Max Read is the editor of New York Magazine’s vertical Select All. You might also know his name from Gawker, where he worked from 2010 to 2015, eventually becoming its Editor-in-Chief. To me, his time there is most notable for his absolute mastery of the short “this thing is bad and if you disagree with me you’re dumb” posts, which I have on occasion shamelessly copied (La Croix is obviously garbage). To others, he’s famous for being involved in controversial posts around the Hulk Hogan sex tape and a male sex worker’s account of his time with an ostensibly straight publishing executive. The drama around both of these incidents is chronicled masterfully in his New York Magazine article, “Did I Kill Gawker?”
At Select All, Read oversees a site similarly broad, funny, and essential. It has the regular dank meme selection you’d expect—a Polish tank from Hyundai’s Super Bowl ad with “Cash me outside” written on the barrel of its cannon, that piece of wood with a dog’s soul trapped in it, and a Trump executive order generator. But, speaking of Trump, the site also does the absolutely essential work of covering politics, weaponized memes, and other dark online corners, about which it’s suddenly vital to democracy to have a close knowledge.
When you were starting Select All, did you think it would be fun? Were you saying, “We’ll write about dumb memes”?
Oh yeah, totally. Gawker used to have all these subsites, and we created one that we called Weird Internet where it was just going to be about weird stuff we found online. A lot of the writers that I hired are a lot of the writers I had been working with and were writers who were really good at ferreting that stuff out and writing about it. Adrian [Chen] for a long time was like the king. He doesn’t really write about it anymore, but he was the king of that stuff. Then I was working with Ashley Feinberg and Andy Cush, people who had a talent for writing about memes. I mean, it sounds so silly to say it like that, but that’s sort of what it was.
The way the world works now is this: the way online is now is the way everything is five years later. Like with GamerGate; if you were involved in GamerGate and you were caught up in it, and I was, the entire Trump campaign made sense. The way supporters talked and acted, the way he was able to just sort of bulldoze his way through the layers of sophisticated social levers to just be that being of pure attention-grabbing energy—it was like a very GamerGate-ish thing.
It’s not even five years later at this point. It’s six months later.
I think there’s an underserved audience of people who are knowledgeable about but still interested in internet culture, and that includes, like, if you want to know what the best gadgets are, and you want consumer tech advice, and you want to know about the companies whose platforms you’re using because you want to be an informed and engaged consumer. We’re trying to build a sort of generalist site that’s both smart enough for insiders who care a lot about this stuff, but is also welcoming and intelligible to the outsiders.
You had a piece where you wrote that maybe the internet is bad for democracy—it only knows how to tear down, not build up.
To say the internet is bad for democracy, which I know I did, it’s a little bit like saying talking is bad for democracy. Yeah, it’s true. Talking can be really bad for democracy, but only if you’re required to talk in very specific and bad ways, which is essentially what Facebook does to us. It enforces a set of ideas about how we think and talk through stuff, and how we engage with people and interact with people. To me, I don’t think the solution is to necessarily get off the internet and go have conversations in person. I think that has to happen. I think face-to-face interaction is the foundation and the core of any functioning democracy, but I think it’s also about diminishing and removing the power of the Googles and the Facebooks of the world and ensuring that we exist in an actual competitive and decentralized kind of internet.
Portrait by Jane Bruce