Decoder guest host Hank Green makes Nilay Patel explain why websites have a future

Hello, and welcome to Decoder. I’m Hank Green: I am a science guy, I help run an educational media company called Complexly, and I am also a big fan of this podcast. 

I am not, however, the editor-in-chief of The Verge. But Nilay Patel is, and Decoder is Nilay’s show about big ideas and other problems. One of those problems is that one of the best possible guests for Decoder is unfortunately also the host of Decoder. So while we get to hear Nilay’s thoughts on a lot of stuff, when I listen to this podcast, I often think, “Man, I would like to hear Nilay interviewed on his own podcast.”

And so I went onto Threads, and I made that joke, and Nilay responded, “Let’s do it,” and so now, this is it! We are doing it!

Nilay has got some weird ideas about the internet. For example, that he’s going to revolutionize the media through blog posts. He keeps saying it, but what the hell does he mean? While I was busy building my business on other people’s platforms, Nilay has built something very rare in the year 2024: a website that publishes content and isn’t behind a paywall yet still makes money. How does he do it? How does he make decisions? How is The Verge structured? The tables have turned. 

You’ll also hear Nilay try to convince me that the fediverse isn’t just happening but that it’s also going to be important and that we should be paying attention to it and that it is going to make the internet better. And I think I maybe even got a fediverse-related Verge scoop in here. 


One of the wildest moments of this conversation for me was when I made a comment that I thought was just a universally believed truth about the post-platform internet: that people these days prefer individuals to brands. And then Nilay told me, “No, that’s wrong. It’s not people who are doing that; it’s the systems that deliver content to people” — a distinction that I’m going to be thinking about for a long, long time. 

He won’t say it, so I will: Nilay is a defining voice of this very bizarre moment in the history of media, and his leadership and strategy have proved that content can win, especially when you stop chasing every shiny object that platforms place in front of you and think about your audience first. 

Alright: Nilay Patel, editor-in-chief of The Verge, let’s do it. 

This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Nilay Patel, you are editor-in-chief of The Verge, and co-founder of The Verge, and co-host of The Vergecast, and of course, host of Decoder most days but this one. Nilay, welcome to Decoder.

This is terrifying. I want to be very clear to the audience. I’m in peril. That’s how this feels.

It’s funny, when I first proposed this, you were like, “This is amazing because it’s so much harder to host than to be interviewed.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’m going to have to do a bunch of work on this.” Whereas, when you interviewed me, I just showed up. Now you’re just showing up. Now you get to feel what it’s like.

Literally my way into the studio, I thought to myself, “How do I make decisions?”

Well, get ready because those questions are coming. I’m super excited about this. It’s very cool that we get to do this. You think a lot and have a lot of good ideas and talk to a lot of people about things that are very present, suddenly more present now, than they have been.

The internet, it feels like it’s been tossed up out of the air, and we could see it all fall down and see where it lands a little bit. It’s an election year. That’s awful. I hate those. And there are just a lot of reasons to be thinking about the kinds of things you think about right now. So I’m really glad to get to talk to you. But let’s start with you being the person who runs the last website on earth. Because you say things all the time and then you don’t explain them, which I love, but now I’ve got you. And so you have to explain to me why The Verge is “the last website on earth.”

That’s a little bit of a joke. It’s 50 percent a joke. I’m aware that there are other websites. What I specifically mean is we were founded in a boom time of websites. We were founded in 2011. We started talking about the site in 2010. We remain part of a venture-backed digital media startup. There were a lot of those back then. We had a lot of competition in 2011, meaningful — like we were scared of them — competition.

ReadWriteWeb existed, and we tried to beat them every day. TechCrunch was a very different kind of publication back then. We tried to beat them all the time, and I really respect the people I competed against. I came up at Engadget competing ferociously against the people at Gizmodo, and we became first rivals and then really good friends out of that competition. Some of those sites still exist. Some of them are still doing great work. Some of them still have great people. But that moment when there was a ferocious rush of energy and money and attention into websites has obviously faded.

We’re not making those the same way we used to anymore, and I look at my peer group and so many of them are gone. To me, it’s that. It’s all the things: the people and the properties that I used to wake up in fear of, many of them are radically different than they used to be. And we’re still here. And that feels strange to me.

It feels strange. You won, and it’s like, “Oh, I don’t actually…” It turns out that when you’re put into the arena and you’re the last man standing, there’s just a lot of carnage around, which isn’t that much of a triumph. It feels like it hurts a little bit. It’s weird to be us, our age, and hear that the word website feels almost anachronistic. It feels of another era.

The way I think about it is that I don’t have anyone else’s algorithm to think about, and that is really important to me. But then I look at all of the most important creators and the most influential members of the new media, and what they are is so successful that they have transcended algorithms on other people’s platforms.

So I’ll just point to Marques Brownlee, who I think is an amazing reviewer and great tech YouTuber. He has transcended the YouTube algorithm, and that has afforded him a kind of success that I think a lot of people are frankly jealous of. Sometimes I’m jealous of it, but I never think about YouTube, and I’m very happy with never really thinking about YouTube in that way. I think there’s a tension there where that’s what the website affords you — if you can build an audience for the website. But building an audience for a website is almost impossible.

Right. You have also said that you are going to revolutionize the media with blog posts. This is a similar sentence in that we are also referring to an anachronistic thing, almost, in the form of blog posts, but we’re going to move forward by moving backward a little bit somehow. What do you mean when you say that? I’m going to make you explain yourself.

[Laughs] I say we’re going to revolutionize the media with blog posts all the time. That is a joke that we started making about our redesign on where we added these things called quick posts that just let us post more frequently. And it is all tied to that notion of just fighting back against the pressures of an algorithm.

