Very Fine Day #3: Rusty Foster
"You don't necessarily know the extent to which a project can turn into that when you're 23-years old and starting something on the internet."
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Very Fine Day • Season 1 • Edition 3
Rusty Foster is an early internet explorer and the creator of the daily newsletter Today in Tabs. In 2014, Today in Tabs was described as “the high school cafeteria of New York media”, and “an afternoon cheat-sheet to the online obsessions of mostly 20-something New York mediaites.” However, by 2016 Foster had ended the project.
In the beginning of 2021, Foster announced he would be restarting the newsletter.
We spoke on January 23, at 4:00PM PST, 8:00AM AEST, for about a 30 minutes.
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VFD: Something that was big to me about doing VFD, and from what I’ve seen from your newsletter you have done it too, is that you release it in seasons.
Rusty Foster: You like the seasons?
VFD: Yeah I mean, I just don’t know how I’d manage to do it otherwise. I don’t have the stamina to post every day… I mean I tried to a while ago but it’s just exhausting.
Rusty Foster: Yeah I like the season model.
Rusty Foster: …When I got going with Today in Tabs I basically was doing March through July.
It was, like, five months. And then I would take August off. And I did September through the end of January, so I was doing five months on one month off.
There would be Season One – which wasn’t really called “Season One” at the time. And I did that for the first Summer and then I took two months off. I took like July and August off of it for that whole summer. And that was too much. But it was nice to have a long break. And like, y’know,
VFD: Yeah I feel like in general – especially now – and I was going to ask you this: Your newsletter Today in Tabs kind of erupted, it seemed like for the first time [in 2014], when people wanted to talk about newsletters and be like newsletters are back!
And I know back then you were like, well, newsletters have kind of always existed, as marketing tools or otherwise. And now I feel like we're just going through the same thing, and everyone's just like yayyyy!
Rusty Foster: I mean, it's a little bit different, because social media,
VFD: There's a hunger for autonomy from writers more so than back then I think.
Rusty Foster: Yeah,
VFD: Okay, cool. So, recording seems to be good. Gotcha.
I think the context for why I reached out, I guess, is that when you brought Today in Tabs back this year, everyone I know was like: It's back! Yay!
VFD: And I think when Tabs first was around I was 19 and had just started working on the internet all of the time. So I wasn't fully aware of what was going on. And I just saw this, like, eruption of interest in this thing. And then I tried to find out stuff about you and about Tabs and there's actually, like, not much out there. Which might be deliberate by you, or it might not. You actually get more information keyword searching on Twitter. But yeah, tell me about yourself: What have you been up to in the last, I guess, four years? Five years?
Rusty Foster: Yeah, closer to five. Um, Alright... So I started Today in Tabs and then I started at Scripto at about the same time in 2013. Scripto is a company that makes screenwriting software, basically. So it started off as an in-house project at “The Colbert Report” and they were trying to replace this thing called the ENPS, which is AP’s newsroom control system, basically. It’s for writing scripts but it was more for controlling all of the machinery in a newsroom, like the demo machines and the camera feeds and all that stuff.
They were using that at “Colbert” and at “The Daily Show,” mainly because they were being run like news shows, but they weren't really news shows. They're fake news shows. And it turns out that fake news shows don't really need to run a lot of controller machines. But what they do need is a way for writers to comfortably write together. So they were really struggling with AP’s very sort of basic writing tools.
So the project was like: let's rebuild what we like out of the ENPS. And let's replace the script editor with something that we can use that’s more like Google Docs. So they built something based on Etherpad which was an old, open source, collaborative writing software. And they started with one of their writers and a couple of part time freelancers that they hired off of Reddit, like literally hired off of Reddit. And after a couple years they were running the show on it and “The Daily Show” was like, we want to use this.
John Oliver was just about to get his own show on HBO and I knew Rob Dubbin, who was the co-founder and was a writer at “Colbert”. I knew him from Twitter and from the internet – we had mutual friends and stuff. And he was just looking for somebody who would take a dive into this random project and just figure out if it could be a company or if they could even expand to “The Daily Show” or what it was gonna be.
And at the time, I had just started Today in Tabs and I was syndicating it to… Newsweek I think was the first one. And that was some income but it wasn't a living. And I was also working for another software company but that was like they were moving in a different direction. And so it all kind of came together right before Christmas in 2013, when my official employer told me that what they wanted to do was cut my hours in half or something like that. And I was like, yeah….
