Today’s eel: every edition of this newsletter is named after an eel. Today’s is the Slender Snipe Eel (Nemichthys scolopaceus). The slender snipe eel can grow to be five feet long, while still only weighing a few ounces (because it’s… slender… get it?). According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, “Snipe eels have birdlike beaks with curving tips. Their beaks are covered with tiny, hooked teeth—the eels sweep their beaks through the water to entangle the antennae of tasty shrimp.” They live in the deep ocean, between 2,000 and 3,000 feet down, and are one of several species of snipe eels who all get their name from the bird who shares a long, skinny beak, the snipe.
Listen, I’m not going to lie to you, I picked this eel because I think it looks hilarious. In every image of it, the eel looks like it just told a really good dad joke. I mean come on:
We all need something funny today, don’t we?
Current status: I’m neck deep in working on the Flash Forward book and it’s both very exciting and COMPLETELY TERRIFYING. Working with Matt Lubchansky and Sophie Goldstein (geniuses, each of them) on this has been incredible, as has seeing the other ten artists in action. I’ve already learned so much about how comics are made. I’m also deep in the writing now, and it’s honestly the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Later on in this newsletter I’m going to talk about ghost-posts from my past, and one thing that doing this book has me thinking about is just how permanent books are. It sounds cliche, but it’s true. Obviously I want to get everything right when I write/make anything, but with a book, if you get something wrong you can’t really fix it. And the stakes just feel so much higher. Which means that for each fact and anecdote I’ve been trying to find primary sources, to make sure I’m 100% on point for everything. That process has been… maddening? You wouldn’t believe the number of anecdotes that are tossed around (even in academic journals!) with little to no sourcing. Or if they do cite a source, that source usually cites another and another and another until you’re looking at a whole year’s worth of fishing magazines on eBay because that seems to be the only way to find the original source for the story. (Yes, I bought the fishing magazines.) Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to these days. It’s a bit like this over here at the moment:
Ghost Posts: From 2012 to 2014 I wrote for Smithsonian Magazine’s “Smart News” blog. It was one of my first jobs out of graduate school, and it wasn’t particularly glamorous. Every week I had to research and file 12 posts, most of them under 800 words. This was the era of aggregation blogs — sites that existed to suck up interesting content from other places on the web, add a bit of extra something to them, and push them out. It was often a raw numbers game — the more content you created, the more likely you were to have something take off.
These kinds of posts are not necessarily bad. The best ones synthesize disparate pieces of news and information bubbling up around the world and reveal some strand of connectivity between seemingly disparate ideas. I wrote a few of those. I also wrote plenty of them that were simply re-upping someone else’s original reporting and essentially going: “huh, isn’t this neat?”
I’m not ashamed of my work for Smart News but I am haunted by it.
Nothing I published was wrong, or misleading. None of the posts themselves are embarrassing. But they have taken on a life of their own.
When I was writing for Smart News, aggregation blogs like it were common. Lots of places were playing the same game. Readers understood, I thought, what they were getting when they clicked. If they wanted more, they could go to the original stories which were always linked to and quoted from excessively. When I was writing for Smart News, I almost never heard from readers.
Now, I hear from them all the time. Today, whoever runs the Smart News ship is doing an amazing job at keeping those stories alive. I still see pieces I wrote eight years ago pop up on Facebook, shared by friends or in groups. I’m credited for them in viral Tweets. And more than ever I’m getting emails and DM’s about them from people who think these posts are equivalent to a well-reported story. I’ve been asked for help with paternity cases and help training dogs and help tracking down historical documents. I’m asked for more details about posts I honestly don’t even remember writing, ones that were more quotations from elsewhere than my own words. I even get requests from news outlets, radio shows, podcasts, to come on their program and talk about the story. Each time I point them to the original reporter (again, linked and quoted extensively in the post) who actually wrote the story in question.
I’m not sure why this is, exactly. Have we all forgotten about aggregation, the specific visual markers of these kinds of posts? Today, the block-quote heavy style we used is rarely sighted online. Or were readers actually never that clear on what these posts were, they were just less inclined to reach out and ask questions? Perhaps the uptick in messages has less to do with the public’s media literacy, and more to do with the idea that getting in touch with journalists is a totally normal thing to do. I’m not sure.
I say that I’m haunted by these posts, but I don’t mean it in a bad way necessarily. More in a literal way. I’m followed by their ghosts, constantly reminded that they exist and that people still read them, and will continue to read them, and ask me about them.
A journalist’s job should never be taken lightly, but it can be hard to internalize the stakes of a 300 word post that is mostly quotes from other places. Especially when you’re writing 12 a week. These ghosts remind me that everything I put out there matters. Every person who reads my work, no matter how long after I create it, is doing so because they’re trying to find something out about the world. And I have a responsibility to them.
Right now my ghosts are friendly. But if I fuck something up, they might really turn into ghouls.
What I’ve written/done recently:
I’m updating the Podcast Idea newsletter weekly! Check it out if you like weird (often bad) podcast ideas.
At WIRED I wrote about why we never talk about animal privacy.
I was on an episode of Ologies, truly one of my favorite podcasts!
I’m still making weird ceramic sculptures!