Has the internet changed everything? This week Rich Ziade and Paul Ford talk to writer and media strategist Rex Sorgatz, who wrote recently for Backchannel about returning to his small North Dakota hometown to see how (or if!) access to the world’s information has changed things there. Also discussed: the appeal of black trench coats to a certain demographic; Rex’s stint editing the nation’s oldest paranormal magazine; the time he had to reenact his apartment burning down during a flood on national television; and a charming email exchange between Paul and Rex a decade ago. (Brace yourselves: it’s about XML.) Eventually, the title of this episode is explained.
- Rex’s blog, Fimoculous
- Rex on Twitter
- “Netflix and Ch-Ch-Chilly” at Backchannel, which you should read regardless of your feelings about the title
- The disaster in Grand Forks, ND, and the Grand Forks Herald’s Pulitzer
- Fate magazine
- YouTube: A(n incredible) track from Uri Geller’s 1977 album
- Kinda Sorta Media
Paul Ford: Hey, Rich Ziade!
Rich Ziade: Hey! ….Paul Ford.
Paul: We’re the co-founders of Postlight.
Rich: We are.
Paul: And Postlight is an agency that builds products — apps, websites, things like that.
Paul: Right in the heart of New York City, right above Union Square.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: And this is Track Changes.
Paul: Our podcast.
Rich: It is our podcast.
Paul: So we’re not just here by ourselves.
Rich: Not today.
Rich: We’ve got a great guest with us today.
Paul: We’ve got Rex Sorgatz.
Rex Sorgatz: Bzzzzzzzzz.
Paul: That was him. He’s a bee. [laughter] Rex —
Rex: Hello. Hello, hello.
Rich: Rex! It’s going to take a lot to pull this off for an hour.
Paul: OK, so Rex: Rich and I have been told that we have to bring the energy up when we have guests.
Paul: Yeah! That’s it. That’s it.
Rex: All right.
Paul: So you’re gonna see us, two slightly crabby men in their forties, in the morning at a podcast studio, bringing that energy up.
Rex: I’m pumped. I’m pumped.
Rich: Well I —
Rex: This is…this is like one of my favorite podcasts. I’m really happy to be on here.
Rich: Aw, that’s big —
Rex: And I ain’t just saying that.
Rich: To hear that. Thank you.
Rex: You want to quiz me on previous episodes?
Paul: He’s not just saying it. He wrote me an email and he’s like, “Hey, you guys have a pretty good podcast.” I was like, “Well guess what’s gonna happen now?”
Rich: It’s completely awkward — we had an event recently, and someone came up to me and said, you’re the only podcast I listen to all the way through, and I couldn’t…I said, “Wow. I don’t really know how to process this. I’m struggling with it, I’m not gonna lie.”
Rex: Well there is this weird thing that’s happened lately where, have you noticed if you run into a friend that you haven’t seen for a while, and you don’t know exactly what they’re up to, you can just say, “I love your podcast,” and you’ll be right? [laughter]
Paul: Yeah. You’re totally fine. And the other thing —
Rich: Oh man.
Paul: That’s the weird —
Rex: No, but I really love this podcast. I’m not just saying that.
Paul: That’s a weird new social protocol, right? Because like, you kind of have to pretend that you don’t know anything about the other person, even though you often know a lot about what’s going on.
Rex: It’s true.
Paul: The other thing too, it’s very high risk, because everything’s really blurry. You follow 45 billion Twitter accounts…you know they might have gotten a new job, but then they might not have, that could be easily blurred in.
Rich: Or you could, it just dives right into something really intimate.
Rich: So you haven’t seen someone in two years, but you’re following them on Twitter.
Paul: Sorry about —
Rich: And you run into them —
Paul: Sorry about the loss of your father, sorry about —
Rich: Yeah, how’s your knee?
Rich: Yeah, exactly. It’s strange.
Rich: But this isn’t about…
Paul: Well, probably will end up about Twitter.
Rex: It’s always about Twitter. [laughter]
Paul: What the hell can you do?
Rich: So Rex, give us a background. Before you became an adult. Where are you from, and education influences that got you on the path you went on.
Rex: So I grew up in a really small town, a remote little place called Napoleon, North Dakota.
Rex: Which is a…it’s like an hour and a half from, really anything that would resemble civilization. I grew up in the late eighties, early nineties, pre-internet, of course, but pre-cable TV.
Paul: Pre-internet in Napoleon, for sure.
Rex: Yeah, there —
Rex: There wasn’t, there were people that existed in the world who had dial-up access, but it was not even an option for us.
Paul: So you couldn’t have even have gotten dial-up?
Rich: You couldn’t get the AOL disk?
Rex: There was one kid in all of town who had a computer, and of course it was just floppy drives that his dad used for some accounting software. It was never connected to the internet.
Paul: Was that interesting to you at all, or were you just sort of like, “Oh, that’s the guy with the computer.”
Rex: I mean, I’d love to say — I’ve talked to some people who have these great origin stories about, you know, this moment where they started hacking the box. I just never had one of those. I think the first time I played with a computer was probably college. I’m pretty sure that’s true. At least something that was connected to the internet, that’s for sure.
Rich: OK, so you go to college. Do you have a mission in mind? Do you know what you’re going to focus on yet, or are you just going to college?
Rex: Oh, I mean I was a complete clueless dilettante and didn’t really….
Rex: I just started pre-med, and then I ended up getting three degrees, because I wanted to do everything in the world, and…
Rich: Got it. Well where’s college?
Rex: Well I ended up…I ended up staying in North Dakota. I went to the University of North Dakota.
Rex: Which is actually like a big state school. It’s a…if you’ve had a big state school experience, it was pretty typical of that, so…
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Rex: It was eye-opening, truly. Like, everyone goes to college and it’s a big deal. For me it was like…a really big deal. All of a sudden I was introduced to books and music that I had never…had known even existed.
Rich: OK, so you drift into the computer lab?
