thoughts, and links I consider interesting, presented as a stream. It’s a genuine representation of what I’m reading and thinking about, and each post’s permalink page looks fine to me, but it doesn’t quite hold together as a whole. If you look at my homepage with fresh eyes, my stream is a hodgepodge. There’s no through line.

One way to get around this might be to split my homepage into columns: one big column for latest long-form pieces, and a smaller column for links. Andy Baio’s site does this pretty well, for example.

On the other hand, sites like The Verge present notes, links, and articles in one stream. I find it a little confusing to read, but there’s at least precedent for my approach. Of course, my site is more or less monochrome, while they clearly have a visual design team on-staff. One thing I really like is that (as befits a tech publication rather than a single-author blog) they don’t just display the latest long-form post on the homepage; you’ve got to click through. This is similar to the WordPress setup we use at my day job at The 19th.

I think I’m just sick of my design and need to try something else out. What do you think? Drop me a line if there’s a blog design you particularly like, or if you’d like to see me organize my stuff in a particular way.

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I'm not sure how "centrist" became equated with "reasonable". In a place where the entire political spectrum (and Overton window) is shifted to the right, the center is still right. Is that truly reasonable and equitable? Or is it just comfortable to powers that be?

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Speaking loudly about ethics in tech and media is more important than it's ever been. And it'll only become more important as time goes on. Use your voice - please.

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Looking beyond copaganda

American TV is saturated with copaganda: media intended to sway public perception in favor of the police. Even in a world where it’s become clear that the police disproportionately kill people of color and otherwise enforce adverse power dynamics for oppressed communities, we see show after show after show where the police are unambiguously the good guys. Often those maverick cops get their good guy jobs done by flaunting the rules - because, after all, what possible good could those rules possibly do?

As Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, the co-creator of S.W.A.T., put it:

Traditionally, the domain of TV police procedurals has been as morality plays, where clear lines are drawn. The past 60 years have seen shows like Dragnet, The Untouchables, and Adam 12 establish a formula where, within an hour of story, good lawmen, also known as square-jawed white cops, defeat bad guys, often known as poor people of color. This stark clarity, indulging the idea of the hero cop, often provides a sense of satisfaction for some viewers in an otherwise complicated world.

It’s worth considering which viewers. His whole piece is an important read, particularly on white voice even in the face of diverse casting.

I’d love to see more shows - any shows, actually - about law enforcement that move beyond this narrative and are willing to discuss the complicated power differentials that underpin oppression. There’s so much to talk about here, so much great drama that speaks to peoples’ lived experiences, yet I wonder if it would even be possible to put it on the air.

Copaganda is part of the culture. Some of it was certainly produced with the explicit intention of swaying the public towards law enforcement. But it’s a trope now: these are established categories of drama that perpetuate themselves because we’ve come to expect them. Just as the CIA funded Iowa Writer’s Workshop and shaped modern American literature as a result, police PR has shaped television.

As that last linked piece puts it:

Maybe it's just a reminder that we need to be wary of the sandboxes we’re building our castles in, of the institutions that define our creative thought so wholly that we often forget (or never bother to ask) how and why they were established in the first place.

British TV does a slightly better job, perhaps partially because Britain tends to hold a bit less reverence for its institutions (at least if you squint a bit and don’t ask too many questions about the enduring legacy of its empire). I enjoyed both seasons of Slow Horses, a British drama about dysfunctional MI5 agents who find themselves working against establishment corruption that is at least as formidable as any outside force. Back in the nineties, the BBC show Between the Lines dealt directly with police corruption. They’re both great TV, but while the protagonists in both cases are from a semi-ostracized branch of the powers that be, they’re still formally a part of that established order. I would love to see drama fully drawn from the perspective of people who wind up on the wrong side of it.

The Wire might come the closest, at least in intention. Its star, Wendell Pierce, speaking to Yahoo Entertainment last year:

Sure, you're recognizing the individuals that were lost in a system that perpetuated this sort of misconduct, and maybe you had empathy for some of the individuals in that system. But in no way did we celebrate the moral ambiguity, the moral inconsistencies and the failures of the police — quite the opposite. We showed the dysfunction of the police and hopefully awakened people to why it needs to be changed.

But the real answer is going to lead from more diversity at the highest levels of television. You’re not going to get an authentic story about communities who have been oppressed unless you greenlight shows written by people from those communities, again and again and again. There’s a lot of work to do.

