The Follow: Willy Staley, The G.O.A.T. Poster

Abe Beame returns for the latest edition of The Follow to speak to journalist Willy Staley about his relationship with Twitter, the experience of writing a viral piece & more.
By    June 28, 2023

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Abe Beamehates you with a passion.

The Follow is an interview series I plan on putting out occasionally, or frequently, or maybe never again, in which I basically just talk to the people I enjoy following online who are willing to talk to me for a while. It will be about what they come to Twitter for, how they cultivate their online personas, the things they feel passionate enough to contribute to the infinite discourse on this app, and why they feel the need to do it. And on a basic level, it will be two people on Zoom shooting the shit.

In May of 2010, the dearly departed culture blog The Awl, pubished an article entitled “Gun Battle Rages As Jamaican Government Attempts to Arrest Aptronymic Drug Lord.” Written by the also dearly departed editor and writer Dave Bry, the article briefly outlined the attempt to extradite a powerful kingpin named Chistopher ‘Dudes’ Coke. At the bottom of the post, an addendum now reads: “Willy Staley of the Bay Area rap site Nation of Thizzlam alerts us to the fact that there already is a rap album named after Coke and co. It’s from the duo Jacka and Husalah, and it came out in 2006. Proving that the Shower Posse has been notorious for a long time.”

To me, this at once explains the specific brilliance, curiosity, and odds-defying career trajectory of one of the all-time greatest posters, Willy Staley. It figures to go down in history as the one of the most important corrections that a New York Times Magazine story editor will ever have to their credit, and eternal testament to the foresight of the Killa Whale from the Fillmore District.

Willy is the increasingly rare case of a journalist who writes with literary flair and a novelist’s specificity. I spent a good deal of time leading up to our interview reading his old pieces – a forensic footprint that tells a story of internet journalism through the 2010s, with stops at The Awl, Complex, The Fader, Nextcity, and the New York Times. However, what first drew my attention and continues to sustain it, is his uncommon gift for posting.

When I first joined Twitter during the pandemic, out of a mix of depression and boredom, I didn’t really understand what the platform was or how it functioned. Before logging on, I thought that it was people complaining about customer service at the airport and chronicling their lunch orders. What became immediately apparent, and I suppose always should have been, was that Tweeting is an art form. It rewards an economy that I’ve sadly never had, as anyone who has ever edited me can tell you. My drafts are a series of long, rambling sentences that always exceed allotted word count. But Twitter is a medium where a graceful and thoughtful writer can make the most of its limitations.

I’ve been turning this over in my head for years now, but pulling from his recent feed at random, here’s an example of what I think he does so well:

I’m going to do something that Willy will absolutely hate and in detail, attempt to seriously analyze this short throwaway Tweet about the dumb HBO sex play, The Idol. It’s classic Willy: an interesting and extremely funny idea wrapped in a glib delivery that makes it impossible to tell how seriously we should take the critique. Beyond the message of the Tweet, the quality in his writing that always draws me to his posts is present here. There’s a kind of breath-like naturalism in the use of punctuation, the comma, the word choice. There’s always an unexpected zag in a Willy post. He rarely repeats himself or uses conventional phrasing. When discussing writers, we default to using the word “voice”, but Willy posts in a way that you can hear out loud.

His title is story editor for the New York Times Magazine but as a writer, functions as a critic-at-large. His interests are skating, Bay Area rap, and street parking in Brooklyn, but more than anything else, he is a student of the internet, a terminally online McLuhan filing sprawling, thoughtful, research heavy explorations of what feels like phenomena he has gleaned from his timeline: The proliferate misuse and appropriation of the term gentrification, the sudden en masse return to the HBO prestige drama The Sopranos, the unpredictable and sporadic release schedule of the McDonalds special pork sandwich, the McRib, whatever the f*ck the Try Guys are, and perhaps his masterpiece, a deep dive on Twitter itself in the age of Musk.

What sets Willy apart is that he explores these questions with stunning depth and clarity from a structural perspective. He gets at their systemic root causes by taking a macro lens to them. He threads the needle of writing with the sociological authority of a pointy headed “Theory Guy” – in language that is accessible to literal-minded dumbass bar argument humanities major types (*ahem*), chatty yet poetic, and extremely funny.

