Today In Tabs' Rusty Foster On The Weirdly Hopeful Hellscape Of Media
"I literally just read Twitter and read stuff that people post and I write about it."
Welcome to Extra Garbage Day! Every other week, I’ll be dropping a bonus Thursday issue just for paying subscribers. These are usually Q&As with interesting people I’ve been dying to interview.
Many years ago, digital media companies had a lot of money. Some would argue that they had too much money. But these companies used that money to hire a lot of people, mostly 20-somethings who didn’t mind working 14-hour days in exchange for free Nature Valley bars, Green Mountain Keurig coffee, lime-flavored seltzer, and a cold pad thai lunch every Wednesday. All of these companies quickly realized that the only way to achieve the scale necessary to justify their absolutely bloated valuations was to have their armies of young writers basically just machine gun blast the internet with content every day. Some of that content was great, but the majority of it was, at best, unreadable Facebook bait, or, at worst, pieces so confoundingly deranged that the entire media industry would grind to a halt to hateread them.
Back in those halcyon days of free internet money, these truly bad pieces of writing — many of them Hot Takes or deeply tone-deaf pieces of personal writing — were chronicled in outlets like Gawker. But at a certain point, the internet was being saturated with so much professional-grade terribleness that there was really only one way to sort through all tabs — a newsletter called Today In Tabs.
The newsletter, started by Rusty Foster, a software developer living in Maine, quickly became the go-to way to sort through the digital chaos. The newsletter was like if Twitter’s trending topics punched up instead of exploiting its users for hate traffic. A revolutionary idea online! Especially back in 2014. It was destination reading for me and the excitement I felt opening it in my inbox every afternoon is the main thing I try and capture with Garbage Day. Tabs felt like a friend passing you some fun internet gossip every afternoon.
And then, in what would absolutely be a sign that the internet was entering a darker, weirder phase, Tabs ended in 2016. The Trump era came and went, and, thankfully for the internet, in January of this year, Tabs awoke from its slumber. This week I spoke to Foster about what it was like to bring a newsletter back from the dead and what it’s like to come back to a media and internet landscape that is much different than the one he left. The following has been edited slightly for pacing and clarity.
So, I mean, first question lol, why'd you come back?
The short blunt answer is I needed a new job and it was the most obvious one. The longer answer is Tabs and my last job started at the same time — I worked for a software company called Scripto. When Tabs ended the first time it was kind of the point where I had to choose. Tabs and Scripto were both becoming full-time jobs at that point and I had to pick one. I picked Scripto because writing is hard and running a tech company is easier haha. And I did that until the end of 2020. And sort of reached a point at the end of the pandemic where there just wasn't the right place for me in Scripto anymore.
And for a long time I had just sort of considered Tabs over. "Oh, I don't do that anymore. It was a particular time and place and scene and it wouldn't work anymore." But for the first time in early December of last year, I thought, “what if I did do that, what would that be like?” And I just spent a couple days keeping an eye on Twitter and thinking about like, “if I had to sit down and write Tabs right now, what would it be about?” And it felt like going home, weirdly. It was like, "oh I could do this! I could totally do this!" And then I was excited about it.
I thought, I'll give it three months and if I'm looking at my finances and going like "no, there's no way I could survive,” then I'll go look for another job again.
I feel like the gap you have is a really interesting one. In a weird way, it slightly mirrors my own because I left the US to live in the UK in like 2015 and I didn't really get back until 2019. So there was this huge chunk of American internet culture that I still feel like I'm always play catch-up on, but you have this thing where you left for a really wild era that is over. And it's really rare in life that one era really ends and new era begins. So I'd love to hear your thoughts about what Tabs was like then and what it's like now. It's kind of like that Brendan Fraser movie where he comes out of the bunker, Blast From The Past.
Haha yeah. One of the factors that led to my deciding not to keep doing Tabs was it was early-2016 and it was all about Trump. Everything was about Trump. And you know, I hated him then and I hate him now. And I didn't like writing about him. Though, looking back at the archives, I did mention Trump a lot more than I remember mentioning him. It was so inescapable. All through 2015. My sense was right, 2016-2020 were just all Trump, all the time. And if I had been doing Tabs then that would have been every single day and it would have just been exhausting. I did to some extent intentionally skip that era. And the fact that the election happened in November — it was not a coincidence that in December I started to think, "maybe I could do it again." It wasn't quite over, as it turned out, as we learned in January, but it was pretty close. My sense was that things were going to change. And the media landscape has been so monotonous for so long, but I think it's actually a great time to do something like Tabs again because suddenly there are more things to think about. I'm really excited to think about other things!
Oh I am so excited. It's such a relief to not have to plan your entire day off the insane ramblings of one old awful man. When you say the media's gotten monotonous — I don't know if you know this, but when Tabs was coming out, back when I worked in a newsroom, when it published, you could hear the office stop as people read it. And then it would be talked about at those awful media open bars during the week. I feel like you have a really unique God's eye of what the media looks like.