Rex: I did. I actually remember: I had to go to the computer lab to do a paper. I went at night, and I remember seeing all these creepy kids in the basement who had trench coats, and this was like the denizens of the night in the computer lab, and I thought, boy, these people are the worst. And two weeks later, those were my best friends. [laughter]
Rich: Yeah. What were they doing?
Paul: They were playing — yeah, I know, I remember.
Rex: There were Listservs, alt dot whatever whatever.
Paul: Do we have a hypothesis for why trench coats are attractive to that particular cohort?
Rex: I think I had one too, now that I think about it.
Rich: Well The Matrix was a moment, but that’s later.
Paul: No, that’s later.
Paul: I don’t really, I think, I mean, they’re kinda cool. They’re kinda swirly.
Rex: You could get them at thrift stores?
Rich: They’re cape-y.
Paul: Yeah. They also kind of cover up physical inadequacies in a very proactive way.
Rex: Yeah. You can —
Rich: Insecurities and…yeah.
Paul: Yeah, like you can be kind of cool looking in a trench coat, but still not in anything approaching good physical shape.
Rex: You can hide drugs, I guess.
Paul: True. Definitely, like, Japanese swords go into trench coats.
Rex: Num chucks?
Rich: There was this crew from my high school that used to wear trench coats and go to the mall. And they would just hang out by the food court and just go to Orange Julius, but they’d be in trench coats. And it would be July.
Rich: I think it was, sort of, the light equivalent of a biker gang. It was a way to associate with one another?
Rich: So the four of them were cool about doing this together. Like, no one of them would ever do that.
Rich: You wouldn’t see one of them drifting off, on their own, going to H&M.
Rich: Wearing a trench coat.
Paul: Going to Sam Goody and buying, like, Ministry cassettes.
Rich: Right. Exactly. It was kind of a together — it was sort of like a biker gang, a little bit. That was my experience with it. I wasn’t — I did not wear one. Not that I had any issues with it, nor did I discriminate against them in any sort of way.
Paul: You just weren’t a trench coat guy.
Rich: I just wasn’t a trench coat guy.
Paul: It’s a dark trench coat, too. That’s the thing.
Rex: Yeah. Always.
Paul: You can’t wear, like, a regular off-the-shelf London Fog.
Paul: I don’t even know what story that tells.
Rex: Beige, with the lapels.
Paul: Yeah, I had that. [laughter] I was never cool enough to be in with the trench coat kids.
Rich: I think also the fiction and the sci-fi they got into might’ve had…an influence.
Paul: There’s definitely like, you know —
Rich: There’s an escapism to it.
Paul: There was a movie called Dark Man that starred…I think Liam Neeson as, like, a tragically disfigured superhero who it’s very trench coat-centric.
Rich: Very. And kind of off-center, non-mainstream. Just like, it hit the spot.
Paul: Yeah, yeah. I think that, I could see that being a strong influence.
Rich: OK, but this isn’t about trench coats.
Paul: Isn’t it? I think this really is about trench coats. [laughter]
Rex: Let’s do a whole hour on this.
Paul: That’d be easy.
Rich: All right, so you finish college…
Rex: Uh huh.
Rich: You said you got three degrees?
Rex: Yeah. I had a couple of minors.
Rich: So you wouldn’t leave. This was like seven years?
Rex: Six, yeah. [sighs]
Rich: Six years. [laughter] So you’re just hanging out?
Rex: I loved college, man. I really…
Paul: That’s —
Rex: It was so good out there.
Paul: Yeah, you’d found the place. You’re like —
Paul: You’d been in, like, Napoleon, and you’re like…it doesn’t sound like Napoleon was this horrible experience, but…
Rex: It wasn’t, it was just a very small town, and then suddenly being around people that I could choose as friends, which was a brand-new thing, because when I graduated from high school, I had 27 kids in my class, and it was the same 27 kids that I started kindergarten with.
Rex: And we were almost all in the same class, and so you never got to choose any kind of friendships, they were just —
Rich: The college is not in Napoleon. The college is in —
Rex: It’s in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
Rex: That was the furthest that anyone I had ever known had gone for college.
Rex: And it was still in-state. I didn’t —
Paul: Yeah, but still, it’s a small city, there’s a big library. You, like, have…it’s a life.
Rex: Yeah. It’s a normal college town, I’d say. It’s just that I meet people here all the time who talk about how they just missed getting into Yale or whatever. [laughter] And I just laugh so hard. I don’t think I knew where Yale was.
Rex: Not only did I not know anyone who went to Yale, I didn’t know anyone who went to the University of Montana.
Rex: I had no conception of that outside world. It would never have occurred to me that I had any skills or interests or capabilities to even get anywhere near going to a place like that.
Paul: No, I mean you’ve read about them in, like, a children’s book.
Rex: Barely. Like, I’m honestly not sure, if you said Princeton I’m not sure I would’ve known what state it’s in.
Rex: Like I was really that disassociated from…and I was a good student, I just had no relationship to…
Paul: The lore.
Rex: The outside world, really.
Paul: The lore, the l-o-r-e, the lore of East Coast privilege.
Rex: That’s right.
Paul: Like, you just didn’t. I remember when I first moved here, I got a job at a little internet start-up on the Upper West Side, above a Jewish community center, because no one knew what to do with the internet, they were like, “OK, we’ll go there.” And everyone had gone to Harvard. And when they were interviewing, they would talk to the, like, other people would come down from Harvard and be like, “Ah, I want to do the internet,” and they’d go meet the co-founders of the company and they’d be like, “Hey, what house were you in?” You know, or what hall? And it’d be Lowell or whatever. [laughter] And I’m just sitting there watching in my, like, my sweatshirt writing HTML, like, what just happened? I couldn’t understand anything going on.
Paul: Yeah, so that’s…New York is like triply alienating that way. So wait, we should point out: Rex wrote a really great piece, one of the pieces I truly enjoyed in the last year, for Backchannel, which I think is just backchannel.com?
Paul: Yeah, OK. It’s called “Netflix and Ch-ch-ch-ch-chilly”?
