Steven Levy

Steven Levy

Editor-in-chief of Backchannel, a tech publication that lives on Medium

THIS CHAT HAPPENED ON December 07, 2015

Discussion

Steven Levy
Steven Levy@stevenlevy · Editor in chief, Backchannel. Writer.
Hi, I'm Steven Levy. I am editor in chief of Backchannel, a tech publication that lives on Medium. Previously worked for Wired, and Newsweek and have written books on hackers, cryptography, Apple and Google, basically covering the tech world since forever. Happy to be here, so ask away!
Анна Савина
Анна Савина@bruno_and_magda · Senior editor at Insights.VC
Hi Steven, thanks for the AMA! I'm just entering the field of tech journalism, and I know that you have a big experience in that area. It would be really interesting if you can tell how tech journalism have changed in your lifetime, what have changed in the relationship between companies and media and where everything is going. Maybe you can also name a few distinctive periods in the field?
Steven Levy
Steven Levy@stevenlevy · Editor in chief, Backchannel. Writer.
@bruno_and_magda A lot to answer there. One of the hugest differences is that there is so much of it, directed to a community that is hungry to learn everything in certain areas (Apple, I'm looking at you.) There's also a business model that encourages many many posts as opposed to just ones where a reporter actually moves the story forward. As for relationships between reporters and companies, it's much more moderated. In 1984, I visited Microsoft and someone just took me to the door of Bill Gates' office where we free-styled it for 90 minutes. Now, even a CEO of a 5-person startup has a PR escort.
Ryan Hoover@rrhoover · Founder, Product Hunt
Welcome, Steven! Who's the most inspiring/interesting person you've interviewed in your career and why?
Steven Levy
Steven Levy@stevenlevy · Editor in chief, Backchannel. Writer.
@rrhoover Well, since I've interviewed Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, etc many times, I will stray from tech on this question. Early in my career I actually interviewed Bob Marley. Besides being a music giant, he was a deeply insightful, passionate, and creative force in the world. He knew his position in that world and tried to concentrate on being himself and, as he explained to me, to promote his religious world view. It was an odd juxtaposition--I was a beginning writer and he was Bob Marley! But unforgettable.
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Operations @ Product Hunt
Hi @stevenlevy thanks for doing this AMA, two questions for you: 1) what top trends in mobile technology do you think we will see in the next few years (assuming that by 2020 there are 50 billion connected devices as projected)? 2) what are your favorite books?
Steven Levy
Steven Levy@stevenlevy · Editor in chief, Backchannel. Writer.
@alfink92 There are basically a single megatrend that rules everything. It's the arc of progress from PC to ubiquious Internet to hand-held device that allows, as Andreessen says, software to eat the world. OK, there's a second trend, too, of machine learning/AI where all that stuff gets smarter. Everything builds on that. As for favorite books, where do I start? Currently on volume 3 of Robert Caro's Lyndon Johnson bio, and almost done Chernow's Hamilton bio (which I read in prep for seeing the amazing show). For airplane reading, I like Tom Perry, Lee Childs and spy stuff like Alan Furst. Also have read a lot of rock bios recently.
Nick Zieber
Nick Zieber@nzieber · Tech & Startups Community in Hong Kong
@stevenlevy this is fascinating.
Ben Tossell@bentossell · newCo
@stevenlevy Hey! What are some of your favourite pieces written on the web right now?
Steven Levy
Steven Levy@stevenlevy · Editor in chief, Backchannel. Writer.
@bentossell Anything on Medium! Seriously, would have to check my history. There's a lot of great longform appearing now.
Kate
Kate@katesegrin · Head of Social @ GitHub
What originally got you hooked on writing?
Steven Levy
Steven Levy@stevenlevy · Editor in chief, Backchannel. Writer.
@katesegrin I went to grad school in literature, and realized that I wasn't cut out to be a scholar. I liked writing but didn't really find myself until I realized that writing non-fiction was a creative outlet with the extra bonus of actually getting to see fascinating stuff firsthand, from the inside. Within weeks of deciding to do this, I was suddenly backstage at concerts, talking to politicians, and getting to rooms where the public doesn't go. And then I had the freedom to write about it pretty freely (I was working for alternative papers then, but I had that same freedom even at Newsweek.)
Andrew Ettinger
Andrew Ettinger@andrewett · 👟 @wearAtoms // ex @Twitter @ProductHunt
Over the course of your career, what technological advancement has had the biggest impact?
Steven Levy
Steven Levy@stevenlevy · Editor in chief, Backchannel. Writer.
@andrewmettinger I wrote about that megatrend of great transformation. I will say that we take Google Search for granted, but it is an historic shift to be able to get answers to the most obscure questions in seconds (and now we can just bark out the questions into our phones.) But in my own career, I look back and can't believe that I wrote stories for years on that thing called a typewriter. Using the computer not only makes things more efficient but changes the writing process entirely. Though I still have worries that being forced to write multiple drafts in serial fashion made the work more polished.
