My Internet: Max Chafkin

The Peter Thiel biographer once went undercover as an influencer.

Embedded is your essential guide to what’s good on the internet, from Kate Lindsay and Nick Catucci.🧩

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 Max Chafkin, a reporter and editor for Bloomberg Businessweek and the author of The Contrarian, an explosive new biography of Peter Thiel. “The Contrarian is chilling,” Virginia Heffernan writes in The New York Times. “Scared people are scary, and Chafkin’s masterly evocation of his subject’s galactic fear—of liberals, of the U.S. government, of death—turns Thiel himself into a threat.”

Max sort of loves crypto culture, unreservedly loves Strava and the Sweetgreen app, and only partly blames Thiel for his horrible YouTube recommendations. —Nick


What's a recent meme or other post that cracked you up?

This Boing Boing post, which is an homage to the "Heartbreaking: Worst Person You Know Made a Great Point" meme. It's basically violence by photo illustration.

What type of stuff do you watch on YouTube?

It's partly, but not exclusively, because of the Thiel book that my YouTube recommendations are absolutely horrifying. It's a combo of these earnest videos railing against cancel culture and then like, videos of old track races (I'm a big runner and was a cross country nerd in high school), videos of cartoons for my kids, and videos describing how to put together, like, an Adirondack chair. I don't know what it adds up to but it’s not good.

Do you ever tweet? Why?

Constantly—or maybe not constantly, but at least once most days. I feel like most journalists do that. The problem for me is Twitter consumption. I look at it constantly—it's the only social media thing (including email) that I think I'm truly addicted to. I know it’s bad for me, but there's really nothing like having a drink and sitting in a comfortable chair and just looking at the funny shit people say.

Have you ever had a post go viral? What was that experience like?

So in 2016, I tried to turn myself into an influencer on Instagram for a Bloomberg article. Part of why this was funny is that in addition to hiring a professional Insta photographer and getting a stylist to set up these ridiculous fashion shoots, I didn't tell any of my friends or any family (besides my wife Christine) what was going on. They all worried I was having some sort of midlife crisis when I posted this:

A post shared by @mchafkin

Anyway, this stuff spread around a lot and for a while I would get recognized at parties by people who'd read the Bloomberg article. Also I got all these new Instagram followers who were expecting that I would continue to satirize influencer culture and then were disappointed to discover that it was just, like, pictures of our kids. For a while every time I posted something—no matter how cute my family looked, no matter how witty I thought I was being—I would lose dozens of followers. I suppose there's a lesson there, but I'm not sure what.

Who's the coolest person who follows you?

This perhaps stretches the definition of cool but Patrick Radden Keefe, who is my absolute favorite, number one nonfiction writer. You gotta read Say Nothing and Empire of Pain, if you haven't.

Who's someone more people should follow?

There's a sort of weird parody account that somebody I work with runs—I don't know who—called Businessweek GFX Teens. It's like design jokes, but written, for some reason, for and by teens. I don't understand it, and it’s hilarious.

Where do you tend to get your news?

Twitter ugh. But also, I still look at all the usual apps, especially the Times, the Journal, and Bloomberg.

What's your favorite non-social media app?

Oh god I'm afraid to say this but I think it's the Sweetgreen app.

What are you willing to pay for online?

I think writers should get paid for their work so I'll pay for almost anything that a writer does. I subscribe to a bunch of Substacks, and pretty much every major media outlet and a bunch of minor ones too. I also pay for Strava's premium service, because it’s the only social media app I truly enjoy. (A friend of mine has a theory that the fewer followers you have on an app the better it is for you as a user; I think I have 20 followers. It’s great.)

[Related: Let’s Be Friends on Strava]

Are you a fan of any NFT art or artists? Do you have strong feelings about blockchain tech or cryptocurrencies?

I don't care that much about blockchain or crypto, but I sort of love crypto culture. We live in a really incredible time when the absolute most goofy, clownish people are genuinely keeping bankers and finance bros up at night, by, like, tweeting an incel meme that has something to do with a made-up currency based on a Shiba Inu. On some level, I feel like that alone is worth celebrating.

Do you subscribe to any Substacks or other independent newsletters? What are your favorites?

Popping Tins. That's Tim Marchman's Substack all about canned fish.

Popping Tins
What to eat when it's too hot to eat?
It was too hot to eat for weeks. I went through quarts of iced tea a day—four bags of English breakfast tea in a two-quart pitcher will get you good tea after a couple of hours in the fridge, and you can leave them in overnight just fine—and didn’t have an appetite for too much else. Ripe, juicy peaches and blueberries looked just too heavy sitting in t……
Read more

Are you into any podcasts right now? How and when do you usually listen?

TWIV, aka This Week in Virology. It's this podcast run by a rotating cast of virologists, where they talk about the most interesting scientific papers that were published that week. It's insanely nerdy. I've recommended it to people and then they play it and discover that each episode is like two hours long. I listen to it when I run.

Do you have an opinion on Clubhouse or its clones, like Twitter Spaces?

I guess they can be good and people seem to like them, but I find most of what's on Clubhouse boring as dirt. I think the idea behind these apps is that they're like a more democratized version of talk radio, which can been good I suppose. But what they actually remind me of is of an endless conference call.

Have you ever been heavily into Snapchat? Around what age?

Age: 34. I wrote a Businessweek cover story about Snapchat, which was blowing up at the time. I tried to write the lede from the point of view of DJ Khaled, who was huge on the platform then (and prolly still is?) and tried to include as many Khaledisms as possible. Major key.

Are you nostalgic for Vine or Tumblr? Why?

