The Man Behind Tech's Most Captivating Tweets

As the New York Times‘s State of the Art columnist, Farhad Manjoo occupies the tallest perch in mainstream tech journalism. He’s a lucid writer and extremely affable—both strikingly rare charms in tech writing. More importantly, though, he produces one of the most oddly compelling Twitter feeds in media, a stream of straightforward commentary (“But voicemail. Of the things that have been said to be dead and really are — voicemail is one”) punctuated by bracing naiveté (“Are there real people who live/work in live/work lofts? I don’t believe it”) and borderline absurdist snippets of everyday life (“I am eating an unexpectedly delicious Chipotle burrito. Really well done on this one, Chipotle!”). The mix creates not a small amount of dissonance; Sam Biddle of Valleywag has accordingly dubbed Farhad “tech media’s preeminent naif.”

Farhad’s quick ascent from Slate and Fast Company to the Wall Street Journal to the Times has been accompanied by the suspicion, as articulated by Biddle, that there has been “a change in Manjoo over the past year or so—a drift toward Blodgetesque ultra-cluelessness.” It’s certainly true that Farhad’s Twitter stream has only become more gripping over the last year—but has he deliberately changed it? Can he explain the secret of being compelling on Twitter? We had a nice Gchat about it.

Where do you fall on the whole “Twitter is dying” thing? Do you think Twitter has somehow changed over the last 6-12 months? Not in terms of features, which it has, but in the character and the shape of it?

I think it keeps getting better. I was worried that the IPO would push it to become something more like Facebook—specifically, that the feed would become more algorithmic, less of the mess it is now. But so far they’ve resisted making big changes. The one big thing they did was add threaded conversations, and that has made things easier to follow, and more fun as a result… So anyway, yeah, I don’t know if Twitter is dying or not. Its usage isn’t great. It’s a niche service. But for me, that’s great. As a user I love its nicheness. It still feels like a smallish group of people chatting about weird newsy stuff all day long. It’s funny and informative and in weird ways even deep. I’m a huge, huge fan.

Your own Twitter feed is like an object of immense fascination. Sam [Biddle, of Valleywag] talked about it a bit when you started the Times job a few months ago, and I was wondering how you characterized that? How has your own tweeting changed over the last 24 months? Are there epochs of Farhad Twitter?

Yes. And… the thing is, this is hard to say without sound like some kind of tech dope. But in some way I think the person I am on Twitter is the real me. Twitter is the online service that replicates my brain most faithfully. For good and bad! As Sam will tell you. Let me get deeper into this: Obviously saying my Twitter is “the real me” is a loaded thing. We all have shades of personality expressed in different ways. But if (for some crazy reason) you wanted to get a glimpse of how I think, or the things I’m reading that influence how I think, I don’t think you can get closer than reading my tweets. (I don’t know if this is true just of me. Often I meet people I know on Twitter and they’re totally different in real life. And I wonder which one is the more authentic version of that person. For me, the answer is my Twitter version, because in real life, especially with new people, I am not quite myself.)

So would you say there has to be a shift in the way you tweet then, toward a more authentic version of you? (The outside world seems to have decided there has been a shift.) Like Josh [Topolsky, of The Verge] tweeting, “Farhad.” Do you expect that kind of reaction now? Or know the tweets that get them?

I sometimes know which tweets will arouse Sam. But mostly I don’t think I can predict which ones will get the “Farhad” reaction… There has been a change in how I tweet over the last year, I think. But that’s mostly because of my job changes. When I was at Slate I was freer to say anything I wanted. I wouldn’t worry about, say, tweeting something that might reveal my politics. (See my tweets from the 2008 or 2012 election.) But after I started working at the WSJ and then the NYT, I got more careful about that. In part because I was told to tone that stuff down, but also because people react more strong to Fancy Newspaper Columnist says Pro-Obama Thing compared to just some guy at a Website. But that’s been the only conscious change I’ve made to my feed in the last year or so.

Do you still have fun with Twitter? This is what’s fascinated me about the declarations of Twitter being dead, is that the people saying it’s dead seem to be not having any fun. And I admit I get less joy out of what’s in my stream but I still have fun tweeting, which might just be narcissism maybe lol.

I have so much fun on Twitter. That’s mostly because I love news, all kinds of news, and Twitter is the most direct way to get news. Also, I spend a lot of my day alone—I mostly work from home and I spend a lot of the week going out and talking to people at tech companies. Twitter is a way to feel like I work in an open office. I can turn it off, though, which is something you can’t do in a real office. The way I can tell I have fun on Twitter is that I can’t stop using it. It is terribly distracting and I’d be better at my job if I didn’t look at it as often as I do, but though I have tried several times to quit, not looking at it feels terrible. So—does that mean it’s fun? I think so.

You have more fun tweeting than reading other tweets? I don’t think that’s true for me.

Lately! I feel like people are getting less absurd or maybe people are mining for faves? I was actually looking at your Favstar—most of the most faved stuff of yours is actually not the stuff I enjoy the most.

Wow, never looked at that. No, these are not my best tweets. (Some of them are faved a lot because they were promoted by the NYT account. That’s just buying favs basically.)

But I think as to your feeling that the service is getting less absurd. I don’t know. Maybe? I think these assessments are impossible, because Twitter on any given day is like the weather. It’s a reaction to thousands of forces in the news. Some days Twitter will just be worse than others. And maybe a dry spell will linger for months. But I don’t know I’d say it’s getting less absurd or more or whatever. Maybe.

Well, I feel like you have more people attempting to exploit Twitter more explicitly, right, and those entities are not there to have or make Twitter fun or interesting, per se,
like the explainer sites—so deadly serious, so designed to weed their way into your Twitter stream.