neeharika sinha
neeharika sinha@neeeharika · Google, Threadchannel
Hey Steven! Thanks for being here for this AMA. What are your daily reads other than Blackchannel articles? Any favorite podcasts?
Steven Levy
Steven Levy@stevenlevy · Editor in chief, Backchannel. Writer.
@neeeharika Thanks, Neeharika, I'm having fun. My various feeds (twitter, FB, Hirschhorn, etc) send me all over the place, so I rarely go to home pages anymore. Generally, every tech publication covers everything, whether they have original or unique reporting or not. So I look for the long-read, or the conceptual scoop. Certain writers -- Brad Stone, Jessi Hempel, etc--usually write standout stuff. As for podcasts, I have no interest in hearing a couple of my peers riff on tech news. The ones I listen to are stuff like Marc Maron, or This American Life, with original reporting or really amazing interview.
Steven Levy
Steven Levy@stevenlevy · Editor in chief, Backchannel. Writer.
Hey, I had a great time answering your questions. It's great to see how Product Hunt is evolving--I saw Ryan present at Y Combinator and have followed him and his company closely since then. I hope to see you all on Backchannel, which of course all of you will not only visit on Medium but FOLLOW as well, so you don't miss anything. And happy holidays to all!
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Operations @ Product Hunt
@stevenlevy thanks so much Steven! We've enjoyed chatting with you this morning and appreciate all your wonderful answers - thanks for taking the time out to be with us today! 🙌
Steven Levy
Steven Levy@stevenlevy · Editor in chief, Backchannel. Writer.
Well, as I said in my premature closing statement, I want everyone to walk away with a desperate hunger to sign up to Medium and read Backchannel. And to understand how grateful I am to have covered this amazing subject for so long--and still be right in the thick of it. Thanks, folks!
Jourdan Bul-lalayao
Jourdan Bul-lalayao@jourdanb21 · Co-Founder & CTO, Jobox
Hey Steven, thanks for the AMA :)! Any idea on what criteria a Medium article has to meet in order to get it 'trending' or featured/recommended by Medium Staff :)?
Steven Levy
Steven Levy@stevenlevy · Editor in chief, Backchannel. Writer.
@jourdanb21 The best way that a Medium article gets noticed is by interactions with people that other people follow. If you are very new to Medium it helps if you bang the drum a bit for your story. Also be smart in tagging it, and lots of people "follow" very specific tags, and then they're likely to see it. Only pretty rare posts get recommended by Medium staff, so it's not much help to say make it totally amazeballs.
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Operations @ Product Hunt
@stevenlevy Thanks so much for joining us today! During your career to date, what is the best piece of advice you've ever been given? Flip side - what's the worst?
Steven Levy
Steven Levy@stevenlevy · Editor in chief, Backchannel. Writer.
@ems_hodge My wife actually gave me a great interviewing tip -- ask questions directly. Sometimes your instinct is to overthink it, and tip toe around the question (which could seem uncomfortable) you want to know the answer to. Believe me if a question is important to you, your readers want to know the answer too. The worst advice? Don't write so much about technology, it'll only limit you.
Jeff Umbro
Jeff Umbro@jeffumbro · CEO of The podglomerate
Hi @stevenlevy - can you tell us a little about why you made the jump to Medium from legacy publications like Wired? You've said yourself that it feels more like a startup than anything else. I'd also love to ask if you ever have plans to go back towards a more traditional media outlet? Medium seems like a leviathan in the writing world, but there are also some obvious drawbacks.
Steven Levy
Steven Levy@stevenlevy · Editor in chief, Backchannel. Writer.
@jeffumbro Drawbacks? What can you be talking about? Seriously, after many years working for traditional media and covering startups, I felt that I couldn't pass up the chance to join a small-ish Internet company led by one of the legendary founders of our era. It was a chance to build something do, and do something that was a lot different. It would take a lot to draw me back to the other world, as the offer would have to overcome the "been there done that" hurdle. Every day here at Medium/Backchannel, I'm encountering "haven't been there, haven't done that," in part because things are so dynamic at startups.
Ben Tossell@bentossell · newCo
@stevenlevy What do you think 2016 will be the year of? From what I've seen recently it seems like it may be AI :)
Steven Levy
Steven Levy@stevenlevy · Editor in chief, Backchannel. Writer.
@bentossell AI for sure, but note that megatrend I mentioned. It could also be a year where the financial side of the business hits some bumps, but I find that Wall Street and the actual technology are often on different curves. The valuations rise and fall, but the tech always moves forward.
Kate
Kate@katesegrin · Head of Social @ GitHub
What were some of the most pivotal moments in your personal life and career?
