My Internet: Kat Tenbarge
The NBC News reporter is worried about AI, but not because she's afraid it will take over the world.
Embedded is your essential guide to what’s good on the internet, written by Kate Lindsay and edited by Nick Catucci.
Most weeks, we quiz a “very online” person for their essential guide to what’s good on the internet.
Today we welcome Kat Tenbarge, a tech and culture reporter for NBC News, where she has written about the deepfake porn economy, “irony-pilled” creators of Hunter Biden fan pages, and Instagram’s censorship of sex workers. While working at Insider in 2021, she wrote a news-making exposé of rape allegations against a member of YouTube star David Dobrik’s Vlog Squad.
Kat prefers Reels to TikToks, predicts voice notes will revolutionize reporting, and watched an average of slightly more than two Taylor Swift videos a day for the last 10 days. —Nick
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EMBEDDED: What shows up on your TikTok For You page?
KAT TENBARGE: To be honest, I barely use TikTok. If I start watching videos, I can watch them for hours, but I have to be in the right mood. I go through phases with a lot of apps but after I started making TikToks last year and did that for a few weeks, I really started hating the app. I don’t like how the For You Page functions with sensitive content because it blasts my videos out to fans of the people I’m talking about who have been accused of sexual violence, so I spend half my time sifting through abusive comments and deleting them and blocking people—if I’m creating a page about victims I don’t want to host a bunch of comments containing misinformation, victim-blaming, misogyny, etc.
EMBEDDED: Has your Twitter experience changed since Elon Musk took over? What would it take for you to quit?
KAT TENBARGE: I don’t think my usage has changed at all. I’ve always pretty consistently been on Twitter way too much. I set up one of those app usage timers but it doesn’t really deter me. Twitter is where I feel like I have a community, but it’s under attack. I think quitting Twitter would mean phasing social media out of various aspects of my life—which would be hard, but could be worth it.
EMBEDDED: Have you found any good alternatives to Twitter?
KAT TENBARGE: My second most-used platform is Reddit. I barely participate outside the occasional comment and even rarer post but I get a lot of information from Reddit. I love the r/Fauxmoi subreddit. It used to be called r/Deuxmoi but then the Instagram account got mad. They have a feud. It’s basically a digest of all the latest entertainment and celebrity news, trending topics, and speculation.
EMBEDDED: What do you use Instagram for?
KAT TENBARGE: Mostly Reels. I didn’t use the Instagram Explore page until after the pandemic started, which is around when I got into Disney Parks content. That’s some of my favorite leisure scrolling, just watching Reels about Disney food and Japanese food and other kinds of food the algorithm knows I’m interested in. Reels are better than TikTok for me because you don’t have to watch them with the sound on.
EMBEDDED: What types of videos do you watch on YouTube?
KAT TENBARGE: I’ve watched Taylor Swift music videos 22 times in the past 10 days, which is surprising even to me. That’s slightly more than two a day on average. I also watched this travel review channel which is made by the same creator who does the abandoned places videos with 1.3 million subscribers.
EMBEDDED: Have you had posts go viral? What is that experience like?
KAT TENBARGE: I’ve had a couple tweets go viral, like more than 100,000 likes. When I was in college and when I was still an intern I used to dream of getting a tweet with that many likes, or having more than 50,000 followers, and now that those things have happened I’m kind of “meh” about them. Like, oh, it’s just numbers on a screen.
There are often some tangible good and bad things that happen when you go viral, depending on the circumstances. Someone who is actually famous retweets you or your tweet gets embedded in an article or a non-profit uses it in an Instagram carousel. You may get a new networking opportunity or connection because of it, or in some cases tweets have led to raises or new jobs or deals.
On the flip side, you can also face immediate negative consequences, like harassment and backlash. That’s true for other social media platforms like Tumblr, where I used to be in fandoms and had almost a microcosm of what social media is now.
EMBEDDED: Who’s the coolest person who follows you?
KAT TENBARGE: I used to be a huge fan of this one YouTuber. I bought all the merch, I defended them online, I was floored when I met them at a convention, and then one day I wrote a story and they followed me on Twitter right after. And I literally cried. My best friend was sitting next to me at the time and was like “Are you okay?”
This was several years ago. Unfortunately, within a year, the YouTuber I loved was accused of some really horrible stuff and admitted to some of it. I was so heartbroken. I unfollowed them and they quickly unfollowed me back. Or maybe I just started criticizing them until they eventually unfollowed me. I can’t remember. But that was the most excited I’ve ever been for someone to follow me.
EMBEDDED: Where do you tend to get your news?
KAT TENBARGE: Twitter and Reddit. Also, group chats. Sometimes my mom sends me articles.
EMBEDDED: What’s one positive media trend? What’s one negative trend?
KAT TENBARGE: Embracing new media platforms is the only way forward but it hasn’t been a perfect landing. It’s hard to establish yourself as someone with an audience on social media platforms and also be a perfect representative of the brand you work for 24/7, and that’s not just a journalism thing, we’re seeing that in lots of different industries. So I’m glad that companies are willing to dedicate resources to new platforms but they have to protect their reporters at the same time. We’ve seen examples of newsrooms disciplining reporters who are attacked in the line of duty when it’s online.
EMBEDDED: How has using LinkedIn benefitted you, if at all?
KAT TENBARGE: The only thing LinkedIn has been good for is if someone I’m investigating has a public profile with their employment history. Or if you’re looking into a company, you can find previous employees. Then it can be useful.
EMBEDDED: Have you ever been heavily into Snapchat? Do you miss it?
