Very Fine Day #64: Kate Lindsay
"Everything that's written has this pressure that it needs to come to some larger conclusion about society or humanity."
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KATE LINDSAY ~ NO SCROLL TWITTER ~ POTTERY TO KEEP THE DREAD AWAY ~ FINDING VALIDATION ~ TRAFFIC QUOTAS ~ BODY LANGUAGE EXPERTS ~ RUIN ALL CONTENT ~ EMBEDDED ~ THE DEATH OF BLOGS
“You don't know until you've tried to not do it how much you've been conditioned. Making something has to be enough, and not immediately like: I've gotta put it on Instagram and see what people think about it.”
Well, I’m here.
A few things going on meant this edition of VFD was only ready on Saturday, and I figured I’d wait it out til Monday to drop it in your inbox. That means this week you’ll be getting two editions of VFD. Roll credits, launch fireworks, enjoy.
Sad week in America. Sad week in the world. I won’t spend too long on all that - it’s not nice and I reckon most of us can agree on that fact, at least. Fix what you can. There are a lot of broken pieces. I will say a remarkably interesting component on the shooting-in-another-part-of-the-world news cycle is that it almost always will now include the “Australia Fixed It” component about three days in. Guess that’s something to be proud of.
I hope you’re safe. I hope you’re happy. And if not, I hope there’s something in front of you that gets you there.
Our guest this week is Kate Lindsay. Kate is the co-creator of embedded, a great newsletter about internet people and culture. We talked for about 30 minutes about the death of blogging, how to use Twitter safely, and how embedded came to be. It was one of those conversations that flows very well, even at 630AM in the morning. I hope you enjoy it.
That’s all from me.
See you down the road.
VFD: How are you?
Kate Lindsay: I'm good. How are you?
VFD: I’m good. Thanks for doing this.
Kate Lindsay: Yes, thank you for asking me. I have some friends who have been on, so it's fun. I'm going to be part of the club.
VFD: That's good. I’m making my way around - how's your day been?
Kate Lindsay: It's been good. I’m still in that work-from-home life, and I'm a little bit tired of it. But I did do a walk outside, so that's good. Most days I'm just in this little room.
VFD: You're not in the office at all?
Kate Lindsay: No, technically voluntary right now. But the bigger thing is that they're opening a new office, and so that's kind of when the grand — still voluntary — return will happen. And so I'm just waiting for that. I haven’t been in the office now in two and a half years. I'm one of the rare people who miss it.
VFD: Oh my god, I’m the same. I need the office. I'm not good at home - I admit that I cannot work to the same standard.
Kate Lindsay: It’s also just that I don't see anyone all day. I'll see my boyfriend and I live with him, but at this point I see him all the time. I can go days without seeing anyone and I'm like: This isn't normal.
VFD: Oh man, yeah. We went back at the start of the year. Two or three days a week.
Kate Lindsay: That sounds kind of perfect. That's kind of what I want to do.
VFD: What's it like in the United States right now?
Kate Lindsay: Oh, my God, fucking insane. This is a new thing — for the past few weeks, I don't scroll Twitter anymore. I still use it, I go on it to post things, and I'll check my notifications to get that shot of serotonin.
VFD: Yeah, it feels good.
Kate Lindsay: Scrolling Twitter felt like sitting in a bar, trying to read a book, and everyone's having their conversations directly over my head and it would be about just the most horrific shit. And so I was like: Yeah, actually, it would make sense that if I spend my days scrolling — not just horrible news, but people saying horrible things about horrible news — that I would end my day feeling kind of bad. And so I was like: What if I tried not doing that? And now I think it's been three weeks, four weeks. And I do feel a lot better.
But obviously, the news of this week is heavy enough to permeate that a little bit. I still haven't scrolled Twitter, but I obviously check the news and see what's happening. I am grateful that I'm just getting it on my terms, and not the pit of despair that I think Twitter probably is right now with everyone processing out loud. The mood over here, I think, in general, is not great. But I'm glad that I don't subject myself to any more unhappiness than I think I have to at any given moment.
VFD: Yeah, yeah. It's a real cyclical-take-machine at the moment.
Kate Lindsay: Yeah. And I think that for some people it really helps them to process things out loud, using a platform like Twitter, but it hurts me to consume it. And so they're not doing anything wrong by processing out loud. But I can't read it.
