A Journalist of the Plague Year
The Twitter and tear gas-filled world of Zeynep Tüfekçi
Fear and panic could destroy the city as much as plague itself. Many of the doctors fled, along with the rich and powerful; quacks preyed on the poor with their neverfail miracle drugs. Neighbours informed against each other. People lied to each other – and to themselves. Worse – there were stories of infected people deliberately concealing their telltale ‘tokens’ and going out into the streets trying to infect others.
-Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)
Zeynep Tüfekçi is a force of nature whose intellectual range encompasses everything from academic sociology to the impact of social media on society to (more recently) the COVID mask and lockdown debates. Her book Twitter and Tear Gas is a now-classic study of Internet-fueled protest, and she continues to write prolifically for The New York Times and The Atlantic. In our lengthy interview—I completely ignored Substack warnings about email length—I unveil the jocular coinage ‘zeynepping’ to describe this unique blend of contrarian and wide-ranging embroilment in the burning issues of the day. She and I have had a year-long DM thread where we agree on basically nothing, except perhaps that McLuhan was right about the fundamentally oral dynamics of modern digital media (which we only mention in passing here, because of course we spent most of our time bickering). She agreed to publicize some of our disagreement in the longest Pull Request interview yet. Tüfekçi also recently started her own Substack Insight.
From what you’ve told me, you started your career as a programmer but then you ended up doing a master's degree and PhD. But your claim to fame was the book on Twitter and the Middle East and its various convulsions, is that right?
My first claim to fame was when Facebook started. It was just seen as a little college thing, and I started writing that it would scramble our understanding of privacy. It was just collapsing a lot of geographic boundaries, and since I was a college teacher, I could see it in the students’ experience; their mental model of what Facebook was and what it actually did to their experience of space and time. I remember one incident: I used to teach intro to sociology and it's a big lecture class, because that's how those things work. So I would assign little group assignments to break up the lecture. What if you were born a different gender? Or what if you were in a different family? Just very simple, simple stuff for students. And they got a passing grade so long as they turned in something.
So my TA at one point notices that a bunch of them have the same handwriting. Why on earth are they cheating, what is going on? So I called the group into my office, and they say: What a coincidence we all have the same handwriting! And I ask: Do you know each other? No, we don't know each other, they say. And I did something that I don't ever do: I looked them up on Facebook. And of course, they were all friends with each other, so I just showed them Facebook and I said: Look, you're lying to me, you're all friends with each other. They almost fainted in my office because the idea that their friendship could be documented and be visible to the outside world and that Facebook would be a vehicle for this was a completely alien and incomprehensible thing to these kids.
The most interesting thing to me was how could they not imagine the obvious thing that this is going to scramble their visibility and ruin their denial. They just had no idea. So I started doing some studies…
What year was this?
This was before the Arab Spring, I think my first studies where 2007 or 2008-ish?
I started saying stuff like: Facebook, they're going to scramble privacy, they are changing how we understand primary and secondary social contacts and their visibility. I started arguing that in some ways—and this is something you and I talk about a lot—this is taking people back to a more intrinsically human way of living, in which you don't lose contact with people. This idea that you've graduated from middle school, and then high school, and then go to a different city and never see those people again, that's kind of a weird 20th-century blip: that's not how humans have mostly lived. But at a scale that is not the same as your village or hunter-gatherer experience. It's got a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and it's going to scramble everything. I kept saying this is going to change the fabric of society, these tools are not these things that just sit outside of society.
And when the Arab Spring hit, then all of a sudden, because I’m from the Middle East, all of a sudden, people were like: Oh, wait, there was somebody talking about this, and everybody wanted an explanation. That’s when I started being able to do my current work as until then universities would hire me because I could do stats and math. The rest has been a blur.
I recall first reading your work in the wake of the Arab Spring. The Western vibe at the time was definitely: Isn't this just great and amazing? Twitter is central to this entire social turmoil! Though in retrospect, it might not have had the centrality that Westerners imagined, in terms of the bigger picture…
But it actually was really important. What's really funny is that a lot of these people are also my friends and people I had known because of the Middle Eastern democracy and dissident crowds. They got so sick of Western journalists asking them about Twitter and Facebook every day, they would just lie, and say: It had nothing to do with any saying. Stop this bullshit. You know, we don't really use those tools.