In his profile of fellow Bay Area native E-40, Willy wrote: “Technology has transformed the music industry in the way it has transformed so many industries: the barriers to entry are gone, but there seem to be fewer winners, the spoils accruing to the few at the expense of the many.” It was a prescient forecast of where his own eventual field was headed. But he has become one of the few winners of this era in which the spout of journalistic opportunity has narrowed to a trickle. I was around during The Blog Era we’ve spent much of the last few weeks discussing thanks to the Rosenthals, and never put together that (sadly taken down) Nation of Thizzlam, a rap blog dedicated to the still hyper-niche Bay Area scene, and a mainstay on every blogroll during that era, was authored by Willy, his brother, and a friend from college.

Throughout his 20s, Willy worked odd jobs in journalism and hospitality, casting about for a purpose until the aforementioned McRib piece made him a viral phenomenon. Eventually, he landed at the New York Times.

As such, Willy is “one of us.” His career trajectory dangles the once-Cinderella promise of the internet: the dewy-eyed Nora Ephron treatment of what media in the Twitter age could be if you’re just good and special enough. That the dumb little essay you’ve been obsessing over for weeks intended for some “publication” with a small but influential readership will hit big, go wide, get in front of the right eyes, and you will be chosen, plucked from obscurity to become a real life Alger protagonist.

But that, of course, is bullshit. With just a bare crack in the door, Willy had to prove his utility both as a writer and an editor. Over time, he proved to the right people that he was worthy of the final call-up to the Charming Castle of journalism (No doubt buoyed by his facility as a poster with a knack for zeitgeist-tapping virality).

I’d always been interested in asking him about his experience, both online and in his professional life. For Willy, it can be difficult to differentiate those two aspects of his digital footprint, which is the exact point of this series. So after months of pestering him, Willy generously agreed to sit with me over Zoom to discuss many things, but primarily the role Twitter has played in his life, and what it still means.

(Author’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed to make me sound like less of an asshole)

In a Major Way or Thot Breaker?

Willy Staley: I would have to go with In A Major Way. I’m loyal to the Bay Area, as great as Thot Breaker is.

Where would you suggest a listener should start with Messy Marv?

Willy Staley: That’s a good question. I feel like his most accessible record would be Bandanas, Tattoos and Tongue Rings, which was like, geek, hyphy-era Messy Marv. [Author’s Note: We need to make this Pitchfork Sunday Review happen immediately.] But it seems like it had label involvement – maybe because in addition to “Get On My Hype,” which of course, is famously used in The Place Beyond the Pines, it also has gimmick records. I was just listening to it the other day and there’s a song about people with bad breath. It’s fully an ‘80s novelty record. That’s a good place to start with Messy Marv.

With Messy Marv, it’s a human drama and there’s just so much. I was going to say it gets so messy- but it gets so screwed up as time goes on. He’s a troubled soul and it’s a little like Taylor Swift- different beefs and feuds- but there’s arguably too much for someone who doesn’t know what they’re looking for to jump right into.

Until I started doing homework for this, I didn’t realize that you ran Nation of Thizzlam.

Willy Staley: I did, yeah. Me and my brother and another guy. I started it with my twin brother when we were in college.

What was the experience like working as a Blog Era de facto journalist, and why did you decide to take it down?

Willy Staley: It was fun because music blogging was kind of new back then, and it was a time for me to figure things out as a writer: what moves I had, and what I like to do, and how I could have fun, and interacting with a commentariat and readership. It was exciting because people started actually reading it, and I found a lot of people to read through that, and it totally changed the course of my life.

I took it down because I was starting a career in journalism, and it was this thing I did when I was in college, and there were a bunch of us contributing to it. And it was just like we were all kind of done with it. And I didn’t think it needed to live online forever. I didn’t want to keep it up for posterity, necessarily.

When the unpaid writing discourse was going last week, you said you were paid $25 for the McRib piece. Could you expand on why?

Willy Staley: Well, there’s certainly room to disagree, but something that I, as an editor, am concerned about, is the ecosystem in which young writers operate. So in my position, we need to be scouting for new talent and finding people and bringing them into the profession and nurturing promising young voices. And that’s not only the most satisfying thing you can do as an editor, but also important for keeping this whole thing up and running.