Rex: Yeah, I regret to say that was actually my title. The editor tried to talk me out of it. It’s one of those rare cases where the editor should’ve won. [laughter]
Paul: It turns out that you were a little too strong-willed there. So in this piece, you write quite a bit about growing up in Napoleon.
Paul: So you went back last winter?
Rex: Yeah, so the great conceit was that…I had gone back for a high school reunion a few years ago and I started thinking about what has changed about the place in 25 years.
Paul: And it’s the same 27 people.
Rex: Yeah, most of them still live there, still live on farms. And it was amazing to me, when I started thinking about it: nothing has changed. Most places, there’s some sort of gentrification or un-gentrification or there’s a Wal-Mart that opens or there’s the big company that opens or closes — something happens to the place. But Napoleon was exactly the same. Nothing big had moved in. Nothing had left. It’s still graduating 20 kids. It’s trapped in time. And so it started to get me thinking, ‘I wonder if I could fake a scientific experiment here. If everything else is equal, what is the control that I can say has changed against it and can we study that?’
And so the thing I try to study is what has technology and information done to Napoleon and, in a grander sense, these, like, small, rural communities. And so it’s just like, sets up this idea that if I go back and I find kids like me — who I talked about earlier, I was a really dumb kid — if I find kids like me today and just sit down and talk to them, how different will their lives be? Because everything else is the same, except that they can pull out their phone and listen to any song in the history of recorded music, which would’ve blown my mind.
Paul: Or have Wikipedia, or just like…
Rex: All of that. Yeah.
Paul: Just this unlimited access to knowledge.
Rex: And you know, to go back to another question, I was very a information-thirsty kid, but had no information to consume. We didn’t have cable TV until I was a teenager, and even then it was 11 channels and none of them were the good ones, I didn’t have MTV — I didn’t see MTV until college. And my major outlet for media was the high school library — there was no real library in town, there was just a high school library — had five magazines.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Rex: And it was really my only access to the outside world.
Paul: Do you remember which ones they were?
Rex: Yes. They were Sports Illustrated.
Rex: US News and World Reports.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Rex: And, uh, People.
Rich: Not a bad —
Rex: Those were my five magazines.
Rich: Not a bad cross-section.
Rex: Imagine everything you knew about the world was from those five magazines.
Rich: Which are the same 40 writers. Just scintillating. [laughter]
Paul: No, that’s a very closed world — many of those are owned by the same media company.
Rex: Yeah. [laughter]
Paul: I think people should go read the piece, because there’s just a ton in there, and it’s a sort of quite evocative piece, and it was actually funny to watch the response, like it was on, like, Hacker News, and like, so many people just missed it completely for what it was.
Paul: But it’s a very sort of subtle meditation on what’s up, and it ends up, like most interesting essays, kind of being more about you meditating on, like, why were you thirsty —
Paul: They weren’t, and the kids you went back and found, they have access to all this information but they’re pretty much, say, I want to say resigned, because I wanted to move to New York City, but it’s not resigned, they’re like, looking at, ah, I’m gonna live here and I’m gonna be with my family and life will be pretty good.
Rex: Yeah, I mean, unlike me, where I talked about not having any idea where Yale even was, they have a very keen sense of the outside world. They understand politics information in a way that would’ve blown my mind. And so I was curious if they were more aspiration than I was, because I was definitely not an aspirational person, I was inquisitive, but I didn’t have any dreams of making it big. It was the last thing in my mind. And…I was surprised to find that every kid I talked to has a very strong awareness, has visited other cities, gone places, and when you ask them what they think their lives will be in 25 years, they all said, “I’ll probably be back here on the farm, having a family, and I just love it here. I love my community.” They said the word “community” over and over again.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Rex: Almost like someone was drilling it into them or something.
Rex: But I was surprised that there was not a strong desire to get out. I even used the phrase “get out” with some deep hesitation, because I don’t really think of it that way.
Rich: An escape. [laughter]
Rex: Yeah, I mean, I don’t. I think their lives are really interesting and great. They have —
Paul: They’re going to be on the farm with unlimited access to all the world’s information.
Rex: And to me that sounds great, you know?
Paul: Right. Right.
Rich: So, I mean, for you, were you — I mean, you get out of school. You’re not, let’s put it in quotes, “well rounded.”
Rex: Very well rounded.
Rich: Yeah. Um…no motivation to go back, I mean, you talked to all these kids, they want to go back home. They want to have all these nice things, but they want to be in the community and want to be in that little town. Did you have any desire to go back home?
Rex: Um, I would say, for a long time, like decades, I resisted any sort of acknowledging that there was any part of me that had appeal toward it.
Rich: Uh huh.
Rex: Mostly because I wanted to go out and…
Rich: Experience stuff?
Rex: Yeah, I wanted to live in cities eventually. I didn’t know it growing up, but by the time I got to college, I started to realize, oh man, it actually might be cool to live in New York.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Rex: Which again is the thing I never would’ve conceived of.
Paul: What was the big thing? Was it like, I want to go see bands? I want to be where there are lots of people? Like how did you see it in your head?
Rex: Yes. I would say for me specifically it wasn’t cultural, it actually was people. Even when I moved to New York, which was 10 years ago, by that time, I remember my first day I went downstairs and went to the stand on the street where they had Village Voices.
Rex: We skipped an area, but I had a background in alt-weeklies, and publishing, but I worked in it for a long time. And so the Village Voice like, represented something big and important to me?
Rex: And I went down to the little newsstand — this was 10 years ago, when I moved to New York — and it still was there. I don’t even know if you can get the Village Voice on the newsstand anymore. Picked up a copy, flipped to the back to find the Film Forum ads, because I was going to go to Film Forum for the first time, and I was so excited, because that’s what New York meant to me, it was going to Film Forum.
Paul: You could just go that movie theater and pay money and sit in there. Yeah.
Rex: And it would be some Goddard film.
Rex: It would be great! Great, but that’s not the kind of thing you can get in North Dakota. Or even in, you know, Seattle, in some ways.
Paul: So you had like a little Woody Allen fantasy going?