They would literally say that, and then they would be on the backchannel saying: Wait, I think the Twitter trending algorithm changed, because they were disassembling it, and they thought about it a lot. But they got so sick of the navel gazing about it because the West could only relate to them as Twitter users. So I wouldn't say it didn't play a key role: I think it played a major role in the upheaval. But it got framed in the West as a stupid question. You know, was it Twitter or was it the people? I felt like stabbing my eyes out when people ask those kinds of questions, so that's when I start writing about it.
We have the same narrative about social media in the West now: When it's destabilizing to the people that the chattering classes don't like, it's great. And when it's destabilizing to the chattering classes, then it's terrible: we don't do that to them.
Right. So the two claims are: This Twitter/Facebook thing is absolutely central. Again, the only way we can relate to these people is via their Twitter usage, otherwise, the local politics are not of vital interest from the Western perspective. And then secondly, that this was all a magnificent thing.
But as soon as those same disruptions visit the West in the form of Trump, Brexit, the gilets jaunes, etc. Suddenly: Have we questioned whether overthrowing the state of affairs is actually such a great thing?? It's interesting to see the contrast between that sort of narrative and the one in 2016.
We have the same narrative about social media in the West now: When it's destabilizing the people that the chattering classes don't like, it's great. And when it's destabilizing the chattering classes, then it's terrible: we don't do that to them.
When Obama won in 2012, there were I don't know how many articles talking about how great his use of technology and data was. Which is why I started saying: wait, wait, it's not about your candidate, this might not be that great, and there are all these problems. Interestingly, when I started saying that—I wrote that Times op-ed, which caused so much grief for me—I heard from so many tech people, from Obama people and big data people and Silicon Valley people, who told me that these tools were necessarily going to only be used by smart people, which were of course them, right? I mean, the whole tech world was completely convinced that the other side, so to speak, would never be smart like them. Really high level people in both the Obama administration and in Silicon Valley just thought: you know, this is ours, this will always be ours, and it will always do our bidding. And of course, anybody who knows history is jumping up and down saying it doesn't do your bidding like that! It's not your little pony that's gonna just destabilize things you happen to dislike at the moment and leave you alone. So here we are.
I heard from so many tech people, from Obama people and big data people and Silicon Valley people, who told me that these tools were necessarily going to only be used by smart people, which were of course them, right? I mean, the whole tech world was completely convinced that the other side, so to speak, would never be smart like them. Really high level people in both the Obama administration and in Silicon Valley just thought: you know, this is ours, this will always be ours, and it will always do our bidding.
You and I both have the same hang ups, because we've had these conversations before, such as the conflict between literacy and orality, the weird warping of geography that social media causes, which to me is one of the biggest things I can't get my head around.
But just before we leave the topic of the Middle East: One thing I asked Martin Gurri about is how is it that a lot of these movements, unlike previous revolutionary movements, didn't quite congeal into any sort of lasting institutional change. The classic example is Occupy Wall Street and to a lesser extent the Gilets Jaunes which haven't really done anything in the political space. Arguably the only counter example is Spain with Podemos…
In Spain, the group just broke off. They just said, we're gonna form a political party. And that's it.
If you skimmed my book, my theory there is that these movements look like past movements, in that they have these big massive street marches. But you're looking at something different, right? So if you look at a past big march, like the March on Washington which is the canonical example, it took them 10 years to go from the idea to doing it. These people had to work together for 10 years, and just the logistics of getting a couple hundred thousand people in and out of DC the same day, because they couldn't stay overnight at the time, just the logistics of getting those people in and out took them six months. They didn't have an Excel spreadsheet, right?
