What We Read in 2016
Here’s what you missed while enduring the last 12 months…
Selected by Joe Lazauskas, editor-in-chief
Over the past year, I’ve read my fair share of depressing, thought-provoking essays about the state of media, politics, and tech, and the strange dystopia that we’re slowly careening into. Which to choose?! There were just so many great pieces that I read by the soft glow of my phone, pieces that stayed with me all night and haunted my dreams.
But you know what? Screw that. I’m going to share the funniest thing I read last year—a piece that literally made me fall on the floor in our office. 2016 was shit, but every word of this piece is perfect.
Epic Magazine: Silicon Is Just Sand
Selected by Erin Nelson, marketing editor
What was the deal with “Silicon Beach” in Los Angeles, and why did it involve murder?
It would have been easy to capture the seduction of the LA tech underworld in broad strokes, but Stephen Elliott instead uses descriptive language and thorough—and at times, awkward—interviews to draw finite details about the players involved.
An apt storyteller, he is able to summarize the ripple effect of an urban tech boom without cementing cliched caricatures. Here, the entrepreneur is not another geeky Ivy League dropout with a billion dollar company built from his parents’ garage. He is a former convict, actor, and YouTube fanatic who, through grit and a bit of luck, struck it big (only to lose it all). Like a Russian nesting doll, Elliott hides complete stories within a larger one—with each mysterious and complex narrative able to stand on its own.
Finally, Elliott achieves something difficult for any reporter: He inserts himself as a character, with flaws and ambitions like the rest of his cast. The story is over 10,000 words and took me more than one sitting to read. But it pushed me to reimagine how to turn industry coverage into a narrative fit for Hollywood.
Selected by Dillon Baker, tech editor
Everyone I know loves Trader Joe’s. It’s rare that brands attain such a cult status, and whenever you find them, it’s always illuminating to examine why.
In this fantastic essay, Alicia Eler explores Trader Joe’s many idiosyncratic marketing strategies—the company is not on social media, and does minimal advertising (no digital, no TV). Instead, Trader Joe’s relies almost exclusively on word-of-mouth and its unique store structure to bring new customers in and keep the old ones loyal.
Overall, the essay is a fascinating dive into contemporary marketing that questions many of the assumptions brands hold about how to build a successful business in the 21st century. For that, it’s my favorite read of 2016.
Deadspin: Fuck Everything and Blame Everyone
Craig Davis, editorial intern
2016 was a shitty, shitty year.
We lost legends like Muhammad Ali and Prince. Citizens of the U.S. and UK made some questionable decisions at the ballot box. I got laid off and ate a lot of ramen.
Deadspin—whose own shitty year involved bankruptcy, Peter Thiel, and Hulk Hogan’s penis—summed it up best with this profane yet thoughtful flood of catharsis the day after the election. From the press’ failure to responsibly police the candidates, to Facebook’s “massive reality-distortion field,” to a political system that still suppresses voter turnout, author Alex Pareene pulls no punches in placing the blame on all deserving parties.
There are way too many summary pieces on Trump’s victory and the ensuing reaction, but no other does such a good job of capturing the zeitgeist. People needed to read something like this in the aftermath, and Deadspin came through.
n+1: Uncanny Valley
Selected by Jordan Teicher, managing editor
This could be fiction. Not in the sense that the author, Anna Wiener, made up details. I mean that this essay is so good and intimate that it reads like a thoughtful short story.
It’s about one woman’s experiences working for startups. The subhead, “I would say more, but I signed an NDA” sets up the tragic humor that’s to come over the next half hour. Wiener can’t share the names of people or companies, so she tells her story through this anonymous prism that makes you feel sad and numb. In between the ridiculous office anecdotes that play like parody, she sounds like a veteran thinking about combat.
Anyone who works remotely close to the tech solar system will relate to this article in some way. It covers the big themes of race, gender, and age, but at its core, it’s really about the psychology of loneliness, desperation, and success. “Uncanny Valley” was the best thing I read last year, and it’s not even close.Image by Unsplash / CC Zero