VFD: Yeah, yeah. I think that's a generous assessment. It's a lot more generous than I would be.
Kate Lindsay: I know. I try to be considereate…
VFD: I’m like: shut the fuck up… just shut up…
Kate Lindsay: Yeah, I think social media brings out — and not even touching on the way I think social media has made people feel like they have to say something, which is another contributor to all the noise — But my most generous take is that they are doing it for their own mental health and processing out loud and not the more realistic take, which is probably trying to say something that gets them the most attention.
VFD: Yeah, there’s a lot of that.
Well, I didn't really think we’d be starting the interview that way, and it being quite a heavy subject matter, but…
Kate Lindsay: It's weirder to not acknowledge that, I think.
VFD: Yeah, what have you been up to then, in your home, not in your office, not on Twitter?
Kate Lindsay: It’s funny because the thing that's sitting right next to me right now -when I got off social media I was like: Okay, how am I going to occupy my brain otherwise? - And I'm so lame, I'm knitting a washcloth.
VFD: Nice. No, that’s good. Looks good!
Kate Lindsay: So, yeah. I've always been into crafts and stuff, but really leaning into it, in almost a different coping mechanism way of just constantly making crafts, because I need to have something to be doing in idle moments that isn't scrolling.
I've really gotten into making things and trying to see what in my apartment I can make myself. Because I also do ceramics: plates and bowls and stuff. It's all to keep the dread away.
VFD: Does that not drive you mad? No matter what plane of existence you're on, you're making some stuff.
Kate Lindsay: I have thought about that as well. But honestly, the bigger thing that I had to combat was feeling that I needed to monetize what I was making.
Right now, as long as I'm just making and not thinking I need to sell it, that is a victory. I have sold it before. There's actually only one time I sold it where the money went to me and it felt really gross, and it ruined what I enjoyed about it. And so if I do sell it, it's usually to fundraise for something: for whatever fucking crisis is happening in that moment, I'll fundraise.
But the bigger thing that I've had to deal with is making something — and you're really getting everything I talked about in therapy for some reason right now — but I can make something and I can just enjoy it, y’know?
This is all about posting on Instagram. But basically, I think for a while I was making something and then it wasn't done until I shared it with the world and got that feedback of how many people liked it and thought it looked good. Which is the same for making washcloths — it's the same impulse for that as it is for writing an article.
But in order to separate the two and have them not feel like my life is toiling away at projects all the time, I am trying to accept that: finding intrinsic validation in making things. Not immediately turning it into another thing that requires external feedback for me to decide how I feel about it.
You don't know until you've tried to not do it how much you've been conditioned. Making something has to be enough, and not immediately like: I've gotta put it on Instagram and see what people think about it.
VFD: I imagine that is a harder impulse when making stuff online.
Kate Lindsay: Right, because clicks are like…
VFD: They feel good.
Kate Lindsay: Yeah, it feels so good. I mean, that's been a big thing,. Most of my writing career was in traditional, ad-supported digital media, where clicks really were a marker of success. Obviously, on Substack, you see how many people have clicked your article or opened it or whatever. There are still are those metrics — but I feel like it's a place that is a little bit easier to see the value in other forms of feedback, whether it's from someone responding to the email or sharing it themselves.
VFD: But then you’re just chasing that, right?
Kate Lindsay: I know, I know. It's so good. I tried to think about how, especially when embedded first started, there are some pieces that I liked, but then we had such a small audience at the time. And ironically, the reason I was thinking about them was I was like: Should we send them out again so they get more clicks?
I guess it's easier to do with a newsletter because you're in charge of it versus being at the whim of a company, but to be like: You know what, I liked this piece and thought it was good and I'm happy it's out, no matter how many people see it, no matter how it stacks up against the views of the other pieces. I mean, it's only easier because your job isn't dependent on it. You’re your own boss.
I never worked under strict conditions. You hear about places like Business Insider, at least early on, where you had to hit a certain number of pageviews. That was never explicitly said at places I worked. The longest I worked somewhere was refinery29. But it was fully…
Kate Lindsay: The team as a whole had a traffic quota, and it would behove you to be a significant contributor. Even if you weren't individually given a quota, but you could see how well your piece did and how much of the pie it was taking up.