Yeah. And the last platform on the web of any scale or influence is Google Search. And so, over time, webpages have become dramatically optimized for Google Search. And that means the kinds of things people write about, the containers that we write in, are mostly designed to be optimized for Google Search. They’re not designed for, “I need to just quickly tell you about this and move on.” Our little insight was, “Well, what if we just don’t do that? What if we only write for the people who come directly to our website instead of the people who find our articles through Search or Google Discover or whatever other Google platforms are in the world?” And so we just made these little blog posts, and the idea was, if you just come to our website one more time a day because there’s one more thing to look at that you’ll like, we will be fine.

And I think, if you look around the media landscape right now — we did that a year or so ago — more and more people are starting to realize, “Oh, we should just make the websites more valuable.” And the easiest way to make the websites more valuable is to have our talented people make more stories, and not just more stories but openly have more fun on the website. Business Insider is doing that. Semafor is doing that in other ways. And that’s what I mean, is, “Oh, if you start writing for other people, which is the heart of what a blog post really is: it’s you trying to entertain yourself and trying to entertain just a handful of other people, you’re going to go really much farther than trying to satisfy the robot.”

It does feel like there was a time when blog posts were first a thing, when it was very sort of like, “I have a blog, this is me, and I have this relationship with my audience.” And there was a lot of snark and there was creativity. And I see this tossed in with stuff at The Verge today that that influence still comes through. It feels like — and I struggle with this as a YouTuber and this transcending the algorithm kind of thing — it feels like the way to do that is to have a community. Not just numbers, not just views, not just impressions, but humans who you have a relationship with somehow. How do you imagine those people?

Let me answer that question in two different ways. You’re touching on something that we talk about a lot. People might’ve heard Casey Newton get at this the last time he was on the show. It’s pretty easy to get traffic in the world. You can go on TikTok today and get some traffic and get some views. It is really hard to build an audience. And I think a lot of the destruction we see in the media community right now is no one built an audience. They try to get traffic and then they try to sell that traffic, and they assumed that traffic would last forever. The platforms have no incentives to let you keep having traffic forever, and they absolutely do not have incentive for you to have so much audience that you get leverage over the platforms such that they might have to pay you a higher rate.

This seems very destructive. It seems very destructive to the media ecosystem. That thing that you just articulated there doesn’t seem like a little deal. It seems like a big deal.

I think the defining economic reality of the modern platform media world is that all the platforms realized that an infinite supply of teenage creators are cheaper to deal with than media companies or groups of media individuals or powerful creators. And I’m curious for your read on the number of YouTubers that you see retiring or taking a step back. It just feels like eventually you hit a point where there’s nothing left here for me. It’s just me. I have to just extract more from myself and put it on this platform every day to succeed, and that stops being valuable.

Whereas, I think if you were able to build a company or a brand or an institution, at the end of that, you’re like, “Well, I made this.” And maybe I could sell it. Maybe I could just let some other people run it. Maybe it stands for something. Maybe we could shut it down and everyone could talk about how much they missed it, but it’s more than you. And I think the platforms are not organized economically to ever allow that to happen because that is expensive and you can replace individuals all the time.

Yeah, you can. And also, it seems like people have an easier time trusting individuals now than trusting larger brands. So it’s sort of—

Oh, I totally disagree with that. Wait, I think you’re platform-pilled. I totally disagree with that in the biggest, most serious ways that I can possibly think of.

The platforms are designed to create that idea and reinforce it. They want that to be true. They want to say, “People don’t trust brands, they trust people” and that the brands stand for nothing. And that’s because when you shove a brand into the same incentive structure as a group of individuals, an infinite supply of teenagers who will work for free, the brands debase themselves, and now the brands are worth nothing.

But you know what? All the celebrities still want to be on the cover of magazines. They want the validation that the big brand, the institution, can provide. And there’s a reason for that because the brand stands for more than just an individual opinion — or at least at its best it does. There are a lot of problems with that. My little blog that people now think of as an institution started out in opposition to big magazines. We were the upstarts. I feel that tension all the time, but I think the idea that people trust people more than brands is a creation of the algorithmic media environment. It is not the natural result of people getting smarter or becoming savvier media consumers. That’s just the water we’re in.

I’m going to stare at my ceiling tonight and think about this because I’ve never heard anyone even make the case that that is—

And I get it. The Verge is a collective. It’s a group of individuals who all make something together. And that means when we go to play on a platform that is organized around someone talking to you like a TikTok or an Instagram Reels or YouTube Shorts or whatever, it’s a different person every time that stands in for this other thing. But if you look at the cover of Vogue this month, it’s all of the Vogue legends, all the icons, and Oprah is in the center of that picture, and it’s all of these supermodels around Oprah. And it’s like, no TikToker can create that moment. Only an institution can create that moment, and the moment has to provide value back to all of those people. You’re on the cover of Vogue with all these other people.

Well, where does that come from? That doesn’t come from any individual. That comes from Vogue being Vogue.

And Vogue is making it work in a way that a lot of magazines aren’t. But before we get to magazines, because I want to talk about that, this is a good time to ask: Nilay, how is The Verge structured?

The Verge is structured—

I love this so much. It’s great.

This is tough. I have a real answer and then a philosophical answer. You ready for this?

I’m glad you’re ready for the question.

I had to think about this a lot. We are structured in two ways. There are two organizing principles of it. We’re structured by topics. We have desks: we have a policy desk; we have a transportation desk; we have a reviews department. That’s like topic expertise. Subject matter expertise is one set of organizing principles.

Then we’re also structured by format. So we have a news team. We have a features team. Reviews, I think, bridges the gap where you need to be a subject matter expert in laptops, and then reviews are a particular kind of format. So those are the two ways, and we have teams that address each of those buckets, and they all work together. And we try to make sure our team is constantly moving across formats and desks because I think we’re at our best when the things collide. But the real way that we’re organized is by cadence.