I'm nostalgic for blogging, so in that sense I'm nostalgic for Tumblr. I noticed that at some point, whichever media conglomerate overpaid for Tumblr back in the day, changed the app store category description to "Hellsite (affectionate)" instead of "Social Media" or whatever. That's the spirit!

Do you consider yourself part of any specific online communities?

There's a corner of the internet dedicated to mountain lion sightings that I find fascinating. American lions a.k.a. cougars are cool, of course, and that's part of it, but there's also this weird thing where people on the East coast get really passionate claiming that they've seen cougars in places where there are clearly none. They've prolly seen a bobcat or a big house cat. You can find elaborate conspiracy theories that say that the New York State government (or some other entity) secretly populated parks with lions to cull the deer population. This is crazy, and yet people believe it passionately and will shout down anyone on Nextdoor that says otherwise. I find that so weird and awesome. One of my favorite Twitter follows is Michelle LaRue, who is a zoologist, and does this regular thing called Cougar or Not, where she posts a picture of a cat that looks sort of like a mountain lion and people guess whether it’s that or a house cat (or a bobcat!).

You'd be surprised how easy it is to mistake a kitty cat for a lion. Did I mention I have two cats?

Are you regularly in any groups on Reddit, Slack, Discord, or Facebook? What are they about?

Despite having huge misgivings about its cultural impact, I use Facebook all the time for a single purpose, which is to hang out with the other weirdos who are into ultramarathons, which is the main thing I do when not on the internet. Facebook Groups is pretty much the best place where runners to talk about which lube is best for thermonuclear thigh chafing, for instance. Reddit's ultrarunning forums are fun too. There's also letsrun.com, which is a super popular forum I go to regularly, and which is a real-life hellsite.

Are you playing any games right now? Do you watch any gamers live stream on Twitch or another platform?

I retired from gaming when I beat Angry Birds in 2013.

How excited—or apprehensive—are you about the metaverse?

I've weirdly talked to Mark Zuckerberg about the metaverse! This was in 2015 and he was really excited about the idea of going beyond language; that we would have these devices that would communicate our thoughts into the brains of others. I think that's um, quite far-fetched, not really backed up by anything in brain science as it exists today, and also I'm not entirely clear why you would even want that. Language is great! Talking is great! Why would you want to go beyond that?

Do you text people voice notes? If not, how do you feel about getting them?

I don't but I Iike getting them. You can convey so much more information by speaking something than by typing it and it seems like a really good way to avoid misunderstandings and ambiguity.

Do any of your group chats have a name that you're willing to share?

I'm in one called "Band of Brothers"—but that last word is pronounced "braathers" because its a group chat where some friends and I trade broth recipes. I'm big into making broths.

What's your go-to emoji, and what does it mean to you?

Drudge Report siren all the way.🚨

What's a playlist, song, album, or style of music you’ve streamed a lot lately?

The Elmo Song. Gah. Our 18 month old loves that, and for some reason Dua Lipa's “Levitating.” Christine and I have three kids, the oldest of whom is six, and it's been six years since I listened to real music.

If you could only keep Netflix, Disney, HBO Max, or one other streaming service, which would it be, and why?

Netflix right? I have them all but I feel like Netflix just has the most interesting diversity of stuff—even it it’s because they're sort of struggling to find things to keep people watching. I really love all the foreign TV that they've had. Got really into Shtisel recently, which is an Israeli show about the ultra-Orthodox community. Before that it was Call My Agent.

What's the most basic thing that you love online?

Susan Orlean's Twitter feed. Also, the Internet Archive. It's an amazing service that is crucial to any kind of good tech journalism. People should donate to the Wayback Machine if they can.

Do you regularly use eBay, Depop, or other shopping platforms? What's a recent thing you've bought or sold?

The last thing I sold on eBay was a bluetooth speaker, and I forgot to include the remote control, which was mortifying because I really value my "A++++ great ebayer" rating. I think I gave the buyer a refund.

What's one thing you recommend for maintaining a healthy relationship with the internet?

Do not disturb. Everyone knows about that right? You can silence all your notifications by just clicking that little moon. It's a great innovation.

What's the worst thing about the internet in 2021? How about the best thing?

I think the social media addiction thing is really bad. I know it's something I struggle with and that many people do, and it's making us miserable, taking us away from our real lives, and causing us to hate each other. The fact that these companies are continuing to market their services to children, and doing so when their own research suggests they are causing harm is an outrage. It's on the scale of big tobacco in terms of harm, I think.

What's good? So much! I love that Substack is getting people back to writing and reading long, and I love that they're paying journalists, or at least helping journalists find ways to get paid for their work. The other thing that is great, at least for me personally, is the rise of group texting. It's been around, of course, but during the pandemic it really became a big part of my life. My main social media isn't FB or Twitter; it’s iMessage and Signal. I get more joy from the 12-person group chat I'm in with my best friends than I do from any app. Smaller social networks, and private ones without ads. It’s terrible for the big tech companies' bottom line, but I think it's great for our mental health.


Thanks Max! Buy The Contrarian and follow him on Twitter. 🚨

More My Internet Casey Johnston Danyel SmithImani GandyKatie NotopoulosKat Chow∙ Anil Dash ∙ Folu Akinkuotu ∙ Kyle Chayka ∙ Ryan Broderick ∙ Patricia Hernandez ∙ Ben Smith ∙ Rachel Charlene Lewis ∙ Kimberly Nicole Foster ∙ Miles Klee ∙ Connie Wang ∙ Cat Zhang ∙ Josh Gondelman ∙ Andrea González-Ramírez ∙ Rumaan Alam ∙ Hua Hsu ∙ Alicia Kennedy