I mean, I was aware of that to some extent and it's funny. You were at BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed was definitely a place where that happened. And there were a few other places where that happened. I guess the way I used to describe it was: I was incredibly famous within a quarter mile of lower Manhattan. That was it. There was this tiny little circle where that happened and that was it. I don't know why that ever happened. I don't know how that ever happened. It's bizarre because I'm literally nobody. I've never worked in media. I have no clue where that comes from. On the best days, it feels like an incredibly good con that I can do somehow. I literally just read Twitter and read stuff that people post and I write about it.
I almost feel like we live in the world that Today In Tabs was warning us about. Because it was novelty five years for journalists to fight on Twitter or get really truly publicly owned. It would be an exciting thing for two writers to get in a big public fight. Now it feels like it's happening every single day.
Yeah, journalists have gotten a little messier in public than they used to be. Weirdly, content has gotten way less messy than it used to be. I've been trying to figure out why. I think it's just because the media is in a phase of contraction right now. People are getting fired, people are losing jobs, companies are merging, and so forth. And when Tabs first started, it was really the opposite. It was boom times. BuzzFeed was blowing up and people were founding all kinds of crazy content plays that were like "oh, we're going to do a new digital media thing" and they'd hire 50 people all of a sudden. And I think that environment led to an insatiable hunger for content that would allow things to get published that would not make it through the filters today.
The Thought Catalog era.
Yes, yes, exactly. So when some truly bonkers tab gets published today I'm always kind of pleased. It's a nostalgic feeling.
I forgot that that was the phrase the newsletter was named after. The idea of cursed tabs that you had to hate read to understand why everyone else was pissed.
Yeah, it's a weird anachronism at this point where they hardly exist anymore. I'll find one once in a while, but that's mostly not what it's about anymore.
Well, all those pieces just live on Substack so...
Haha yeah. I actually have sort of made a policy of not going to that side of Substack anymore. You know what I'm talking about? The bad neighborhood? Because it used to be those things were being published by big media companies who were going to get a lot of clicks and were going to monetize them anyway. So I never really worried about drawing attention to them because it was just such a drop in the bucket. And maybe it's still a drop in the bucket, but when those people are all independent and writing purely for themselves, I feel like a link to them is a promotion in a way that I don't want to give. But yeah, there's a ton of really terrible content that I ignore because I don't want to draw attention to it.
I suppose it happens with every media bubble, where everyone starts doing a thing, the thing starts to work, and then the minute it starts to work, everyone says "the thing's not going to work anymore! It's all over!" And the newsletter is the thing happening right now. But for you to come back to doing a newsletter makes me feel like it's not a bubble, but just a thing that's always out there that you can do.
The first time I did Tabs there was kind of the same feeling, where people were saying, "is there a newsletter bubble? Is newslettering a thing?" It was like the TinyLetter era. At the time it was hard to monetize and it was really hard to making a living doing it at all and most people didn't. It's easier now, but like, I feel the same now as I did then. It's a medium. The inbox has always been there. It's always been a way to reach people. It's a great way to distribute stuff that you've posted elsewhere that I think is underused. Although, less so now. I feel like media companies are better about putting together newsletters now that just promote the stuff that they're posting. But I have my ideas of what I think work in an inbox and a lot the newsletters that are really booming now don't really fit that. Like I've never felt like the 5000-word essay is a great thing to get in the form of an email.
I wouldn't even want that from a friend.
Yeah, from anybody, really. You can go to someone's Substack and it's a webpage and it looks like a blog entry, but getting that as an email is kind of a bonkers experience. There's a lot of that now. I'm not totally sure how that's going to work.
It's kind of like someone called you on the phone and then delivered a podcast into the other side.
I feel like it's a good medium for more informality. I try to hit a tone that's like, "I am writing you a note. Here are my half-assed thoughts on something." And obviously, I do some work to achieve that, but that's what I'm trying for. I feel like the long blog entry or thinky essay about the topic of the day just doesn't hit for me in an email inbox at all.
I have definitely gone too long and had a reader or two be like "c'mon, man, give me a break."
I love your newsletter! The subjects you cover — a lot of days, there'll be something going on and I will wait until you post because I think you're probably going to write about it and then I don't have to and it's a huge relief.
[Ed. note: Rusty goes on to say other nice stuff about Garbage Day here, but I’m from Massachusetts and receiving compliments makes me uncomfortable so I’ve removed it.]
I feel like my readers are probably vaguely aware of the weird boom time of media a few years ago, but I don't know how much they know. So I was wondering is there a story or a controversy from that era that you remember really sticking out? One that just would not make any sense in 2021.
My main problem answering this is I forget everything. I have a terrible memory.
