My Internet: Casey Johnston
The She's a Beast writer says the algorithm is less relevant than you might think.
Every Friday, we quiz a very cool “very online” person to get their essential guide to what’s good on the internet.
Today we welcome Casey Johnston, who recently launched She's A Beast, a newsletter about “getting and being strong (mentally, emotionally, physically)” that is the new home of her long-running advice column, Ask A Swole Woman. Most recently an editorial director for VICE, she also posts her workouts and food on Instagram. Casey texts in a thread named "Foot Chat," admires the bravery of hour-long YouTube ads, and subscribes to the idea that audience development is astrology. —Nick
What's a recent meme or other post that cracked you up?
I absolutely lost my mind at Solomon Missouri's Twitter thread addressed to Steph Curry's dad over divorcing Steph Curry's mom. The writing and joke construction is simply next level, and on a relatively hard-to-do topic. Highlights include "You don't wanna be out here learning tiktok dances and falling off milk crates" and "Tulum??????"
Would you say that you have an Instagram aesthetic? How would you describe it?
I do like to take and edit photos, and I REALLY liked it, and put a lot of effort into it, in Instagram's adolescent years (let's say 2012-14ish). I know very little about photography, formally; I've never taken a class or read a book, but I have logged a lot of hours in VSCO and Snapseed like to think I get good results. Scrolling back through my personal account I would say my aesthetic is "selfies" and "landscapes/scenes with dramatically large and small elements." I love a tiny person situated in a large place; more than once I've thought about what this "means." On my other account, A Swole Woman, my Instagram aesthetic is "lumber-chic weight lifting PRs in my backyard."
What type of stuff do you watch on YouTube?
I love a good makeup tutorial; I think a lot about how I was raised in the makeup dark ages. We were doing eye shadow with our eyes entirely closed!! No one would ever in the year of our lord 2021! This is corny but I like lifestyle vloggers who are not try-hards. Emma Chamberlain just like, reads books, makes avocado toast, "attempts a marathon" (runs 6 miles); occasionally she helps launch some Louis Vuitton line but is normal about it. Look at Hannah Lee Duggan; she is simply vibing.
I've watched, at this point, zillions and zillions of videos on all manner of things related to lifting weights: Omar Isuf, Alan Thrall, Jeff Nippard, Dr. Mike Israetel. I love Jessamyn Stanley. Various celebrities' workouts; it's wild, the unnecessary stuff their trainers have them do. Megan Thee Stallion was lifting recently, and her trainer seems to actually have his head on straight in terms of her workout structure, with the big compound lifts first and then accessories later.
I also love cooking videos that toe the line between "indulgent and aspirational" and "strictly practical," like a Binging with Babish or Claire Saffitz. I think I've seen every Hot Ones. I love videos where people just "try lots of different good foods," particularly from East Asian 7/11s; seeing other people make or eat food helps me get in a mood to make or eat food. Is that weird? StrictlyDumpling is a good example of this. I was also recently laid off, which is manifesting emotionally in the form of binge-watching a combination of how-to videos on "building an off-grid cabin in the woods" and lifestyle videos by people living in such cabins. Hopefully my brain returns to normal soon!
Do you use TikTok? If so, how would you describe what shows up on your For You Page?
I tend to stay off TikTok; I find the algorithm both too accurate and kind of cynical. I hate that, if I "like" a video of a cat pawing its owner in the face, I get 20 more such videos and little else. The worst is when someone sends a mediocre such TikTok and I watch the whole thing out of respect to the friend who sent it, but now TikTok has seen me do this and thinks I want 20 or 30 more fucking mediocre TikToks. I get jealous of the stuff other people seem to see based on what they repost!! I almost prefer TikTok pre-chewed for me in this way. Maddie Davies does (or did) an amazing "Sunday Scaries" TikTok roundup on her Instagram Sunday nights; Aminatou Sow also reposts only bangers.
No amount of following the accounts of those TikToks that I like, or pawing through hashtags myself, seems to change the algorithm's mind about my diversity of interests. I would love to see wayyy more of FitTok and nutrition misinformation, for instance. But TikTok thinks I only like funny monologues or bits, and cats doing dumb shit. I actually don't use it that much because I hate being pigeonholed like this, and I feel like I'm working uphill to diversify my feed, and I already feel gross about the 90 straight minutes I spend there anytime I open the app. So hey, TikTok, if you're listening, I hate your smartass little algorithm. I guess I should thank the TikTok overlords for not having banished me to "couples doing incredibly bad and fake pranks to each other" TikTok, or "adults who are too old for this mugging and pulling Dreamworks faces" TikTok.
Do you ever tweet? Why?
I would say I tweet a medium to low amount, relative to the people I follow, which is still a lot to any normal person. I hate the "never tweet" ethos; if you are trying to have real arguments or solve issues or even really be taken seriously on Twitter, you are using Twitter wrong. It's fine to not be on Twitter but to frame it as something that is absolutely impossible to use for your own ends, and/or for basic enjoyment, is playing yourself. I just really love the format of Twitter; some thoughts or concepts or jokes really are exactly tweets, no more and no less.