Take the Montgomery Bus Boycott: They had to meet every day, every single day, just to figure out how to pay the carpool people. People are boycotting the buses, but people still have to go to work. So you have these carpools. The carpools are not run by people with a lot of wealth and the gas cost is real. You have to collect some money, and give it to these people. You can't just Venmo each other. When you do that every day, then you are building a structure.
If you look at the amount of fabric you build, by the time you pull it off, you have these dense, interpersonal connections that have made decisions almost every day. They learn how to put up with each other; they learn how to build some sort of negotiation among each other; they learn how to give and take; they trust each other. The big march is the result. Whereas right now, what you do is the complete opposite: You go on Facebook, you go on Twitter, you start your hashtag. And two days later, maybe a week later: BOOM! These are the timescales we're talking about. You have THE BIGGEST MARCH EVER. And if you look at it, the Iraq War: biggest march ever! Occupy movement: biggest march ever! We're constantly doing the biggest march ever! And everyone is: This is the biggest march ever, we’re definitely going to succeed. And I'm thinking, well, you're not like those people who have to climb and build muscles to climb that thing. Whereas we have springs in our feet, we just jump there. And the problem is if you're a social movement, you need those muscles in the next stage.
Take our common hobby, sailing, as an example. Imagine you motored in a boat to the middle of nowhere. You didn't sail there, and you might end up finding yourself at a place you have no business being. But you need actual sailing skills to get out of there. There are things you shouldn't do unless you worked your way up there. I don't think people should climb, say Mount Everest, with all the extra oxygen and the Sherpas. Because if things go wrong, you need those skills, but somebody just plopped you there. So what happens with these movements is that they’re one-day hits, it's kind of like the startup environment where you go from zero to a billion users in a year. But unlike a startup, you don't have lots of VCs and other people ready to bail you out with a lot of cash and time for you to pay your technical debt, instead what you have is the government coming for you. You went from zero to 100 MPH with the help of technology in a very small space of time, and you don't even have a steering wheel.
What happens with these movements is that they’re one-day hits, it's kind of like the startup environment where you go from zero to a billion users in a year. But unlike a startup, you don't have lots of VCs and other people ready to bail you out with a lot of cash and time for you to pay your technical debt, instead what you have is the government coming for you. You went from zero to 100 MPH with the help of technology in a very small space of time, and you don't even have a steering wheel.
Plus, a lot of these movements, it's sort of a cultural thing, but they are increasingly wrapped up with self expression. As you get to a better world, you get more self expression, and it's a good thing, right? But it's also a luxury. If people are super concerned about survival, they get a little more pragmatic about, say, decision making. If everybody's self-expressing endlessly, how do you come to consensus? Everything is designed to make a thousand flowers bloom, but those thousand flowers have to make decisions in tactical terms. They then come to the second moment: they had their big march, they're feeling great and then three months later, the government comes for them or something else happens. They can't make a decision because they don't trust each other. They don't have a structure for either voting or consensus or any of this, so they get stuck.
Now this is not to say they have no impact, because all that self expression, all that narrative power, they have a thing that is very real. Just look at the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s completely changed things: A majority of Americans and a plurality of white people, for the first time in history, want Confederate monuments down. If you look at the Gay Rights Movement, as little as 20 years ago, Obama was only slowly evolving towards it. And right now it's not even a question; you have a conservative court that will go with it. So not that it's not impactful. But you're looking at a different beast than a march in the 60s and 70s. People want to say: Oh, look, the biggest march ever and just sort of think of Martin Luther King, giving great speeches, as if the speech had some magic.
One of the things I like to tell my students is that Martin Luther King actually gave many versions of that speech before, and they're super disappointed because they want to imagine this person giving this very inspiring thing, like it was some magical moment. He gave the speech so many times in various versions, improving it ever so slightly every time, there's nothing magic about the speech. It's that muscle you build to put that person there. So I'm not saying they [the activists] are weaker now, but they're really different.
