The Brooklyn 100: Jenna Wortham, writer for the New York Times Magazine

jenna wortham

Wortham started off as a tech writer at the New York Times but has more recently been at the Times Magazine, wherein she writes about a wide range of topics, and has been particularly notable on the topics of grieving in the age of social media (please don’t even bother to try and get through this without crying) and Beyoncé’s “Formation” video (which, honestly, don’t even bother to try and get through this without crying either). Simply put: Wortham is who we want to read on everything, all the time.
Tell me about the work you do at the New York Times Magazine. What about it is most exciting for you?
My favorite thing about my job is that it changes on the daily. I’m currently a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, and I work on so many different things: features, podcasts, web pieces, virtual reality films, and our live conference events. It’s good for me because I am high-functioning and I get bored easily. I travel constantly for work, which is so important for expanding my perspectives beyond what the social feeds surface for me.
Right now, I’m pursuing my most personal interests and trusting that they will unearth interesting things to write about and cover. My absolute favorite type of story is one that catches people and ideas on the come-up. Right now, that mostly involves the way black women and black queer women contribute to our culture, whether through music, art, start-ups, activism, or literature. It’s such a nice break from the last few years of my career, which I spent writing about the ambitions of straight white men during my time as a business and start-up reporter, and it started to exhaust me. I knew those couldn’t be the only stories worth telling in entrepreneurship and digital culture, so last year, I wrote a micro-column called “Search Results,” that was a quick take on something trending online, and most of the people and trends I featured showcased innovation from people of color. That was partially deliberate, but partially just a factor of where the most exciting developments in online culture were happening. Black people in America generate so much of the most important cultural content we consume, it’s insane. It makes me feel proud. I just want them to get paid more for it.
 As much as I love my day job, I also believe in making art for the sake of making art—which in my case amounts to working on weird side projects that I believe in, just for fun. I take metalworking classes, fiction writing, ceramics, and weaving classes all over Brooklyn and have used these last few bitter cold weekends to stay at home cuddled up, listening to podcasts, watching random TV shows, looking at photo books, and watercoloring. I love being a writer, but I’m slowly starting to test the boundaries of my other capabilities and skills. Last year, I went on tour with Pop-Up Magazine, performing a live play with a troupe of shadow puppeteers (called Manual Cinema, based in Chicago) about a man with memory impairment who uses his iPhone as his external brain. It was a phenomenal experience. I’m also working on an art book called Black Futures with my friend and collaborator Kim Drew. Aminatou Sow and I occasionally write newsletters called “bloop,” our version of Goop. I have a YA fiction project that I work on in the background. Those are just the public facing projects for 2016, too. There’s so much more I want to do. I’ve been working on a virtual reality film for work and I’m surprised and encouraged by how much I like working in a visual medium. Lately, I’ve also been studying herbalism and thinking more about holistic health remedies—which started because I wanted to re-connect to my body and have more power and agency over my health, and not just think about it when I get sick or injured. I’m talking to my local CSA about distributing them through her this summer. Life’s possibilities feel endless.
How does the internet inform your writing? How has is the internet been important to you?
You know that Erykah Badu song “Kiss Me on My Neck?” There’s a part where she says “bring me water, water for my mind,” and that’s how I feel about the Internet usually—it brings me perspectives, art, opinions and LOLs that I’m not getting from any of the mainstream outlets, and that is so so crucial for staying woke and staying hydrated in 2016.
TELL ME MORE ABOUT BEYONCE’S THANK YOU BOUQUET / WHAT WILL YOU DO WITH THE FLOWERS / WILL YOU FRAME THE CARD?
Journalists usually are obligated to (politely) refuse any kind of gift from a source or subject, but there was no way I was going to say no to the King. I figured I could always share it or give it away to someone else if it was extravagant in a way that was inappropriate.  But it was just nice: And reminded me to restart my gratitude practice, as embarrassingly New Agey as that sounds—never forgetting to say thank you when someone puts something into the world. Since the Beyqouet arrived, I’ve been giving little gifts to the people in my life who move me, tokens of appreciation to the light and electric energy they send towards me. I’m also seriously considering getting “ALWAYS STAY GRACIOUS, BEST REVENGE IS YOUR PAPER” tattooed across the tops of my thighs so I can look at it every morning when I’m getting out of bed as a reminder because THAT IS THE MOTTO.
You write a lot about the real-world, and often political, implications of technology—examining whether or not software has misogyny written into it, or the nature of digital imperialism, or Twitter’s (majority black) user base in relation to its (overwhelmingly white) management. Do you feel more hope or more cynicism as you watch these different technologies evolve? What does the future hold?
The future for American creators feels ultra-bright. I can’t speak to the rest of the global climate: post-Trump politics, the Anthropocene, police brutality, and income inequality terrify me and my head spins when I think about the world and our country on a macro scale.  But I am continuously reassured by how little of the media and materials that I want to read are created by the big-name incumbents (legacy media, decades-old critics, artists, and institutions like the Oscars) —it signals to me that marginalized voices are finding new platforms and footing on their own terms, and that’s the change I want to see in my lifetime. I look at bands like The Internet and Anderson Paak, designers like DapperQ and Chromat, newsletters like Clover, Well-Read Black Girl, Black Girl in Om, and new lit mags like Dear Journal and the queer art mag Posture, and I just feel so hype for what’s coming. It’s wild to watch old institutions be challenged by people, ideas, and companies on the rise, and I love seeing incumbents pushed out of their bubble and reckoning with a world bigger than the one they’ve always catered to. That is why I will always root for Tidal.
It’s feels like we’re at a tipping point for equality and trying to understand what that truly means. Everyone needs to buckle up. Shit’s about to get real.
In terms of my internet usage, I spend a good amount of time following random Viners on Snapchat (which I love more than any other social network right now) and live-streaming talks via Rhizome and listening to Flash Forward and The Read. I’m still obsessed with Shade Room and Art Hoe on Instagram—both of which are basically becoming mini-mobile blogs. I don’t use the Kim Kardashian apps but they also amaze me: I hope Rihanna and Amber Rose both start their own soon. Everything that’s happening in nu-media right now is a wealth of good feels and inspiration. I am invigorated, in the fullest sense of the word. Working at a magazine also means I have time to really digest the news, instead of just report on it, and I’m using that berth to figure out the big stories that need to be told this year.
I’ve become really invested in environmental racism and the relationship to the Internet—where are the server farms that we rely on to deliver our Internet, and how are they impacting the health of the environments that surround them? Do Uber, Instacart, and Airbnb contribute to gentrification? If the most important black public intellectuals of our time are on Twitter, as The New Republic recently wrote, what happens to that record if / when Twitter changes its algorithm, scales back on storage, or goes away altogether? What happens to the movements born there and our collective digital social memory, which may be as important to our children’s children as Basquiat’s notebooks and Mandela’s letters from jail? It’s also becoming increasingly clear that some people benefit from the way the world is moving and so many are not. And that feels like a great injustice, and something I want to be covering more. We’re all slowly getting woke to the ways the Internet has failed to democratize our society—how do we fix that? Can we?
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