Have you ever had a post go viral? What was that experience like?
I would say my big moments were saying "I wrote the article" to a reply guy who tried to explain a subject I wrote about to me (even my not-online friends heard about it, and for years after I would be introduced to people and they would say "ohhh! 'I wrote the article!'" I am not making this up). There was also the time I tore Apple's damn neck out by breaking the story of their shitty butterfly keyboards, which became a whole thing, multiple class action lawsuits, special repair provisions from Apple, a couple of redesigns. I was very proud of that.
Who's the coolest person who follows you?
It's sad because I've been on Twitter almost as long as Twitter has been around, so I've had some really good follows and then, they get canceled. Ilhan Omar followed me recently but the pretext was false-ish (this was in response to her ask for like, young exciting leftists). I don't expect it to continue, and don't want to check if she's unfollowed me by now. If she has, please don't tell me. I will be sad forever that I don't have an Ilhan Gundam shirt.
Who's someone more people should follow?
This seems like a good time to shout out of some of my recent favorite strength training/body stuff follows on Instagram: Sohee Lee, You Look Like A Man, Amanda Kohatsu, Reyna Cohan, Subpar Powerlifting Memes, The Physio Fix, Miriam Fried.
Where do you tend to get your news?
Other than "the New York Times and so forth and Twitter and reddit generally" (a recent favorite reddit is r/gymsnark; a more serious source for health research is r/AdvancedFitness), I visit Digg probably daily, even though certain weird reactionary posts have started to sneak through on occasion. For a while during the panini I was watching a lot of Hasan's Twitch stream, because it was so soothing/reassuring to have the news sort of live-digested and contextualized by someone with good judgment when something absolutely bonkers was happening every single day. This was the time when like, CNN would just air any entirely fiction-based Trump speech direct to feed and then follow 15 minutes of brain-melting lies with an anchor being like "and that was the President addressing the nation—he certainly had some things to say."
There are also a lot of Substacks: Hung Up by Hunter Harris, Today in Tabs, Ann Friedman's newsletter, Platformer, The AP, Trashberg, Sick Note for coverage of our medical system, which is relevant to my little corner of "trying to be healthy in the world." The Who Weekly podcast and their Patreon. For my niche of YouTube specifically, ObesetoBeast does good, level-headed coverage of diet culture on YouTube in particular; he's very methodical about breaking it down.
What are you willing to pay for online?
People's newsletters and podcasts, mainly something I specifically like and feel like is entirely/perfectly for me. I will balk at spending like $12 per month on The New Yorker, maybe because I'm only interested in like 10-15 percent of the articles. But I will happily give $5 month to a mysterious guy who streams retrowave music on YouTube. I love that there's been a general resurgence of "people making stuff because they are moved to do so," not because a news peg or the discourse demands it. It also hugely matters that we've finally had a breakthrough in terms of finding an audience that wants to support it, and that that support can mean even more people get to enjoy some or all of that content for free or no cost.
Are you a fan of any NFT art or artists? Do you have strong feelings about blockchain tech or cryptocurrencies?
Both are bubbles. Next.
Are you into any podcasts right now? How and when do you usually listen?
Lately I love Doughboys, Dead Eyes, High and Mighty, Pot Psychology, Desert Oracle, Gee Thanks Just Bought It, Diversity Hire, Not Another D&D Podcast; Who Weekly, as I said. I'm a kind of sporadic listener to podcasts generally, usually when I'm cleaning or working out or on a walk. But I strongly prefer a good chat as opposed to narratives or news.
Do you have an opinion on Clubhouse or its clones, like Twitter Spaces?
There is something to be said for live audio but I'm not sure either of these implementations really work.
Are you nostalgic for Vine or Tumblr? Why?
I'm a bit nostalgic for Vine, but specifically because the longer-form (if you can call them that) TikToks have allowed for some absolutely deranged misinformation. There used to be some really crazy 60-second ones about how the earth is flat that got like billions of views, or about how, in order to make women love you, they actually NEED you to gaslight them. You couldn't fit that nonsense in on Vine, though it did have a pretty bad racist stereotyping problem. I guess a TikTok can now be three minutes long but something tells me that won't solve the problem, either.
Are you regularly in any groups on Reddit, Slack, Discord, or Facebook? What are they about?
I have some friend Slacks, and a few different themed reddit accounts. I have my own Discord community tagging off of my column, Ask A Swole Woman, which has now been rolled into my Substack, She's A Beast. We talk about lifting there, but also all the different stuff that supports that: how to eat enough, how to warm up, is my squat sufficiently deep, how do I stop worrying and learn to love lots of reps and sets so I can stop being scared of benching; these kinds of things. They are so smart and warm and supportive to each other and me; I'm fortunate to have them.
Are you playing any games right now? Do you watch any gamers live stream on Twitch or another platform?