The metaphor that comes to mind is that nothing survives its own form of mechanical reproduction. There's that famous essay by Walter Benjamin where he talks about how photography killed representational art, mass literacy and print textuality effectively killed rhymed poetry. There are other examples: recorded music killed classical music, and finally digital forms of community basically killed real community right now…
I'm going disagree. This is funny, but like, there's no reason why the digital forms of community are unreal, or less real. It's a big it depends. There are a lot of communities that are digital only that are very, very real communities. Especially if you don't have community where you are because you're different or there's something else. Let’s go back to the Arab Spring. Yeah. A lot of the people that played key roles, many of them had met maybe once or twice here and there because of conferences and stuff, but these are people with Egyptian and Tunisian passports, so you don't really travel very easily. But they had a really strong digital fabric: they talk with each other, they thought about each other, they worried about each other. I've never thought the digital side as fake or real. Again, it's different. Because you could also have it without the reciprocity of a community, which is what you have on Twitter. You can have very strong digital communities, or you can have things like Twitter, and I think the more usual thing is a mix. What's different and what's missing is really the reciprocity: are our futures bound together? Or can I just, you know, click and block and you're gone.
But that's where I would claim it’s fake community. These communities seem very real, until they actually have to do something in the real world, requiring IRL trust and coordination. Imagine you said: Hey, let's go build a barn together! While they’re capable of making a flash mob of a million people show up in DC tomorrow, they couldn't do the smallest thing that an Amish farming community could do. They can't even organize a political party. Anything that's Old World, that's not a group on Facebook, they seem at pains to influence in a persistent way.
But even there, you have groups and communities that go on for a long time, they're just not necessarily as visible. The problem is like they're like cities. They're not unreal, but they're like cities that haven't bound people's futures together.
But that’s why we have our terrible polarization: Nobody's getting drafted into the army and the kid from Barstow never even crosses paths with the kid from Marin…
People aren't getting drafted into the army, or when to pandemic hits, there's a large number of people are just fine, because they don't have a commute and have more time with their kids, as opposed to people whose job is not like that.
The digital world can be like that, but I'm a little more positive towards using digital tools to build community. I don’t think that because it's a Facebook group, it's going to be superficial. It can be really deep and non-superficial if it's configured in the correct way. Or you can have a real-world country like this where there's a lot of physical interaction, but people have increasingly divergent trajectories.
So I think we somewhat agree that social media obviously has dangerous impacts here and there. One is the destabilizing geographic influence, and the other is the weird morphing of privacy, which itself is a very modern invention. If you look at the history of privacy, it's of very recent coinage, both the word and the legal concept.
Okay, so here’s the thing, you didn't have privacy per se in the same way. But you had an elaborate set of human rituals designed to protect us from a world in which we have less of what we now call privacy, for example, face saving. This is something that's super important in human interactions. We pretend not to see lots of things, because that's the only way to be in close quarters all the time with people. You just lie and pretend; it’s not even a white lie, it’s a ritualized thing that you do.
Whereas with social media, I think the problem is the screenshot lives forever. So there’s no ritual for face saving where we all pretend it didn't happen. It's not that we didn't have privacy, and now the 20th century invented privacy, whereby you could just move to a city and nobody knew who you were. Now we’ve sort of gone back to the village thing, but without the ephemerality and also the rituals of face saving. For example, to give an unfortunate a recent example [Jeffrey Toobin and his penchant for Zoom impropriety] if something like what happened—somebody you'd walked in on doing something we all do—you’d just close the door and never speak of it.
It wouldn't become like a public thing that would be acknowledged, or you might laugh about it a few drinks in, among close friends and family. But that would not define their life that they got walked in on. The ephemerality isn't there, but the screenshot is there. So you lost the things that make certain things manageable.
This is the dark side of the global village that people didn't quite realize. It's worth noting that Louis Brandeis wrote his Right to Privacy, which basically invented privacy as we know it, because his legal partner was being written up in the gossip rags. And that was because two inventions happened that decade: One, the telegraph that actually made stories disseminate faster than they would have in the printed world. And the second one was Kodak launched its little Brownie camera, which meant images could be cheaply captured.
That’s what Kodak does: it freezes time. Time is a very protective thing for your sanity. Now the thing you did 20 years ago can come back.