And that is actually a very difficult thing to explain. And you can’t actually say that out loud.

What do you mean “cadence”?

Our news team operates in 20-minute increments. They wake up, the news hits, it goes on the website, they’re done, they move on to the next thing. If you want a piece of analysis or you’ve got a scoop and you need to build it out, we call those reports. That’s a day or a couple of days. A feature might take a year or a review might take a week and a half. A video might take two months. So we have all these systems that organize those cadences of work so that they can get the appropriate amount of focus.

They can also be finished. Because the hardest thing is to finish what you’re working on and be like, “Okay, we’re publishing it now.” For the news team, everything is always finished. It’s finished before it’s started. The news has occurred. For the features team, it’s like, “Is it done? Have we done everything we need to do? Did we set the deadline? Did the people respond? Has it gone through legal review?”

There are all these things that prevent you from being finished. So we try to give things space to be finished on their timeline. And you can really see how, if you just stare at the structure of The Verge long enough, you can see how it’s mostly organized around those cadences. And then all of the other things just allow like-minded people to work together.

How many people are those people?

I think, right now, we’re about 50. I might be wrong about that actually. We’re hiring, so I don’t know.

We have some people coming in, so we’re growing in fits and starts again, which is exciting.

Yeah, that is exciting. Have things been good since the redesign? I love the redesign. It was very exciting. My first day, I was like, “This is just on the edge of being too weird where my brain isn’t quite sure what to do.” But on the first day, I feel like I know how to use this website, and on the 10th day, I’m like, “I know how to use this website.”

We definitely changed too much too fast. We dialed it back a little bit, and now we’re starting to reintroduce some of those other changes. But the core piece of it — which is, “Are we making our own website the most valuable place that we work?” — has been wildly successful to the point where I’m sometimes like, “We’re doing too many quick posts. We should make longer things again.”

I think that’s a good sign because my number one goal, and remember this is pre-Elon [Musk]. My number one goal was, “Boy, I’d like the reporters who work here to write for us in the text box that pays us money instead of over there in the text box that extracts value.”

I should be asking that question of myself. Why am I writing in the text box that pays money to Elon and Mark [Zuckerberg] and not my text box?

Why do we all work for free? Look, we want to talk about the platform era and media. Why do we all work for free?

Everybody’s insisting—

I don’t know the answer to that question.

We can’t shut up about how our work has value, but then we can’t stop giving it away for free.

Yeah. “Fuck you, pay me,” he typed furiously for free into another box. It’s very confusing, and there are a lot of reasons. If you just sit back and think about why, there are a million reasons why.

One, the software is nicer to use than most CMSes. You just pick one. Name a company that makes a CMS. They’re like, “Is this as fun to use as Twitter?” And the answer is no. Flatly no. Even the one we have now for quick posts is not as fun to use as Twitter was in its heyday. Will this immediately bring me the dopamine hit of immediate feedback? No.

I just want my little cookie, and my little cookie is people being mean to me.

Yeah. Will someone willfully misinterpret this joke? Let’s find out. The answer is yes. Is there a fake revenue source like a creator fund here that will make me believe that there’s… Like, of course.

Are there people here who are actually making real money? On YouTube, in particular, YouTube has figured out monetization in a way that feels healthiest and most stable. But there are also the haves and have-nots. And I think that YouTube loves having the haves because it provides the infinite incentive to the have-nots. None of that is true on a regular media company’s website. None of that. If you started a WordPress site tomorrow, none of that would be true about your WordPress site.

But the first instinct was, “Let’s at least make it easier to publish. Let’s at least remove the barriers to entry to getting on the website, and then we can do comments, and then we can think about how we can distribute in different ways.” So that is working. My team is happier. We did not know that the Twitter thing would happen, but the Twitter thing happened, and our desire to publish in the boxes we controlled went up as a group. And then, on top of it, our audience saw that we were having fun. And once you are having fun anywhere on the internet, people sort of gravitate to you. So traffic has gone up.

That goes back to the conversation we were having before about audience and how do you imagine those people. Who are they in your head, and how do you feel like you understand them? This is a huge thing for me. I think about it all the time.

Our mission statement is that The Verge is a website about how technology makes people feel. We’ve kind of narrowed it down. We’ve had headier ones. We’ve had ones that were designed for advertisers. We’ve had ones that are like, “We’re about the future.” And over time, it’s like, “Oh no, we’re just about how this makes you feel.” It is a very emotional website about cellphones, and that means we can be expansive. It means we can validate the fact that people are having emotional experiences with their technology. One of the things I say all the time is, I can go up to anyone in the world and ask them about their phone, and they will tell me a story because they have an emotional relationship with this piece of technology that mediates almost all of their other relationships.

So there’s something they love, there’s something they’re frustrated about, there’s something they wish were better. And if you can ask them the right questions, everyone has a story to tell you about their phone. That is a pretty massive set of things to think about. So I think of our audience as people who want to feel those feelings. They want to love things, they want to dislike things, they want to be passionate about these objects, these screens that literally mediate almost everything else that happens in our lives. And I think we poke at that pretty hard all the time. And we’re never punished for thinking too hard about things.

And that, to me, is the surest sign that we’ve at least found a group of people that are stable that over time can grow because it’s kind of fun to be smart. So I think people, they latch onto that, and they evangelize how they feel to their friends, and then the audience grows again and again.

I feel like telling Hank Green it’s fun to be smart is one of the funniest things I could possibly do. I truly do not have to convince you of that.

It turns out, I do agree with this. And also that it’s a great principle from which to build an audience, because of course you get the audience that you build for. [There are] lots of ways to have lots of different audiences, but it’s always better if you’re building an audience that you actually like hanging out with.