I don't know what people now would be surprised by. It really seems like media now is just an absolute hellscape. Like everybody's miserable. I guess I don't know that it's more precarious now than it ever was, but it certainly feels more precarious.
In what way?
In 2014-2015, there was always a sense that if you lost your job at Daily Dot, you might get picked up at BuzzFeed. There was precarity, but there was also growth going on the whole time. People were still hiring. And, right now, it feels like they're not.
At the time, it feels like there weren't many websites, but now, it just feels like there aren't any websites.
By comparison, there were tons! Now they've either merged or disappeared.
Do you think they'll come back? Will we have websites again lol.
Absolutely. I've been through four of these cycles by now, as an observer, just kind of watching. And tech works the same way for the most part. There are booms and busts. There's growth and contraction. Until there's something more interesting for the extremely wealthy to do with their money, then they're going to keep trying to do content stuff. Will there ever be a functioning business model for this stuff, I have no idea.
That's the question I've been trying to answer for myself. I think you know Brian Feldman, as well, but he made this statement a couple weeks ago that there was "no middle class on the internet" and the idea has been bothering me. Because why can't there be?
I mean, right now, I am the middle class of the internet. I don't know if there's anybody else, but if there is one I'm definitely in it. I'm doing my newsletter full-time and I'm making enough money to live on and I am not making Matt Yglesias million-dollar money, but I'm also not in danger of starving. It doesn't feel like there's a lot of other people in that space with me haha. I would love there to be more!
In terms of the new version of Tabs, is there stuff you're planning to do with it now that just weren't an option or weren't something on your radar the first time around?
I'm doing the open threads on Fridays. I've been really weary about doing community stuff on the internet because I know what kind of trap it can be in terms of just moderation and safety and not making yourself miserable. Running an online community can just be a miserable job. I'm weary about getting into that. I have been thinking about doing a Discord!
Do you feel like the way people consume content has changed at all? I feel like readers in 2021 are a lot more open to doing weirder stuff than an internet reader was in 2014.
I think it's the corollary of the contraction in the media cycle. When the doors close for the regular jobs, your Choire's will go off and start The Awl. Or I'll show up and relaunched Today In Tabs because why the hell not. When there aren't well-paved roads anymore, people go off on weird paths. And I think that's exciting. It's fun to see what works and it's fun to see people trying stuff. People are much more used to spending social time with each other now. When I started Tabs the first time, I was in IRC channels. I've had friend Slacks ever since then. I feel like that used to be a weird media thing where some media people used to be in group chats that nobody else knew about. And now I feel like everybody has a group chat somewhere. So the idea of being in a group chat with people who are interested in the same newsletter as you is not such a weird thing anymore. That wasn't around the first time.
I feel like, among younger people especially, they're way less squeamish about making weird stuff. Like earlier today a woman popped up on my feed who uses astrology to predict bitcoin prices. She's on TikTok and she's a crypto witch. And I feel like there's way more of that spirit of "the internet can be whatever I want it to be and I can be whatever I want to be on the internet." Which feels like something that the media industry actually hasn't caught on to yet.
The tools are better, right? The tools are way better. And even five or six years ago, there was always a way to get your stuff out there if you were a good writer or if you're a good photographer. Some sort of web 1.0 thing, but video hasn't really been available until recently and, you know, if your art is dressing like witch and doing tarot readings, like what platform was out there for you? Tumblr maybe? But TikTok opens the door for a whole bunch of people who have talents that just didn't fit on any other platform and there's a bunch of new platforms. So it keeps growing and it keeps pulling in people who didn't fit the previous generation's filter.
You talked about people going off and doing their own things at these moments where things are dire and contracting, so I guess, what would like to see come down the road here? In terms of publications, in terms of content.
I feel like everybody had a big life realization during the pandemic and the big thing that happened to me is that I stopped believing in capitalism.
Oh, yeah, sure.
I'd love to see more co-ops, I love seeing more unions forming. I'd love to see people do creative things that don't start with the assumption that you need a seed investment. Or with a different model — not an investor that owns everything. But like the investor is one partner in a co-op of people. Like that kind of thing. And there is some of that. Brickhouse is basically doing that. It's a media co-op. It kind of comes back to like, "is there a business model?" And if there is a business model, it's not, "a rich a person hires a bunch of extremely hungry young writers and then exploits them." I feel like we've tried that and it does't work. It works for a while and it works for one or two people, but it doesn't work for everybody in general. So every time I see people starting some kind of venture that has an equitable relationship with the people who are doing the work that's always exciting.
Because it's like, rather than taking all those crazy people and then putting them under the thumb of a rich crazy person [Nick Denton], it's like, they just made their own thumb and are now pointing it outward. That metaphor is insane. You're going to have to edit that.
You can keep the [Nick Denton] part in. The part about him being a rich crazy person you should definitely keep in. Nick is ridiculous, but the thing he was always trying to do with Gawker I really appreciated.
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