Rex: I did. The funny thing is that culture changed faster than I could keep up with, and the reality is, I have not picked up a Village Voice since, and I’ve been to Film Forum once. [laughter] I say that with deep regret. But now you just have everything so much more immediately there, and accessible, and I think it is so much more…convenient, easy, and sustainable living wherever you want, and I would seem to have no problems Grand Forks. I think that culture changed, and I think that you have to say that Amazon Prime changed things, too.
Rex: Like, you can just, in a second, get all that stuff in a weird place sent out to you. That’s really different.
Paul: Well if you want to talk about it with anybody, like if you get into some weird cultural niche and you start chatting about it, you will find other people who want to talk about it.
Paul: OK, so we skipped over your media career outside of New York City.
Rex: Yeah, so after I graduated from college I started working at the daily newspaper, for one very crazy year, which was called the Grand Forks Herald. This would’ve been 1997.
Rich: OK, so you stayed in town.
Rex: Just one year.
Rex: And that’s the punchline of the story is, you might not remember this, but it was a huge story at the time: Grand Forks was the biggest natural disaster of its time? It was pre-Katrina, but it was a gigantic flood?
Paul: Right. I do remember this.
Rex: That the whole town went underwater, six feet of water, and I had a second-story apartment downtown, and I didn’t leave, I was one of the few people who decided to stay. And I woke up in the morning and there’s, imagine waking up in your little downtown apartment and you look out the window and there’s six feet of water in the street.
Rex: And I still decided to stay, because I was working at the daily newspaper, and we had to put out a paper.
Rex: And I was the web guy back when people had titles, “webmaster.”
Rex: That’s me! I was the webmaster.
Rich: This is was ’94, ’95?
Rex: And I…then, you know, I had to FTP files back and forth with the….
Paul: So you have to, like, scan in photos…?
Rex: Yeah, oh, I had to do everything, I scanned in photos…and the press is underwater. So the newspaper was owned by Knight Ridder.
Rex: Which is a company that no longer exists, either. But the sister publication would’ve been the St. Paul Pioneer Press, which is, what, four or five hours away, but that’s where the paper would be printed. We’d lay it out, they’d print it down there, and drive it up. And they’d drive it up and try to give it out to people, but the whole town’s evacuated.
Rex: So there’s not very many people to give it to, so they just put it, like, on gas stations nearby out of town, as people are fleeing town. 60,000 people evacuated that town.
Rex: So that’s horrible enough. The craziest thing that happened is that a fire started in the middle of the flood. And I was still living in my building and was woken up by firemen yelling I had to get out. And I didn’t believe them. I assumed that it was just a way to get the stragglers who had been left behind out of the building. And I grabbed the bag that was sitting next to me that had two pairs of jeans and five books in it, and I walked out, resignedly out the door with them, into the back fire escape.
Rich: So you thought these were firemen with a hidden agenda?
Rex: Yeah, they were just trying to get me out of there, trying to get people to leave. So I got outside and looked over and the firemen pointed and two buildings over, on the sixth floor, there was fire coming out of one window. And I said, “Well you’ll be able to put that out.” And they said, “No, this whole block’s gonna go.” And I said, “…why?” And then they pointed down and I could see a little 12-foot boat with firemen with fire hoses. They were diving into the water with the fire hoses, trying to get the hoses connected to the pump.
Rich: Oh my God.
Paul: [sigh indicating the gravity of the situation]
Rex: And they couldn’t get any of the water up to put out the fire. Half of downtown burnt.
Rich: Oh my goodness!
Rex: And we kept the paper going. It won a Pulitzer Prize. And that was my exit. Like, all of a sudden, I was like, not only was I making news, I was part of the news, because I was the person who was interviewed instantly, because I’d lived down there.
Rex: And I was being escaped, so I was interviewed on CNN, and NPR and all these places.
Paul: So you’re just dropped right in the middle of national media?
Rex: And I had this crazy story about how firemen had rescued me, and the funny thing happened a couple months later is I got asked to do a video reenactment.
Rex: In front of those, like, one of those TV shows where they do reenactments —
Rich: Oh yeah.
Rex: Of harrowing events.
Paul: Like in black and white.
Rex: Yeah. Yes. It was called “Stormwatch.” [laughter] And I had to do a video reenactment of myself escaping the fiery inferno.
Rich: That’s funny. That they decided that it needed to be you again.
Rex: Yes. I had to not —
Paul: Our younger listeners may not remember, but there was like a five-year media moment before real reality TV kicked in.
Paul: Where reenactments often involving the original people involved —
Paul: Often in like a grainy black and white —
Rich: Yeah, it’s weird.
Paul: Were just a staple of TV. Like, it just worked really well.
Rich: It’s very Discovery Channel-ish, too. Like, you see this —
Rex: It was actually on Discovery, that’s where it was on.
Paul: And it would just say “reenactment” across the bottom. It became, like, a sort of hilarious trope.
Rex: Yup. Well the opening scene is of me laying on my couch with my eyes closed, and I have my glasses off and there’s a bang on the door —
Rich: This has to be on YouTube.
Rex: And I look up and I put my glasses on and I run to the door, and we shot that scene like eight times because I kept looking in the camera. I couldn’t not look in the camera.
Paul: Yeah, what are you going to do?
Rex: I was a horrible — I was a horrible actor, just horrible. [laughter] Like, and I was playing myself, and I couldn’t do it.
Paul: No, but they were so campy.
Paul: Like, you were just part of the process, but they were always so amazing. And you’re what, like, 22?
Rex: Yes. I was 22 and I had lost everything I had ever owned, right, except for those five books and two pairs of jeans, and I wasn’t really happy about doing any of this, but it was like, sure I’ll do your video reenactment show.
Paul: I mean, a typically 22-year-old life is completely surreal anyway. Everything is new and coming at you, you’re like, am I supposed to get married, or like, buy a bicycle. Like you have no clue about the next step. And then you’re just dropped in the middle of complete chaos and then media insanity.