And your Apple Vision Pro coverage. I’m a guy who doesn’t care at all about the Apple Vision Pro. Maybe I should, but I did care about how much y’all cared about it and just this sort of college dorm room, “I can’t believe we’ve just spent this much time thinking about the difference between a 6 and a 7” kind of coverage of the Apple Vision Pro. I was like, “I don’t care about this piece of tech at all, but I care about these doofs. They’re great.” And I think that you’re doing that in a really good way.

Once you have that audience and you have this website, how do you turn, at The Verge, that into money?

We are very precious about how we turn things into money. And I think this has almost entirely helped us. It has hurt us in one particular way, which is we don’t make as much money as influencers do. I can talk about why that is.

I just said no to such an expensive brand deal. I was so mad. My assistant was like, “It’s okay, Hank.” I’m like, “It’s not okay. I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

So we say no to all of them. So this is the real hard thing. But the main way we make money is we sell advertising. “Senator, we sell ads.” We sell display ads on our website, banners, and boxes. We have some ideas on how to make those experiences better. We sell ads on the podcast. I don’t read them.

Which is not as lucrative as if I did read them. We sell ads, we have YouTube pre-rolls, there’s sponsored content on the website — it has big disclosures, but there’s advertiser content on our website. So all the ways that media companies make money except the way that individual creators make a lot of money, which is directly making the brand deals for our talent. So I don’t read the podcast ads. Most podcasters just read the ads. We will not stop a YouTube video in the middle and let any of our journalists do the brand read or whatever. We have somebody else who does that, which is Andrew Melnizek. He’s great. He’s part of our advertising team. He does them. He’s very good at them, that’s great, but someone else does them.

We just maintain and enforce this distance between our work as journalists and what advertisers would like us to say. And I think that is… again, many YouTubers are very, very successful. They make a lot of money. I don’t begrudge anybody their businesses. Go be successful. I am proud of you all. We won’t do it because we are so protective of the journalism that we make. And I worry, honestly, that the audience doesn’t care anymore. They’re just like, “Whatever.” The audience just assumes that we’re bought and paid for left and right. And we’re like, “No.”

I think they do, and I think they know. The thing I just said no to, it was because they wanted me to… It was a food product, and they wanted me to be a person who knows about the world being like, “This is good for you.” And I was like, “That’s not my job. That’s not who I am. I don’t know anything about whether this is good for you or not.” And also, it’s not. Food is food. That’s not the business that we need to be in convincing people that one snack food is better than another. Just eat the Doritos, everybody. It’s snacks.

It’s really interesting like that to me. What do those brands want? They want people to advocate for them, and they can buy it at scale on a lot of platforms for wild amounts of money, and they can’t buy it from us. And the fact that we are not for sale, I think, is… I am pretty sure this is a bad thing. The fact that we are not for sale is increasingly an anachronism. I think it’s our competitive advantage, right? Because I get to yell loudly, “We’re not for sale,” but it is increasingly an anachronism.

Do you get affiliate fees for reviews?

Yeah, so we have a commerce operation that’s over there. And so we review things. That is all editorially independent of what happens on the commerce side of things. And then that team adds affiliate links to buying guides and things like that. And that provides us some revenue, but that is walled off in a meaningful way from what our reviewers do all day. So if some thing makes us more money in affiliate sales, our reviewers are not incentivized by that. They barely know it.

The one place where it gets a little muddy, and I hope people understand why this is muddy, is deals coverage. Our audience wants to know, “Is this a good deal? Here are some deals that are happening, are they good deals?” And then we have to evaluate that. So the person you want to evaluate that is closer to editorial than not. You want an objective judgment of, “Is this a good deal?” But then you get affiliate fees on that. That’s where I think it gets the muddiest. But overall, we try to stay as precious and unscathed by the commercial aspect of our business as we can.

Untainted. Does The Verge make money?

The Verge makes money. Yeah. We’ve been around for over a decade. We’re the last website on earth.

Do you think about that a lot? Do you have conversations a lot about the P&L and etc.?

We do. I think, in my role as editor-in-chief, it is incumbent on me to make sure that one: We have an audience. The audience is happy with us. We are invested in places where we think audience is growing or there’s impact and that we are growing responsibly. So I have a publisher, her name is Helen Havlak. Helen used to be our engagement editor and then she was our editorial director. So she was my number one deputy. And I would go off into the company and have meetings and then I would come back and ask Helen what to do and then I would just go to the meeting and do whatever Helen said, and eventually, I was like, “This is stupid. You should just be my boss.” So Helen is our publisher.

Above her is our group publisher, Chris Grant, who’s the founder of Polygon. He and I have worked together for years upon years. So the three of us spend a lot of time just thinking about our business and where we’re investing and how it works. But the split is that I’m in charge of editorial and creative, and Helen is in charge of our business.

It’s a website that makes money. Amazing.

Last one around. Look, I think, fundamentally, the idea that we have a website that makes money is weird. It is weird—

But also, I will say we operate inside of a company called Vox Media that also makes money and is also in the turmoil of the digital media business, but overall, compared to its peers, has managed to weather the storm. And a huge part of that is the company is founded on community and is founded on product, like building web products, and that is resilient.

So you are a busy guy. What do you do? You host several podcasts. You just launched a second Decoder every week.

[A] second episode of Decoder. Yeah.

So you’ve got that going on. You got a lot of people to manage. You’re a dad. You got many, many things. I have a classic Decoder question, but in two parts for you. How do you make decisions at The Verge, but also how do you make decisions at Nilay Patel?

I really workshopped this answer. And the answer is panic. Pure panic.

I use that, too. That’s one of my favorite ways. Yeah.

