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“A lot of people are held to a standard that isn't about actually being a good person or a good moral person. It's about being a success. Having kids, buying a house, doing that, being known for this. It's all about these things that are not really judgments of a person, they are LinkedIn things.”
Ed Zitron is the CEO of EZPR and a writer whose newsletter, Where’s Your Ed At, is worth subscribing to. A unique combination of media expert, prolific writer, and internet shitposter, Ed has more recently published (in my opinion) some of the best dissections of workplace culture and personal branding online. Also, dude loves to barbecue.
We spoke for about 45 minutes
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VFD: How you been? How's your day?
Ed Zitron: My day’s going pretty well. I just spent half an hour playing piano because I’m a freak.
VFD: Yeah? How long have you been playing piano?
Ed Zitron: I have a coordination disability called dyspraxia, and so anything coordinated is a problem with me. So anything like that, which requires hand-eye coordination, usually takes either 100 times more work than most people, and/or some form of arcane way of making it work, which is actually how I did it.
I have a bloke on Fiverr that I pay like 45 to 50 bucks a song. He puts it into this software called Synthesia, which is kind of like Guitar Hero for piano but is a full featured thing where you are playing the keys. It's just… I can't read music and I'm never gonna succeed. I tried to learn piano four or five times across my life... failed miserably. And then I did this. This random bloke in Pakistan called Randy has got me further than four celebrated teachers, because he's just getting me songs I actually like.
VFD: Yeah, yeah. Have you been doing that for a few years?
Ed Zitron: No, I started doing it in November. I've been trying to learn piano a lot in my life. Because I can sing, kind of.
VFD: Oh, yeah? Been in a band at any point?
Ed Zitron: No, no, no...I've had other stupid jobs like “games journalist”.
VFD: Yeah, right. It's quite interesting, the way you’ve gone from journalism into PR, but you have managed to maintain an attitude of – I don't want to put words in your mouth – but hostility towards certain parts of the media.
Ed Zitron: Yeah, I mean, I have hostility towards forces that I consider to be manipulative or shitty, and that usually simmers down to other PR people. And their problem is on Twitter, they consider Twitter a PvE (player vs environment) game, and I consider it a PvP (Player vs Player) game. And thus I treat them as such.
But in all seriousness, I'm not actively trying to go after anyone at any given time. Anyone that I regularly call out, I try and punch up. I try, as tempting as it is, to not quote-tweet people who are clearly just one person being a dick. I try my best at least.
VFD: How did you make that change, then, from games journalists to PR?
Ed Zitron: Well I hated England, but I love my job. So I love games journalism. It's the best job I've ever done. Also, consider the fact that it was before Twitter existed.
Anyway, putting that aside. I love my job. It was great. I hated England so I’m like: I'm gonna go into public relations. I'd read a few books, it sounded like a great job.
It was a complete fucking lie. Everything in the books was a lie. Complete bullshit. None of the things that they said happened, and all this bad shit happened instead.
VFD: Like what?
Ed Zitron: Well, they describe it in these books like: Oh, yeah, you're gonna talk to journalists, and they’ll love to talk to you. Wrong. Immediately wrong.
And also: You'll always have really good clients. There'll be people that journalists want to talk to. Again, just complete bullshit. And nothing about relationship development, nothing about knowing stuff, just bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.
And this is the PR industry, though they would rather pretend the world is different so that they can feel more important and stop tricking 20-year-olds into taking jobs they hate. But I stuck with it because I didn't want to leave New York. And now I like it.
Well, I was in New York at the time - Las Vegas now.
VFD: Right. Why'd you move?
Ed Zitron: I've moved around a lot. I moved to New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, got divorced, came to California. Then: a wonderful wife and child, and I was like: I'm running a business from home, I'm a homebody, and I like Las Vegas. I just want a bigger home and I stay at home all the time. So it's not like I was using all the things that California is known for all that much. And so we just went here and, of course, it was for tax reasons as well. Like: I'm not gonna lie about that. If you could pay a lot less, wouldn't you? And I run my business online anyway, so it was like: Sure. And it's been fantastic. I love living here.
VFD: How’s that been, running a PR business online for... how long?
Ed Zitron: Eight years or there-abouts. Nine years? Yeah.
VFD: Has that changed? Has there been a change over that eight years?