Steven Levy
Steven Levy@stevenlevy · Editor in chief, Backchannel. Writer.
@katesegrin Have to say it was pretty pivotal when someone asked me, in 1981, to write about hackers. I had never touched a computer before, let alone talk to programmers. Also doing the pre-launch story about Macintosh and meeting Steve Jobs. Also, starting to write a column for Newsweek in 1995 (and then working there fulltime) had major implications for my career (and bank account). More recently, going on a global trip with Google APM's in 2007 led me to write a a book about the company.
Ben Tossell@bentossell · newCo
@stevenlevy Do you think covering the tech world from a journalistic approach helps you figure out what would be essential for a founder/startup? Do you think you could become an advisor for companies if you are not already?
Steven Levy
Steven Levy@stevenlevy · Editor in chief, Backchannel. Writer.
@bentossell I certainly have ideas about it, but I don't want to arm-chair quarterback it. There are endless posts written about what's smart for startups, including about a billion on Medium alone. I think more significant is you have to be smart to begin with.
Erik Torenberg
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
Hey Steven! 1) What are your favorite interview questions? 2) Best interviewing advice you've ever heard?
Steven Levy
Steven Levy@stevenlevy · Editor in chief, Backchannel. Writer.
@eriktorenberg I already mentioned some interviewing advice--directness-- but I'll add more. Preparation is essential. The more you know about your subject the more comfortable the subject with be in sharing stuff. Conversely, if you don't understand something your subject said, always ask him or her to explain the reference or process. Even if it makes you seem stupid. There's nothing worse than staring at a transcript and wishing you'd got something clarified. And I always ask at the end of the interview what I missed, and what the subject really wants me to walk aways with.
Arpit Gupta
Arpit Gupta@arpitgupta · Product Manager
@stevenlevy How did the team end up picking the name "Backchannel"? What were the other possible names for this publication?
Steven Levy
Steven Levy@stevenlevy · Editor in chief, Backchannel. Writer.
@arpitgupta I always liked the name. It implies insider information and has some sort of tech vibe. The idea is that this is stuff that you wouldn't hear otherwise. To be honest I don't remember anything else we considered. I think for a little big I was trying to come up with some tech equivalent to "Grantland" but who in tech is like Grantland Rice was to sports? Should I have called it "Markoff?"
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Operations @ Product Hunt
What has been the most surprising story you've covered during your career to date in tech journalism? What's shocked you?
Steven Levy
Steven Levy@stevenlevy · Editor in chief, Backchannel. Writer.
Wow, Emily, that's a great question. One that comes to mind is the story of Secret Key Encryption. For years I had been writing about Public Key, writing a series of stories for Wired and then embarking on a book. Public Key was a revolutionary development in the field, essentially opening it up for the public and enabling privacy on electronic communications on a massive scale. I was building the definitive history of it, and then learned that several people at GCHQ--the NSA of the UK--had essentially created a very similar system a few years before the brilliant folks at Stanford and MIT had. Researching that story and putting it in the proper context was full of surprises.
Chuck Kahn
Chuck Kahn@chuckkahn · Assistant Editor, Freelance
Why do you think the arena Personal Finance software is so poorly represented? Microsoft bowed out from its Money software in 2006 and neither Intuit's Quicken or Mint seem to be innovating since their introduction. Are potential innovators in this space staying away for fear that a big player like Google might come in and dominate or is there just a general lack of interest here?
Steven Levy
Steven Levy@stevenlevy · Editor in chief, Backchannel. Writer.
@chuckkahn Don't know the answer to that, but I think application software in general is on a downturn. The app model drives prices down. I've never used Mint, but I think that the future of personal finance software might be something that isn't really a separate app at all, but just something that automatically takes note of your transactions, bank accounts, paychecks and everything else--and just does everything for you. As for fear of a big player, I think there's always room for an innovative startup to disrupt something. If you're good enough, worst case scenario is that one of those big companies buys you out.
Chuck Kahn
Chuck Kahn@chuckkahn · Assistant Editor, Freelance
@stevenlevy @chuckkahn When I first used the Gmail web app back in 2004, I was amazed at how much better an email experience it provided over the Microsoft Outlook desktop app I was then using. Year after year Gmail kept getting better and better, and I never used Outlook again. I was hoping that Mint would be the Gmail of Personal Finance, leaving the desktop experiences of MS Money and Quicken in the dust. But the experience hasn't improved and I'm still waiting to see the Gmail of Personal Finance.