I am optimized around speed, that fundamentally, the crisper you are in making a decision, the faster that decision can be proven to be wrong. And then you know a lot. So you get to remake the decision. There’s one thing that makes that different for me than I think other people in other kinds of jobs. There are a bunch of decisions we make as an organization every single day, minute to minute, that don’t get to be unmade. We publish a news story, and it’s wrong, we don’t get to unmake that decision. We have to issue a correction and put it at the bottom of the story. We write a headline, it’s really not great for us to write and rewrite headlines. So there’s a whole bunch of instinct and taste and hard-fought experience just about making the product we make every day that we still have to do it really fast.

The core value of a newsroom, especially news on my cars, is speed. So we still have to win every day all the time, but we have to be fast. But next to that… And so I just want to bracket that set of editorial decision-making because that is a group product: a lot of us make those decisions all together all the time, and we are very aware of the stakes of getting some of that stuff wrong. But then there’s everything else. Should we spend money and [get] going on this thing? It’s like, “Yeah, we should. Just go. Let’s see what happens. Get a story out of it.” How many podcasts am I going to do today? There’s only so many I can do.

Because you got to be in a lot of meetings, but you also have to be in a lot of podcasts, which are like meetings but hopefully more fun.

I wish more of my meetings were like podcasts: everyone desperately trying to be a little bit more entertaining than they usually are would be great. I actually am really bad at context switching. So a big part of my decision-making process is to stack up modes of operation. So I’ll be in meeting mode for four hours. I need an hour basically to turn that off and go into individual contributor podcast host mode. And so I really try to make, for lack of a better word, talent moments where I have to be on and performing for an audience, and then manager moments where I have to navigate meeting world and make a bunch of decisions and evaluate tradeoffs.

All of that is a different part of my brain, and I try to not switch between those modes very often. I try to stay really focused. But fundamentally, when you ask me how I make decisions, it’s usually [that] I know the stakes of any decision that we’re making because we’ve been running The Verge for a very long time. And the people around me know the stakes of most of our decisions. And then it’s, “Can we make the decision quickly, and importantly, can that decision stay made?” Because we can make a decision and then it has to bounce somewhere else and someone else has to think about it. And that’s when a decision gets unmade, and that’s when the chaos sets in.

Oh yeah. Absolutely. But when you’re figuring out how to prioritize your own time, when somebody says, “It’d be better for The Verge if Decoder had a second episode a week,” how do you say, “Yeah, that one, yes, is worth more of my time being spent on this but not some of the many other cool things you could be doing that would generate revenue and also be exciting for you”?

Yeah. The second episode of Decoder… It’s weird when you do a podcast. Podcasts are forever projects. They don’t end unless you are telling a tidy story. You just make one a week for the rest of your life.

Yeah, they’re just forever projects. So I have always, with Decoder in the back of my head, had one end state, which is, we should do enough of these and ask the same questions enough times so that we can do a book.

And then we can put together a book that’s helpful, that’s full of advice about how companies work—

… and how decisions are made. It’s print again, and then that would be a useful artifact of the time we all spent making the show. We kind of got to a place where we’re starting to talk about that. I don’t know if we’re going to do anything with it, but we’re able to at least talk about it, which is fascinating. And then we’re like, “Oh, there’s more Decoder we can make now that we’ve achieved the goal of, like, the show exists. It has a format. There are some questions we ask people.”

People want to be on the show. When you start a new podcast, you have to basically beg people to be on it. Now we have a lot of incoming, which is really useful and good and I hope it continues — although there are still people we want to go get, so we still go ask. But the first version of Decoder is running itself, and then it’s like, “Oh, but there’s other stuff we want to talk about that does not lend itself to an hour-long interview with a CEO.”

There’s lots of stuff that is happening in this world that we can talk about and explain that it’s actually hard to find a not self-interested CEO to talk about [something] like AI and copyright law. I can go talk to a lot of CEOs. They’re all self-interested. We actually want to take a step back, and people understand that.

Talk to Robert Kyncl about it. I’m sure he’ll have a really diverse, nuanced perspective.

Exactly. Yeah. I’m sure Sam Altman has a strong point of view on whether AI and copyright law are compatible. We just were like, “The stories we want to do are a little more expansive than this box. We can do a shorter one. We can figure out how to make that efficient.” And that will actually let us put more Verge reporters on the show. It’ll let us put more friends of the show on the show. It’ll let us… When we do our audience surveys, the audience is like, “We like it when Nilay explains things.” It’s actual feedback we get. It’ll let us deliver some more of what the audience wants. And that is, to me, a good use of my time because it serves my team. It lets my team come address the audience on the show, and it serves the audience.

The most useful advice I’ve ever been given about time management was from Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft. I was in the back of a car with him one time. We were going from one thing to another, and he was telling me about all the things he’d done that day. He’d gone for a run, he went to an investor meeting, we were doing this interview, he was going to open a store, he was going to have… And I was like, “How do you do all these things?” And he looked at me very seriously, and he said, “It’s your time. You have to be selfish about it.” And I was like, “Oh shit.” The master of the universe is like, “Have better time management.” And I hold onto that very dearly. You only have so much time. You can only do the things you really want to do. And all the other stuff is kind of noisy, and if it’s important, it’ll come back around.

It definitely feels like this is a time when everything is a big mess. So we’ve got sudden layoffs at all kinds of newspapers. Google seems to be worse than it used to be. AI is maybe going to take over from search someday. YouTube isn’t a hegemony anymore. Twitter Twittered. The fediverse might happen. I think it’s exciting. Do you think that all of this space is going to create new sunlight reaching ground and new things will happen? And what do you think those new things might be?

I do. What I worry about is that there’s not a ton of random money sitting around.

Like there were at certain times.