And one thing that’s happened is that The Awl died. New Gawker died. Before that, a ton of other things died. And all that’s come up behind it is- there’s The Drift, for example, I really like The Drift and all the people there, but it’s a much more serious and intellectual sort of space. It’s not a place that young people who might not have it all figured out quite yet will get to experiment and try things out – to just be funny or write something goofy or write something interesting. So I have a concern about the collapse of this ecosystem.

And it’s clear that as the money’s dried up, the VC money, plus Vice and Buzzfeed, all that’s gone. So I worry that nothing will come up in the wings. And then this new website does, and people melt down about the fact that they’re not paying contributors. My sense is that they probably aren’t making money and that they would probably pay contributors as they begin to make money. And if they don’t have money yet, it’s good to create an ecosystem in which writers have a platform and have a way to get stuff in front of people, and an infrastructure to write.

My thoughts are that this structure existed before. People weren’t so strident about writer pay, even sort of low level. The Awl was only paying nominally. They might have raised rates to $100. I think I got paid $50 for the McRib piece initially, and then I might have gotten another $100 check later for no reason from them. They were cool, don’t get me wrong. They were paying people what they thought they could, but it was nominal.

And so I think that if you want to create a scene and create a place in an ecosystem in which writers can be heard who might not be ready to write in a magazine or an intellectual journal or a small magazine. It’s not the end of the world if they have something they want to say and something they want to put out there and they’re not paid a lot of money for it, because the money is just not there.

I also think your willingness to make that basic statement highlights something that I really respect about how you utilize your platform. You aren’t afraid of pushing back on some of Twitter’s reactive absurdity and breathless outrage. What I appreciate is that there’s some room for a very sensible thought process communicated with humor in a few words that you’ll offer when these types of debates are raging. But as you’re taking these positions, do you ever fear reprisal?

Willy Staley: Oh, yeah. Totally. And I heard about it a little bit from a couple of people on that one, and that’s fine. I think that I knew I was poking the bear, and I was ready to be yelled at. Ultimately, it’s just being yelled at- or not even yelled at, I shouldn’t say that. But sometimes Twitter and its various incentives crowds out common sense.

This is how the world works sometimes in reality. And sometimes, you just look at your feed, as many people do, and you get a little annoyed that this common sense idea has not been introduced. And then you do it. I suppose I’m privileged in some ways in that I have a job. And so it’s easy for me to feel this way and I don’t have to worry about being shunned and removed from the society of writers and editors – which, as I understand it, maybe people do feel that way, but I don’t.

But I just like to have fun too. It’s a place to argue and kick ideas around, so it’s not part of some grand project. I’m just trying to amuse myself, and put that thought out there.

You seem to have an exact sense of the type of role that you want to play on the app. My way of defining it is as a metacritic, both of culture and how the culture talks about itself. You’ll rarely post, “I ate this burger or saw this movie” unless you’re talking about Barry, which in my opinion was more of a commentary on how we watch and talk about TV. So how do you view the function of the platform specifically as you utilize it?

Willy Staley: No, I think that’s kind of right. But I also think Twitter is great for that metadiscursive conversation. I don’t think I’m doing anything special by participating in it. Everyone is kind of trying to view the whole conversation from above when they’re on the app. And that is one of the illusions that it provides you, is that you are the one person viewing it from above and everyone else is in your little stream, right? So I certainly give into that illusion all the time. I mean, there’s no point in using it otherwise.

How does it feel to have a piece you wrote go viral?

Willy Staley: The McRib thing was a pretty weird experience because I wrote a blog post, frankly. It’s not that the writing is not very good or I wouldn’t be happy with it today. I think the ideas are fun and it’s interesting and it’s perfectly fine in that regard. I’m very clear about what we know and what we don’t know. But I think of that as a blog post.

Watching it go viral was really crazy because I was just a guy who occasionally wrote about music and had some number of people who were involved professionally in writing and editing following me, but not many. And then all of a sudden the thing goes crazy and you’re in front of all these people. And I got all these emails from editors, including the old editor of The Times Magazine, and I couldn’t believe that this had happened thanks to a blog post.

So it’s a bit stressful, and addictive because you’re looking at it. You can search the link and you can see what people are saying and it feels good and it can feel bad and it’s totally out of your control. But then you’re sort of chasing it forever after. Which is a little funny, too, because nothing like that is ever going to happen to me again. I won the lottery. It was memorable. I could say that.