Ed Zitron: It's become more accepted, for some reason in the last year, to run a remote business. PR has actually stayed a lot the same. It's fine to write to targets, to pitch to targets, to get the target to write about the client. That has stayed fairly consistent. What's changed is where you pitch and who you pitch to. But that always happens. PR people make a lot of farty noise about how: Oh, it's always changing. It's like: you can keep telling yourself that, but it mostly comes down to: can you read stuff, can you know stuff, and can you talk to a person? Can you put an email together that people will read and go: Oh, I get it. That's good. It’s ultimately much simpler than they make it because PR people want to pretend that they're rocket scientists.
VFD: Yeah, it feels good, right? Wouldn't you?
Ed Zitron: I don't care. I feel important when I get paid. And I wrote about this today – this kind of Calvinist work ethic of startups in particular – but it applies to PR as well.
I care about feeling important enough to get paid, and that the bills are paid. If my job went away, but everything was paid for, I would not be hurting. I wouldn't be like: Oh, no, I have nothing else of value in my life.
Now, I imagine that yes, there’d be the psychological difference of: Oh, I don't have the thing I do everyday. But at the same time, if I was a writer and writing full time, I would feel that loss, which is why I started my Substack again.
Last November, my wife was like: You are depressed. And I’m like: congratulations, she can see things. But she said: No, you haven't been writing for a long time. So you've got to get back into it. So I did my Substack again. It's been great and actually great for my mental health as well. That was an extremely long answer to a completely different question, I apologise.
VFD: It's good. That's all right, it's conversation, right?
So your Substack: how do you flow that into your current workload? Because you are, at least in my mind, pretty regimented. And I don't know, maybe you're just smarter than me and better at it. But the depth of what you write - and the length of what you write - doesn't seem like you just sit down and start typing.
Ed Zitron: I do. That is the freak quality. I literally sit down each day. The difference is that today, with this whole religion of startups thing, that was in my head yesterday.
For the most part, I sit down and I go: Hmm, what's happening today? What pissed me off, or what intrigued me? And then I start writing. I don't think I'm the best writer in the world, but I definitely think I am a B+ extremely fast writer. When I was at Future Publishing with PC Zone, I would do freelance all the time, because it has never been difficult for me to write.
I've never found writing difficult. I have found coming up with something to write difficult. But that's fine. I can deal with that. But for the most part, especially with the substack, it just comes down to doing something every day if you can.
I’m gonna look up how many words I wrote today, because I use this thing called Stacksearch - it's really good. I'm that much of a psychopath that I need to have that. But I wrote 1800 words today. Took me about 30 minutes. Forty minutes, maybe? And that's just how I write. I've always been like that. I'm not gonna win any awards, but shit gets written.
I'm turning into one of those Mark Wahlberg memes where it's like: Oh, yeah. 9am: answer emails, 10am: play piano, 11am through 2pm: calls, 3pm: Peloton, 4pm: lifting. And somewhere within there is my Substack.
VFD: Oh, yeah. What was it again? 4am: Pray.
Ed Zitron: That shit rules. It’s so funny that he's just like: pray! Just the ultimate kind of identity religion shit that some Christians do. It's like: I must tell everyone. That's how they know I'm religious.
VFD: OK, so I feel like we've jumped ahead a bit. Tell me about England – because I think it's funny that you were like: I fucking hate England. Because I don't hear that a lot from English people. Maybe I just don't hang out enough with English people. Where were you in the UK?
Ed Zitron: I was in London. I grew up in London. I grew up in White City, and then moved to Hammersmith when I was older. It's like West London. And I just never liked it. I love my family, I'm very close to my family. But I never got on that well with British people, the only friends I really made.
I didn't have a great secondary school experience – I loathed my secondary school. I've still got issues I'm working out from it. And that, I think, did cover a lot of it. But also it's just miserable weather and everything's expensive. It's just a miserable, expensive country. There are good things there, I'm sure, but it's not for me.
The weirdest thing is Americans trying to convince me to like England. They'll be like: oh, but haven’t you seen this? Like: yeah, I fucking lived there, I know. I don’t need you to tell me: Oh, but have you tried the curry? Yes I’ve tried the fucking curry. Jesus Christ. Oh, what about soccer? Who gives a shit.
I feel like a lot of British people, the general national attitude is “love to complain, don't do anything about it”. And I don't mean that as a boomer-millennial thing.
Up until recently, you could move to anywhere in Europe. And the transcript will not show me giving the big sarcastic thumbs up there. But you could literally live anywhere else, for the most part, and you chose to live here. That is terrifying to me. And it may just be that when I was growing up I started experiencing the whole thing that everyone experiences in the millennial generation of: Oh, the upward mobility thing they all promised us is complete dogshit. You're never buying a house.
