Alum Jeb Lund talks freelance journalism, online personas and his huge Twitter following
Jeb Lund (‘97) is known for being both serious and comedic. His work as a writer is political, careful and consequential in tone. His Twitter account, on the other hand, with over 70,000 followers, often ranges from topically humorous to downright absurd. Of course, he’s also a New College alum. Graduating in 2001, Lund has spent the last six years as a freelance journalist and politics and sports columnist for publications including Rolling Stone, the Guardian, Esquire and Vice. He currently runs a podcast called Week In Atrocity. In an email interview with Catalyst Managing Editor Magdalene Taylor, he answered questions about how New College impacted his career, advice for writers and his online Twitter persona @Mobute.
Who was New College-era Jeb Lund?
Like a lot of people, I wasn’t who I wanted to be in high school, and I overcorrected when I got here. I moved a ton growing up and struggled to make friends while sleepwalking to straight-As, so when I got to New College I failed to take full advantage of academic opportunities while pathologically schmoozing and bed-hopping. I spend reunions apologizing to professors who saw me too little and alumni who saw me too much. I should also mention that I was substantially dumber politically, but every year I learn about some new dumb thing I was hitherto unaware I was being dumb about.
What aspects of your New College experience–classes, thesis, social life, whatever–have made an impact on your career today?
Justus Doenecke’s focus on historiography above all, as well as Novo Collegians’ aggressive policing of arguments made in bad faith, have been indispensable to a career in media criticism and politics. It cannot be overstated how much political analysis ensues from question-begging that erases parts of the political spectrum, ignorance of history, general ineptitude in critical reading and shameless mendacity.
What were some of your post-grad jobs? When and how did writing become your primary thing?
My thesis was destroyed in a flood when a sprinkler malfunctioned in Goldstein over the summer of 2000, and I lost a lot of subsequent years to alcoholism and bad, infrequent non-writing work. My writing took off by starting a blog to maintain a conversation with far-flung alumni buddies (and also because I was told by an alumni buddy that I’d become overbearing when arguing in person—a problem that really didn’t start tapering off until after 2012). I’d like to blame talent alone, but after almost three years of writing and yammering on Twitter, I blundered into job offers after writing a takedown of a blowhard.
Did you always see yourself as a writer?
I wanted to be a writer in high school but convinced myself that was an unreasonable career. I decided to be a history professor like my mom, but pulped thesis notes and a research allergy scotched that. I wrote and edited ‘zines while here (The Swiss Missile Crisis holds up!) and that sensibility carried over to blogging. But even if I were working today as an air host for an opulent Qatari airline, I’d probably be aggravating friends with long letters, because I can’t help it.
People often talk about New College being different from the “real world” – did this relate to your experience?
If nothing else, it’s almost impossible to replicate the broadly intense intimacy of friendships you make at New College without getting married, a dog, or pregnant.
What’s the story behind your Twitter following?
I was part of “Weird Twitter” back when we did fun things like Goatse’ing two million people trying to get “firsties” on Iran Election crisis news, then successfully blaming the band Hoobastank for it. Or exiling Pitbull to a Wal-Mart in Kodiak, Alaska. But now it’s a grownup place, and we all grew up. Mainly it’s basic stuff. Avoid cornball. Avoid clichéd joke formats. If you want to thread tweets, post a blog. Don’t tweet at the president like Keith Olbermann. You can be funny or right; try to be both, but if all else fails, be funny and not obvious. Live-Daily Showing the news might be easily viral, but it isn’t actually funny; it’s like confirmation bias with smirking added.
How has the internet & social media impacted your career? You’ve previously told me the story of your blog, but has Twitter led to any gigs?
When I started writing professionally, I had a tiny Twitter following, but I also had a blog with 300+ pieces on it and 300,000+ words that showed I was willing to work and take it seriously. Later, I had editors admit that they saw my Twitter as a traffic-driving bonus, but you still have to do the work. That can’t be gamed by riding viral trends or pairing a screenshot of a bad tweet with a screenshot of a tweet mocking it. Editors know that any hump can gather a five-figure following by clone-stamping political tweets that read like Seth Myers grinning at a punchline he hasn’t gotten to yet. Most of those people have one piece in them, and it is always the same: whatever the previous day’s consensus take was on something, but with “douchecovfefe” added.
Do you see yourself as having somewhat of an internet persona? If so, how different is this persona from your “real life” self?
I never thought I did. But one of the first things I hear when I meet people is usually, “You are much nicer than I expected,” which I think is a good lesson to anybody: online anger translates further and faster than anything else, and it makes people second-guess your sincerity. On a personal level, I’ve accidentally hurt colleagues’ feelings by not knowing how much the digital wall translated my being argumentative or critical into a blanket disrespect. I’ve apologized to a few and have more yet to go. On an audience level, I’ve always been sentimental, but some people always read it as mockingly ironic. One day I will tweet, “I just found out my mom died,” and 50 people will reply, “same.”
Have you ever been in the Pei Tunnels? Are you aware of any other New College secrets, legends, myths?
My favorite legend is one my writing partner Josh Harrold (c/0 1994?) and I came up with for our ‘zines: that Mobutu Sese Seko attended New College in the 1960s to study how best to practice imperialism and wrote a thesis called “Five Short Plays Written by Notorious African Dictator Mobute [sic] Sese Seko While He Was (Wow!) A New College Student” that we found on the secret fifth floor of the Jane Bancroft Cook Library. My second favorite one is the time Officer Vickers (RIP) banged on my door in Pei 104 and told me to tone down an impromptu Mardi Gras party because someone had screamed off the balcony at a passing trustee to “take off your pants” and someone at Sarasota International Airport apparently had called to complain about the volume at which we kept playing Los Fabulosos Cadillac’s “El Matador.”
Can you offer any advice to New College students entering into media/freelancing/the gig economy?
Don’t. I make less than a Florida high school teacher, and in exchange strangers threaten to rape my family. Nobody has figured out how to make money online in media, and every website that claims to is lying. The current media economy is a “take” economy, driven by people with low expertise writing shades of the consensus, atop a narrowing base of real reporting. This is how we get headlines like “Solange’s Tweets Problematizing ‘Stranger Things’ Are All Of The Feels,” while Vox publishes explainers on Palestine claiming there is a literal bridge between Gaza and the West Bank. But, if you’re determined, go local. Haunt city council meetings. Haunt your state representative. We desperately need to replace the institutional knowledge gutted by the destruction of local newspapers. It’s also the best way to learn the skills that trump the hot-take artist. When editors need someone to walk up Capitol Hill, they’ll pick the person who knows their congressman and district, not the person who dropped 2,500 words dunking on how a 30-year-old movie has retrograde politics.