And I mean, the bigger issue — and this is it’s own metaphor — was the way that they would calculate goals for traffic is they would see what traffic we got early on in the year, and that would inform the goal for the end of the year, which meant that you didn't want to get a lot of traffic in the beginning of the year because if we got a lot that would make the bar for summer even higher.
And I remember I think Kylie Jenner's first pregnancy happened in January or February, and normally we'd be like, Oh my gosh, amazing for traffic but everyone was like Fuck, this is gonna make December so impossible, because we're getting so much traffic right now, and then that's going to be the baseline. And you have to make a ton of slideshows and talk to body language experts. Do those easy things that you would grab for surefire traffic.
VFD: It's crazy how people love reading about body language experts. It goes across continents, it goes across beats; political, entertainment, whatever people like — and then if you ask poepl: what do you think a body language expert actually is? Where did they go to school? People just blink at you.
Kate Lindsay: Like, what is the science behind this? It’s all based on how his legs are turned this way, which signifies like this — And it's so crazy because you're like, Yeah, great. And then you're publishing bullshit. But then everyone loves it!
VFD: Yeah, it’s good shit.
Kate Lindsay: It's one of the things where I don’t know if I'm an objective observer for articles online, because I feel like I'm so aware of how the sausage is made.
And I feel like I just immediately see an article and I know what SEO term it is they're trying to get with that. And it means that, if I google something, like a stereotypical Google question, and you just get the same articles from a bunch of websites, it’s like I have to choose, which website I want to reward for their SEO.
I can't even look at it objectively. I'm just like: which website do I want to earn my click for all doing the exact same article? It's just ruined it.
VFD: Yeah, I talk to young people who are trying to get in the industry. And I'm always: when you're looking at stuff online, or when you're watching movies, or any kind of media, try and train your brain to think about how this was made and what you would do different and, directly, what kind of feedback would you give the person who made it? And then I always have to caveat it with: but understand that once you start doing that, there's no going back and it will ruin all content, ruin your experience, forever.
Kate Lindsay: Yeah, I've only just started to be able to. When I was at Refinery, I was an entertainment writer. And so I was very in the weeds of anything Netflix made, all the sort of very mainstream stuff that came out, and I had seen it all. And I've only just started to be able to enjoy being part of that as a viewer or as a consumer.
I still don't watch award shows just because I want to relish in the fact that I don't have to. For three or four years of my life, I had to watch them. I often had to be in office until midnight and get an Uber home and write eight articles about, I don’t know, Jennifer Lawrence falling down the stairs.
A big thing was I couldn't enjoy the supplementary content that comes with watching a TV show or movie, like the podcasts about it, or the theories or the stuff that makes it fun, because I was so often on the other side of that. I couldn't enjoy a thread about theories, because I probably already had to write that SEO article, so I didn't want to consume that.
It's easy to forget when you're writing about theories, and doing analysis of shows, that you’re writing because people want to read it. Whereas you can get really caught up in the fact that you’re writing it because it's part of your click quota and it's your job. There's so many times that I would be writing stuff and I would be like Who the fuck is reading this? Why would anyone want to read this? And it was just because I was coming at it from not a place of being one of many tasks I had to do and one of many shows I had to be aware of.
VFD: That’s a glowing review: It's shit, but it's great if you're trying to re-enter enjoying entertainment.
So tell me about embedded and how that happened, and started, and is a thing.
Kate Lindsay: There's been so many different iterations of it. But basically, when I left Refinery, it was to go start this editorial arm of this company called Influence.CO, which is basically like LinkedIn for influencers. And we were the blog side of it, and it was me and the person who I do embedded with now, Nick Catucci. He was first, he hired me there. And it was just a team of us two, and it was more like daily news that was just internet creator focused.
Our way of thinking about things was to be like a Vulture but for influencers. And so it was a mix of the classic drama, but then culture-y pieces and also advice. It was a bunch of different things, but the company in a very classic media way basically lost a round of funding.
I had known the whole time I was there that they didn't put ads on the site or anything — we were making them no money — and so I knew we were going to be there until they figured out, or realised, this was not making them any money. And so, yeah, they ended the site.
But we were able to work out that we'd like to still keep doing it as a newsletter and so the newsletter was called No Filter for, I think, two editions. And then we were like, Let's just start fresh and do something else.
We finally landed on “embedded” literally just after spitting out internet words. And that was a little over a year ago. We just hit one year.