I got very lucky. I grew up lucky. I have some privilege. I will never declare myself anything unlike that. I have my uni paid for, I lived with my parents. They paid for everything, I was very lucky. I worked hard, but at the same time I was enabled to be able to work hard by having almost zero risk. And that's the thing that pisses me off with people who talk about: Oh yeah, I'm a big success just from hard work. It's like: hard work only? That’s like playing a game on easy mode. Are you just here for the story? Just admit that to yourself.
But England to me is just – especially having lived around America now – I don't see anything there, other than my family, that I want or need. I don't feel like there is a British culture anymore. I feel like we are somewhere between pretending we're a multicultural society and having some of the most vile racism in our past and our present, and because we think that we got passed that we don't acknowledge the fact that the British Empire is one of the top three massacre factories and racism factories. Not that America is much better. But where do you think America learned that from?
I guess England is the Michael Jordan of atrocities and America is really just like the Kawhi Leonard. Very good, but never really got the reps in. They haven't got as many rings as the disgusting shit that they've done merits. So I've never felt great nationalistic pride. Actually I take that back: Wales was the country. I did two years of uni in Wales, one year at Penn State. I feel a pull and a love for Wales. The Welsh people are wonderful. Everyone I knew in Wales was so nice, and there's a warmth and there's a pride there in the beauty of Wales and the culture. But what is British culture? What is it? Complaining. Fucking complaining and humidity.
Here’s another thing that Americans should get through their fucking skulls: England isn't rainy and dark, it's overcast and humid, which is way worse.
VFD: I’m just loving that this is like -
Ed Zitron: Yes this is the “England Sucks” hour. It’s like the shock jock radio thing of just insulting England. I'd love that: AM Sports Radio, but for countries. Staten Island guy calling in about Serbia. Anyway, I’ll stop.
VFD: Did you do, like, media studies or something?
Ed Zitron: I did. So I was in Aberystwyth. I was starting out in drama because I wanted to be an actor because I made many stupid decisions, and I'm an extremely dramatic person. And then I was like: Oh, wow, you people are crazy. I can never keep up with you. You are all dedicated to this, many of you for the wrong reasons, and I will never enjoy this. So I went into what I thought would be an easy subject, which was Media Communications. A mistake.
Not a bad mistake, but a mistake, because Aberystwyth is a school which has a celebrated semiotics professor, a guy called Daniel Chandler, who was incredible, but it was not a half-assed thing. It was all about the perception of media more than the media itself. And that was fascinating.
None of this was useful for public relations, not a single thing. Not a moment of my education, other than the understanding of deadlines.
VFD: You don’t think it helped you understand journalism and media and the way you deconstruct it…
Ed Zitron: Nope.
It gave me a social upbringing, which was necessary. And my first year in Aberystwyth was miserable. So I guess it gave me the cynicism that makes me a winning businessman. But it's something where I think my education was necessary but not productive for my work. Maybe as a person, perhaps. And most of the public relations knowledge I have I just learned from messing up, which is fun...or watching other people mess up. I guess that’s life in general.
VFD: Did you have a PR job with some kind of corporate entity before?
Ed Zitron: Yeah, my first job was with an agency, which was fucking terrible. Just awful. And my second job wasn’t much better.
Then I went to a diamond company for six months for some reason. I was like: Oh, this is somehow worse. And then I started my own thing, because I started doing some simple maths, and I was like: Oh, wait, I can make a lot more money running my business than doing the thing that they're paying me much less for. Just do that. And I did. And here I am. A dyspraxia ADHD guy, with a mild grasp on reality.
VFD: Yeah. I have this memory of hearing about you. I feel like everyone I know from online, which in itself is a painful thing to say aloud, but everyone I know from online, I have a distinct moment that was the first time I heard about them, or the first time someone told me about them. And for you, it was when I was with James Hennessy,
Ed Zitron: Ahh, Hennoooo.
VFD: And I was like: Who’s this Ed Zitron guy? And he's like: Oh, he's a PR guy in the US.
And multiple people have just, well… That is how you are known.
Ed Zitron: That’s about it. Well, apparently, the other day, someone introduced me as a Substacker, which is very funny. Don't give me that power, I will run with that. That makes me very happy.
VFD: So much of your writing and your Substack is about the construction of workplace culture and the construction of the media, right? Do you ever think about going to work at the New York Times or something?
Ed Zitron: Oh, god no. I fundamentally disagree with the way in which The Times conducts itself, in particular with the way that they fail to protect their journalists. I do not think I'd take that job.
I would absolutely write a column, though, but I would absolutely lose it after the first one. Just do 900 words about how...I don't know: “The new Scooby Doo movie is an insult to Hanna Barbera and culture itself” and just immediately get fired. Just articles deleted one hour in.
