Featured Member: Helen Popkin

By on June 4, 2012

Current Location: New York, N.Y.
Current Gig: Deputy editor Tech & Science/Social media columnist, msnbc.com
Quick and Dirty Resume: St. Petersburg Times. Then, Consumer Reports. Now, msnbc.com.
Six-word memoir: Just sitting here watching “T.J. Hooker.”
Favorite fictional character: Helen A.S. Popkin
Favorite tech tool? Mark Zuckerberg

What happens during your average day?

I get paid to look at the Internet, which could not be more awesome.

I’m so good at looking at the Internet that I recently got promoted to deputy editor of msnbc.com’s Tech & Science section, so now I have to do grown-up stuff as well. This includes helping to manage our section content and writers, and spending a chunk of time and energy attempting – and mostly failing – to avoid distraction. Sometimes Chris Hansen walks down the hall and one time I was on the elevator with Danny Pudi, who plays Abed, the best character on “Community,” the only show that matters.

Another time, I remember, I got up from my desk to go to the ladies room!

Why did you choose to get involved with online media?

I enjoy not being homeless.

Turns out, journalism-type stuff is the only thing for which anyone’s ever been willing to pay me a living wage. I started out at newspapers the old-timey way– doing obits! But I’ve been obsessed with online community – the many ways carbon-based life forms operate in virtual reality – since Usenet’s salad days. (Fun fact: Usenet still exists! I know a physicist who hangs out there almost exclusively! Some of our smartest humans have never even used Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Tumblr, LinkedIn or even — if you can believe it — Pinterest! )

Anyhoo … my obsession with slash fan faction and the early days of online dating served me well when old timey print media started to crumble. Michael Wann, who is now managing editor at msnbc.com, recognized my obsession and “talent,” such as it is, and hired me on to write about Internet culture ages before Internet culture became a thing to write about.

Why did you dedicate your career to covering online privacy issues?

Kind of like the previous question, online privacy issues sort of chose me.

Since 9/11, U.S. citizens are increasingly losing our civil rights, and some of us didn’t have all our civil rights to lose in the first place. (Minorities of race and sexual preference, as well as poor people, am I right?) As we increasingly live so much of our real lives online, this is just another place we need to be vigilant.

What’s more, with the exception of Sen. Al Franken, and a few others, our representatives don’t really get how the Internet works. This is evidenced by overreaching bills such as SOPA, PIPA and most recently CISPA. Meanwhile, the FBI’s recent request that tech companies offer backdoors though which the government can access our personal business sans judicial oversight reveals something scarier. The feds who do understand how the Internet works are behaving as if the Constitution doesn’t exist in cyberspace – which it totally does! Google it! I can’t personally stop it, but as a journalist, it’s my job to bring it to your attention.

You have a larger-than-life Twitter personality, which is interesting in an era where journalists are being fired for presenting too much of their own opinions. How did you strike that balance with MSNBC?

Are you tryin’ to jinx me?

I actually don’t strike a balance. Every social media presence I have is 100 percent connected to my work as a social media/technology reporter and editor. Since I write primarily about social media, it’s my job to be immersed in it so that I can understand how it’s used by consumers.

To that end, I share surface details of my life in communicating with my “friends” and “followers,” and on occasion, express strong opinions via social media. Nothing I post, however, is anything that I wouldn’t include in a column. It’s all the same content I’m encouraged – via paycheck – to write about. I make it clear to the people I know in real life that social media profiles are not the place we’re going to have real-life interaction, there’s so little privacy left anyway. Since social media is my job, I have little interest in maintaining social media accounts for non-work reasons. I’ve been doing this for years, but with social media increasingly integrated with journalism, it’s naïve for any journalist to believe a personal social media presence can’t or shouldn’t cause problems. Heck, it’s naïve for anyone in any kind of profession to believe his or her personal social media accounts can’t bite ‘em in the occupational ass.

Many of your tweets (when not full of tasty pop culture bits) call out white male privilege. How does this operate in the media and how does it operate online?

You’re soaking in it!

White male privilege operates in the media, and all of Western society, the same way H20 operates in water. One of countless examples specific to the media is the “masculinity crisis” trend pieces media outlets – from conservative to liberal — have been covered since the 1800s.

These are the anecdotal stories about how the emancipation of women somehow displaces men in the world and/or destroying the romantic prospects of women. Never mind that low-income women have always had to work, while low-income and disenfranchised men – non-white, non-heteronormative, etc., have always been displaced.

The far more articulate Samhita Mukhopadhyay writes in her book, Outdated, “When The New York Times, one of the main purveyors of cultural trends, publishes story after story that are based on sexist attitudes toward men and women, we should be concerned.” And the Times does this sort of editorial or feature piece fairly regularly. It’s the kind of rhetoric that impacts legislation on pay equity and reproductive rights, at the very least.

On the Internet, where do I start? In brief, women are trolled or stalked, but teenage girls suffer the worst. The Internet hates teenage girls – we see this every time a Rebecca Black or Jessi Slaughter is pilloried by trolls ranging from 4chan’s /b/boards to mainstream media. So when the True Beliebers go on Twitter rampage against any female who gets too close to their precious Justin, should we really be surprised?

If you had a million dollars dedicated to improving media, you would…

… buy one 100th of Instagram!

Failing that, I’d dump it all into Kickstarter journalism and publishing projects, or some other crowdfunding resources. Limited budgets, page views, advertising, partnerships, etc., influence so much of what’s news-worthy these days, crowdfunding may be the best hope for the future of meaningful journalism. Kickstarter’s journalism and publishing alone have already financed some impressive projects. Here’s a link, you’ll see what I’m taking about:

Now follow me on Twitter and Facebook … because I’m awesome!