Yeah, I think we're in the worst of both worlds. We've got all the weirdness of the disconnection and anomie of modernity, and we've got all the tribal morality of the pre-modern world, precisely a cocktail of the worst of both worlds.
It's a terrible transition. Like it's an interregnum. It'll settle, necessarily, just like we invented rituals to deal with the crowding of urban life, we will invent rituals and ways of being where it'll just be terrible to bring up, you know, that embarrassing thing. And we'll have probably new social media….there's just no way people can live with stuff trailing you your whole life.
But what do you think that world looks like? Also politically, how does that world look in which you've got these virtual communities that exist irrespective of geography and you still have politics rooted to this particular square on the map?
Okay, so obviously, as with everything else, you're going to need to fix the social contract. This didn't start with just Facebook or Twitter. If you look at CEO pay, for example, it's not that before people couldn't pay themselves more. There were certain norms and limits, and you see them go away in the 80s and 90s. That's partly because the CEOs are on the boards of other CEOs, and it's kind of like this generalized capacity among themselves, they just keep on changing the norm. Whereas if someone in the 60s somebody came up and said, you know, I'm just going to pay myself this much, it just wasn’t OK. That’s the power of the social contract.
How did you get obsessed with COVID? How did you become “the world's leading amateur epidemiologist”?
That is the funniest description. It’s not like I was completely naive about pandemics. I used to teach like sociology of pandemics a little bit because they're really good way to teach students about network concepts, hubs and globalization and all of that. But admittedly, obviously not my field, but then I spent a lot of last year doing research in Hong Kong protests and their social movement. So in January we started hearing about the Wuhan mystery viral pneumonia, I was like, oh boy, because immediately I thought of SARS. My Amazon shopping list records my dates of awareness as January, which is when I ordered bunch of masks and hand sanitizer.
And then on January 20, when China shut down, whoah, I thought, okay, we're gonna get hit. Because see, if you study authoritarians, the thing you learn is to look at what they do, not what they say. And the Chinese government, may be many things, but they're not stupid. They have a lot of blind spots, and I think they bungled the early days, because the local authorities lied to the higher ups. The pandemic got out of hand before they, Beijing, realized what was actually going on with human-to-human transmission. To deal with it they had to shut down everything. And then I thought, here we go, the Chinese government is not going to do this drastic move unless they just learned things are dire, right? There's sustained human-to-human transmission, that's what that meant.
And then I started sort of tweeting about it saying, look, we're gonna get hit, this is happening. And then a week later, Chinese scientists started publishing, which was amazing because we owed them a lot. They were doing excellent work, and they had been muzzled before. The thing that jumped out at me was they were clearly saying that there was transmission that was from people with mild or atypical clinical symptoms. This may not mean a lot if you've never read about infectious diseases, but if you know anything about them, that's super important. Things like Ebola, or the first SARS, didn’t spread as much because by the time somebody is infectious they're also very symptomatic, right? If you put the temperature gun in somebody's head, you find the SARS cases and you can isolate them. So I started sort of tweeting about it saying, look, we're going to need millions of tests. Because if you have spread with mild or atypical symptoms, you can't just find the people with temperature guns. I've been calling it almost an out-of-body experience where you can see it's coming. And everybody was acting like it was just alarmism, or just some crazy prepper thing.
Mainstream media treated the original concern for it as a form of xenophobia.
Yeah. There were all these articles saying like, don't be scared, live your life. Travel bans don't work, be aware of the pandemic panic, and I'm kind of like, what planet are these people living on? There's the infamous incident where they made fun of Silicon Valley people for not shaking hands. I'm kind of like, it actually seems like a pretty reasonable thing, not paranoia, if you have an unknown Coronavirus. I just got more and more and more frustrated with the traditional media messaging. And in my Facebook groups locally, I was seeing a lot of people asking about travel. What should we do, we have a conference to go to? And people were just consoling each other to live their lives, go to that trip, go to this conference, hold that event.