VFD: Do you have an interest in trying to physically move media companies yourself through your skill-set, through PR, and just take over and be like: No you idiots, this is trolling, this is not working, your approach to defending your journalists is wrong.
Ed Zitron: Apropos of the source material off of my Twitter feed, and to quote the Joker from the Dark Knight: Do I really look like the kinda guy with a plan?
I think that’s how he says it in his weird Tom Waits style.
But I do not have a plan. I am writing this entirely to work out my brain. I don't mean that in the kind of solipsistic: Oh, I'm so smart, my brain must get muscular. It's more that I am genuinely happier when I do it. It makes me feel like I am intellectually engaged with something. It makes me think about the world a bit more. It's a good exercise, and I enjoy doing it, and people enjoy reading it, so it's a win-win.
I would love it if the media company read it and actually treated their journalists better, in the case of the numerous newsroom things I've written. But for the most part, I do not have any grand strategy, as you can tell from the fact that my writing within the last two weeks went from “remote workplace” to “culture” to “the religion of work”. Like, it's just: where is my brain going today?
In fact, today's piece about religion and the religiousness and the Calvinism of startups is very much indicative of me thinking about things more and being like: How do these things actually meet in the middle? Which I usually do not do. I’m usually just like: Hmm. I'm mad at this today.
I do not plan. I do not outline. I am a psychopath in that I post directly into the CMS. I click “new post”, and I just type. And I type and I type and I hit send. There's something about the Substack UX that's super satisfying.
It's funny, actually, because I didn't really write on it until I got COVID. I got COVID in November of last year, just after Thanksgiving. And so I found myself in this position where I was isolated from my family. Luckily, I have a separate part of the house that I could go to.
Everything that I was doing I was trying to stop myself thinking about what happens next. I didn't have a severe case but I had one or two days where I was like: If this gets worse, even a little bit, I'm worried. And it didn't, thankfully. But those days in particular and beyond, I needed to occupy my brain as much as humanly possible. So I started the rhythm of: I'm going to write every day. I'm just going to do it. I’m going to exercise this.
I would say it took me a few months to find any voice or audience, which was difficult. And I had a good friend, Matt Weinberger over at Business Insider, he's a dear friend of mine. And he gave me advice that was basically: write more so that you can work out what works. And the only way to work out what works is to give people lots to read.
I'm paraphrasing, because he said it way smarter than that. But it seems so obvious. It’s like: yeah, write a lot and you'll see what people like. And occasionally I'll post something – I wouldn't say I've posted any stinkers – but I will write stuff and be like: Oh, OK, yeah, that didn't really hit...
Like today's thing: I'm pissed off because I know it didn't resonate as much as I wanted it to. But at the same time, it's not entirely written to get a huge amount of traffic.
What's funny is, looking at my substack, it looks like it took until March of this year to actually work out what the fuck I was doing. Like Chunky from “I Think You Should Leave”. I had all winter to work out this time and I actually have a decent sized audience now. Never gonna charge for it.
VFD: Yeah, you get good responses too. Well, not good responses, but,
Ed Zitron: Engagement.
VFD: Engagement, yeah exactly, every comment…
Ed Zitron: Oh the comments are great. There's a guy right now who responded with: Oh and you should get the government to do everything? Is that what you're suggesting?
And I've just been responding with: What? What? And my latest response is: I’m sorry, your post isn't coming through, can you post that again? And I hope he responds and does it again so I can respond with “both of deez nuts” and block him from commenting.
If someone is coming on my web page and starting an argument I'm not going to treat them with respect. They don't treat me with respect, they should not expect that back.
VFD: You sound kinda like a mob boss or something.
Ed Zitron: No, I'm just an agent of chaos. It's more that I've been on the internet for a while and I know there is zero value in a discussion in the comments. It's not that they're good or bad, but what's going to happen? They're going to argue with me until one of us realises they're wrong, it will probably be me, and then what? Do I have to delete the comments? No! I'm just going to assume I'm right and just deal with them with disgust.
VFD: Yeah, on the internet, you never have to be wrong. It's alright.
Ed Zitron: Never have been, never will be.
VFD: As someone who's crafted an audience for themselves, and an engaged audience, and created a cadence, what do you think people get wrong in the production of what they write? If it's newsletters or if it's blogs, or whatever else.
Ed Zitron: I think with substacks, I've seen a few writers go from a full-time job to a Substack. And I think there's a few things there where they've relied on their audience a little too much, and so they've had a baked-in audience and a baked-in income, which is great.