Rex: Yes. And I guess the upside of all that is that all of the attention allowed me to…eventually get a media job in Minneapolis, and I started writing for, or I actually became the editor of a magazine, you’ll remember this genre of magazine, it was reviews of websites.
Paul: Yeah! Like Yahoo Internet Life.
Paul: Or those…
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Rex: Yahoo Internet Life was our chief competitor.
Paul: Aw yeah. The gold star.
Rex: Our publication was called the Web Guide Monthly.
Rex: And all it was was capsule reviews, 100 words long, of all of the websites that came out that month…
Rich: That’s amazing.
Rex: And a couple columns and one or two features, but really what people got the magazine for was, much like TV Guide back in the day, to see, oh! Here are the new websites that have come out, that I can peruse.
Paul: Because people had yet to truly conceive of the search engine as the connective tissue. So the media was still performing that role.
Rich: Yahoo was the directory at that time.
Paul: Yeah, and if you were one of the people making web stuff, getting into one of these directories was kind of a big deal. Like you were going to get another 100 or 200 people to come into your site.
Rex: The magazine looked like a directory, like there were categories for religion…
Rex: And sports, and so, “Here’s 10 New Sports Sites.” And so that magazine did pretty well. It sold to Ziff Davis. And then after that I got another job at a magazine, editing something called Fate. And Fate is the, one of the oldest publications in America, but for sure the oldest paranormal publication.
Rex: And it’s mostly user-generated content, that is people submitting stories about, like, their Bigfoot sighting.
Rex: Or their UFO abductions.
Rich: OK, now —
Paul: Wait wait wait, now, wait, where…where is this?
Rich and Paul: [general hilarious noises of disbelief and confusion]
Rex: St. Paul, Minnesota.
Rich: Hold on, hold on. We can’t just gloss over this.
Paul: No no, we’re not. We’re gonna stay with Fate for a while.
Rich: This is where we’re going to deep dive.
Paul: Yeah. [laughter]
Paul: So how big is this office?
Rex: Oh, well, Fate was owned by the biggest New Age-publisher at the time, called Llewellyn Books. So, which was a huge place. Hundreds of employees. Our magazine was, I think I had five or six employees.
Paul: Are you the editor of Fate?
Paul: OK, so you’re the editor of Fate. How —
Rich: Are you seeking this job? Like are you thinking, you know what, paranormal, that’s something that really…resonates with me. I need, I would love to work here.
Rex: No, it was more like I lived in Minneapolis and there was a limited number of magazines you could work at.
Rex: It was those two and Utne Reader, and I didn’t get the Utne Reader job, and —
Rich: OK, so you were pretty indifferent. You took this job —
Rex: Well I thought we —
Rich: Not out of a passion for —
Rex: No no, that’s not true. What I got hired to do was actually turn it into a pop-culture magazine?
Paul: I see.
Rex: The whole idea was that we were gonna re-brand this thing, the average age of the subscriber was like, 70.
Paul: Let’s give it to Sorgatz, he’s a bright young guy.
Rex: Yeah. And at the time there was all this stuff that was going on in pop culture that would make this vehicle work, so The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm. Got it.
Rex: And all this kind of paranormal — even hip hop was even, like…
Paul: No, there were like, reenactments of ghost sightings on TV.
Rex: Yeah, the cheesy stuff, but even good stuff was out there. Like, I do remember, there was this phase where hip hop was obsessed with, like, space and, like, Digable Planets and stuff like —
Rex: All of that fit into the worldview, and there’s cults and stuff, and so the whole idea was to make it a —
Rich: To bridge that.
Rex: A mainstream…yeah, with this old stuff, because before what it was was just crazy old men seeing UFOs. [laughter]
Paul: See what I love is that you’re kind of — I share this with you, where you’re just kind of, like, ambiguously ambitious, where you’re like, I know I need to do something else. But you’re not, there’s no, like, grand plan, “I’m gettin’ on that bus and going to Port Authority Bus Terminal and I’m going to be the editor of Newsweek magazine!” It’s like, “Oh…paranormal…??? Yeah. OK.”
Rex: You could convince yourself that that’ll be really interesting, too. [laughter] And it was!
Paul: Especially in your twenties, right? And you’re like, holy cow, I’ve got an empire of paranormal shenanigans!
Rex: Are you aware of the concept of the slush pile?
Paul: Oh yeah. OK so tell our listeners, actually, who might not be.
Rex: Yeah. Magazines have this idea of the slush pile, which is basically just comes in the mail that day. It’s the submissions, I think The New Yorker’s slush pile’s probably most notorious out there. But it’s all the submissions that have come in from people who are hoping to get published in the magazine. The slush pile for Fate was amazing.
Rich: Oh, it must be.
Rex: And I can’t believe I didn’t save it, because…
Paul: That’s the archive we all want, yeah.
Rex: I could’ve written 50 books about it. It was so much good stuff. And my favorite one was a big manilla envelope, not folded, but when you open it up, it was about 15 standard 8.5 x 11 pieces of paper taped together into a gigantic poster that you hung on the wall, clearly printed out with like a dot matrix printer?
Rex: And when you put it up on the wall it looked…maybe like a Kandinsky? But there was a little notecard that came with it that said, “My Bigfoot sighting.”
Rex: And it was just like, you stare at it going, “Where in here is the Bigfoot?” [laughter]
Paul: So it’s actually kind of a great piece of art at that point.
Rex: It really was! It was like [gasps]. And you think so many things. Does he really see something here? It was all blurry, and…
Paul: You just can’t stop thinking about that, can you?
Rex: Somewhere out there, I’m pretty sure he really believed he saw something in that thing.
Paul: So alien abductions, I’m guessing, were big.
Rex: Yeah, I remember, there was a stat back then that something like 40% of the country had said they’d been abducted by an alien. Some absurdly high number, and so we got tons of those.
Paul: I think that’s whenever any butt stuff happened to Americans, they were just sort of like, oh well. This is the only explanation for that.
Rex: For sure.
Paul: So ghost sightings?
Rex: Oh, ghost —
Paul: Ghosts, were ghosts like out of fashion? Or do they stay in?
