THE PARENT TRAP
The week of November 30, 2014
Issue17_IRL_RustyFoster_2500px

Me IRL: Rusty Foster

By Cooper Fleishman

Every weekday in New York City, bloggers and editors swarm into downtown Manhattan like bespectacled gnats to compete with one another over who’s got the hottest take on the day’s news. Then, from somewhere in the pines of Maine—or on a sailboat, who knows—Rusty Foster publishes Today in Tabs, a newsletter that mocks all of it.

Tabs began as a joke tweet in September 2013. A few hours later, Foster launched it as a daily email digest. As a daily anthology of the best and worst content on the Internet, it quickly became popular with the Twitter-addicted tech/media crowd. Tabs is now a column in Fast Company.

Foster, a 38-year-old computer programmer, is kind of an archetypal Internet Dad. Not only does it seem like he’s literally juggling three kids while tweeting and blogging, but his approach to Today in Tabs has become downright fatherly: His platform provides a launching pad and showcase for passionate young writers. (He even has a “Tabs intern,” Bijan Stephen, a 23-year-old Vanity Fair assistant.) “Rusty is like the dad at the end of a sitcom who comes on and somehow manages to say who was wronged and who was being a jerk,” said P.J. Vogt, cohost of the Internet-culture podcast Reply All, to the New York Observer in July.

I chatted with Foster about dad culture, online media, parental controls, and whether he’s apprehensive or excited for the Internet his kids will inherit. Most importantly, though, here’s what his 10-year-old thinks of Tabs.

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Photo via Rusty Foster

The Internet knows you for Today in Tabs, obviously, but what’s your actual job, the one that puts food on the table? And most importantly, which gig do your kids appreciate/understand the most?

My Actual Job is running operations for Scripto, which is a very small company that makes television writing and production software. My kids apparently didn’t know anything about Scripto, although my daughter had some idea that the people involved in Scripto were paying me to write Tabs, somehow. So I guess it’s safe to say my kids understand Tabs the most. We occasionally talk about things from Tabs at dinner.

“Nothing makes me happier than being able to help a millennial find a job.”

In fairness, Tabs is about one third of my income and Scripto two thirds, and I split my time pretty much along those lines, so they both contribute to the food on the table. I find I work best in a state of Total Procrastination, so it’s important that I can always be putting off doing something in favor of doing something else. If I only had one job, it would never get done at all.

How would your kids describe your work?

I asked them:

Ellie (10): “He writes this thing called Today in Tabs, and it’s like, he writes about, I think, funny things? I don’t know, something like that?”

Calvin (7): [Has no idea whatsoever]

I asked them why they think I go to New York sometimes.

Ellie: “To have conferences with people about TV shows?”

Calvin: “???”

This turned out to be an excellent opportunity to explain what I do for work to my kids, so thanks for that. I didn’t realize their understanding was quite so fuzzy.

Today in Tabs started out as a digest for hate reads, but I feel like it’s since turned into a spotlight for great writing, gems in the muck of lazy content. Tabs’ best entries are themselves great writing—Bijan Stephen’s piece inspired by the Darren Wilson ruling, for instance. Has producing Tabs given you a greater appreciation for how the online-media sausage is made, or do you feel even more cynical than you used to be?

It was always secretly a spotlight for great writing. I think hate reads and great writing are similar in that they both have an impact. I have a low boredom threshold, so if I read a whole article it’s pretty likely either good or awful, and both are fun to share. The only thing I really dislike is lazy writing. I know everyone’s just trying to get through the work day, but if you find yourself churning out what’s expected every day, maybe consider a different job?

“Dads have a don’t-give-a-fuck vibe that everyone would do well to emulate.”

I’ve worked more directly in media over the last year or so than I ever had before, and I’ve always had a lot of love for journalists, but I think I’m a lot less cynical than I used to be. Almost everybody is just trying to do their best at a hard job with all kinds of constraints to work around. What I’ve seen in both TV and online media is that people work really long hours and truly believe in what they’re doing.

There’s been a flood of recent thinkpieces about dads, dad humor, dad jokes, “dad culture,” often written by millennial non-dads, trying to capture the essence of online daddom. Is it weird to be part of a scene, especially one whose bar for admission is so low?

It’s a total cliché—but also true—that being a dad is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done, so I would probably disagree that the bar for admission is low. I mean, anyone can sign up, but talk to me after 10 years and three kids, I guess. It makes everything else I do seem a lot easier by comparison. So I don’t really know why Dad Culture became a thing, but I am proud to be a Public Dad to whatever extent I am. And maybe it’s that sense of having gone through some shit that is appealing. I think dads have a don’t-give-a-fuck vibe that everyone would do well to emulate. So much of the stuff we all obsess over is just dumb bullshit that doesn’t really mean anything, and dads are kinda over worrying about dumb bullshit.

Startup CEO and old-school blogger Anil Dash told Bijan in Vanity Fair that he felt like he was writing for his kids now, holding the door open for those who come after him. Do you feel like you’re trying, in some small way, to make the Internet better?

I couldn’t agree more with Anil about holding the door open for the next generation. I make a point of using Tabs to promote young writers I think are doing good work, and there are so many of them. Media is such a little insiders’ club, so if you’re an editor looking for new talent, I will always be happy to point you at some writers I like. Nothing makes me happier than being able to help a millennial find a job.

As for making the Internet better, I don’t know. The Internet is people, and I think people are (very slowly) getting better. All I can do is keep trying to use my platform to amplify ideas I believe in, and hope that other people learn and change, the way I think I have. We can all be better than we are, but we also have probably all been worse.

“I looked up [my daughter’s] search history once and it consisted of literally the phrase ‘fun games for kids,’ so I’m not that concerned.”