KAT TENBARGE: I’m still there! We exist! I started using it heavily in late high school when it first came out and all throughout college. My friends and I still use it. Less so, maybe, although maybe that’s just me because I turned Snapchat notifications off.
EMBEDDED: When was the last time you browsed Pinterest? What for?
KAT TENBARGE: I use Pinterest a lot. I have a bunch of boards. I recently moved apartments so I have a bunch of interior design boards. Also, recipes.
EMBEDDED: Do you have an opinion about Tumblr?
KAT TENBARGE: I miss the golden era of Tumblr in 2012 through 2015. I miss my blog that I deleted. I still have a Tumblr and I still think it’s one of the better social media platforms. But all my friends used to be on there, and now it feels very lonely.
EMBEDDED: Are you in any groups on Reddit, Discord, Slack, or Facebook? What’s the most useful or entertaining one?
KAT TENBARGE: I used to monitor a Discord that had influencer gossip and it was honestly a very toxic place. People would zero in on women’s appearances and spread rumors and it was hard to read the conversation in there without hurting my own mental health in the process. I think a lot of people read the stuff that’s written about them online, myself included, and it’s not good for you.
EMBEDDED: Do you typically start searches on Google, Reddit, TikTok, or another source? Have you tried AI-powered search on Bing or elsewhere?
KAT TENBARGE: Google. Reddit and TikTok are secondary for searches. If you’re searching for specific information I don’t know why you would want to use AI-powered search. You’re almost more likely to get the wrong answer than the right one.
EMBEDDED: What most excites you about AI text and art generators? What most concerns you?
KAT TENBARGE: I don’t think anything excites me about them. I’m pretty much just filled with dread. Look at deepfakes. More than nine out of 10 deepfakes are nonconsensual porn featuring women who have no idea what’s happening to them. AI contains the flaws and oversights of the people who build it. They are not independent from the logic of their creators. They’re programmed with the same systemic biases and capacities for harm that everything else is. I don’t think they’re going to develop sentience and take over the world. I just think people are going to use them to hurt each other, and women and marginalized groups will bear the brunt of it, like always.
EMBEDDED: Do you have any predictions for cryptocurrency, the metaverse, and/or Web3?
KAT TENBARGE: As you’ve probably already guessed, I’m not a big optimist about any of this. I’ve seen one thing cryptocurrency is already used for: nonconsensual porn. During the peak crypto craze you saw people saying meaningless things like “Web3 is equality” and touting the ideas of security and privacy in connection with the blockchain. There are positive and negative outcomes of that kind of lawlessness. It’s an ethical question as much as it is a technical one, and from what I’ve seen, the tech industry rarely lets morality get in the way of progress.
EMBEDDED: Are you currently playing any games on your computer or phone?
KAT TENBARGE: Solitaire. I started playing it on a Dell desktop computer as a child in the late aughts and later played it on Google Chrome and now I play it on an app with annoying advertisements.
EMBEDDED: What’s your go-to emoji, and what does it mean to you?
KAT TENBARGE: My go-to emoji is the red heart. It’s an effusive emoji. Hearts are good in both happy and sad situations.
EMBEDDED: Do you text people voice notes? If not, how do you feel about getting them?
KAT TENBARGE: Yes I do, and I enjoy getting them as well. You can have an entire voice note long-distance friendship with someone. There’s also something quaint about conversing by sending minutes-long audio messages. It’s like sending letters but little podcasts and much quicker and your hand doesn’t get tired. Also, they’re amazing for reporting. I predict voice note interviews will revolutionize this industry because young people don’t like talking over the phone. There’s much less anxiety with a voice note but it’s still a conversation.
EMBEDDED: What’s your favorite non-social media app?
KAT TENBARGE: I’m planning to go to Disneyland for a day in July and I’m one of those people who needs to strategize every second so I look at the wait times on the app.
EMBEDDED: Is there any content you want but can’t seem to find anywhere online?
KAT TENBARGE: I just notice things go missing over time. I search for tweets mentioning a specific name from a specific day five, 10 years ago and there aren’t as many results as I’d expect. People deactivate their accounts and delete their posts over time. Social media companies delete entire websites’ worth of data. Programs stop functioning and multimedia elements stop loading. You get imprints of the past on places like the Wayback Machine and in old screenshots that show versions of apps that haven’t existed in over a decade. People still act like the internet is permanent but it’s fleeting. Things get covered up or are lost to time.
EMBEDDED: Do you regularly use eBay, Depop, or other shopping platforms? What’s a recent thing you’ve bought or sold?
KAT TENBARGE: I bought some alleged “vintage” wooden coasters on Etsy. They’re nice although I probably spent too much money on them. I also searched “blue sparkly dress” on Etsy and many of the search results mentioned “Taylor Swift Eras Tour,” which is exactly the occasion I was shopping for, so make of that what you will. I think you can get some good stuff on there but also bad stuff. People were selling shirts and mugs with quotes from the Depp/Heard trial on them last year on Etsy.
EMBEDDED: Have you recently read an article, book, or social media post about the internet that you’ve found particularly insightful?
KAT TENBARGE: I’m reading The Fight for Privacy by Danielle Citron right now. It’s about intimate privacy and how little it’s protected in the digital age. It goes into issues like data brokers, tech policy, AI and deepfakes, spying technology, nonconsensual porn, and the legal arena for victims.
EMBEDDED: What’s the last thing that brought you joy online?
KAT TENBARGE: Look at these otters. There are two of them and they live in this couple’s house. This one is carrying his little friend up the stairs in one paw.