And like, for them, you should go out on your own, but they don't seem to have calculated whether they could actually output enough. That is the biggest thing I've noticed. And I say this in a very privileged position where my Substack is not my income yada yada yada. But when I started writing regularly I committed myself to at least three times a week. It’d be a weird week, if I'm below that, and usually trying to go for four or five. I knew I could do that.
If I put myself up to that knowing I couldn't, I never would have made that decision because I know myself well enough to be like: OK, I'm not going to put myself in this position of it just being shit.
Like, I'm not going to ruin my own life because I must do this.
I feel like there are some people who have gone full-time who just don't write enough. They charge five bucks a month or something and they don't write regularly. And I get that this is hard, but maybe you should have thought about that before you went full-time.
I also think that there's just a lot of duplicative stuff - and I say this having duplicated other people's work by accident.
It's like PR people. Every PR person I've ever fucking seen who’s done a substack is like: Trends of the day! And it's like: first of all, wrong person to do it, because it's a white person. Like, I'm sorry white people, we’re not on the fucking forefront of trends. And it’s all TikToks that people have seen four weeks ago.
There's a lot of round-up substacks and it's just chum. There's nothing to them. There's just links to links with links to other links.
I should be clear, I do not mean Deez Linkz by Delia Cai. Hers is great. Hers has some ruddiness to it and there’s content. Today in Tabs, fantastically done. These are ones where they are great curators.
But there are people who do substack who I think that they think they have to. I do it because I want to, and I can stop whenever I want. I don't have to do it. I do it out of pleasure and, thus, I think the quality is better.
I also think it would be vastly different if I was paid. I think, like anything with social media, people do it because they think they have to. And I think that there are people who have jumped into it because they think they have to, which is a bad reason to do anything unless it's like: my house is on fire!
VFD: Yeah. How much do you think of that is the romantic idea of it, right? Where people like journalists and writers are in media getting paid 15 grand a year to torture themselves online, and they're like: Maybe I can figure this out?
Ed Zitron: That's not what I mean though. That is partially what I mean, but not fully. I mean the ones who made the leap with some audience. They’ve got the audience, right? They know they have the audience. There are so many who have the audience, but not the output, and they think that the writing will just come. That is the case with me because I have brain damage. I am weird. I have always been a fast writer since I was a kid. And I am lucky but I'm also very strange. If I had 25 ideas in a notepad that were good, and good enough, honestly, I could have 25 straight days of content, no problems. Bang that shit out. Wouldn't even need to think about it, just do it. But that's also weird.
This is not an arrogance thing, this is just how my brain is. Conversely, I don't think I'll ever write something that's New York Times-worthy. Or who knows, actually, fuck that. There's tonnes of shit on there. But there's really great journalism being written. I'm never gonna be like that. Never gonna be that good.
Like Libby, she's fucking great. I'm never gonna write shit like that. Even Henno, a gifted and comedic business writer. I know I'm not going to be that good. But also, I'm not really aspiring to be that good. I'm just putting stuff out there I think is interesting. Like: someone will read this.
I just think that people assume with substack that the writing will naturally come without realising that editors and colleagues actually help fuel some of it. Not the ideas, but the structure. They tell you if an idea is not great, or they keep you working. They say: Hey, I need you to have an idea now because there is a deadline coming up and there's pages to fill. And that's the magic of it.
I think that people just assume: Oh, so if so-and-so is able to do it… Well, they have like 92,000 awful ideas. So of course, they’ve got plenty of content. Anyway, sorry.
But they see people like that, and these guys are, to actually paraphrase Henno, “professional thinkers”. All that they do is go Hmm and then they take a subject they barely understand and fail to understand it, at length.
But no, I think that that's where Substack is different. It is the ultimate self-starter thing, and that is both great and scary. And I think that is why it will not dominate traditional media because at that point it's just a way of giving industry to freelance journalism that has never really existed. And that’s great. That is fantastic. There are some people on Substack who were making good incomes, who are just able to write the shit they want to write. Sadly, there's also the other side.
VFD: What would you say as someone who has for almost a decade now run your own shit right, and done it remotely. What would you say to people, particularly in media or surrounding professions, who are thinking about doing it? And with your experience, what are things to avoid?
Ed Zitron: What, with the substack?
VFD: No, just in general. Running your own thing.
Ed Zitron: Basically, in all cases, assuming “if you build it they will come” is a natural way to fail.
If you are assuming that this will just work because you're so good, that is the wrong way to look at the world. You need to have a pipeline, you need to have an audience.