There have been at other times of the internet. But let me make the case for the green shoots. We were founded in a particular moment where there was a confluence of two things. One, you might remember the millennial media moment was big. Millennials killed things left and right. They showed up, they entered the workforce. I’m on the tail end of Gen X. So I think of myself as Gen X, but one year younger than me are millennials. Sorry, everybody.

I think we’re exactly the same age.

But you remember that — millennials are killing everything. Like Olive Gardens burned to the ground across America.

Nothing was safe because their habits were different. It was a huge generational shift. People were entering the workforce, they were young, they were going to do something different than their parents were going to do. And you could see, “Okay, a bunch of money is moving because these people have different tastes.” At the same time, that was when the mobile phone had arrived, the smartphone had arrived. You’re in the first flush of the LTE era of the internet, basically. And so you have a new audience, with new habits, in a new distribution format. And that distribution format really looked like social networks. And you just saw a bunch of media companies spring up to meet that moment and a bunch of other companies spring up to meet that moment.

The idea that you have an audience shift and a technology shift is very powerful. I think we see that again right now. Very clearly, I see that right now. You have a Gen Z audience, you have a millennial audience, and a Gen X audience, and a boomer audience that are pretty sick of the internet as it is today. They’re over it. These platforms, to borrow the phrase from Cory Doctorow, are being enshittified. Left and right, people are looking for something else. And then you have Gen Z, which is actually another new generation that has habits yet to form. And then I think you do see some of these technology shifts elsewhere.

I do think you see some of the action around the fediverse and decentralized social networks and the collapse of Twitter, and there’s just opportunity to build new kinds of products for audiences that are looking for something new or haven’t yet formed their habits. And that is just a very powerful moment that reminds me of the moment that we were founded in.

Now is there a bunch of VC money floating around to make that bet again?

Yeah, maybe there’s sunlight but there’s no fertilizer.

Yeah, and to be fair, the VC money that started the BuzzFeeds and the other… It’s not like they had great returns. It wasn’t like it was a great bet. We didn’t create a bunch of lasting millennial media institutions. We might’ve created one or two, and I might accidentally run one of them. And that’s weird. I don’t think that should be the case. That’s not right.

I think you’re better at strategy than you’re willing to take credit for. I think you’re very good.

We are just stubborn about being about one thing. That is our only secret. We care a lot. We work really hard. Those are basics. But then we have been very stubborn that The Verge has an identity, and we’re not going to get moved off the ball too much. It’s the same for every YouTuber who is great. The algorithm comes and goes and buffets people in different directions, but the ones who’ve had lasting success on any platform are the ones who are pretty true to themselves. And that, I think, is just a universal media lesson.

Does The Verge have an AI policy?

I’m the only person I know who has published AI-written copy on the website.

Everyone refuses to be outraged about it. This thing should go viral because the editor-in-chief of The Verge published a post half-written by AI, and if I could just get the outrage viral traffic. We’d be doing the next episode of this on a boat, Hank.

They won’t get mad. I wrote an article that said everyone should just buy a Brother laser printer and then, to try to game Google, I let ChatGPT fill out the back half of the thing with filler text. Google was not very happy about it. We did sell a lot of printers. That’s a true—

… The commerce team told me we moved a bunch of printers that day. It briefly ranked very highly in Google. They were equally not happy about that.

We’re in a mess. This is a mess, man. The web is in trouble.

You got to have fun. You got to have fun while it burns down. So that was my fun. It was an art project of a printer post.

… If it costs 50 cents to fill the entire web up with crap, the entire web will be filled with crap. I am glad I’m not Google right now. This is a mess.

They seem troubled. But yeah, so that’s the only AI copy that’s been on our site so far. I think our policy, straightforwardly, is we don’t lie to people. I’m not saying we’re never… We actually, because of the phones we’ve reviewed and the things we’ve done, we’ve certainly now published photos that have been edited by AI just to show people, “Look at this photo edited by AI.” I’m sure, over time, there will be more elements of that stuff. But our policy very succinctly is like, “Do not lie to people.”

If you’re doing something, tell the people that you’re doing it.

Yep. And I think our audience wants us to push the boundary and just showing what the tools can do. But we are very precious. We’re going to disclose everything. And largely what we sell here is people. This is where the people are, and we’re going to stay pretty focused on that.

So the fediverse excites me because I don’t understand it. I understand the technology idea that my posts can be seen on different platforms because they’re all part of a standard protocol and that my follower graph can follow me and my bio can populate on other places, but I don’t know what it means. I don’t know what gets created in that space. I don’t think anybody does.

I think if you change social media in this way, what happens? And a lot of people seem to be like, “If you change it in this way, things will get better.” But I also remember feeling that way about everything so far. I remember back when Twitter was going to save the world, and social media was going to bring us all together. Can you convince me that the fediverse will be better if it actually happens?

I can try. I don’t know that I can make the case that it’ll be 100 percent better. I can make—

Well, no. 1 percent better.

I can make a 1 percent better case.

That’s easy. I got that. That one’s easy. I got 1 percent. The real answer is between 1 and 100, but I can do 1. There’s this phrase that people in media who think about media say all the time: content is king. Everyone, people pop out of dark corners to say this to you. If you ever hint that content isn’t king, someone’s like, “No, content is king.” And it’s just this mantra. People just say it… Like the audience will go wherever the content is no matter what. And you kind of take one step back, and you’re like, “Well, distribution is really important.” And in fact, the lesson of the internet is that the distribution has an outsize impact on what content gets made.

And discovery. I don’t really know the difference between discovery and distribution, but I think they may now be the same thing.