Aaron Rahsaan Thomas again:

I often hear platitudes about hiring more diversity at the lowest levels and tolerating new points of view from “cooler” white writers, but rarely hear how any writer of color can manage a career to get to a point where their voice drives a show and impacts the worldwide narrative on these stories.

Please, let’s get on it. I want to watch some TV.

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A web-based science fiction literary journal

I had an idea for an online science fiction literary journal.

First: it’s on the web and free to access on beautiful, standards-based, responsive, blazing-fast web pages. Nobody ever needs to pay to read its content. It’s all out there, paywall-free, and anyone can link to it and share it. That means that authors can share links to their work without worrying that someone can’t see it, which in particular will allow emerging authors to find audiences frictionlessly. The website publishes roughly one story per week.

Second: you can subscribe via email, RSS, and ActivityPub. However you get your content is a-ok. Every new story is shared on social media, there’s a Flipboard publication, and so on - if you want the content to come to you, it will. Every piece is illustrated by a real, human illustrator, in part so that they show up beautifully on every platform.

Third: the journal is patronage-supported. Anyone can put money in and will be acknowledged on the supporters page, in the order of the amount of money you’ve paid in your contribution history. Above a threshold, these acknowledgments have a full referrer link to a contributor’s website. Every payment is always acknowledged.

Fourth: everyone is paid fairly. Authors and illustrators both get a one-off fair, flat rate payment, as well as a portion of the patronage contributions. Payouts are proportional to views in the month of the payout, and are above and beyond the original fair payout - so they’re kind of a bonus rather than forcing their full earnings for their work to be based on attention. But if a particular short story continues to be popular for a year or two, the author sees compensation for that.

Fifth: there is an annual compendium of short stories, published as a real, hardbound book. Authors and illustrators see royalties from this, too. No further rights are sought aside from the website and the book, so authors and artists are free to bring their work elsewhere and secure further rights however they wish.

Sixth: it’s not going to be profitable. But it would be a fun labor of love that also hopefully provides both monetary and career support for artists.

Probably don’t let me actually do this right now. But it’s fun to think about.

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Always punch up

I really like the maxim, which apparently originated in stand-up comedy, that you should always punch up:

Jokes are funny when they mock the powerful. They are not funny when they mock the powerless. […] Jokes are not funny when they have victims. Some of the tricks played by PR would be funny if they didn't have victims. But they do. They have victims. And so they're not funny.

I’d go further. Jokes that punch up are comedy. Jokes that punch down are bullying. And while it certainly holds true for comedy, I think it’s a good rule of thumb that applies to every aspect of work, life, and culture.

For example, journalism is commonly held as needing to speak truth to power. I agree with this need, and I wish more journalism took this mission more seriously. And what else is it but punching up? Journalism that punches down - that holds up people in power and denigrates the less powerful - is mere propaganda.

I think it holds true in business, too. An organization that makes a product that hurts vulnerable people in service of giving people with power more wealth and resources cannot be ethical, and ultimately is doomed to fail. Conversely, if a product is designed to democratize and empower people who have been overlooked, it may succeed; sometimes we call this kind of punching up disruption.

And, finally, in life. I don’t have a litmus test about failure and success here, because it’s life, and I don’t think it’s fair to evaluate people on those terms. But I do strongly think that traditions which maintain the status quo over distributing civil rights are not worth having; that there’s a choice between, for example, supporting the police (incumbent power) and the vulnerable (movements like Black Lives Matter); that afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted is a fundamental value that doesn’t need to be left up to organizations to serve. While success and failure are not the right measure of a person, I know that I’d rather have people in my life who believe in fairness and civil rights than people who believe in maintaining tradition and the existing order of things. Community over individualism, every time.

I love “always punch up”. And I think, to be quite honest, we could all do more punching.

Edited to add: it turns out I also wrote about this a few years ago. So consider this post additive!

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Would a journalism venture studio work? Why / why not?

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Layoffs are bullshit

Stanford Graduate School of Business Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, in an interview I’ve linked to before:

Layoffs often do not cut costs, as there are many instances of laid-off employees being hired back as contractors, with companies paying the contracting firm. Layoffs often do not increase stock prices, in part because layoffs can signal that a company is having difficulty. Layoffs do not increase productivity. Layoffs do not solve what is often the underlying problem, which is often an ineffective strategy, a loss of market share, or too little revenue. Layoffs are basically a bad decision.

Harvard Business Review:

For healthy employees without pre-existing health conditions, the odds of developing a new health condition rise by 83% in the first 15 to 18 months after a layoff, with the most common conditions being stress-related illnesses, including hypertension, heart disease, and arthritis. The psychological and financial pressure of being laid off can increase the risk of suicide by 1.3 to 3 times. Displaced workers have twice the risk of developing depression, four times the risk of substance abuse, and six times the risk of committing violent acts including partner and child abuse. The stress induced by a layoff can even impair fetal development.