I'll give you an example: Charlie Warzel, he started his own thing. And I've given him shit before, but Charlie is great. And he has 173,000 followers on Twitter – that's at least indicative that he had enough of an audience to start out on his own.
But there are people who start businesses based off of an idea that they have not tested, and then it fails. And they're like: I don't get it. It's such a good idea! But they didn't check whether people would pay for it. They assumed people would pay for it. They assume things about people. You assume, you assume, you assume and...nothing happens. You're like: Oh, shit.
And also, at least in the Substack side, it is fucking difficult building an audience. It’s just tough. But also, I'm not doing a paid Substack, so what do I know? And as far as business goes, I worked on getting pipelines of business so that I could have more business, otherwise known as new business. And also do something at the right price.
I don't know. Most of my business knowledge is extremely pragmatic and mostly just like: be good at something and do it as quickly and efficiently as possible for the highest amount of money. And there is no magic there, it's just that I got lucky and found something I was very good at that people pay for. And that's really it. It isn't that subtle. It should be. But at the same time, I don't care if it's not subtle. It is Bertrand Russell, it’s a brute fact.
VFD: Let's just talk about your online persona and how that meets your real world persona or if they’re the same thing. Because that was something I think about a lot too, which is that you post Joker memes and tell journalists to go fuck themselves, basically.
Ed Zitron: I don’t do that that much.
VFD: Not explicitly. You disagree with people in media.
Ed Zitron: Sure.
VFD: Politely, and with evidence, amongst many things that you do.
But how do you balance that with the potential that, as someone in PR, it's built on relationships, right? And they're gonna Google you and be like: What's this guy doing? What are these Joker memes?
Ed Zitron: So the thing is, over the years, I started out the same way as all PR people: extremely gun shy, I don't want to offend anyone. Then I realised it does not matter. Sure, you don't want to be messaging the FBI saying that you're going to finally “take out” Hong Kong Phooey. But you generally can be yourself. And as long as you're not just acerbic...
One thing I see a lot on fucking PR people's profiles is they talk about coffee, doggos, wine and whiskey and they say they're sarcastic. If you have to warn people you're sarcastic you're just rude. You’re just a rude person. Because sarcasm is just excused rudeness. Anyway, getting away from the question.
I am mostly the same person online and offline. It is terrifying to people because they meet me in person and I think they assume I'm going to be a little more timid, or I'm just going to be normal. And I can be normal. I can be normal all day if I have to.
VFD: Famous quotes from normal people. I can be normal!
Ed Zitron: Yeah, the classic normal guy thing is saying I can be normal whenever I want. But that's the thing: I am myself and online seems a little more chaotic than it is. I will go right up to the line with shit but I will pull back if I think this might impact a relationship, or this could alienate someone, or this could be a business source. Or I just don't care because I don't want that business, I don't need that connection, or I don't want that connection. The cost is not worth it for me.
If I have to pretend to be pro-Raytheon I'm not going to change my life for that. So the Joker meme stuff is stuff that I find funny. I get clients who asked me about the Joker memes. I have had one client that I didn't get because during the proposal process I made a tweet that said: We at Ed Zitron would like to apologise for an intern who used this account to tweet “Fuck a suck a ding dong”, it will not happen again. And I was flying the guy from New York and I was ready for this pitch. And then they emailed me and said it's not happening because the CMO found that tweet. And I was just like: on one hand, I was very angry. But on the other hand I was like: this would be a hellish client to work for.
If you look at that and you're like: Oh, yeah, he said “fuck a suck a ding dong” online. That's not someone we need. It's like: if that is the matrix through which you qualify business partners and you're not running a church, you’re just looking at the wrong things.
But I’m mostly just myself, and if my primary goal on Twitter is to have fun and hang out and my secondary is to make connections with journalists, being myself and not a machined version, and with a personal brand that I've hammered in there, it's exhausting to pretend to be someone else I don't have the energy to be. I'm not really good at lying. It's exhausting, it drains me. I don't want to do it, so I don't.
It’s way easier to just live my life honestly. And yeah, I won't say certain things. I don't just share every single thought – you’d think I do based on my tweets – but I don't share every single one.
And the only enemy I think I've made in the past has been Andreessen Horowitz it's based on the fact that Benedict Evans, one of their partners, had a tweet about carpet stores, complaining about San Francisco not having a city block-wide carpet store. I feel bad if he actually took this offensively, but I think I said something really mild about carpets and they blocked me. And I made fun of him seven or eight other times. But also in a very mild way. Like, in a way that was not a personal attack. I don't try and do that. I don't want to hurt someone deep down. It's not who I am and it's not fun. It's the kind of stuff that if you do it a lot it begins to darken you. It makes you miserable. So I avoid it and mostly I just dick around.