I think you’re right about that—there are people trying to exploit it. But what I like about Twitter is how much less effective that sort of thing is than on FB. On FB you have waves of content that are clearly gaming the algo, and when that happens it dramatically changes the service. On Twitter any one tweet is so tiny and easy to overlook that if things get out of hand they never get so…prominent. Terrible tweets and great tweets all last half a second. So even the worst stuff isn’t so bad.

What is your feeling about faves generally? Or faves versus retweets? I feel like I’m seeing a lot fewer RTs and than faves.

Favs—I like them. I used to hate them because I didn’t understand them. There wasn’t a widely accepted definition for what it meant to fav something. But I think in the last couple years that’s changed, so that now it means something like a head nod. I acknowledge the thing you just did. Once everyone sort of settled on that definition favs became useful and now I love them and wish there were favs elsewhere. (Email, crucially.)

A two parter: who do you think is great at Twitter, and who do you NOT want to be like on Twitter?

I donno. I don’t want to duck the question, so I’ll pick someone. I think Matt Yglesias, Joe Weisenthal and Dave Weigel are great at Twitter. But that’s kind of off the top of my head, and I don’t want to put too much stock in it, because in some ways I think that the question of who’s great on Twitter doesn’t really make sense. It’s like asking who’s great at a cocktail parties. There are some people who are better than others, but the fun of a cocktail party (not that there is any) is in the collection of people, not in any one person. I think Twitter is like that. What’s great about it is the awesome unmanageable flood of info any time you turn it on. The medium overshadows the personalities, I think.

What’s your strat for following people? And do you ever unfollow? I know I unfollowed you once when there was a day you tweeted so much I couldn’t handle it and then I forgot to refollow you for a while.

Very low bar, and I almost never unfollow. I probably follow a few new people every day, often people Twitter suggests. I like a big raucous feed.

So you’re a dip-your-toe-in-the-water type. How do you use Twitter day to day, what does that look like?

I check it second thing in the morning (after email). And then all day long. I turn it off when I’m writing, by which I mean I only check it every 30 minutes or so. Otherwise it’s every few minutes. I look at it at stop lights when I’m driving. In line at the supermarket. In the bathroom. I’m hooked.

Also, I feel like it has overtaken my brain, so that I think in tweets. I’ll see a thing in the world and begin thinking about a tweetable way to say it.

What does your wife think does she follow you on Twitter? Or is she like, “I get enough Farhad IRL”?

She doesn’t use Twitter (she uses FB, which I look at like once a week). I sometimes repeat jokes to her I’ve made on Twitter. I sometimes use material from our conversations on Twitter. Other than the fact that Twitter sometimes distracts me at home (which I try to avoid), she has no problem with my Twitter usage.

Do you use Twitter while you’re handling your son? I’m curious about parental Twitter strategies. I imagine all those times you used to just have to hold your kid and do nothing while it slept, now you can silently thumb at Twitter.

Sometimes. (I’ve got two kids, a 3yo son and 1yo daughter, actually!) It’s really not a good idea, but there are times (like when I’m sitting around while he’s taking a bath) when I look at Twitter. But I really try not to let them notice that I’m distracted, even when I am. This is the problem with phones generally, not just Twitter.

Have you signed them up for Twitter accounts to make sure they get their name, sort of like acquiring real estate to bequeath later?

No. That’s weird when people do that, I think. They have no Twitter or FB or even Gmail names.

I kind of want to keep going on the parental track like, do you let them have screen time?

Our son watches more TV than we’d like. He watches TV in the morning and after school, and on weekends too much. But this is just because we are busy and are trying to get other stuff done. We feel terrible about it, but not so terrible. But that’s the extent of their screen usage—they haven’t shown much appetite for more interactive games and stuff on iPads/phones. We use FaceTime.

Oh, I wanted to ask how the job is going. You changed [State of the Art]—away from just gadgets, which, traditionally it was more of a reviewing column. Has Pogue written you to be like, “I’d have done it this way” or “my videos were better”? Where do you see the column going over the next few years?

Right. I think of it as pretty much the same column I was doing at Slate and then the WSJ, which is: Write about whatever you feel is interesting related to tech right now. I want to be very diverse in topic selection—in the last couple weeks, I went from interviewing Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook to bionic hearing aids to Alibaba IPO. It’s all over the place, which is how I’ve generally worked, because I just like to learn about new things and I get bored easily. It’s a fun job! I’m hoping readers are liking it, because it’s a huge change from what Pogue was doing. I have gotten a handful of emails from people who say the column isn’t practical enough. They’re right, it isn’t. I feel bad for them about that, but: When the NYT hired me, they also hired Molly Wood, who does more reviews and practical stuff. And plus there is no shortage of useful tech insight elsewhere—and even Pogue and Mossberg are still just a few clicks away.

Idk, the new Yahoo layout means Pogue is many clicks away.

True!

The bionic iPhone piece is the best thing you’ve done in a while. It was like revelatory for me, and I still look at a lot of this stuff everyday.

I felt the same way. It was a brand new area for me. I was surprised it hadn’t been written about before. It’s not even that—the hearing aids have been out for months. I think it’s just out of the tech press’s general purview. I love topics that are like that.

Right, like Pinterest caught tech and tech press by surprise, because it’s still mostly white men thinking about white men as the default. How do you feel about the State of Tech Journalism?

OK but, I’ve really got to leave now. Though this is a totally interesting part of the convo… [Ed. note: We actually had reached the end of our pre-appointed hour; Farhad wasn't just skipping out on the hard questions.]

Haha, alrighty thanks!

This Gchat interview has been lightly edited for clarity.