Wharton:

If several decades’ worth of research now shows layoffs to be a poor way to boost profits, while other strategies may in fact work, perhaps there are ways of changing the dynamic between what’s happening on Wall Street and decisions that get made in the board room and on the shop floor. Says [Wharton School of Business Professor] Cobb: “The challenge is: how do we get back to a more socially responsible way of handling employment given the influence of financial markets on corporate decision-making?”

The University of Colorado:

As a group, the downsizers never outperform the nondownsizers. Companies that simply reduce headcounts, without making other changes, rarely achieve the long-term success they desire.

Haworth College of Business:

The authors found that layoffs have a negative impact on a firm’s reputation and that this relationship is significantly stronger for newer firms than older firms. Limited support is found for the hypothesis that larger firms’ reputations will be buffered from the adverse effects of a layoff on their reputations.

Newsweek:

A study of 141 layoff announcements between 1979 and 1997 found negative stock returns to companies announcing layoffs, with larger and permanent layoffs leading to greater negative effects. An examination of 1,445 downsizing announcements between 1990 and 1998 also reported that downsizing had a negative effect on stock-market returns, and the negative effects were larger the greater the extent of the downsizing. Yet another study comparing 300 layoff announcements in the United States and 73 in Japan found that in both countries, there were negative abnormal shareholder returns following the announcement.

Wisconsin School of Business:

In an effort to understand how layoffs influence victims’ subsequent work behaviors, a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Wisconsin Business School examined the impact of layoffs on voluntary turnover. Charles Trevor, professor of management and human resources and chair of the department, together with Ph.D. student Paul Davis, and Ph.D. student Jie Feng found that, all else equal, employees with a layoff history were more likely to voluntarily leave organizations. […] “This is consistent with the business press frequently characterizing layoffs as leading to a free agent mentality, where the workforce is made up of a significant group of employees with low levels of commitment and loyalty to the employer.”

The Atlantic:

Laurence's study looked at a sample of nearly 7,000 individuals in the U.K. to investigate the psychological effects of being laid off. The question asked was, "Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?" The answers ranged from "most people can be trusted" to "can't be too careful" to "depends." The respondents were asked this question at age 33, and then again 17 years later, at 50. […] Laurence found that individuals who experienced a layoff were 4.5 percent less likely to trust even 17 years later. This effect was even stronger for individuals who placed a greater value on work and career, at 7 percent.

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WFH

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan, which is definitely an organization we should be listening to about the future:

Jamie Dimon said working from home “doesn’t work” for younger staff or bosses, the Wall Street titan’s latest salvo against remote work. […] Dimon also said remote work can “help women,” given the caregiving duties that disproportionately fall upon them. “Modify your company to help women stay home a little,” he said.

How progressive of him.

Younger knowledge workers, in my experience, tend to be great remote workers. Those who are new to the workforce are used to remote schooling; the ones who are a little older have had a couple of years of practice. They’re energetic about cultural change and aren’t set in their ways. They don’t miss the office because they were barely ever there.

I’m also personally offended by the idea that women - by which he really means birthing parents - should get different work-from-home privileges to other workers. As I write this, my four-month-old baby lies on a mat next to me, playing with his rattle. I’ll change his diaper quite a few times today, and already have; I’ll bottle-feed him; I’ll sing to him. I can’t lactate but I can be here for him. If I couldn’t work from home, I wouldn’t be able to do this. Dimon’s attitude cements two inequalities: that women are disproportionately left with caregiving duties, and that men don’t get to spend as much time with their children. Make no mistake: I want the time with my child.

As a C-level worker, I’m also offended by the implication that I can’t do my work remotely. I have regular conversations with my peers and my team; I help brainstorm and ideate; I make decisions and take effective action. There are certainly a great many jobs that don’t work as remote positions. Knowledge work, however, can absolutely be done anywhere there is a quiet space, a working internet connection, and power for a laptop.

I do not intend to get a full-time in-person job again. The perks, compensation, or meaning would need to be wildly good to overcome the time away from my child, the lack of freedom to be anywhere, and the commute. That isn’t to say that I won’t go into an office: there’s a lot to be said for company retreats, quarterly team get-togethers, and one-off meetings to get around a whiteboard. Those things, though, don’t necessitate being in the same place every day, every week, or even every month.