So at that time, we'd gotten a decent amount of severance, like a few months. And then I was on unemployment but also doing some freelance. But basically, we were just like: let's just pretend that the money we're getting from severance is what's paying us to run this thing, because we wanted to still have something to show to prospective employers. And there was also a question of whether or not the website would remain something that was accessible. And so we were like: we need to make some kind of footprint for what we've done.
I think at that time, it was literally daily — I was waking up and writing something every day, but then I would like fuck off and go to the park. Honestly, I got laid off at the perfect time. It was around this time last year, and so it was warm out, and so I would just write something in the morning and then go read a book in the park. And it was really nice.
I think a few months in we decided to go paid. But we've done a lot of different iterations or new formats or new cadences. Just depending on how our lives are changing.
At first when we were paid, the paid content was all about digital wellness, like what I was talking about with not scrolling Twitter. All in service of that. But then we switched it. Now we have it for interviews, those are paid. Monday is like a blog-y piece, Wednesdays an interview, Friday is the my internet series, which is more Nick's domain where he has someone fill out a survey all about how to use the internet. And that's kind of been the most consistent schedule.
And I'll just usually get it done in the mornings. I wake up kind of early. I think from years of being in digital media places like Refinery, I'm pretty good at waking up and trying something out. That makes it sound like I don't care about it, I do care about it, but I just always write really quickly and if it's not coming quickly, then I know it's not an idea that is working for me.
I tend to figure out what I'm writing as I'm writing it, and I'll realise I have figured out what I'm writing and then edit and cut stuff. But I do just sit down. It's the most chaotic thing — and I'll normally have something that I have in mind and then kind of start to see where it takes you.
But then there are other things. The more recent thing we did was that I basically found someone who was a Johnny Depp stan who was a part of the whole Johnny Depp propaganda thing, but then had done some research and switched over to Amber Heard.
VFD: Yeah, that’s a hell of a sentence.
Kate Lindsay: Yeah, so with something like that, that's something that's more pre planned. I probably found them a week before it went live because there was some chatting with the person and getting their thoughts and then putting it together. When I get an idea that's gonna take a bit longer, I'll be working on that in the background. But more often than not, if it's more just like a take-y thing, I probably just woke up and wrote it.
VFD: Real behind the curtain stuff here. So wait, how long has it been going?
Kate Lindsay: In April it was a year. And it's kind of wild, because I think there were some times we didn't know what it was going to be. For a while it was just: we're gonna do this until we get jobs. But then it kind of grew and grew enough to the point that we were like: I don't think we should abandon this.
And then Nick got a job. And then I got a job. And luckily, the job is together at the Atlantic. So we're still doing it, because now it's become its own thing. But in addition to doing embedded, there's so many things that if I didn't write them for embedded, nowhere else would take them. I wrote them for embedded because I didn't see where they would go elsewhere. Like what outlet would take shorter, more informal, blog posts. I know that’s the cliche - that newsletters are the return of blogging - but it is really, because sometimes what I want to say is not super profound, or even 800 words. Sometimes it's 400 words, and there’s not a space for that other than a newsletter.
VFD: Yeah, I think that you're right. The whole newsletters are blogs thing is talked about quite a bit. But I do think it's the saddest thing about the digital media ecosystem we're in right now: it said farewell to the happy go lucky approach of the 2013 era. Leading up to 2013, probably ended around 2013/2014, you could just write literally 200 words. I remember The Awl would review the weather and Gawker would do dog reviews or something. That that was fun. And now everything has to be purposeful.
Kate Lindsay: And I even find myself feeling like I need to do this with embedded, like everything that's written has this pressure that it needs to come to some larger conclusion about society or humanity. And that can be hard to do when it's not - because there are so many serious things happening - but not everything is that serious!
VFD: Sometimes it's just fine.
Kate Lindsay: I also think that the stuff you consume all day does directly, at least for me, impact how you feel about yourself and the world around you. And I do think that if I want to read something, I just want to read something - I'm hesitant to even say stupid - because it should still make you laugh and entertain you and it's a nice piece of writing. I don't think that's stupid, even if it's about something that isn't Earth shattering
VFD: Yeah, yeah, I feel like we're on the way back there.
Kate Lindsay: God I feel like I rambled so much, I have a problem with a rambling.
VFD: No, it's good.