And I had one very stressful weekend. And then the Monday after that Rob reached out to me and was like, hey, I've got this weird project. And I was like: Yes! What is it?
I think I literally agreed to it before he told me anything about it. So for a couple years, I mean, the whole time I was writing Today in Tabs, I was also working on building Scripto. And it was -
VFD: What like a programmer engineer?
Rusty Foster: No, actually not. I had been a programmer, I had been just an individual contributor kind of programmer before that, and I wanted to stop doing it because programming is super boring. Programming for the web is sort of like solving the same problem over and over again, with different tools as time goes on. There are people who love it. And again, it's like, wonderful to see them, but I'm not one of them.
I like programming for what it lets me do. And not for the, sort of, inherent puzzle solving nature of it, which I always found, like, incredibly tedious. Yeah. So I wanted to get out of doing that as well. And that's the other thing that was appealing about Scripto – that I wasn't hired as a programmer. I was hired as like: I talked to clients, I gathered requirements, I hired a team, I supervised the team, I helped with deploys, I ran ops by myself early on, y’know, I babysat at the servers for a long time. So I got to do a little bit of everything, which is nice…
VFD: So how long did you do that for?
Rusty Foster: I mean, I'm still technically employed with Scripto for another week. So since then, basically. So for two and a half years, I did both.
Meanwhile Tabs grew to be more of a thing.
Originally it was like I would spend 45 to 60 minutes a day on it. I read Twitter all the time but I didn't do a lot of intentional curating or collecting or anything like that. And I can't leave well enough alone. So it just grew to absorb more and more of my time. I started doing interns, I had other people working for me, I was managing and producing an email and a web version every day. And I was managing relationships with advertisers who are paying for the interns. And it was… it was a lot.
And Scripto also grew in those two years ago – we brought on clients and we were supporting “John Oliver and “The Daily Show”, and “Samantha B” and “Colbert Report”, and then I was basically the on-call support the whole time. So it was like, every night, we had four or five major shows relying on the software working.
And it just came to a point where I had to choose. I had to do one thing or the other. And either one I felt like could have been the thing. But I went with Scripto because… I don't know… the 2016 election was coming up and Trump was becoming the only vehicle anybody could talk about.
Rusty Foster: Yeah. I actually had to go back and look because I remembered it being 2015. But it was like the end of January 2016 when I stopped doing it.
VFD: Do you regret quitting Today in Tabs? In hindsight? Or do you wish you'd continued?
Rusty Foster: No. I mean, I don't regret it. I have had a great run with Scripto since then and I'm excited to get back to it… but I don't regret taking the other road and seeing where that went.
Rusty Foster: If I had not been able to come back I think maybe I would have regretted it.
VFD: Yeah, that's what I was gonna ask – did you do a hacky computer thing that reinstalled your following? Or are you starting again from zero?
Rusty Foster: No, I mean, it was originally on TinyLetter. The TinyLetter still exists. Honestly, the email list grew by, like 40% or something since I stopped.
So in five years if you don't send email to an email list, it just keeps getting bigger, as long as there are subscription forms somewhere on the internet. It's when you start sending email to it that people unsubscribe, which is the weird anti-incentive to email. No, but you can still go to it and it tells you to go to Substack. But you can just export the email list and import it to Substack. And that was really the big thing that changed since 2016: In 2016, there wasn't any obvious way to make a living writing a newsletter. You could build your own subscription infrastructure if you wanted to, like all the pieces were there, but you'd have to build it yourself.
VFD: Yeah, like culturally as well. It used to feel like people weren't quite ready to even throw up $1 a week or something. Whereas now, I read a thing that Ben Smith wrote recently, that was about the top Substack newsletter, which is, I think, a history and politics teacher at a University. And she just started going, and now she's making, y’know, a pretty decent living.
Rusty Foster: Yeah,
VFD: So you brought it back, and the response seems to be that everyone's really excited about it. And I could be reading into this too much. But it also seems like it's obviously a particular crowd and that a lot of that crowd is New York City, or what was the New York City mid-2010s media bubble. And you're not in New York City are you?
Rusty Foster: No I’m in Maine.
VFD: So was that kind of weird when you were doing it, and when you're doing it now, that you're writing this daily thing that all of these journalists and writers are absorbing every day and using it as a dictation of what they read or what they check out. But you weren't necessarily in the same bubble? It was almost like you were influencing from the outside.