I think I understand what you mean because my experience of sharing writing on Twitter is you could write something that you just feel okay about, and it does really well because a bunch of people hit a heart icon and share it. Or it just does okay, even though it’s something you felt good about when you sent it to your editor. And then it retroactively plays on how you view the piece either way. It effectively gamifies your work, so the “chasing the hit” concept really resonates.

Willy Staley: With several years at The Times, and just having watched the ebbs and flows of Twitter’s influence over the media class, it is true if there’s a piece that everyone is reading, it will probably be present and discussed on your Twitter feed a lot. But it’s not always true in some cases. If you search the link- and I check out everything I edit and publish, I want to see how and if people are talking about it on Twitter. But it is such a minuscule proportion if you work in a place like The Times, and that’s a special place to be able to publish work to, people are going to come to it on the homepage, through the app, whatever. But sometimes it just doesn’t matter.

Something can seem to have failed or sunk like a stone on Twitter, but it’s reached tons of people. So everyone should think of Twitter as an epic phenomenon on top of the thing. It’s fun, it’s interesting, but it is no longer the conduit through which people are going to really meaningfully discover writing in large numbers, which is unfortunate because it was great for that.

Obviously, it still remains really important to me. When I publish something of my own, I will look at the Twitter conversation a lot, but you have to keep in mind that it is just this thing that you can look at. It’s another comment section, and it can be interesting and it can be frustrating or it can be cool, but it’s not like the experience I had ten years ago. That might be gone.

You have an interesting split focus in your work between mundane observational cultural commentary that also has what I’ll call a macro-structural spine. Where do you think that diagnostic lens comes from?

Willy Staley: When I read non-fiction that excites me and moves me, that makes me want to write. It is often the sort of work that helps append things to the movement of history and helps people lock these things into a larger model of how the world works. And I do think if magazine writing can do something special, it’s that it can bring you an understanding of how the world works, through some micro-cosmic representation of something large, when I’m trying to think about what forces are causing a particular derangement or excitement in culture.

I naturally have what maybe is a deficiency of not being able to read the cultural text directly. I do feel like I have deficiencies in that regard. I do not like to look straight at the text, and I like to think about everything behind it. So I guess I just like to take that one step back to try to put this thing into a larger, systemic container and think about it that way and see how it moves and that I find it satisfying.

When you get frustrated with Twitter, what is it that you find frustrating?

Willy Staley: I guess what I could say diplomatically is it’s a failure to appreciate that Twitter is an artificial and small space. That’s something that sometimes frustrates me when people don’t seem to get that it’s just a place where people are saying stuff and they aren’t necessarily doing stuff and isn’t happening to them immediately as they read it. It’s like when I annoy dog owners and they act like I’m taking away their dog. I don’t understand that response. I fail to understand why people ever reply to someone directly to correct their attitudes or opinions about something.

I suppose there are good reasons to do this, but I’ve always been somewhat mystified by it. Unless they’re an elected official and are announcing that they have just passed a law, the thing isn’t happening. Elected officials are on there, and certainly if you want to exert pressure on them on Twitter, you should and you have something to pursue. But I don’t understand why there’s a tendency to treat people as though they’re actually making edicts when they’re not. And I think that for there to be a healthy, discursive environment, people need to treat one another’s jokes as what they are, then we can have a conversation. So if I get frustrated, it’s because I feel like people are taking it too seriously.

If you owned the platform, what would you change about it?

Willy Staley: Ah, everyone would have to be nice to me all the time. No one could be mean to me. And everyone would have to say my jokes are funny.

Unfortunately, I think the current owner has beat you to that.

Willy Staley: And you know, I think that if you did it with a lighter touch, it might work. That’s my note to Elon. He took it too far. In terms of functionality? Someone had a good idea that if two people mute one another, they should automatically unfollow them. That’s a good idea.

Mine would be getting rid of blind quote tweeting. I hate that.

Willy Staley: Oh, yeah. I really, really hate that.

What do you think makes a good poster?

