You’re reading a newsletter called Read Max. My name is Max Read, and this, my newsletter, is the first opportunity I’ve had in my professional life to use my name as a pun. If that’s all you need to know, you can press the button below to subscribe. For more information, keep reading. (There will be at least one more subscribe button in this email, in case you miss the first one.)
What is this newsletter about? Well.
A few weeks ago, Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, told Recode’s Peter Kafka “We know that more people die than would otherwise because of car accidents, but by and large, cars create way more value in the world than they destroyed. And I think social media is similar.” Instagram and its parent company, Facebook, had been the subjects of a series of scathing Wall Street Journal articles, the most striking of which demonstrated that — as the Journal’s headline put it — “Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls,” and Mosseri was attempting to explain that while, yes, Instagram might “destroy value” (“value” understood here to be, I guess, the emotional well-being of young women?) ultimately, its cosmic balance-sheet is in the black, presumably because those young women will buy things from advertisers to make themselves feel better.
This was a classically Facebook self-defense, by which I mean it was (1) glib, (2) disingenuous, and (3) utterly unconvincing. For starters, you need a fucking license to drive a car, and Mosseri’s comparison leads pretty easily to the conclusion that, for Facebook’s value proposition to make any sense, anyone who wants to have a Facebook account should be required to take a timed written test, and then a quick spin around a mocked-up licensing version of the site with a government proctor watching over their shoulder, to ensure that they weren’t a danger to themselves or others.
On the podcast, Kafka pointed out that the auto industry is heavily regulated, and Mosseri said that Facebook would welcome regulation, which, as a well-resourced incumbent, it no doubt would, at least on the provider side. (Poster licenses didn’t come up, as far as I could tell.) But even within their relatively onerous regulatory framework, cars have a staggering death toll: they kill more than a million people a year directly, and countless more through their contributions to carbon emissions and good old-fashioned particulate pollution. This is still not really kind of technology that I think I would seek to compare my product to, though I recognize that for Facebook “cars” represents an upgrade from “cigarettes” or “heroin.”
The truth is that I am not really Mosseri’s audience here. Industry-press interviews with Facebook execs are usually better thought of as inward-facing, directed toward a demoralized workforce looking for institutional cover, rather than as attempts at public persuasion. To the limited extent that the company feels any need to convince the general public of anything — like, say, of Facebook’s radiant benevolence — it happens to have a direct line to about three billion of us, and seems happy to use it.
But even if it’s not persuasive, the childlike clarity of Mosseri’s analogy has real force behind it. What’s implied in the comparison — what makes it, in all its glibness, so striking — is more than just an urgent need for regulation, or astonishing negative externalities. The automobile isn’t just a multi-ton hunk of steel and rubber that hits pedestrians and warms the planet, after all, it’s also a product of a complex industrial process, a standardized means of transporting goods and people across distances, and a potent cultural symbol. To consider it, or Facebook, only in terms of a value proposition — net good or net bad for humanity — is to miss that it shapes the world as much as the world shapes it. The existence of the mass-produced automobile — the jobs it created, the culture it fomented, the lives it enabled — was a basic condition of the postwar settlement and economic boom in the U.S. When Mosseri brings up the “value” created by the automobile — and by extension the value created by Facebook — he’s suggesting not just fun and ease and convenience, but an entire political order. Historians and economists and sociologists who talk about “Fordism” don’t mean Willa.
Put another way: Yes, cars polluted the atmosphere, warmed the planet, unmade dense and thriving cities, and killed tens of millions of people — but the industrialized world got a bunch of high-income, working-class jobs and decades of relative political stability out of it. When Facebook and its peers have done what the auto industry did — when Google and Apple and Amazon have finished remaking the economy, employment, the idea of public health and legal liability, the built environment, in their image — what are we going to have gotten out of the deal?
So, what is this newsletter about? I have been trying to come up with a punchier one-line summary than “it’s about tech, and, uhh, media, and, like, digital culture?”: It’s about the emerging 21st century! It’s about the ways our lives, ideas, and experiences are shaped and structured by technology! It’s about “the internet” as a place where we live, a way that we talk, and a business for which we often unwittingly work! It’s a rigorously factual, 100-percent true science fiction newsletter! It’s about the alienation and terror and wonder and awe of living through the end of history and the initiation of the cybernetic world-brain! And it is about that. But I think Adam Mosseri has hit the nail on the head.
This newsletter is about how Facebook is cars now.
It’s the product of a decade’s worth of writing on, thinking about, and, most of all, living at the whims of a handful of Silicon Valley corporations. I’ve written extensively about internet culture, digital politics, and YouTubes that I like for New York magazine, The New York Times, and Bookforum; I also co-founded, with some friends, a popular speaking series called IRL Club, about interesting internet people and phenomena.
If that doesn’t convince you that I know what I’m talking about, well, please know I am the former editor of not one but two defunct websites — Gawker (now refunct) and Select All, New York magazine’s technology site — which some people might see as a “failure” but which I think is evidence of my extensive personal experience with platform incentives, trends in digital culture, and deranged tech billionaires. Not to brag.
If my name seems familiar to you, it might be because you live in or around Pawtucket, R.I., and have driven by Max Read Field, home of the Shea High Raiders; sadly, that’s a different Max Read. Another reason my name might be familiar is because you’ve read some of my other work, such as:
“Going Postal,” an essay and book review about Twitter that was selected for this year’s edition of The Best American Essays
“How much of the internet is fake?,” a column about the eerie fakeness of the internet
“In 2039, the internet will make us act like medieval peasants,” a short essay about our experience of technology and the uncanny
“Does Even Mark Zuckerberg Know What Facebook Is?,” a feature exploring Facebook’s effect on the world
I share these specific pieces because their themes and ideas — themes like “what the fuck” and ideas like “there should probably be less computers” — should give you a good preview of the themes and ideas you can expect from this newsletter.
The current plan is to send out two editions a week — though some weeks it might be more and some weeks fewer — one of which will be a relatively short, directed column, and the other of which will be a kind of roundup: a collection of links, recommendations, bits of good gossip I heard but that I probably won’t get sued for, jokes I would have tweeted if I were still on Twitter, Zillow listings, close readings of some of the many action movies I have watched since my kid was born last year.
What else? Well, I’m also hoping that you will let me know what you want out of this newsletter. What are you wondering about? What do you want to read about? What apps are ruining your life, what videos are haunting your nights, what 90s action franchises would you like examined tendentiously and at near-tedious length? I’m available in the comments or over email.
A final, personally agonizing note: Having come to hate and feel alienated by the incentive structures of traditional, display advertising-based digital publishing, I am eager to learn more about the ways I will come to hate and feel alienated by the incentive structures of subscription newsletter-based digital publishing.
But to even reach the part where I get alienated, I need help.
I’m off Twitter and Instagram; I don’t have a built-in mailing list. For this newsletter to “work,” in the sense of providing me with a living so I can keep writing it, I need people to know about it.
If this newsletter sounds interesting to you — or even better, if it sounds interesting to the people you know — please tell people about it. Share it widely — on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, in your own independent newsletter. And — please — subscribe.