Rusty Foster: Yeah, I mean, it's different. It's definitely different. I mean, that scene existed on Twitter and I don't think – if you lived in New York and worked in media at the time – I don't necessarily think it was clear how much that scene actually entirely existed on Twitter. Because people would go to parties, and they would go to bars together and stuff like that. But it wasn't… I knew some of them.
There was some some technology crossover and stuff. And I love journalists, like, I think journalists are great people. They're really fun to hang out with. They're always smart. They're always curious. They're my favourite people. And I’ve not been a working journalist ever. But those are naturally the people that I would follow on Twitter and the more you follow people and talk to them, the more you are sort of part of the scene automatically, just because you're around and they follow you and you follow them.
And then to some extent, it's just like… No, I wasn't in New York. And nobody knew who I was. But I was also part of that scene because it was there on social media. And then I started writing Today in Tabs. And then at the same time, all of our Scripto clients were in New York, and so for the first two or three years I went to New York almost every month for a few days at least. So I did end up actually going there a lot and meeting a lot of people when I wasn't going to TV shows to install the service for them.
And what's funny with starting it again is that I deleted my Twitter since then. I have a whole new Twitter – which I did start essentially from scratch. I needed to do less social media for a while because that was very distracting and I had a lot more to do at work than I than I had before. So I made a rule, which was essentially that I only follow people that I've personally met that are In Real Life Friends, more or less. There's a couple exceptions. There are a few people who are just so good at tweeting that I follow them because it's worth it. But at this point I'm sort of not doing that – The scene I'm part of now is the scene that is people I actually know.
VFD: Yeah, yeah.
Rusty Foster: And I also have a list, I follow a lot more people with a list. I’m looking at when it's time for me to look at it, but it's not my main feed anymore. So it's not like that overwhelming kind of firehose.
Rusty Foster: So I don't know, that was one of the things I was worried about with restarting: that I'm not really part of that crowd so much anymore. And I don't even know if that crowd exists so much anymore. Like, people get jobs and they leave the industry or they, yknow, they're editors now or whatever. So far, it hasn't really been a problem. I’m not doing entirely the same thing anymore either, really.
VFD: You mean with Tabs?
Rusty Foster: Yeah, I mean it's similar. And the voice is mine because it's my voice but the content is not – and maybe it'll change – but the content is not exactly the same as it used to be. I've heard this from a few people. I didn't do it on purpose, but I've heard from a few people since I restarted it that they understand more of it now. And I don't think it's because I'm writing it more clearly. I think it's because it's less of media scene in-jokes and stuff like that. It’s more – if anything – it's almost more from an outsider's perspective, like, I'm just reading stuff and writing about it.
VFD: Right? So is that because you've just been away, or is it not deliberate. You haven't had a kind of like, mindfulness realisation and decided…
Rusty Foster: I mean, I've been away. But also, I think truly the scene has changed. That first group it started as very much… the first Tabs email went to 25 people, and it was the 25 people that followed me on Twitter. And they were relatively young writers in New York media. So when I talked about Grendan, everybody knew who Grendan was. And like, if I said, Grendan now, nobody would have any idea who that is, right?
VFD: Yeah I don’t.
Rusty Foster: I know you don’t, right.
But I mean, two years later in Tabs, I could still say that and nobody would know what I was talking about.
VFD: So does that mean you've… One of the things that does follow the journey of Tabs initially is that there are a few quotes from you, and interviews with you, about “hate-reading”. Which for me was funny to read, because I think it's just how people read online now. It isn't like a wine tasting kind of thing, like: just do a bit of hate reading. So is Tabs moving away from that?
Rusty Foster: Yeah, I mean that was always kind of a bait and switch. That was always kind of a hoax. Honestly, I still write about things that I read, and I just… Like if I make a particular noise when I read it then I know it’s something that has to be included. Like I’ll read something and go like ughhhhhhhh. Then I know that’s something that has to be included. But that was always maybe 10%. And 90% was stuff that I really liked, or just things I found that were interesting. The hate-reads always got more attention because I think people tend to focus on if you make fun of something and that draws attention. But everybody always wants to be nice. And I don't necessarily care whether I’m nice, but mostly I am.
VFD: Yeah, it’s your voice.
Rusty Foster: Yeah.
VFD: So is it fair to say that you're pretty early internet? And I'm not talking about 2013 Tabs, I'm talking about, and forgive me if I’m saying this wrong, “Kuro5hin”?
