Culture

NYT Tech Reporter Jenna Wortham on Twitter, Girl Crushes, and Creating Intimacy Through Emoji

Culture

NYT Tech Reporter Jenna Wortham on Twitter, Girl Crushes, and Creating Intimacy Through Emoji

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This article originally appeared on Styleite.

Jenna Wortham is the New York Times technology reporter and the spirit animal of anyone who grew up with the internet. A living testament to the fact that tech is cool, Wortham stands right at the intersection of cutting-edge web developments and pizza cursors with pixie dust effect. Her Tumblr is where Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie #inspo meets the Beyoncé #soundboardt. Her Twitter has more followers than some of the Real Housewives (go humanity!), and she wears emoji like a hot accessory (see above). We pinned her down to discuss girl crushes and dispel the myth that that we’re all turning into a bunch of anti-social Facebook addicts.

How did you start writing about technology?
When I was in college I was pre-medicine and I used to do biology and all these different things, just because I was very good at science in high school and I thought I should pursue that when I graduated. So I tried to but it wasn’t ever a good fit. I interned at the NIH in the U.S. and did a semester abroad at the National Health Service in London. I really thought that would be the most viable career for me, mostly because I was the first generation in my family to go to college, and I felt very much like I needed to come out with a very viable career. The more I pursued that path I realized I wasn’t really interested in becoming a doctor, but I did like the idea of being on the cutting edge of what was new, and I had always had a passion for writing and reading. So when I was in my last year of school I enrolled in a class called Grassroots Publishing. We basically put out a magazine every semester, and it really opened my eyes to realize I wanted to be a writer and produce magazine-type content. This is around 2005, so I wasn’t really thinking about writing on the web yet, but it got me on that path.

After I graduated I started interning at a bunch of different places including San Francisco Magazine, a women’s magazine called Girlfriend, and doing all kinds of writing — culture writing, entertainment writing, celebrity coverage, book reviews, movie reviews. I finally got an internship at Wired, and once I landed there I realized that was the best intersection of all my interests — music, entertainment, and tech. If somebody had said to me “Do you want to cover technology?” I would have said no, because I would have thought maybe that meant coveringIBM or Microsoft. But I came to realize that at that time, covering technology meant covering the way I lived — using an iPhone, jailbreaking an iPhone, being on Twitter, on Facebook, doing all these things that now are really commonplace but that in 2005/2006/2007 were not.

You have a very active Twitter following — how often do you check Twitter throughout the day?
I usually work and check Twitter throughout the day. I don’t look at it all the time — I definitely love to be on Twitter, but it’s not productive, it’s fun. It used to be more of a place where you would definitely find out about news and breaking news before anybody else, and you’d write about it. When something’s happening I’ll check Twitter because TV is slow and takes a while to update, but it’s not the place it used to be for tech scoops. That said, I still look at it a couple of dozen times a day. It’s a nice 30-second break between reporting or writing.

Can you tell us a bit about the Emoji Art and Design Show you helped organize in December?
A couple of my friends have a company called Forced Meme Productions. They haveHallowMEME, which is where all the costumes are based on your favorite internet meme. I’ve been going to that since I’ve lived in New York. With this project they reached out and asked a couple of people who knew a lot about emoji to help them conceive a three- or four-day art installation and series of talks about emoji, but also about communication in terms of the way we live now — what it means that we’re always talking to each other through a screen, and how emoji has a way of humanizing what could otherwise be part of a cold medium. I was part of a committee that worked on putting out a zine that was sold during the event, that collected pieces of art and essays on emojis. I didn’t do as much as the organizers, but it was really fun to be on the board.

Did you see the emoji version of “Drunk in Love”?
Of course, oh my gosh – Beyoncé is my number one topic. I’m surprised people still follow me, I tweet about Beyoncé probably more than tech.

I know, I usually end up posting a Beyoncé story every day and often have to check myself. So you also edit a zine called Girl Crush. Why did you decide to do that in print rather than digital?
That was a one-off thing that we did a few years ago. My co-editor and I are good friends, and met online through Twitter. She’s a writer and an editor — at the time she was working for The Paris Review, the web version. And while I do write for paper, there’s so much extra stuff that goes on the web, or on Twitter or Instagram. So we were talking about the idea of creating something that was tangible, that you could hold in your hand. There was something really thrilling about that, because so much of online publishing is ephemeral. You see a few tweets then they’re gone, you see a couple of posts on Tumblr then they’re gone, and there’s something I love about making an artifact people can hold in their hands. Even though I mostly read news on the web, I still love holding the newspaper in my hand and having paper in a physical form, because there’s something tactile about that. But the funny thing was that even though we made this print product, it was still just as ephemeral. There are no more print copies for sale — we only made a limited amount and they’re all gone. So it’s kind of cool that we made this print thing that was just as ephemeral as anything else.

So other than Beyoncé, who are some of your girl crushes of 2014?
1. The girl behind this site.
2. Rihanna‘s Instagram.
3. Abbi and Ilana from Broad City.
4. This author.
5. KelelaSZA, and Blue Ivy.
6. And the girls who run The Hairpin, love them!
7. Also obsessed with Kate Upton in space!

I was going to ask you what you thought when people say technology negatively impacts how we interact with our friends in real life, then I read your NYT article about the logic behind Facebook buying WhatsApp for $19 million and thought you summed up my thoughts about it when you said, “we still crave to communicate in small groups and often with one person at a time.”
I think there’s a very real conversation to be had about the sociological or psychological changes in our behavior because of the way we communicate online. But I just don’t really buy the argument that digital communication is eroding our ability or desire to interact, I think it makes it stronger than ever. I’m online constantly, but I still love seeing my friends in real life, and I think it makes me value them more because I know how precious it is. I really think a lot of those statements are overblown and a little bit cliché. There have always been cautionary warnings with new technology, throughout the history of time. I’m sure when books came out people were worried that people weren’t going to tell stories. I’m not saying the claims are unfounded, but I don’t think they’re that different. I don’t think people are going to be damaged because they spend time online. I’m in a long-distance relationship, and it’s kind of incredible that we are pushed to find newer and better and more intimate ways to communicate and interact with each other, because we aren’t face-to-face all the time. Emoji is just a part of that — how do we communicate more deeply through a screen?

I agree 100%. Most of my friends are in Australia, and it’s so hard to find a time of day when we’re even both awake let alone when we can actually talk on the phone. But when we do, if there has been texting and Facebooking in the meantime it makes the “real” conversations feel more intimate to me.
I fully agree. That said, I’ve been working on this internet radio show called Heartline with my friend Steven, and it’s been really fun to rediscover a form of old media like talk radio: people listening in, and following along, and Tweeting about it. It’s a very tiny audience, I’m probably talking to about five people — but there’s something really cool about just finding all kinds of new ways to interact. New ways, old ways — I like all of that.

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