Are you nervous about the Internet your kids are going to inherit? Excited?

Neither? It is what it is. They’ll know more about it than me, I’m sure. All I hope is that I don’t turn into an ignorant, fossilized Old, complaining about how much better everything used to be. Kids: Everything used to be terrible. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. Don’t trust them.

What sort of online restrictions do you set on your kids? What has the Internet changed about parenting?

My son has almost never used the Internet yet, and my daughter plays games online sometimes. She has a laptop she’s supposed to ask permission to use, and as far as I can tell she always does. I looked up her search history once and it consisted of literally the phrase “fun games for kids,” so I’m not that concerned. I’ve told her not to give out any personal info online unless I or her mother are right there with her. Mostly they’re just not that interested in computers yet, which I’m OK with.

The Internet has really changed our ability to answer questions. When I was a kid, we had a set of encyclopedias from the ’60s, and if someone had a question we had to try to look it up in the encyclopedia. If the answer wasn’t there, tough luck, you just stayed ignorant. Now we can answer any question, with sufficient searching and cross-referencing, and I think as a result my kids are much more informed and better critical thinkers than I was until probably high school.

Also we can now get sorted into our Hogwarts houses. Everyone in my family is Gryffindors except for me. I’m a Slytherin, as you can imagine.

You’ve been credited with helping to spur something like a newsletter renaissance. What other newsletters are worth subscribing to? Why are they so appealing in 2014?

I like newsletters because I’m lazy and they just show up in my email to read. I don’t have to go find them. I also think the form reminds writers that that’s what will happen—like, you get punished for posting, every time I post I lose some subscribers—so it’s not like an RSS feed where you just get every post. Newsletter writers tend to be a little more restrained about what they publish.

Great newsletters:

There are probably some I’m gonna kick myself for forgetting, but those are the ones I’ve most enjoyed reading lately.

“All I hope is that I don’t turn into an ignorant, fossilized Old, complaining about how much better everything used to be.”

Best and worst tab of 2014?

I don’t know about worst, but the Ed Champion tab about Emily Gould leaps to mind as at least one of the worst. Also the Grantland Dr. V tab. I’m completely drawing a blank on best, which I guess speaks to the memorability of hate reads? There were plenty of good tabs this year, but it’s too late, we’ve moved on. Subscribe to Today in Tabs to find out about next year’s as they happen.

What was your first screenname?

I had a bunch of different ones on CompuServe and telnet chat, circa 1992–1998. A few I remember were “Stryker,” which was from Airplane but everyone thought I meant some porn star, “Spaceman Spiff” from Calvin and Hobbes, and “chameleon,” which I used for a while in college, for no good reason. I’m sort of afraid/hopeful that someone who knew me from one of those will remember it and see this. “Kuro5hin” started as my screen name on Slashdot, and that was pretty much the last time I used a name that wasn’t just some variant of “Rusty.”

Favorite bizarre Wikipedia entry?

Mine, probably. LOL.

GIF: Hard G or soft?

Hard G. This isn’t even a question.

Essential app? Do you even have a smartphone? Not sure what tech dads are into these days.

My first smartphone was an iPhone 4S that my friend handed down when he got a 5. Before that I had a Casio GZOne, which was a great waterproof flip phone. I like it because I could use it while kayaking and stuff. I’m not really an early adopter of gadgets. But I have an iPhone 6 now, and couldn’t live without a smartphone at all. The apps I spend the most time in are Tweetbot, Slack, and email—I kinda split my email time between the Gmail app and Inbox. Inbox is nice for reading and triage but it loses outgoing drafts so I don’t trust it for writing email.

The one app I would call essential is probably 1Password. For God’s sake, people, get a password safe. I can’t even fathom the insanity of my life before I had a place to store passwords. Modern online life is no longer tenable without a password safe.

Who are your must-follows on Twitter?

That’s a terrible question to ask anyone. I follow 530 people right now; they’re all essential. I guess four at (almost) random that I always enjoy seeing in my feed would be @mallelis [the Toast’s Mallory Ortberg, whom we interviewed for the “Building a Better Web” issue —ed.], @joshgondelman, @desusnice, and @davidgrann. David Grann doesn’t tweet much and when he does it’s almost always links to great articles, so that’s two pluses. The other three are all delightful smart funny people. But seriously, everyone I follow is wonderful. I realize I just recommended two white men, but in general follow women and people of color and your feed will improve immediately.

“If you find yourself churning out what’s expected every day, consider a different job.”

Favorite social network?

Slack.

Finish this sentence: “The Web would be better if …”

If I had the answer to that I would probably make the Web better and get rich. I don’t know what would make the web better. Who am I to even try to say that? I read stuff and write my jokes. The Future of Online Media is a question better left to Choire or Paul Ford, or taken to Kinja I guess.

Finally, what’s the next project you want to tackle? Could you see yourself moving on, retiring from the Tab game? Is there a dream job that’s suddenly within reach now that you wormed your way into the media world?

I see myself retiring from the Tab game every afternoon around 1pm.

I do have a sort of pervasive sense that I could probably carve out some kind of career for myself in media if I wanted to. I don’t know that I want to though. Nonfiction writing is brutally difficult; it’s the hardest of the various things I’ve ever done for work, by a wide margin. So I don’t know why I would trade a relatively cushy software executive gig for bashing my brain against that wall. Also the money is terrible.

I guess insofar as there is a “dream job” for me, I already have it. I get to make things and write things and work with all kinds of different people, and interesting opportunities to do things with smart people are everywhere. I wish I had twice as many hours and four times as much energy as I do. I’ve already had so many good ideas for projects that I’ll never be able to pursue. I’ll probably just keep doing things and some of them will be successful and some won’t. Who knows.

Illustration by J. Longo