I kept hearing the public-health people saying: Why are you doing this? You're endangering people! I'm like, Are you kidding me? So I started gingerly tweeting that telling people they don't need masks is going to backfire massively. None of the arguments made any sense.
And I'm like, No, no, no! I couldn’t find even a sensible, practical article to send to people saying, we need to get ready. Hospitals are going to get overwhelmed. We already had evidence that the elderly were dying in much larger numbers. The Chinese studies had shown that already. We need to figure out how to get deliveries to these people, they need to stay home. There were so many obvious practical things, and I couldn't find anything. So I wrote one, because that's what I do when I don’t find anything.
I’d been writing a column for Scientific American, and my editor had just had his first grandchild and he's got a cute little bundle in his hands. I ask him, do you want this?, and he just put it up. There were typos and a small error, but I was very proud. Not because I'm a genius, it's more like this was already obvious, but just not being communicated. Basic concepts like flattening the curve, which at the time, people weren't talking about. Or, stay home, prepare for remote work, get some groceries, fill your prescriptions.
It’s interesting when consensus-breaking moments happen. There’ve been a couple this pandemic, which is fascinating to watch as a sociology person. It’s almost like groupthink at a societal level. Everybody kind of knows this isn't really what we should be doing to prepare, but nobody's going out and saying it. Instead, it’s what sociologically we call preference falsification. Lots of people who were looking for a reason to stop going along, they ended up sharing this article and it goes quite viral, so to speak.
One of the things that I got a lot of pushback on from the public health community was that I linked to a get-ready list that was from a prepper community. I was looking for a list, and I needed something. And they of course, recommended masks. So tons of people start emailing me, public health people, and asking me why are you linking to a list that says get masks?
This is when people still thought you should, in fact, not get masks, right?
Right. It was worse. Because the thing is, I had papered over that topic at the time, because there was already a mask shortage. So I said, if you can't find masks, don't worry about it. But the list I linked to did say get some masks and now what am I gonna say to people?
I kept hearing the public-health people saying: Why are you doing this? You're endangering people! I'm like, Are you kidding me? So I started gingerly tweeting that telling people they don't need masks is going to backfire massively. None of the arguments made any sense. I kept trying to understand because it's not my field, but what’s this plausible harm [of masks] you're talking about? And people said, what if the outside of your mask is contaminated? And I'm like, that sounds like success to me because if the outside of my mask is contaminated that means I just didn't breath that thing. How on earth is this harm? I just couldn't wrap my mind around it. Then they made the ‘false sense of security’ argument, which is a sociological argument that people will feel more confident with masks and take more risks.
If you want to talk about what's wrong with society right now, one of the things is this great mistrust from the people in power toward the public. They are treating the public like an enemy, and the public knows they're being treated like an enemy. It goes to the root of all the problems we’re facing, including on social media.
Which was an argument once leveled at seatbelts in cars, where the thought is that people might drive more rashly if they had seatbelts than if they didn’t….
That has a lot of research on it, and it makes no sense. If anything, knowing everything I know about humans, a mask would signal something weird is going on and would make people more wary. And in fact, since then, we know that research shows that people wearing masks are also more careful with distancing and all of that.
So nothing these people were saying made sense, that masks don't work. Then the World Health Organization and CDC said, do wear masks if you're sick. We already knew by that point there's asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic transmission, so how do you know if you're sick? None of this made any sense.
I just waited a couple of weeks, hoping that someone with the a PhD or a MD would write something saying, could we please tell the truth? That’s when I concluded that people had talked themselves into another type of groupthink, just as during the early pandemic. They were scared of the hoarding, or they thought that if there’s a shortage, then people will hoard.
If you want to talk about what's wrong with society right now, one of the things is this great mistrust from the people in power toward the public. They are treating the public like an enemy, and the public knows they're being treated like an enemy. It goes to the root of all the problems we’re facing, including on social media. It's this lack of trust in institutions. If we had institutions we trusted, we could solve the problem of misinformation, even with the worst Facebook on the planet, because we would have trusted fact checkers. The reason we can't solve it—Facebook's part of the problem—but the reason we don't have better solutions is that we don't have institutions people trust to solve the problem. And the reason we don't have institutions that are trusted is partly because those institutions also don't trust the people, and people notice.