Willy Staley: Oh, man. Well, I feel like this will sound self-serving, but I’ll do it. I do think that this kind of goes back to our conversation about blogging, but when you are blogging, you are developing a voice and a bunch of ideas with an audience on an ongoing basis. And that’s why people come back to you. They come back to you for your you could call them bits, but also, like lines of inquiry and running jokes and whatever.

Think about someone like Byron Crawford, who was like a real master of this. He was very funny and he had his bits that he would return to, and you went to him for that. And I think that if you are using Twitter properly, it should actually feel like your blog, like, you should not be pushed around by every last Whim or meme on the platform. You should not be responding to the thing that everyone is responding to now. Of course, everyone’s going to do that. That’s what it’s for. I just mean not always. There should be evidence that you have your own things that you are returning to and thinking about.

And for me I have three to five things I do repeatedly and that amuses some people that annoys some people, whatever, they are mine, I feel sovereignty over the feed I produce. You know, I’m kind of using some ridiculous terms to describe this, but I joke with my colleague about feed sovereignty and the idea that this is my blog and you are reading it and that is what we’re doing here. This is just a way of saying have a voice of your own and have pursuits of your own. There’s a number of ideas of mine that started as bits and eventually became essays that I wrote for the magazine. And sometimes, people tease me about that, but I actually do feel like I’m feeling out whether other people out there sense and see the world similarly to how I see it and if I’m crazy or not. Now, of course, as I wrote in the piece, you can’t trust that entirely, but I do think writing is a social act, and so you want to know if you’re crazy or not.

Something I’ve found as someone who’s been writing for a really long time, but not online, is that there’s an interesting self-editing function to Twitter’s natural limit on a word count. So a) do you think it is helpful for writers or can be helpful for writers not just in their Tweets, but in their prose, and b) do you think it’s changed the way people write at all over the last 15 years?

Willy Staley: It’s almost hard for me to know because my entire career as a professional editor has been in the full light of Twitter. So it’s like I assume that it’s true. I imagine it’s been detrimental in the fact that it’s harder for people to have sustained focus, like the sustained focus required for reading-

Man down.

Willy Staley: -and also detrimental or part of a series of forces that have been detrimental to the economy that undergirds. Like editing, reporting stuff is cranked out more as a result of not just Twitter, but everything over the last decade and a half. So it’s hard to say, but at the sentence level, I guess I’m going to have to punt on this. Impossible for me to say. It’s good. I think editing is like the bigger cuts. I’m not a very talented line editor. I think more in terms of structure, themes and so on. I think the bigger moves, the bigger cuts, that’s where the most important stuff happens, at least from my perspective.

There’s different outlets with different house styles, but it does seem that a more clipped and essentialist style in a lot of different places has become the norm. And I wonder sometimes if that is a result of writers who become editors learning to cut to the bone to get under a character limit. What do you like about editing? And maybe you could explain it in specifics with like pieces recently that you edited.

Willy Staley: One thing about editing is if you are someone who has a lot of ideas and you can discuss them with your smart colleagues, and then you can pass them off to an even smarter writer and then they can pursue it for you, and then you get the work back. You get to conceive of things and then make them a reality. So a recent piece that I was really happy with was Max Read wrote about Mr. Beast, the YouTuber, and I had read something about Mr. Beast online and started watching a few of his videos and got a sense of how the whole thing worked.

I pitched it, and people liked it, and we brought it to Max and he liked it. And it’s a total pleasure when the whole system works like it’s supposed to. It’s an incredibly privileged job to still be editing in a magazine. You get to sit down and have lunch with writers who know about stuff you don’t and can tell you about it and go out and talk to people who know more stuff and they tell you about that. And then you get to think about how to make it all make sense to a reader. You get to play with ideas, you get to talk to interesting, smart and funny people a lot. And so it’s a pleasure sometimes you want to write more, but I mean, that’s life.

Being a freelancer, at least from my perspective, can be pretty nightmarish, depending on who you’re working with and how you’re working. What do you think the utility of freelancing is in today’s medium?

Willy Staley: Well, here at the magazine, there’s a handful of staff jobs and they’re going to produce X number of stories a year, and then there’s a handful of contracts we have space for with writers and they’re going to produce y number of stories a year. There’s a bunch of space for other voices. So one, there’s a ton of writers who just aren’t going to have a contract or staff job just because there aren’t that many jobs, period. But also maybe because they have other things going on and they don’t want even one of those jobs. The value is that you get to work with new people, people with a great idea can come from out of nowhere and publish something with you. You wouldn’t want to close that door. It’s tough to talk about what the economy of freelancing is like from the perspective of a guy with a cozy desk job. But the value is there’s tons of talent out there and it’s good to be able to work with them, and we pay well and cover the travel expenses.