Oh yeah, I completely agree. So the YouTube algorithm wants something, and YouTubers deliver that to the algorithm. I’ll give you another example that I think about all the time. I love the band New Order, the 12-inch single, when they made it possible to make vinyl records that were 12 inches with one song on them. New Order was like, “Here’s ’Blue Monday.’ We made it for you.” It’s very long because the distribution medium, the format, literally allowed them to make that song. YouTube is like that. All these platforms are like that in some way. YouTube, depending on how you think about it, to get a second pre-roll slot on a YouTube video, it has to be so long. And YouTube will be like, “No, that’s not how it works.” But every YouTuber is like, “Yeah, it has to be so long.” And there’s a push and pull between what the platform says about itself and what the people who create for the platform—

Suddenly all my videos are going to be eight minutes long.

And YouTube will probably listen to this and tell one of us that that’s not right. But it’s like, YouTubers are like, “Nah, it’s eight minutes long.” There’s a number, and it gets what it wants. And that recommendation algorithm is the distribution for people, and they push things into boxes. And that means I think that content isn’t king on the internet. The distribution actually just creates the work or creates the pressures that force all the work to be the same. And I think over time that’s what drives the audiences away. So there’s a real change in how these platforms work, where, over time, they just become more and more of the same thing and the creators become more and more the same. And that’s a little exhausting. And every place where you see open distribution, you see a huge variety of creators and content.

Podcasts have basically open distribution. Like podcast or distributor RSS feeds, that means people kind of own their distribution, there’s a vast array of podcast creators. There’s a vast array of podcast formats. They don’t all sound like the beginning of YouTube videos or whatever. And I hate to keep picking on YouTube; you can pick any algorithmic platform, and it’s the same. TikTokers are more the same than different. Podcasters are more different than the same. The web is distributed largely through websites and through RSS. There’s a huge variety of websites and the way websites look. But then you see the algorithmic search pressure push web design kind of all under the same box.

Newsletters distributed by email: open distribution. The newsletter economy is full of a huge variety of creators doing a huge variety of things. They’re more different than the same. So all I see with the fediverse is, “Oh, this is going to open social distribution up a little bit.” It’s going to allow us to control our distribution networks. It’s going to say, “I’m not on Twitter, but people on Twitter can follow my website, and I can go promote that follow anywhere I want in different ways and build an audience outside of the pressures of the algorithm.” To me, just that, that ability to try, is 1 percent better.

That’s exciting actually. Should I be a fediverse person? Should I be on the fediverse somehow, and what should I do there?

I think you should start a Mastodon account and you can follow a Pixelfed account on it, and you’re like, “That’s weird. I followed this account from this service that looks like Instagram—”

It’s a driverless car. It’s like a car that’s driving itself without a person in the front. It’s just weird. It’s strange.

Yeah. And you’re like, “How would I reshape society around this?” You’re like, “I don’t know.” There are many questions to be answered along the way, but just that first action — I am on a website that looks like Instagram, and I can follow a creator that posts something that looks like tweets on this thing, and I can open yet another app and log in to both of them, and it will just show me everything — it is mind-expanding in one particular kind of way because the commercial internet has never allowed you to do these things.

Bluesky, which is a different kind of decentralized service, they just opened up. Anybody can go sign up for it now. They have their own decentralization protocol called the AT Protocol. Their idea is that there should be a marketplace for algorithms. That you can show up, you can look at the fire hose of content, you can say, “I’m going to buy an algorithm that shows me only posts about Santa Claus, and it’s going to go do the work for you.” That’s a huge idea that is completely unproven, but it’s more exciting than, “Okay, here’s another billionaire who’s going to prattle on about free speech and then eventually betray you.”

If you’re me and you run a big website and you are thinking, “How can I redistribute this website, how can I reach people more directly?” my brain is lit up. You should be able to follow me at and see all my quick posts in your Threads account when Threads federates. That’s a big deal, a really big deal, especially if we can find ways to monetize that in a way that feels good. That’s a really big deal.

Oh, how would you monetize it?

We got to invent some stuff. I have a very enlightened CEO, Jim Bankoff, and he’s allowing me to poke at some ideas about those things. Like what does new distribution look like in the fediverse? And then our company has a giant sports property, and you know what hasn’t left yet? It’s sports Twitter. So I’m going to poke at it with The Verge, and we’re lightly exploring it, but I think there is opportunity there to build new kinds of media products that is really exciting. And you just have to do the first thing, which is, you have to be on one server and follow someone on another server and be like, “Oh, that worked.” And then your brain starts exploding.

But my brain hasn’t exploded with a monetization idea yet. I’m very curious about that. So I’ll just watch you do it, I guess.

Well, the thing is, the dollars are leaving Twitter, right?

So there is just a pool of money that used to be getting spent on Twitter that who knows where it’s going to go. And if you can just make it easier and safer and less Nazi-filled to spend money on our website, maybe there’s something there. We have to actually build it. We have quick posts. We did one test where we sold a quick post as an ad. It was very manual. They sold it to Apple, which is really cool and neat. Apple did an experiment. They bought a new kind of ad with us. Great. That’s not my side of the house, but it was a test, and everybody liked it. Our audience was like, “Oh, this is a better ad than other kind of ads.”

And then everyone clapped.

Yeah, it’s like, “Oh, we invented a new ad thing that feels good in this place.” You can just put some pieces together, and you’re like, “Oh, this makes sense to me.” And I would rather be in the market competition side of things than spin the wheel of, “What billionaire do you trust today?”

In my history of making stuff on the internet, it has seemed like every time a company has said, “Hello, we’d like you to make fewer decisions, and we will make the decisions for you,” the people say, “Yes, give me that.” And I don’t like this, but I wonder if we will look back and think, “Ah, that was a weird moment in history,” or if this is a path that we are on and we will just keep on heading down it until no one ever makes any content decisions at all except for whether to keep watching — I mean, TikTok is almost already all the way like this — so [that’s] the only data that the platform needs to continue to serve you things that will keep you infinitely satiated.