Rusty Foster: “Corrosion.”
VFD: Oh Okay. I thought it was like Japanese. I was like, that's interesting. What does that mean?
Rusty Foster: It’s like “Rusty”.
VFD: Ooooh. Right. Alright.
Rusty Foster: It's been a while since I got to explain that to someone. Yeah. Way back.
VFD: Well, what is it? Because there are forums of people that were pretty devastated when it shut down. And it seems like… actually, no, you tell me what it is.
Rusty Foster: It was, Oh, man. So 19… like circa 1998 or around there, there was a site called Slashdot, which I believe still exists. I haven’t looked for a long time and it has gone through a lot of hands, but it probably still exists, because it's forever. But it was one of the first blogs that opened up with Comments – like opened every story with a comments section. And it was really just: they would post a link to something that was online and a couple lines of context about it or whatever. And then the community would comment about it and talk about it. And that was a revelation at the time, which sounds hilarious. But that wasn't a thing that anybody else was doing, really.
So I was into that. MetaFilter started around the same time, which I definitely know does still exist. And an idea that was floating around at the time was – so Slashdot was run by a guy named Rob Malda and another guy named Jeff Bates and a couple of other moderators – basically people who would pick the stories and post the articles. You could suggest things, but they would pick them and post them. And I was like: Wouldn’t it be cool if the community could just like run itself? And this is, y’know, the naive era of the internet where we all thought it would be self-organised and everything would be fine and everyone would be fine.
VFD: Yes, of course.
Rusty Foster: And everybody just thought: Well as long as everybody is a young white man, just like me, everything will be fine, and everyone will be happy! And for a little while everyone was a young white man, just like me, and everything was fine, but then humanity actually joined and things went to hell – which is what we have now. But, actually, let me be clear: the problem was not humanity joining. Like, the problem was people like me.
So the Slashdot code was opensource and I took that code and I was like maybe I can modify this to make it so that people can just submit to an open list and then vote on what is published. And the idea was that people who are obsessive and really wanted to read everything could read the open list. And then people who just wanted to see the best stuff would read what was published.
Their their code didn't really work for that, so I ended up rewriting it, and me and some other people wrote our own, but again, I learned to code to do this so that I could build this site. And not because I was interested in learning programming. And that was what Kuro5hin was. It was never wildly successful but it was, by the standards of the time, fairly successful.
VFD: And how long did Kuro5hin last?
Rusty Foster: 1999 through to... 2015 or 2016. Somewhere around there. But by the end, I mean, it was just sort of on life support. I was ignoring it for all it was worth and then the web host ended up throwing out our servers. And so a couple of years at the end is lost because I didn't have a backup. I think my last backup is like 2013.
VFD: So that's how you know your early internet: When someone physically throws our your servers.
Rusty Foster: Yeah, I do regret that happened. They got in touch with me and I just like, I don't know, I ADD’d it and I just didn't answer. And really it didn't occur to me that they would actually physically throw everything away and not have any kind of way to get the data off them.
Rusty Foster: Because it seemed like a strange thing to do. But that is what happened. I mean the time between then, it was prety dead. There wasn't there wasn't really anything. It was an albatross for a long time. It was something I should have either handed off or shut down a long time before I did. And you don't necessarily know the extent to which a project can turn into that when you're 23-years old and starting something on the internet.
VFD: So I guess like, with your involvement with the internet going quite far back, and with Kuro5hin and whatever other scenes you were in back then, and then looking at the internet now. Is this the way you would have thought it ends up? Are you happy? Are you happy with it, I guess?
Rusty Foster: I mean, yeah, I am. I don't know. Looking backwards I can make my career look like it makes a lot of sense. Like, there's a narrative that I can tell about it that goes like, Oh, yeah, I've always kind of worked on collaboration and projects on the internet that let people get together and like, learn together and work together and stuff. And actually, Tabs is, in some ways, the least like that of anything that I've done. But it is a community to some extent. People will recognise each other and be like, Oh, you too! But none of it was intentional. I never intended that to happen. And I wouldn't have predicted it.
VFD: God. How do you have energy to, like, do everything you're doing? Run these big initiatives and then also do Today in Tabs. Like I said at the top, I shudder at the thought of having to write a daily newsletter on top of everything else I have to do every day. Which also involves curation of a whole bunch of concepts and ideas and thoughts and interesting things.