Was the E-40 profile freelance?

Willy Staley: Yes.

I was stunned by the length of time and exposure that you got to him. As someone constantly smashing their head against the brickwall of access, any advice?

Willy Staley: It was The Fader. They brought it to me. I don’t know if it was arranged for someone else beforehand or what, so I didn’t have to do much of anything. I happened to be out in the Bay Area, and so I did it. I got to hang out with him in the car, and then at the game, and then after in the car, and then the day after. Musicians are really, really difficult in my experience, so I was happy. E-40 is older and maybe more mature than some of the other musicians out there. So he’s settled down and he’s fine having a journalist around. He was very fun. That was a really fun profile to report.

Well, it read that way. Part of me thinks it seems so incredible now due to where we are in time. Like, I wonder if somebody could get that now. But hearing that it was set up for you makes it even more infuriating.

Willy Staley: Access in general, from my perspective, even at the Times Magazine, celebrity access, it gets harder every year. There’s less and less reason for them to do it. Why would you do it? Why would you hang out with one of us if you don’t have to? Which is unfortunate because celebrity profiles can be so fun and enlightening, and it’s nice to have an understanding of how this person- what their body of work means and why you should care.

I think people just don’t read anymore. Artists don’t give a shit about seeing their name in print. If you’re trying to talk to a young rapper, they would rather respond to a request for a YouTuber guy riding around in his Civic filming live from a dashboard off his phone, who has 3 million followers, because it’s on video rather than a full blown profile with a prestigious literary magazine. I’m using this as an example of something I’ve literally run into before.

Willy Staley: It’s too bad. Yeah. I mean, this is, again, like, goes back to my eco-system concerns about writing. It’s like if everything becomes a social media video, you at least need to preserve some path for people to continue learning the craft and growing within it. Unless you don’t. I guess we’ll find out.

You’ve been an advocate of the idea that tech is eventually going to hollow out the middle class. And I think we’ve seen a really clear vision of what that’s going to look like with what’s happening in media. So in that dystopian future, what is left of media in- I don’t know- five years at the rate we’re going?

Willy Staley: If things don’t get better somehow, there will be some big players in town. And we know who those players are. They have a moat and they have revenue from subscriptions. And The Times will be one of them, I suppose, but there will be others. And then you have billionaire supported semi-vanity publications. And this is in the “top end.” The Atlantic is not a vanity publication. But it is billionaire subsidized. I have some hope in the sort of reader supported model, good for everyone who’s doing really well on Substack. I also think that some people might look at their array of substack subscriptions and eventually think, “$5 a month to one guy?” So things like Defector or Passion have a way forward. There are models that seem promising, where readers can support a staff of people rather directly. Whether the overall ecosystem ends up healthy as a result of this, I do not know. I suspect not overall, but just don’t know.

I think we may be going back to The Blog Era.

Willy Staley: Well, yeah, I mean, it would be good if people wanted to write like that, right? If people wanted to go and write on a blog. But I think people don’t want to to the same degree. And I think Twitter is part of it. Twitter is kind of like methadone for blogging. You can sit down and write a thousand words. That’s gonna be a little choppy. And you might not be super proud of it, but you would have published it in 2008. Or you can fire off like, two Tweets getting across the same idea, and maybe that desire to share it will be extinguished.

But also, I do think that the risk/reward ratio is a little off as well. If there isn’t an ecosystem from which you can go from blogging to having a job, and I’m not the only person who did that. Other people did that, obviously. Tons of people were so fortunate and so lucky. But I think that if there aren’t those intermediary steps and there isn’t an ecosystem, not only for editing and publishing it, but also for consuming it and wanting to see it on a regular basis, well, then why would anyone f*cking bother? Why would anyone do it? Why don’t they just go do something else entirely? Or look at TikTok. And I do worry that that’s what’s happening. But there will always be people who want to read and write, I would hope. It’s like writing is hard, and yelling at someone’s easy.

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