Rex: Again, in the old audience stuff, that was big. When we tried to modernize it, we threw out all the, like, my first prognosis was that we will not do a Loch Ness Monster story. That was my first — because we’d done one every year, it was like, we’re throwing Loch Ness Monster out.
Paul: I gotta say, this is a TV show, right? Because you’re in there just like, “Damn it, ghosts are over!” Scratch. Scratch.
Rex: And you could see like, the old people there, the old guard, did not really love that I was not acknowledging their old myths, and I wanted to, like, talk about Buffy the Vampire Slayer instead.
Paul: Right. Right, right.
Rex: And they didn’t like that at all. And I was like, “No, I care! I care about your rune stones and your…knowing your zodiac sign and all that stuff.” Which is stuff they really cared about.
Paul: They’re into like, they want to wear cloaks.
Paul: And go into the woods.
Rex: That was a really fun time.
Paul: How long were you at Fate?
Rex: Um….two years, almost two years.
Paul: How did that pop culture transition go?
Rex: Uh, they pulled the funding after the first issue. [laughter]
Paul: That actually, I’m sure that was a bad week, but it makes for a better story.
Rex: I have, the first cover issue was this show that Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files did, called Harsh Realm?
Rex: I think it was his third show? That was the cover story, and I interviewed Chris Carter for it. He of course knew Fate, because Fate at one time was kind of famous, like, Stephen King wrote for it —
Rex: And in the seventies with like, Uri Geller and that era of time. Like, it was a big deal.
Paul: Have you ever heard Uri Geller’s album?
Rex: I don’t think so, no.
Paul: It is one of the most special artifacts. You can find a lot of it on YouTube. He made an album of like, New Age — Uri Geller is a, a guy who can bend spoons with his mind?
Rich: Ohhhh OK.
Paul: They’re songs about, like, bending spoons. We used to listen to it in college, over and over, and my roommate had it on vinyl.
Rex: I’m trying to imagine what it would be like. Is it chanting?
Paul: No. It’s very —
Rex: Is it like Frank Zappa?
Paul: It’s very, like, it’s very like…produced Aquarius-style, but he has a very unusual voice.
Paul: [laughter] Anyway. Yeah, OK. I remember this, I remember, there’s a lot of like, Fate ends up collaged in the eighties in a lot of weird, like, zine art.
Rex: Yes. Yeah. The other fun thing about Fate was that when I came in it was digest-style. Small —
Paul: Sure. Reader’s Digest-sized.
Rex: Yes. The small format. And I blew it up into an actual big magazine with full color and everything.
Paul: You were taking Fate all the way.
Rex: We were going to town. It’s a alternate history, imagine if that had actually worked. And then after that I, I think I started blogging right around that time.
Paul: You’ve been in, at this point, you’ve had the college experience, but then you’ve also been at the small-town paper, you’ve gotten a big prize, you’ve been part of reporting, you’ve seen global media like CNN and you’ve seen how the sausage is made. And then you’re inside of a media conglomerate producing a magazine. So that’s a pretty intense career arc.
Rich: Yeah, we don’t have — I mean, we’re looking over sort of your timeline here, I mean, we don’t have time to cover, sort of, how you progressed. You must be really good at cocktail parties. [laughter]
Paul: I’ve been to a cocktail party with Rex. He’s good.
Rich: I mean, the…editor of Fate —
Paul: Though occasionally you’re just sort of like, I’m gonna hang right here.
Rich: Editor of Fate, usually, if you follow that path, if you told me to predict the rest of this timeline after he became editor of Fate, it’s sort of, you sort of took the dirt road off the main highway.
Paul: Back to blogging.
Rich: And then you end up down in this weird path.
Paul: So you start Fimoculous?
Rex: Yeah. Two things happen right after Fate, which is I started Fimoculous, which was in that early era of blogging.
Rex: I think it was 2000, 2001, somewhere in there I started…
Paul: I remember, too, because it was very, it was sort of tightly written and kind of sweet.
Rex: Thank you.
Paul: So many blogs at that point were either like, [pitiful voice] “I had a bad cup of coffee with my ex-husband,” or they were like, “I’m gonna write something so fast and clippy and none of you will get to follow along unless you’re my best friend ever.” And you were actually kind of writing, which I remember and appreciate.
Rex: Yeah. Here’s a Paul Ford story. I actually emailed you because I was a big admirer of your blog.
Paul: Oh jeez.
Rex: And I had just gotten a big media company job, and you had just written a very long post about XML.
Paul: [battle-scarred laughter devolving into moaning]
Rex: And uh…we were…
Rich: Those were the days.
Paul: Oh let’s, this story is not going to end well, even if it ends well. All right.
Rex: Do you remember this post? Like you were the person who popularized, I think might be the right word, the transition of tech companies toward using XML, XSL infrastructures, mostly because of all the markup stuff that you were doing. And I had just gotten a job running the website for the Olympics.
Rex: And I emailed you and I said, “I want to do everything in XML. Can I talk to you about it?”
Rich: [laughter] What an email! All right, so first of all, let’s just cover — this is the NBC Olympics site.
Rex: Yeah. So —
Rich: This is a big deal. What year are we looking at here.
Rex: 2004, 2006.
Paul: Did I write back? Was I good?
Rex: Yeah, you wrote back and gave me some tips, and said [laughter], you basically said, “Good luck.”
Rex: And you said something like, “That’s a big project.” I don’t have that email account anymore. I would love to go look it up.
Rich: That’s great.
Paul: I want to see if we can find it.
Rich: Well how did it go?
Rex: The website for the Olympics?
Rex: Well that was crazy, like, there’s no media event quite like the Olympics, where you wait and then you wait and then you wait, and you prep and you prep and you prep and you have like five viewers, and then, like fifteen, viewers…
Rich: And then explosion.
Rex: And then all of a sudden, for two weeks, you have a hundred million viewers.
Rex: And then you’re back down to five, or fifteen again.
Rich: Right, it’s just a moment, yeah.