VFD: Did you realise that through experience?
Ed Zitron: I've had a few times in my life in the past – not recently, but a few years ago – in 2019 I was having a rough year, actually worse than 2020 I’d argue, and I was just getting into continual arguments with people. I had a friend DM me being like: Why are you so angry? I'm like: I don't know, but I've never really thought about it. I was like: Huh...it really doesn’t matter that much. And it wasn't a brain genius moment, it was just like: I gotta do things differently, this is exhausting.
VFD: Yeah, yeah, for sure.
Ed Zitron: Like: this is just exhausting and it's not a good way to live. And I think everyone falls into it. Everyone gets in a bad mood and they want to just beat the shit out of something or someone. And it's better to just live lightly jabbing people, because people get just as mad and it's way funnier.
Like, when you lightly jab someone and they go: WHAT DID YOU FUCKIN SAY? That's so much funnier. Because it's just like: why do you care that much? And so I just have more way more fun now. I’m way more positive. But I also don't pick fights with people who I know will just ruin my life.
VFD: I mean, that's good advice, I think.
Ed Zitron: Yes. Always good. Try not to ruin your own life through your tweets.
VFD: The time’s kind of spinning on so I won't keep you much longer. You mentioned personal branding before, and the cult of personal brand, and when I think about your Substack the moment that I think I started seeing your newsletter a lot more was when you wrote that piece about how building a personal brand is bullshit and just destroying everyone in the world. Is that something you had in your head for a long time?
Ed Zitron: I’d actually written it before. Not the whole thing. But I'd written those ideas in an op-ed, years ago, back before I would argue I was that good of a writer. And what's so funny is that’s my third most popular post, and God's honest truth I wrote it on a whim. I was like: Huh, that's interesting, I'll go with that, why not? And it went crazy.
I think what I wrote today about how the bleeding Protestant work ethic… look it's an aberration of Capitalism. I’m not a pro-Capitalist, but it barely resembles Capitalism because it's about cult of personality, and we live to work. And I feel like personal branding comes from that, which is: we have to change ourselves physically to work, we have to dress a certain way, and we have to have a certain level of physical health depending on our work. With personal branding, it’s: we have to show a different self and become a different self to be better to work with. Which is an insane way of thinking when you say it like that, but lots of people do it. And that's why you see the “doggos coffee whiskey” thing. Every male PR guy is like: Whiskey! Sports!
This is not anything other than people trying to fit into boxes. It is trying to resemble the people they see as successful so that they may be like them. And it is a pressurised situation that I feel is a symptom of a larger problem: that it's very fucking difficult to get a job and live. I think that is where all of this comes back to: it is more difficult to get a job and live a decent life than it has ever been. And people do not know why that is, or if they do, it's a very harsh way to look at things, which is that the world is deeply unfair and rigged in favour of those of privilege.
And also, a lot of people are held to a standard that isn't about actually being a good person or a good moral person. It's about being a success. Having kids, buying a house, doing that, being known for this. It's all about these things that are not really judgments of a person, they are LinkedIn things. They are things that you would put on a resume, or a CV, depending on what you're reading. And it's something where personal branding is just breaking one's back to fit into the working world.
Sure, there's a basic thing of have a decent LinkedIn profile for decent work, whatever. But it's beyond that. It's creating a persona to be seen externally, and not just to work. It's for everyone. It's for what you need in life. And it's depressing. It's deeply depressing. And it's something that is poisoning young people. It’s poisoning them because the world is getting more unfair, harder, and there are no lifelines.
But there is a culture war going on around whether people should be given anything by the government and whether they should be treated with any dignity. And the counter argument to that, or argument they’re making, is this idea that: Oh, well, everything that is earned is earned through work. Which is a fallacy, obviously. Much of the world's worth is got through luck or family. It sucks to say it, but it's true.
I think personal branding is just a symptom of a larger problem. It's a symptom of a society that is lacking purpose, because purpose has been connected and welded to work, and work as a result is no longer just about making money. It’s a flywheel of neuroses.
It's a horrible world to enter into as a young person. I was lucky my dad and my mum raised me to like people who are good people, and dislike people who are not, even if they're successful and famous. I find it 100 times more loathsome to look up to Elon Musk than a Kardashian.
VFD: Right. Because…?
Ed Zitron: Not because I think Kim Kardashian… Actually, she just did an Armenian Genocide awareness thing recently. Like, that shit: there’s barely anything Elon Musk has fucking done.
