An Interview with journalist Isaac Fornarola
November 18, 2019
Interviewed by Joyce Chen, TSW Executive Director
Flux Weekly was rooted in the idea that polarized certainty — what Founder Isaac Fornarola calls “self-assured” writing — can stop conversations before they even have the chance to start. And so, the social news and culture site aims to undo that tendency by encouraging people to write about and engage with individuals and topics that they wouldn’t normally otherwise. And what better place to do that than online, at the intersection of so many ideas and voices?
Flux Weekly, which launched in September 2015, was founded on the idea that everything, from “our belief systems to our bodies, is in a state of continuous change.” And so, we’re forced to accept, as sad as we may be, that Flux Weekly has since closed its door in winter of 2016 (at the time of our conversation with Isaac, Flux was roughly 6 months into publication). But the mission, passion, and foundation to Flux lives on within Isaac, a journalist, digital media strategist, and reporter in New York City. Though this interview is dated, the content is timeless: here, we talk with Isaac about what it means to moderate a digital dialogue, and the necessity and limitations of labels. That we were able to have such an engaging, wide-spanning conversation about all of these things without being in the same room has also made us, like Isaac, believe in the power of technology and the Internet once more.
Joyce Chen: What was the impetus for Flux and how you came up with the name?
Isaac Fornarola: I had been sitting on this idea for a while. I knew I wanted to do something with digital media, and digital news media in particular, and so I was always trying to think about what I had to offer, or what other writers I knew had to offer, in that realm.
What I was particularly interested in was what kind of space there was to fill that wasn’t being filled already, and one thing I noticed was that a lot of what was out there on digital media or in cultural commentary was very adamant and self-assured. And I felt like that’s not really a reflection of how people actually are or how people actually think. So then I thought that maybe something I could do is to provide a space where other people, especially in their writing and dialogue with each other on the Internet, can change how they think or can evolve on what they think. I wanted to actually represent the processes that go down when we’re trying to work something out for ourselves. Then, I was trying to think of a word that could describe what I was thinking about and it ultimately came down to this idea that things are always in flux.
When people are comfortable with each other, they’re more honest about what they don’t know. Even in watching the presidential debates with friends, or talking about politics to friends, sometimes I’ll hit a point where I’m like, “Man, I don’t know. That’s a tough one.” And that’s perfectly acceptable. I think when you’re comfortable, you’re more likely to admit to those things, but our culture of digital media is always calling for these pieces that are really certain and 100% solid, so it’s hard to find representations of those less certain arguments.
Joyce: How did you go about setting a tone that is not “self-assured,”, one that’s welcoming and doesn’t demand expertise?
Isaac: I think a lot of it was who I reached out to. When I initially started Flux, I wanted to reach out to people I knew from all over, not just grad school or not just people who were involved in politics or not just certain cultural realms, but everybody that I knew. And I think trying to cast a wide net in terms of contributors is really what I’m after in terms of making people feel comfortable.
But also — and I feel like this might sound like BS when I say it— but I really believe in the Internet. And I believe that cool things, that progress, is actually made on the Internet, and even if comment threads can seem super aggressive, I think there’s work being done there. When I was trying to think of a format, I loved the idea of doing something in print, because I just think it’s kind of an exciting, vintage thing to do at this point, but I also recognize that a lot of the conversations that I’m talking about do happen on the Internet. And I thought it would be interesting to have a blog platform or a website that would allow people the space to do that.
Joyce: Do you think that reaching that point of “admitted uncertainty” digitally, then, is just a matter of setting up the space and monitoring it, regulating it to make sure people are coming from the right place?
Isaac: It’s interesting that you bring that up, because that’s something that I’m still trying to navigate. From the back-end of the website, there’s an option for me to moderate the comments so I can, if I want to, approve each comment on each article, and I was thinking maybe that’s a way to go to have a gatekeeping process.
That’s also kind of weird to me because then it’s like I’m in charge of deciding what goes on the site and who gets to take part in the convo. I know a lot of other digital outlets have tried ranking systems for comments, and if someone feels like something is really well thought-out, then they get higher ranked. But I don’t know. I’m trying to navigate that and the thing that I keep coming back to is to try to make sure that I represent different kinds of contributors as equally as I can and hopefully, in doing that, Flux itself won’t have an editorial policy or political stance. I just think that if you can get enough people representing different points of view, nobody can get too mad, you know?