One very trite saying that I repeat a lot is that data can only tell you about the past. It is a perfect window into the past. It is an absolutely useless view into the future. Maybe it will help you make a smarter bet, but it will not tell you what is going to happen in the future, especially when it comes to people on the internet. It just won’t. And especially when it comes to art and creativity. It absolutely is useless in that case.

The famous William Goldman saying is that the secret truth of Hollywood is nobody knows what they’re doing. It’s true. There’s a reason it’s a saying. There’s a reason it’s a cliche. I’m not sure if that’s 100 percent the saying, but it’s close enough. No one knows what they’re doing. See, I don’t even know what I’m doing. I think the idea that you can algorithmically perfect a feed by just looking at all the data will actually drive people to an intense amount of boredom, and they’ll just go try something else.

I also think young people reflexively, and to their great credit, just reject everything their parents did. They just throw it out the window, and then they do it again 10 years later and pretend they invented it, which is great and I think a very important cycle of creativity. But I think that danger is overblown because it requires a level of mathematical certainty that is not reflected anywhere in reality.

Okay, with that in mind, I want to read you something that you said on Threads—

… which is amazing. No, it’s good. You are confirming yourself. “Another reason we are mourning these magazines” — this is about Sports Illustrated being shut down — “is because the media that has replaced them is clout-chasing algorithmic garbage, not anything that has aspirations of being bigger than whatever metrics a platform gives them. Of course, there is a new Sports Illustrated. It’s Barstool Sports. It is weightless and empty and the best-case scenario for a media company built to succeed on platforms.” Firstly, goddamn, boy.

Call the burn unit. Second, though, this is maybe going to feel like it comes out of left field. You’re talking about moving… “Let’s have websites, let’s have distributed, let’s not have platforms.” This feels a little bit one step away from saying, “Maybe print has a future and maybe it could be something new again.” Do you think print could be something new again?

Maybe. I work at a company that runs a legendary print magazine in New York Magazine. We’ve published Verge stories in collaboration with New York and had them on the cover of that magazine. And boy, does that make everybody excited. Boy, is that just the coolest feeling in the world.

It is not a normal media company where the weirdo tech website gets to go talk to the legendary print magazine and say, “Hey, do you want to work together on a big story? And by the way, we’d love to put it on the cover.” And the legendary print magazine is like, “Dope. Let’s run.” And so all of my credit to David Haskell and the people at New York who are open to this idea. That is not… That is an impossibility almost everywhere else, even for two print magazines to collaborate like that. For us to do it is amazing, and I love the company I work at.

But it’s really cool when it happens. It’s the coolest when it happens. And so I do think there’s some amount of people would like to buy atoms, not just bits, and the atoms are really meaningful to them. So I don’t know what kind of future that is. I don’t know that we’re going to do a print magazine anytime soon, but what does that represent? It represents, well, somebody cared enough to print this picture and mail a piece of paper to everybody around. And the care is really validating for the people who get to be on the covers and that validation is really important. That’s not really what I was getting at in that Threads post, though.

No, I know. It just made me think about it. It made me think about it. But yeah, hit me.

What I was getting at there is Sports Illustrated, its aspiration was to be a chronicle of culture—

Not anymore, but was. The great magazines, the great print magazines, the great media brands, they had aspirations that were bigger than their revenue, that were bigger than their view counts. It was, “Did we make an impact? Did we move the culture? Is this the thing everybody’s talking about? Is this the magazine cover that, maybe it sold the most on the newsstands, but was it the most striking and evocative?” I judge the ASME Awards, the National Magazine Awards, and the people in those rooms, they still talk about impact. They still talk about what makes a great magazine, and that’s an art form that is discussed. I think that’s inspiring, right? People really care about packaging and design and all this stuff.

Barstool Sports, whatever you want to think about Barstool Sports, it has an editorial point of view. It absolutely does. It has a main character every single day. Absolutely does. But it is defined by its metrics. Its aspiration is to have the most views. Its aspiration as an organization is to get the most traffic. And they think that way. You can see. It comes through in the work they make because nothing is designed to be so big that it overcomes the view count. And I think that’s empty. I think that’s why people are sad that something like Sports Illustrated that used to stand for all that stuff is in decline, and it feels like there’s no replacement.

There should be a replacement. Media brands should die over time. There should be new ones. I think that’s a healthy cycle. But all the new ones are either individual creators who are getting burned out by the dozen, or they are media brands that are designed mostly to be optimized for platform distribution and never stand for anything much bigger.

That effort and that care is actually what ends up differentiating you in any sort of non-commoditized market, and the platforms are about commoditization. And maybe that is more so the tension than individuals versus brands. But when you have a brand, you try to differentiate. And our company, at least in its history, is trying to differentiate on quality, which is more expensive.

We’re going to be fine. We’re going to save the media with blog posts. It’s going to be great.

You’re going to save the media with blog posts with the last website on earth, and keep saying weird things and putting them on stickers that I could put on things.

Those stickers have ended up on some very powerful laptops, which is very funny to me.

Well, I’m very impressed by what y’all are doing at The Verge, and I’m honored, frankly, that you gave me the opportunity to be a one-time host so that you could be interviewed on one of the—

I’m very worried that I’m going to get fired, by the way. I want to be very clear. The chances of me being fired are very high, and this might be the last thing I ever do.

Alright, well, in that case, it’ll go down in history, and I’ll feel extra good about that.

Yeah. You want to raise the stakes right at the end of the podcast.

Nilay Patel, thank you for being on Decoder.

Thank you for agreeing to this ridiculous idea. I appreciate it. 

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