The biggest reason to have everyone in an office is to watch them. It’s not to build culture (which you can certainly do in a remote-first organization); it’s not for productivity (a University of Chicago study found that most workers are more productive remotely); it’s not for training (which studies show is 40-60% more efficient remotely). It says much more about insecurity from the top and a conservative-minded inability to change than anything else.

And that’s another reason to only take jobs in remote-first organizations. Forcing in-person work is a sure-fire sign that leadership is stuck in their ways, unable to change, even in the face of evidence that it’s detrimental to their businesses. And who wants to join a company like that?

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It should be entirely uncontroversial that gas stoves emit gas and that induction stovetops are completely awesome new technology.

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How to follow me

I’m no longer posting to Twitter or Instagram. Here’s where we can stay in touch:

 

My site

I post articles, short notes, and bookmarks to my site at werd.io

My site has an RSS feed at werd.io/feed

Subscribe to get updates from my site via email at newsletter.werd.io

 

Other social sites

My Mastodon profile is @ben@werd.social - I’m very active there

I also post on LinkedIn as benwerd

 

Come join me!

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People talk about "San Francisco values" being liberal, but for me it's started to mean, "conservative libertarianism, but make it casual". It's going to be a problem. Ayn Rand in a hoodie is not going to invent the future.

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Moose Munch should be a business school case study: how something made with very cheap ingredients became a premium product.

I love Moose Munch! But I'm also in awe of its chutzpah.

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Pet peeve: sites that add content to the clipboard when you try and copy and paste. All it does is add friction to people sharing your stuff. Stop it.

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It's becoming clearer and clearer that what seemed like a very expensive option is actually going to reduce costs across the board. It's funny how that happens.

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Focus on needs, not features

Back when I used to help run the Matter Ventures accelerator for media startups (which I really miss doing!), Pete Mortensen ran the program in San Francisco while I ran investments. (Over in New York, Josh Lucido and Roxann Stafford were our counterparts respectively.)

I think it was Pete who introduced one of my favorite examples of checkbox development: when product developers try and add as many features as possible instead of figuring out what the user’s core needs are and focusing on that. It’s always a terrible approach that leads to a spaghetti mess of code and features, which makes it hard to provide a focused message or even to maintain your code over time.

Anyway, rather than try and argue the point, as I might have done, Pete simply showed them the video for the Pontiac Stinger:

Who is this car for? Why is there a garden hose?

Focus on needs, not features is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a developer. After all, for me and people like me, writing software and adding features is fun. As a people pleaser, I intrinsically want to say “yes” to every new ask. But the trick is always to build the smallest, most focused possible thing that deeply serves the people you’re building for. And of course, the first step is always to know who they are, and get to a holistic understanding of them that is better than anyone else’s. Otherwise, how can you possibly build something for them?

The Pontiac Stinger is a great example of what not to do - and one that’s far more memorable than any argument.

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The state of reproductive rights

The next The 19th Live event is happening on Thursday, Jan. 26. We'll hear from a group of experts about the state of reproductive rights on what would have been the 50th anniversary of Roe v Wade.

Speakers include:

Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta: Chair, DOJ’s Reproductive Rights Task Force

Jurnee Smollett: Actor and Activist

Rebecca Walker: Author, To be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism

As always, it’s free to attend online. Sign up here!

White rectangle with purple text, with five headshots of speakers at the event. Text reads: Live With The 19th Reproductive Rights as Roe Turns 50. January 26 at 1 p.m. E.T.

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I wish there was a single place I could list my email address so that every political candidate knew that I work for a newsroom and am banned from making political donations. I'm hitting "unsubscribe" an awful lot lately.

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The blogging resurgence and Known

Colin Devroe on blogging:

Oh man am I happy! People that hadn't written on their blog in a long time are blogging again. Websites that hadn't been updated in many years, some over a decade, are being spruced up and published to again. And popular news outlets are publishing articles about blogging.

Do I wish we had founded Known the startup in 2023 instead of 2014? Yes, I do. Being early (in this case by eight or nine years) is the same as being wrong. I’m glad for all of the opportunities it opened up, and all the people we met through the process, but the startup was never going to be a success at that time.

If we started it now? Well, that might be a different story. But, of course, I’d do things differently, because I’ve learned a lot in the interim. And I mostly learned those things because of the startup. So it’s a futile thought experiment. What happened happened!

Known the open source project is available and easier to install than it has been in years. I’m grateful for that too. And I wish everyone who is building a service to make it easier for people to write on their own site all the best. We need you. Keep going.

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