But in all seriousness, Elon Musk made a kind of car which apparently he wasn't even the founder of the company. And the Kardashians go on TV and they're famous for being famous. Elon Musk is famous for having a lot of money, and now is famous for being famous, too, but famous in the right way. Why is his way right and their way wrong? It's because we have connected working with morality.
And this isn't about the spuriousness of fame and all that, it's just that we see work as so important, more important than ourselves, and that is a fucking problem. And it's because the world is so expensive and ruled by people who no longer have to live their lives in the way that they used to, which required a bit of work for a lot of return. Now, it's a lot of work for a teeny tiny return and probably not a mortgage.
I connect a lot of things to people not being able to afford houses or live a decent life. I think that is the core problem that society doesn't want to deal with, because we need to buy 90 different drones that have knives in them to kill one guy who is using a gun that we sold him a year ago.
VFD: Do you see that changing?
Ed Zitron: No. I am terrified. I have a kid. And he’ll probably do alright because I’m putting aside money now for him, because I'm prepared for an increasingly unfair world. And I hope something changes and I believe it can change, I just don't know how quickly it's going to happen. Until we work out what the fuck is going on with housing and health insurance, until we work that out in America...
People talk about a violent revolution from The Right. Sure. Like: that is clear and present because they're all scared of white people not being by-default the winners. But young people getting radicalised is also gonna happen because they have no opportunities, because everything is hard. And every time they look up to an older person, the old person's like: Just work harder. I worked hard. When I got my first job in 1984, back then you walk in you're like, “Hey there can I job?” And they’re like: “Yes, I like your moxie.”
There is hope that people are talking about it more publicly and people are more aware of what is going on around them, but they are also more easily lead. And it's just brutal. It's such a brutal time. I just want the world to be better, but I don't know how it gets there without such a significant change in how society is run and how people exist.
The current housing crisis is so much that people are worried that the bubble is gonna burst. People should be more worried it doesn't. Like: very basic things like that. I'm also the son of a housing guy so that's how my brain works.
VFD: Geez, well, this is a very fun way to end.
Ed Zitron: Yeah, just a positive conclusion.
VFD: What do you do for fun?
Ed Zitron: I play piano, I bike, I lift. Those aren't really fun. I just do them because, I’ll be honest, I’m a homebody. I stay at home. I have a nice glass of wine, watch TV with the wife, spend time with my kid, watch movies, play video games. I am lucky enough to be making a lot more than I used to as a kid, and I mostly do the same shit I did when I was 19. I love it, it's great. And I think that is how I'll always be. I mostly just do that to relax.
I work 9-5, but again, I’m very lucky. I'm very, very lucky. I always say that I worked hard but I also had the ability to work hard. And so I spend a lot of time just watching TV, playing video games, spending time with my family. Some might call my life boring but I think it's awesome. I go online, I tweet something about how Dr. Facilier from “The Princess and the Frog” was a victim and then I turn off Twitter for an hour, see if anyone responds, and delete it if they don't. Good shit. I find Joker memes posted in India where they don't make any sense. It's fucking great.
VFD: How’d that start actually?
Ed Zitron: Very, very simple. I was at Thanksgiving in 2019, I was a bit drunk, and Michael Hudson - who is a very, very funny gentlemen - I forget what his account is these days, but he has a Patreon. Please, please subscribe to his Patreon. It's incredible, it's wonderful, you should pay him. But he finds stuff. And I don't know what it was, I think he may have posted an image with the Joker on it. And I was like: Joker quotes, why not? And I found several extremely bad ones and the best of them are like someone stepping up to the plate and instead of hitting the ball, they throw the bat as far and as hard as they can. It's always this level of gravitas and deep moral meaning with just dumpy typos and grammar. And that's important. I’m not making fun of people's English so much as I’m making fun of them posting this and clearly being like: Damn, I'm so fucking smart. Damn this is deep. Yeah. Don't be a whole of ass. These things that are just so awkward to say but they’re like: Damn I’m smart. If I don’t feel like that for a minute, I don’t post it. I'm not here to punch down with people. I can't speak or write in any other language, it’s not making fun of that. I am going to make fun of someone choosing to write in a language and then wants to sound profound and ends up sounding like an AI. It's very funny.
VFD: Well, I assumed a lot of them were AI.
VFD: Yeah, you got to understand what you enjoy doing online. That's what we've been talking about, right?
Ed Zitron: Yeah, exactly.
VFD: Well thanks, dude, I really appreciate your time.
Ed Zitron: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.