Especially since I’m just one person. I get these notification emails straight to my personal email and it seems kind of crazy for me to be in charge of that. I would rather have every comment on the site and then deal with issues as they happen rather than outright try to control it in that way.
Joyce: Have you run into any bigger issues so far in terms of people not having the right attitude toward the site or the content, or has it been mostly positive vibes and good feedback?
Isaac: It’s mostly been positive, which is great, and usually the people who are involved in reading a media blog like Flux are going to be interested in hearing different opinions, so I’m lucky in that the people who read Flux are usually well-intentioned.
Maybe the one editorial issue that I ran into is that I have one friend that I used to work with who really wanted to — he’s a Libertarian — he really wanted to write a piece about second amendment rights and gun control, and he ended up being opposed to gun control. It was the first time that somebody had pitched something to me that I really disagreed with personally, and it was the first time that I had some personal turmoil about whether I should publish something. My first thought was, “What does it say about Flux if we publish this?”
I ended up saying no, but what helped was that he had two pitches, so I was able to focus on one over the other. I told him, “Maybe we can do something on this in the future.” This was around the time when all the gun violence was happening, and it didn’t feel like it was the right time to run it. I would love to run a piece that’s really well thought-out and researched about second amendment rights, but I just thought that was not good, timing-wise.
I wouldn’t have reached out to him if he wasn’t a smart guy whose opinion I valued, but it was kind of a tough call. The other big challenge with Flux is finding contributors, because people are definitely always wanting to tell you what they think about things, but they are less willing to tell you that they’re in flux or unsure about something, or that they’ve been wrong about something. I remember sending contributors an email with the message, “Hey, I’d love to run a piece about a time that you found out that you were wrong, or decided that you were wrong about something,” and I think I got two responses back. I mean, people don’t want to talk about the times when they were uncomfortable or unsure, or the times when they were wrong or maybe not totally right. It’s been kind of a challenge in terms of finding a writer who will publicly state that they were once unsure.
Joyce: In trying to get people to engage and get them to talk about things they’re not sure about, then, have you seen a pattern in terms of the people who are more comfortable sharing their uncertainties?
Isaac: Definitely. I have a friend who wrote a piece about being gay and visiting the Pope, and I was really interested in that, not only because I grew up queer, but also because I grew up Catholic, and that intersection is really interesting to me. I’ve had a lot of people who are really eager to talk about interesting intersections in their lives, but to get them to write about it is harder to come by than I initially thought. Obviously, as Flux’s net is cast wider, then we can have more reach, but it’s always easier to find people who want to say “This is what I think about this and this is why I think this way” — but to find people who are willing to publicly second-guess themselves is more difficult.
It’s been a really eye-opening thing for me. Because also, when you start something like this, you’re pumped. You’re like, “Everybody’s gonna wanna write for this!” But it’s actually more of a personal call than I initially thought. I’m asking people to be a bit more invested in their pieces than other publications might be asking.
Joyce: Are there certain kinds of topics or touch points that have really hit home for you, in terms of stories that you’ve published or pitches that you’ve worked with?
Isaac: I actually had a conservative friend who wrote about why he believes conservatives were wrong about the Syrian refugee crisis. And I just found it really compelling because it was the kind of piece that was reflective and willing to criticize his own beliefs and the beliefs of his own party. And to be perfectly honest, I would love to have more conservative writers, and get more educated, moderate viewpoints. I think most people, despite what the media wants us to believe, want to have a conversation, and that includes people across all political spectrums. And people want to talk about these things with each other, so I think it would be nice to feature some of those voices too.
