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Spaghetti, meet wall

Kevin Roose
Kevin Roose
A newsletter about life among the machines. Written by a human, sent on Sundays.

Hi, friends.
This is the inaugural issue of my newsletter, And you’re here, reading it! What a trip.
For context: Like every other writer in America, I am trying to figure out how best to get my ideas out into the world in the year 2021.
There’s my Times column, of course, which despite being a 170-year-old technology is still among the loudest and sturdiest megaphones a guy could ask for.
But there are so many other vectors for ideas: Podcasts, newsletters (hello!), Twitter threads, Instagram stories, Twitch streams, YouTube shows, LinkedIn posts, TikTok duets, Zoom webinars, and more.
I have a book coming out soon (more on that in a bit). And as I’ve been trying to figure out how to promote it, I’ve realized that for the first time in a long time, I have no idea how to game the attention economy.
When my first book came out in 2011, the path to getting people’s attention and selling lots of books was clear: Go on big TV shows (Oprah and The Daily Show were the book publicist’s holy grails), do a few NPR interviews, score a positive review in the Times, and you were set.
By the time my second book came out in 2014, social media was overtaking the traditional book-selling channels, and getting attention required a new, internet-focused strategy. So along with doing a lot of TV and radio, I spent months hawking on social media, and writing posts for outlets that had big distribution on Facebook, like BuzzFeed and Business Insider, in an attempt to siphon off some of their algorithmic juice. (Strangely enough, the thing that landed that book on the bestseller list was something I hadn’t planned for: a New York magazine excerpt that got posted on Reddit and went to the top of r/all.)
I didn’t publish a book during the Trump years, but some friends of mine did, and they told me that the strategy for selling nonfiction books was more or less “crowbar yourself into the Trump story somehow.” The media’s obsessive, wall-to-wall coverage of the Trump administration was great for the Michael Wolffs and Bob Woodwards of the world, but pity the poor writer whose book on, I don’t know, the history of Nintendo had to pray for a gap in the news cycle or attempt an awkward bank shot. (Did you know that Steve Bannon once owned a gaming company?)
Now, a decade after my first book came out, I’m gearing up for Book #3, and I don’t think anyone really knows what works any more. I’m doing a bunch of traditional press, and a bunch of podcasts, and even experimenting with buying some social media ads. I gave a TED talk, and I’m writing a piece for the Times next week, and hopefully some of these things will move the needle. But who knows?
I used to feel like I had a sixth sense for internet virality – probably the result of running a news desk at a media outlet that was dependent on Facebook for the vast majority of its traffic – but I honestly can’t tell what’s going to get people’s attention now. The internet has fractured the attention economy into a million micro-markets, all of which mobilize in response to different stimuli. For one book, a popular Clubhouse chat might start the snowball rolling. For another, it might be a Joe Rogan appearance, a viral TikTok, or a NFT sale. (Side note: should I tokenize my book?)
In a way, the mystery of today’s attention economy is a blessing. I get nervous about self-promotion, and it’s freeing to know that no one TV or radio appearance is likely to make or break the book’s prospects.
At the same time, it means that much of what I’m doing amounts to throwing spaghetti at the wall, and seeing what sticks.
That’s a fun mode for me, personally, but I understand how it might make other people – including the marketers whose jobs are to sell books and movie tickets and laundry detergent for a living – a little seasick. People used to know how to create buzz. Now? Buzz just materializes somehow, somewhere, and finds us, if we’re lucky.
What are we doing here, exactly?
This newsletter is not a marketing ploy. (Well, not entirely.) Sure, I would love for you to buy my book – *QVC voice* Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation, out March 9 from Random House, preorder here for a 30% discount! – but I’m more interested in using this as a space for experimentation and testing out new ideas in a different register than the one I use on Twitter or in the Times.
When I talked to the folks at Revue about starting a newsletter, they pointed out (wisely, I thought), that a book is a fixed point in time, and that writing a newsletter could allow me to have a more open-ended conversation about the ideas I’ve been researching and obsessing over for years, revising my predictions and expanding my scope to include things that happened after the book went to press.
There are other reasons to start a newsletter, too – some involving getting away from the incentives of social media and creating a more direct relationship with readers – but the main reason for me, if I’m being honest, is that I just want a space to be a human on the internet again.
I got asked by a podcast host this week if it was a self-help book, and my answer was: literally, yes. I wrote the book, in part, to help myself prepare for the future. I was worried that my own skills were becoming obsolete, and I wanted to figure out how to avoid losing my job to GPT-3, or some other journalist-replacing AI, while also figuring out how to live a happy and balanced life among the machines.
One big, overarching lesson of the book is that in order to survive in the future, we need to focus on developing uniquely human skills, and stop trying to succeed by out-hustling each other, learning to code, and life-hacking our way to glory.
This newsletter is part of my attempt to practice what I preach, and create a more human space for myself to think in public, outside the warped Skinner box of social media and the institutional borders of the Times. So that’s what I’ll do. Every Sunday. I’ll show you what I’m working on. I’ll tell you how my week went, and what I’m thinking about for the next week. I’ll link to a handful of stories I found interesting, and keep you in the loop about what’s happening in the world of AI and automation. You might even get some dog photos, as a treat.
This is not going to be a best-of-the-web link roundup, or a comprehensive overview of tech news, or even a newsletter strictly focused on AI and automation. You could categorize it as a tech newsletter, I guess, but that feels a little narrower than what I’m hoping to do.
Soon, I’m going to write something more like a manifesto and a proper newsletter introduction, about What I Believe and What I’m Trying to Do Here. (I’m going to steal this idea from my friend Casey Newton, whose “how I see the world” post I consider the gold standard of putting your cards on the table.) I’ll also begin sketching out what forms this newsletter might take, and what kinds of ideas and themes you’re likely to find here.
But that can wait. It’s sunny in Oakland, the plum tree outside my window is starting to flower, and I’m going to take a walk outside.
A few things that happened this week
– My TED talk went online (and already has 500,000 views! what!)
– My finished books came in the mail, which was surreal and exciting after two years of staring at it as a Word doc
– I wrote a column about Clubhouse, and why it feels like the early, go-go days of Twitter and Facebook
– I was quoted in a Vox piece about the future of QAnon
– I hosted a Clubhouse chat with my colleagues Ben Smith and Andrew Ross Sorkin, which drew more than 1,200 people, including some big-name hitters from Silicon Valley, and turned into a 3-hour colloquium on the relationship between tech and media (no link, because Clubhouse rooms disappear, but follow me there @kevinroose if you want to get alerts about the next one)
– My dog got a tooth extracted (he’s fine, if a little droolier than usual)
– Most importantly, my mom and brother got vaccinated!
Action items
– If you like the vibe of this newsletter so far, feel free to pass it on. It’s free, and all are welcome.
– If you have suggestions for topics I should cover, people I should interview, or other newsletters I should shamelessly borrow from, just reply to this email and let me know. I’m new to this, and could use all the advice I can get.
– Join me for a Reddit AMA about my book, at 9 am Pacific this Thursday, March 4. (No link yet, but I’ll put it up on Twitter when it happens.)
– You can pre-order the book, which comes out a week from Tuesday (!). Pre-orders really help, since they count toward first-week sales, which help determine order sizes and bestseller lists and other stuff I don’t pretend to understand. If you do pre-order, shoot me a note with your mailing address, and I’ll send you a signed bookplate as a thanks for jumping on this newsletter bandwagon with me early.
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Kevin Roose
Kevin Roose @kevinroose

Notes on life among the machines.

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