I dip in and out of gaming, but don't tend to watch any specific streamers (other than Hasan, but I don't really watch him game). I like Twitch for seeing what a game is like before buying it, it gives you the best sense of gameplay above and beyond like, YouTube videos, which are usually just highlights and don't show the pace. This reminds me I need to look into Splitgate!!
How excited—or apprehensive—are you about the metaverse?
As a rule, I do not like or support anything that Mark Zuckerberg likes.
Do any of your group chats have a name that you're willing to share? What's something that recently inspired debate in the chat?
I have two I would like to shout out: "Foot chat" and "I do on occasion say 'ciao Bella.'" In a third I can't name, a recent topic of discussion was "does ACAB apply to firefighters?" and this reminds me I wanted to introduce to the floor "does ACAB apply to astronauts?"
What's your go-to emoji, and what does it mean to you?
I think the one I index highest for beyond the norm is the cartwheel emoji 🤸. It's actually pretty versatile and can range in meaning from "so elated I can't contain myself" to "welp lmao nothing matters."
What's a playlist, song, album, or style of music you’ve streamed a lot lately?
The aforementioned retrowave, by PrimeThanatos on YouTube. I know it's not "cool" to get work done, but it's so good for getting work done? There's tons of free retro-synthwave out there. Spotify has a playlist. If you've ever tried listening to video game music to get work done, it's the same principle.
If you could only keep Netflix, Disney, HBO Max, or one other streaming service, which would it be, and why?
I hate to say this because the app is so trash, but HBO Max. Great shows, and good movie selection. I want Netflix to know I see them orienting creative decisions around their algorithm and it's so uncanny-valley; it sucks. Also I've heard everyone at the company thinks the autoplay previews are God's gift to humanity but anecdotally I only know people who hate them passionately. Rethink it, Netflix!!!
Is there any content you want that you can't seem to find anywhere online?
This will be hard to explain, and I'm going to answer the question essentially backwards. But it's hard to find the opposite of content that is sweaty and/or thirsty. By sweaty I mean like, a podcast that is very obviously gunning to be "the next Serial" with its dramatic line reads and sound editing but contains a total of 0 new facts on the story in question, or takes a very "listen up chucklefucks, you don't know the first thing about all the hidden Mickeys in Disney movies. THREAD>>>" approach. Or a very long-winded and self-serious magazine feature that is actually 97 percent a retread of existing reporting with a narrative/answer that doesn't justify the length (I am thinking specifically of the mysterious Amazon seeds; you can find the bad long-winded article yourself). A Netflix movie that is clearly a pile of AI-generated tropes. YouTubers with YouTuber voice. TikTokers with YouTube voice. God it's all so CRINGE. Dan Nosowitz articulated this pretty well, I think, with his article in NYMag from a few years ago, "I Don't Know How to Waste Time on the Internet Anymore."
The more I say here I'm realizing like "authenticity" is not a very interesting answer, but in the teeming sea of substance-free attention-wanters I am like, desperate for it. People who want to make things because they like making things and not because they want attention or to be famous, or who were able to goose the algorithm once and are now a shadow of themselves chasing that one blip of success. The algorithm is less relevant than you think it is! How else do you explain someone going viral for eating mozzarella sticks as part of an appetizer promotion? It's not the mozzarella sticks; it's not the restaurant; it's not the promotion. It's good and smart and enjoyable and fucking hilarious writing.
As the genius Brandy Jensen is so fond of saying, audience development (big words for "people who analyze traffic and engagement") is astrology. They are so often wrong about why something was good, because what was good was more abstract than the subject matter, or timeliness, or precise article length. You might be surprised how much time these people lose trying to reverse engineer the success of certain people or enterprises online based on metrics and objective facts, when the "key" is "they're having fun doing what they're doing." I recognize that "makes things for joy and not attention" is a little bit of a false dichotomy, but like, I know it when I see it. I see it a lot in Substack newsletters fortunately over the last year! And that makes me very happy.
What's one thing you recommend for maintaining a healthy relationship with the internet?
You have to be ruthless about unfollowing and deliberate about seeking new pastures, sometimes. A while ago I saw Jia Tolentino say in an interview that she tries not to look at her phone between 10pm and 10am, and that's VERY hard for me but my brain feels less microwaved when I do it. Sorry, that's two things.
What's the worst thing about the internet in 2021? How about the best thing?
The worst thing is the algorithm jockeying above. I'm also VERY over self-serious true crime stories in any format that don't actually advance an answer or even develop on existing available information. Many people say "true crime isn't going away" but I truly believe the surge will subside a little because people will get tired of getting bait-and-switched like this.
The best thing is when YouTube plays to an ad break, and the ad is an hour-long video about literally some cult, or that absolute garbage elitist health concierge service. Those ads will just keep playing unless you are paying attention and click "skip ad." I admire the bravery here, but also feel like it says something about how tawdry the baseline is of doing business on the internet. It feels like a reminder not to take myself too seriously; others are out here hoping they can trick someone into "watching" their whole hour long "ad."
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