Part of what was interesting to me was this idea of, “What does it meant to be a gay Republican?” Or any of these other intersections that we don’t usually see. In broader terms, it it had a lot to do with labels and the intersections of gender and sexuality and politics, which is linked to how we self-identify. For instance, the biggest shock to people about the whole Caitlyn Jenner thing wasn’t that she was trans but that she was conservative, you know? People were really up in arms about that and that has to do with identifying with more than one label. There are parts of us that don’t fit these connotations 100% no matter what we do, so I’m interested in labels because I’m interested in the idea of erasing them and whether or not that’s beneficial. I don’t know. I think it benefits people to identify themselves, but there are also drawbacks, because there are assumptions made about you and your beliefs and your politics and whatever else based on those labels.
Joyce: Why do you think people are so adamant about labeling and classifying people these days?
Isaac: I feel like identity has become such a big thing in our public eye right now, and I think that a lot of people, especially young people, feel a lot of pressure to put labels on themselves where they maybe wouldn’t normally. A lot of trans groups, or online trans message boards, oftentimes have young people who will post things like, “I woke up yesterday and I thought I was transsexual and today I’m not and today I’m actually asexual and I have tendencies toward X, Y, and Z.” And I think part of this might be a generational kind of thing, but before this was such a cultural phenomenon, I don’t remember there being such an external pressure to label yourself. Like, not that it isn’t beneficial to do so, but the pressure seems to be really anxiety-provoking for a lot of people. I don’t know. I guess if it helps people to label themselves or identify a certain way, then I think more power to them, but we definitely do put a lot of emphasis on that.
Joyce: One of the three main principles of the Flux is visibility. Can you tell us more about this?
Isaac: Visibility is really big part of the site, especially when I was coming up with the idea for Flux. Originally, I really wanted to provide a space for LGBTQ writers — not only because it’s something that I personally care about, but also because if there’s anybody that knows change, physical or emotional change, that would be people in the LGBTQ community. I also felt like we’ve been increasingly seeing a lot of writing that’s about that community, but we don’t have a ton of writing that’s actually done by members of that community, and that’s an issue. Visibility was my way of saying that I want to bring visibility to opposing viewpoints, but also to opposing people, people who brush up against establishments, because I want to feature actual writing from them instead of just about them.
Joyce: I could not agree more. How about the other two: engagement and responsibility?
Isaac: Engagement is this idea that I really want readers to be involved with the site’s content. I feel like these days, especially now what with digital media, I’ll oftentimes see an article where if I feel like I’ll get the gist of the content from the headline alone, I’ll just move on. So I really wanted to make content that people could be engaged with, that had different points worth talking about in conversations that could be had outside of the article itself. And so I really wanted to find pieces and contributors that encouraged that.
And as far as responsibility goes, what I realized is that when you’re trying to make something successful, it’s easy to fall into the mindset of, “Well, what’s Facebook’s algorithms for how successful a post is?” and things like that. I know for a fact that most digital media does that — and does it successfully, because in a lot of ways, you’d be stupid not to. But I guess for me, I wanted to make sure I was responsible and I wanted to be a publication that wasn’t publishing things just for the sake of getting clicks or getting traffic.
To a certain extent, obviously, you have to promote your stuff the best that you can, but at the same time, I think the biggest thing is to get a young readership to stay on your page for a long period of time. And for me, as soon as I see a publication run something like that, even though I might not stop reading that publication altogether, I’ll have it in the back of my mind. To me, it’s like, “Yeah, this is the same publication that ran that clickbait story,” and I just didn’t want to become another one of those sites.
And to backtrack a bit: I also wanted to mention that even though I had the idea to start a site for a couple of years, it wasn’t till I was teaching at The New School last year that something clicked. I had my students write interview profiles of people, and this one student was like, “Can I do two people?” and I was like “Well, why?” and she said, “I’m dating a guy who’s here, he’s an immigrant, but he doesn’t have legal status, and my brother is an adamant immigration reform guy. Really wants to close the borders.“ She said she’d love to put them in conversation with each other, because they’re always seeing each other anyway at family functions.
To me, this idea that two people could have such vastly different beliefs about something that so gravely affects at least one of the parties in the discussion, and that they can share their thoughts to each other, to family, and have conversations — that to me was kind of an inspiring moment. I think that’s a really powerful thing. It’s just cool what comes from student papers sometimes. Grading can be the worst, but then you get something that’s just so cool and inspiring and it makes it all worth it.