Hasn’t that always been true to an extent? I always make the analogy to bodycams and the police: social media is just the bodycam for elites. They’ve always had a dismissiveness for ‘the swinish multitude’. It's only now that the multitude actually gets to see elites as they truly are.
I'm going to not completely agree there, but it does change things. It's not just a mirror. They definitely showed this lack of trust in people, this not treating like a partner. The reasonable adult conversation here would be: there's a shortage, we should have prepared. We're sorry, but for the moment, we're going wear cloth masks in the community. If you have any n95 masks, please donate. We're going to fix this as soon as we can. That’s the adult conversation to have, rather than infantilizing the public like a toddler and saying: If you touch this, it's going to hurt. You’re lying.
During World War II, the US government had total censorship over the media. During the Yom Kippur War, the Israeli government hid the casualty rate from the Israeli public. I mean, this happens again and again and again. No one really has that hard, adult conversation while the crisis is still happening….
Well, you can, look at South Korea or Japan. You have places where you did have the adult conversation. It's not perfect, but not every country was this bad.
So I just published that thing, and I’ve said this before and I do mean it, I really thought: This is the end of my public career, I'll be canceled. I felt I'd be treated like an anti-vaxxer. Who am I to go on the pages of New York Times and say, the CDC and the World Health Organization are wrong because I wrote these thousands words? But I said everything they were saying was wrong.
Let's be clear, because you've written several pieces here, this is the mask one.
Yes, the mask one, the first one I wrote. I thought, this is the end of my public writing career. But I thought, I’ve got to do something. A lot of things are bad about academic tenure. But to make the startup analogy, it’s a way of funding lots of different things. There's going to be tons of failures, but that's also how you can take the big swings, right?
Being an academic with tenure meant I could do this. I would have done it anyhow, even if I was borderline homeless. Though to be honest, I like to think I would have done it regardless. But it was a moment in which I had access to The New York Times opinion page, and I could survive being canceled or just go back to not having any public presence. It's a pandemic: If not now, if the point of tenure is a job for life—a privilege given to me—so that I can speak out even when it's not the popular thing to say, and if you're not going to exercise it, then what’s the defense of it? You're supposed to take risks.
Everything we post now is basically a high wire act between cancellation and virality.
I know, it's exactly like that. So I wrote that piece and I got flooded with medical people, doctors, public health, people saying: Thank you, somebody needed to say this. Of course, the back of my mind is like, why me? This is the thing with institutions: it's very often hard for the people within it to voice stuff. So I got contacted by people within the CDC and lots of other people. And some of it has been publicly reported that it was like a tipping point, it just opened the floodgates. Because the arguments were not that complicated. After I did that, I thought great, put this on my tombstone, I am done. But, again, I'm just reading the research and plus I have contacts in Hong Kong and I have a lot of respect for their infectious disease specialists. I started seeing this clear evidence in epidemiology that the transmission is occurring indoors. By April, it was pretty clear: you have these studies, and they're all indoors and in clusters. And here they were closing parks! Now if you know anything about epidemics, harm reduction or sociology, you know that if you make it impossible for people to socialize safely, they will socialize unsafely. Because the idea that people will not socialize for a whole year, they won't have weddings, or funerals or parties, or any of that is not sustainable: it's just not going to happen. So I started writing things like, can we stop doing things like closing parks?
While all that was getting read, I was shocked at how much of the science that I was reading. Countries like South Korea, Japan and Taiwan and what they were doing wasn’t being translated or communicated or understood in either Europe or the US. I don't understand why people think Europe is much better; they were using the flu playbook rather than the SARS MERS playbook. So I thought, okay, you know, what? I'm gonna try, like, I'm gonna try to sort of be this person that synthesizes this evidence, because it wasn't like I could just talk to experts and report their consensus, because experts couldn’t agree that there was no agreement.