Rusty Foster: Yeah. I don't… I don’t have energy. I mean, I've been essentially on call for Scripto for seven years as well. Like, if the servers at the “Late Show” die in the middle of the production day I get a text, and it's very stressful. It's been very stressful for a long time. And it came to a point, at the end of last year, it's just like: I can't really do this anymore.
But that was when I was sort of like: What could I do? What would I do next? So I looked for another job that's in like, engineering management. Maybe I talked to some people about that. Nothing jumped out that I was excited about.
And then I had put Tabs away and had just been like: that’s done. I'm done doing it. And for the first time in, like, several years, I thought, what if I did that? What would that be like today? And it was exciting. I was like: oh, that actually feels like really exciting. Weirdly.
Rusty Foster: And I spent a few days where I was like: Could I do it now? So I spent a few days just keeping an eye on Twitter and thinking: what would I do if I had to write it today? What would I write about? And every day? I was like: Oh, yeah, that'd be easy. Like: no problem. I mean there is some muscle memory to it, where I'm like: Oh, yeah, I know how to put this thing together.
VFD: And you never had – you said you hadn't thought about it for a few years – So you didn't have any triggers within the whole Trump takeover of the internet or Trump takeover of America. There was never an urge like “I should bring this back…”
Rusty Foster: Oh God no what a nightmare. No. Like, I hate that guy.
The reputation that I write about the things that I hate reading is funny because the things I really hate I don't write about because I get no energy from it. I'm not excited about it.
There's like a section of things that I go like, ugh, in a way where I'm like: Oh, God, I have something to say about this. And then there are things I read where I'm just like: that sucks. I'm not gonna bring attention to that. And Donald Trump, and everything related to him, is in that bucket.
I wrote about him once in 2015 briefly, and y’know, I went back and read some of the old ones. And he was mentioned more than I remember mentioning him because it was just inescapable. And I occasionally mention him now, too, because it's still inescapable. But I don't enjoy it. I never wanted to write about him. He's just not an interesting subject. He’s a piece of shit. Like, there's nothing interesting to say about it. I feel like four years of his presidency has proven that there's no good comedy to be had out of him. There's no interesting thoughts to be had from him. He's just garbage. He's obvious useless garbage. The end. That’s all I have to say. I just did my whole Donald Trump thing.
VFD: Yeah, on the record!
Rusty Foster: Yeah, so skipping the Trump years was was a really good idea. And I do not regret it.
VFD: Yeah. Okay. And last question I guess is what do you think's coming up in the future? And what could that could mean for Tabs? The internet? America? What do you see on the horizon?
Rusty Foster: Ah, boy, I mean, for Today in Tabs… Like, I'm excited to bring the intern programme back, which I'm gearing things up and trying to figure out if it's financially sustainable first. But so far, looking good. But OK.
It's funny, the thing I've been thinking about recently for Media is just – going back to what we talked about at the beginning – which was what happened to that scene that existed in 2013 and 2014? That was like – I don't know if anybody realised how much it was – But that was like boom times for media. Like: everybody was hiring, and New York in particular was booming.
Fusion was started and a bunch of places just dumped a whole lot of money into media all at the same time. And media goes through a boom and bust cycle for sure. Before that was the 2009 era when Choire Sicha started The Awl, and he started The Awl because there were no jobs in media and he was just like: I might as well start a blog!
And I think to a large extent that early scene was part of the few boom years in media. And I feel like right now we're in the opposite. We're in the trough. People are getting fired, places are shutting down. Newsrooms are closing all over the place. Journalists are desperately trying to unionise – which I think is a wonderful thing. But I guess the things I would love to see are… the sort of media business bust cycles are tough for everyone, but they also… I mean that's where Gawker came from. And that's where they all came from. And that's where a bunch of what became the media boom in 2013 started as – like really crappy shoestring blogs in 2009 and in 2010. And I feel like Substack is a big piece of that right now, where people are going.
I mean, to some extent, you've got your Andrew Sullivans and your Glenn Greenwalds, who are taking their ball off to Substack because they can't stand being edited. But there's the long tail of Substack and that feels more like people who are trying to figure out how to keep a living together in these times. And I'm pretty sure that at least some of them are going to find something really interesting and do something really interesting. That'll go somewhere. And we'll find out where in the next, y’know, five year.
VFD: Well, I hope so. Thanks so much again, I really appreciate it. Have a good weekend.
Rusty Foster: You too.