Rex: There’s so much infrastructure, so much planning. And it’s…I guess it’s like a sports event. I can’t think of anything else to compare it to. Because —
Rich: Yeah, and it must have been just this insane flow of content over those two weeks?
Rex: Yes. All you’re doing is training for that moment.
Paul: Well it has like the worst and most insane schema, too. Like Olympic data is famous for it.
Paul: The Times did, like, a white-label version of all the Olympic data, and they printed out the schema, and there’s a woman named Jackie Mayer who was involved with it and there’s a photo of it up, and her arms are fully outstretched to hold up the insanity of this, the representation of the Olympic data. They called it “the horse blanket,” that picture.
Rex: Yeah, that’s one of the things I was in charge of, is taking that massive data feed and making it into pretty data graphics.
Paul: So this is deeply nerdy.
Rich: Yeah, I was going to say, I mean, do you consider yourself technical at this point in time.
Rex: Yeah…I had throw out that story somehow, I had to pick up programming at a pretty rudimentary level, but I was reading all the books and the theory, and I had written my own CMS for my blog, because —
Rich: OK, that’s not trivial. I mean, that’s…that’s the real deal.
Rex: I should say it was in ColdFusion, though —
Paul: Yeah, but that’s…
Rex: Which was the language of the time.
Paul: There’s no judgement. We’re gonna have Matt Haughey in here later, and he’s, uh, you know, that’s MetaFilter.
Rich: ColdFusion was a transitional technology for a lot of people who thought, I have no business programming. But then it was wait a minute —
Rex: It’s just like HTML.
Rich: It looks like HTML.
Rich: And I can get away with some really powerful things here. Most of the listeners, well, maybe some of the listeners aren’t gonna know what we’re talking about, but it was actually thoughtfully designed.
Rich: And the experience around it was about, was really empathetic to the person who doesn’t have a comp-sci degree, but rather is comfortable with, you know, bold and italics tags, but doing really powerful things.
Paul: And you know, PHP, especially at that point, like, PHP’s changed a lot, but it was a garbage fest compared to ColdFusion.
Paul: But it was really easy and really free and you could get free web hosting with it?
Paul: But ColdFusion was actually for the more grown-up, like, catalogue-driven sites with teams of, like, five or six.
Paul: I found the email. It’s actually very charming. First of all, you’re writing me from I-B-SYS dot com.
Rex: Yup, that’s the name of the company. Internet Broadcasting Systems.
Paul: [noise somewhere between an elephant and a trumpet]
Rex: Which is an acronym of IBS, unfortunately [laughter] And that’s why my AIM handle to this day is IBSRex.
Rich: [laughter] Oh my God!
Paul: “Paul, I imagine a process where you create a list of 100 categories and you start to do the markup, at which point you say, ‘Oh we forgot this and this and this,’ and suddenly you have a list of 1,000. And then infinitude strikes, and you are cursing Cantor and Wittgenstein equally.” [laughter] That’s how Rex introduced himself.
Rex: “Hi, I’m Rex!”
Rich: How am I going get Paul Ford’s attention?
Rex: Let me show that I have a philosophy degree.
Rich: Right, exactly.
Paul: One of my three. And I’m like, “That describes the process exactly.” Actually, you’re telling me about this project, and I’m like, “Gonna be a monster. Let me know if you need any freelancing help from my web brain. I’m right here in Brooklyn.” I was like, so desperate at that point. “If you need resources, I need lots of NYC copywriters, designers, user-experience folks— ” I’m coming on so strong. Rex, please! “No stress if not. I always ask, just in case.” Yeah, we were supposed to meet. “That’d be great. Drop a line any time. I’m in town nine days out of ten, I like talking humanistic content.”
Rich: But you never met.
Rex: We didn’t meet until…later, right?
Paul: Yeah, like a couple years ago we met.
Paul: But we were just always in the same sort of universe.
Paul: So you do the Olympics.
Rex: Yeah we did the website for two Olympics.
Paul: How’d that go?
Rex: Uh, it was good. I mean, I learned a ton. It was my first exposure in the trenches of big media. It got me connected to other people around NBC, which led to a job in Seattle, working at MSNBC.com.
Rex: Which people…sometimes forget that the MS in MSNBC is —
Rich: Is Microsoft.
Rex: Is Microsoft?
Rich: That’s right.
Rex: So I was a Microsoftie for a couple of years.
Paul: I don’t forget. [laughter] I remember every day.
Rex: Yeah. And I did not uh…love Seattle. I always have to temper myself on this one, because I’ve gotten in trouble for it before. But I think partially it was that I lived downtown and I had to commute out to Redmond every day. So I stayed there for a couple of years —
Paul: We know people who are, I mean, if you are at Microsoft, you just might as well be at Microsoft. Like, don’t…don’t try to have any other life.
Rex: It’s true. And I was still young enough that I wanted to have a, like, a party hangout kind of life, and Seattle…seemed interesting at the time, but man, I just kept meeting people that, I always say it’s a city that has product managers who want to be vice presidents.
Rex: Like it’s a lot of, just…
Paul: [wounded noise]
Rex: A lot of Amazon people.
Rich: That’s a rough…
Rex: A lot of…
Rich: That’s a rough tagline for Seattle tourism right there.
Rex: Again, I always get in trouble when I talk about Seattle, so I should just shut up.
Rich: We can move on. [laughter]
Rich: I’d love to hear what you’re up to today. Now. Not today, today, but these days.
Paul: So, I mean, you started a company in 2008 called Kinda Sorta Media.
Paul: What were the things that were coming to you to do?
Rich: That’s post-MSNBC?
Rex: Yup, right after that, yeah.
Paul: OK, so you come back to New York City, and you’re like, “Hey, remember me? I’m Rex.”
Rex: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: “This is my consulting firm.”
Rex: Yeah, exactly. And at the time it was a very strong start-up community burgeoning in the city. Tumblr had just started. HuffPo was a year old. BuzzFeed was doing something different but was still around. Everyone had a social app at the time. I had a company called VYou that was a…video chat company, and it was a really exciting time in New York because the phrase “New York tech scene” was used for the first time?