I do this weirdo thing which is to be the amateur epidemiologist and sit and read a hundred papers and talk to all the experts. I created a system out of asking: what am I getting wrong? For my ventilation piece, I hired my own fact checker and said: Please poke holes in this. I had my own fact checker before I even submitted to Atlantic's fact checkers. When I felt I was confident I said, look, there's airborne transmission happening. One of the reasons it wasn't being communicated was the healthcare community was afraid of saying airborne to the public. In a healthcare setting, airborne transmission requires certain precautions, which can be a little alarming; they were afraid people would hear airborne and freak out. And I thought well, you can define the term, it’s not like the public really knows what ‘airborne’ means. They're not healthcare workers already familiar with the term and if you're afraid they're going to misunderstand it, once again, the job is to communicate the correct understanding rather than infantilizing the public.
After that happened, that got read a lot too. People in the healthcare community started sending the article to US and European officials, and lots of other public health authorities, including like the CDC Task Force, felt more pressure after that article.
At this point, I'm in disbelief. I'm kinda like, this is ridiculous. This shouldn't come down to a few people pushing these things. This is the failure of the CDC or the World Health Organization, who should be doing the synthesis and telling us what to do, rather than being pushed by people like me or the scientific community. Then I wrote one about clusters and their central role three days before the White House cluster. That was kind of funny, but it was bound to happen the way they were acting. So very bizarrely, I have become someone who writes these synthesis articles.
Speaking of writing, because you've mentioned The New York Times, The Atlantic and and now you recently launched your substack Insight. So you've clearly got various outlets and various parts, and I don't believe for a second you're going to stop Zeynepping—I just verbed your name—jumping into a field and proving the experts wrong and then convincing consensus opinion to follow you. I think Zeynep will continue Zeynepping. The question is where and how? So, what's this whole Substack versus Atlantic thing?
There's going to be a point at which I feel about my own work the way I feel about some older scholars: you should quit while you're ahead, right? The problem is you never know when that moment is, everybody misses it. So I have some requests out to friends to put a pillow over the keyboard when they notice that right? That's the best thing you can do to a friend is to cut them off from the keyboard as soon as possible after that point. But given this pandemic, and some of the things I've done, I feel I'm not there yet. Now, of course, this is my nightmare: I'm going to always think I'm not there yet, because nobody ever thinks they're there yet. But I have so much stuff that I want to talk about that I don't have an outlet for. Because when you write for The New York Times, or The Atlantic, you're supposed to have the conclusion, right? You're supposed to have the ‘nut graf’, and this is my claim. But there are so many important questions in which I can argue like three sides of the same thing, and none of them are necessarily wrong. None of them can even be wrong, because some of these things depend on what we do. Some of it is just pure luck. Some of it is like, I don't know. And there's also lots of values that are in conflict, like with the free speech arguments. Nobody is a pure, free-speech absolutist. There's no single, obvious answer, even though I think this is where the line should be. It's just never straightforward, and I don't have a place to go with the complexity and ambiguity and the doubt and hash it out.
One of the things Substack is doing for me is that they subsidize an editor, which is fine. It's always good to have an editor, somebody to say this doesn't read well. And those are the kinds of things that make writing better. I could just be my own person, I don't really have a research assistant right now because while it seems to aid productivity, it lowers quality. I want to do the reading myself. I thought: I will do this experiment, and we'll see if it works. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. If it works, it'll give me space. I could literally write an article a day, I have so many things I want to say.
Yeah, I know. I'm opinionated. But I don't want to always do Twitter threads, and there's no downside to it. As far as I can tell right now, and you're doing it too, and who on Earth knows but I'm not going to stop writing for the public public. But only when I want to and when I have something to say. Then at some point, it will become a perpetual motion machine in which I will write the same op-ed every week…
And then you’ll be Thomas Friedman.
Yeah, again, all I want from from my friends, if I did anything right in the world, somebody will stop me. Because it’s so hard, nobody stops themselves. I have huge respect for anybody who says, alright, I'm over my productive time, I'm going to now enjoy reading rather than constantly opining about things I don't necessarily understand.
Nobody does that.