Rex: At least in a very mainstream way.
Paul: And mobile was starting to actually happen right then, too.
Rex: Mobile happens right at that moment. And so…at first I was just consulting with all these start-ups, and helping them build…and market new products. Doing a little bit of everything for everyone. And the business looked a lot like a consultancy that took equity in companies and some of those companies did well, which I wouldn’t realize until years later. And then over the last…over those five, six, seven years, everything’s transitioned from start-ups in town to big media companies making start-ups, that’s the way I like to think about it. And that’s the big transition for me is that, I don’t have a single start-up client anymore. It’s almost entirely media companies trying to build new things that look like start-ups.
Paul: Sure. I mean, that’s, that’s our world, partly, too.
Rich: We see that a lot, yeah.
Paul: So that’s somebody at…a major network might call you and be like, “Hey, we’re launching this new thing and we need to get the mobile strategy in place for it.”
Rex: That’s right. Exactly. And as you guys are probably the same way, earlier the better so we can figure out big problems first. I help them build teams if they want to do that, so I do a lot of hiring for them and stuff like that.
Paul: OK. People know to come to you with a pretty blank slate and they’re just like, “OK, we gotta get this done. I have roughly this budget.” Might have to get that out of them.
Rex: Yeah. We have the germ of an idea, and can you help us get to the finish line.
Paul: And also if you’re building a media experience, like a mobile experience, one of the things that no one pays attention to that, it seems like it’s kind of one of your things, is day two, like you’re gonna have to have people put things into the boxes after we set up the boxes.
Rex: Yeah. It isn’t just developers and planners, it’s a lot of hiring the right editors, and in a way I play the role of a general manager for six months, and then with the goal of trying to find a really good person to become that general manager after I go.
Paul: I think that we do stuff similar to that, and I think of it as sort of like, you’re shipping the business, not just the tech. The tech is about half of it.
Paul: And then they actually have to have a, a business to go with it.
Paul: OK. But that’s not what you’re doing mostly right now.
Rex: Yeah. Starting this year I just decided that I was going to dedicate much more time to writing, and so that Backchannel piece that we talked about was the outcome of that.
Paul: “Netflix and Ch-ch-chill.”
Rex: Yeah. [laughter] Um…
Paul: Great piece…OK title, great piece.
Rex: Is it too late to go back and change it?
Paul: Not at all!
Rex: Is there ethics against that?
Rich: I’m pro-that title.
Paul: It’s Medium. You can do it.
Rex: I can do it, I can edit. And I’m working on a couple of other magazine pieces. I have a couple book proposals out there floating around. One of which is based, an extension of that Backchannel piece into a larger form. And, I mean, I looked at my hero Paul Ford, and said hey, can I be an engineer and also a writer at the same time? Because you’re churning out stuff like crazy, at a pace I’ve never seen, and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere you also have a company, which baffles my mind.
Paul: I don’t know how to say no to anything. Like literally, like, Rich, I don’t know how to say no to, I don’t know how to say no to cupcakes. I don’t know how to say no to editors. It’s a nightmare. [laughter] You actually seem pretty happy for someone who’s mostly writing. I get in a, I get very depressed. I get very, like, I…I no longer feel that any interaction with human beings is possible after I go too far down the writing hole.
Rex: I definitely know that feeling. I’d say I was really down on New York like, last year or so.
Paul: It can happen.
Rex: I was just tired of the grimy feeling that you have to kind of rub off yourself out with a night of people who are…very eager to tell you about what they’re working on.
Paul: Yeah. [laughter]
Rex: And um…just the kind of constant self-promotion kind of quality of the city.
Paul: You sort of feel like, it’s like somebody’s licking your face.
Rex: And I got, after nine years, I’d gotten really tired of it. So retreating into writing actually, strangely, made me a lot more happy, I think, because I didn’t, I just decided I didn’t have to play that game anymore, or be out there.
Rex: Rubbing shoulders and all that stuff.
Paul: So you can enjoy the city, but without all the people.
Rex: Yeah, I might go to Film Forum.
Paul: Yeah! Exactly, exactly. So you are, if people need to find you, they can send you an email. What’s your preferred email these days?
Rex: Just rexsorgatz at gmail.
Rex: It will not get there. [laughter]
Paul: And so you’re going to leave here today. Are you going to go do some writing. Are you going to have some coffee? What are you gonna do?
Rex: I’m probably doing to go to the library and do research for a book I’m writing.
Paul: Can you tell us what the subject is?
Rex: It’s a guidebook to understanding this culture we live in that is constantly barraging us with fakery, deception, deceit.
Rex: It’s called The Encyclopedia of Fakes.
Paul: This is great. This is the other side of Fate.
Rex: It is in a way, yeah.
Paul: That’s actually going to be the title of this episode, “The other side of Fate.”
Rich: There we go. Perfect.
Paul: Rex, thank you so much for coming on to our podcast.
Rich: Thank you, Rex.
Rex: I loved it, I loved it, I loved it.
Paul: It was great.
Rich: This was a lot of fun.
Paul: It was great having you here. Great having you here. Hey you know, Rich, there’s not a lot to say at the end of this podcast.
Paul: But I hope I, I —
Rich: It speaks for itself.
Paul: I tried to bring the energy up, I’m gonna give you, like, a solid B+.
Rich: I didn’t expect you to judge me.
Paul: Yeah, well, you should —
Rich: On the same podcast. OK. I’ll judge you next one.
Paul: All right. If you go to iTunes, if you’re like stumbling home drunk and you go to iTunes, because that’s kind of on the way to the other things that you do on your computer, you monster, and you happen to see our podcast and you rate it really, really well, a magical leprechaun will come to your house and give you all the gold. So that’s just something that you should know. Other than that, I’m Paul Ford.
Rich: I’m Rich Ziade.
Paul: This is Track Changes, the official podcast of the Postlight agency. We’ll build your app. You just get in touch by writing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paul: All right, we’ll see you later.