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Abe Beamehates you with a passion.

The Follow is an interview series I plan on putting out occasionally, or frequently, or maybe never again, in which I basically just talk to the people I enjoy following online who are willing to talk to me for a while. It will be about what they come to Twitter for, how they cultivate their online personas, the things they feel passionate enough to contribute to the infinite discourse on this app, and why they feel the need to do it. And on a basic level, it will be two people on Zoom shooting the shit.

In May of 2010, the dearly departed culture blog The Awl, pubished an article entitled “Gun Battle Rages As Jamaican Government Attempts to Arrest Aptronymic Drug Lord.” Written by the also dearly departed editor and writer Dave Bry, the article briefly outlined the attempt to extradite a powerful kingpin named Chistopher ‘Dudes’ Coke. At the bottom of the post, an addendum now reads: “Willy Staley of the Bay Area rap site Nation of Thizzlam alerts us to the fact that there already is a rap album named after Coke and co. It’s from the duo Jacka and Husalah, and it came out in 2006. Proving that the Shower Posse has been notorious for a long time.”

To me, this at once explains the specific brilliance, curiosity, and odds-defying career trajectory of one of the all-time greatest posters, Willy Staley. It figures to go down in history as the one of the most important corrections that a New York Times Magazine story editor will ever have to their credit, and eternal testament to the foresight of the Killa Whale from the Fillmore District.

Willy is the increasingly rare case of a journalist who writes with literary flair and a novelist’s specificity. I spent a good deal of time leading up to our interview reading his old pieces – a forensic footprint that tells a story of internet journalism through the 2010s, with stops at The Awl, Complex, The Fader, Nextcity, and the New York Times. However, what first drew my attention and continues to sustain it, is his uncommon gift for posting.

When I first joined Twitter during the pandemic, out of a mix of depression and boredom, I didn’t really understand what the platform was or how it functioned. Before logging on, I thought that it was people complaining about customer service at the airport and chronicling their lunch orders. What became immediately apparent, and I suppose always should have been, was that Tweeting is an art form. It rewards an economy that I’ve sadly never had, as anyone who has ever edited me can tell you. My drafts are a series of long, rambling sentences that always exceed allotted word count. But Twitter is a medium where a graceful and thoughtful writer can make the most of its limitations.

I’ve been turning this over in my head for years now, but pulling from his recent feed at random, here’s an example of what I think he does so well:

I’m going to do something that Willy will absolutely hate and in detail, attempt to seriously analyze this short throwaway Tweet about the dumb HBO sex play, The Idol. It’s classic Willy: an interesting and extremely funny idea wrapped in a glib delivery that makes it impossible to tell how seriously we should take the critique. Beyond the message of the Tweet, the quality in his writing that always draws me to his posts is present here. There’s a kind of breath-like naturalism in the use of punctuation, the comma, the word choice. There’s always an unexpected zag in a Willy post. He rarely repeats himself or uses conventional phrasing. When discussing writers, we default to using the word “voice”, but Willy posts in a way that you can hear out loud.

His title is story editor for the New York Times Magazine but as a writer, functions as a critic-at-large. His interests are skating, Bay Area rap, and street parking in Brooklyn, but more than anything else, he is a student of the internet, a terminally online McLuhan filing sprawling, thoughtful, research heavy explorations of what feels like phenomena he has gleaned from his timeline: The proliferate misuse and appropriation of the term gentrification, the sudden en masse return to the HBO prestige drama The Sopranos, the unpredictable and sporadic release schedule of the McDonalds special pork sandwich, the McRib, whatever the f*ck the Try Guys are, and perhaps his masterpiece, a deep dive on Twitter itself in the age of Musk.

What sets Willy apart is that he explores these questions with stunning depth and clarity from a structural perspective. He gets at their systemic root causes by taking a macro lens to them. He threads the needle of writing with the sociological authority of a pointy headed “Theory Guy” – in language that is accessible to literal-minded dumbass bar argument humanities major types (*ahem*), chatty yet poetic, and extremely funny.

In his profile of fellow Bay Area native E-40, Willy wrote: “Technology has transformed the music industry in the way it has transformed so many industries: the barriers to entry are gone, but there seem to be fewer winners, the spoils accruing to the few at the expense of the many.” It was a prescient forecast of where his own eventual field was headed. But he has become one of the few winners of this era in which the spout of journalistic opportunity has narrowed to a trickle. I was around during The Blog Era we’ve spent much of the last few weeks discussing thanks to the Rosenthals, and never put together that (sadly taken down) Nation of Thizzlam, a rap blog dedicated to the still hyper-niche Bay Area scene, and a mainstay on every blogroll during that era, was authored by Willy, his brother, and a friend from college.

Throughout his 20s, Willy worked odd jobs in journalism and hospitality, casting about for a purpose until the aforementioned McRib piece made him a viral phenomenon. Eventually, he landed at the New York Times.

As such, Willy is “one of us.” His career trajectory dangles the once-Cinderella promise of the internet: the dewy-eyed Nora Ephron treatment of what media in the Twitter age could be if you’re just good and special enough. That the dumb little essay you’ve been obsessing over for weeks intended for some “publication” with a small but influential readership will hit big, go wide, get in front of the right eyes, and you will be chosen, plucked from obscurity to become a real life Alger protagonist.

But that, of course, is bullshit. With just a bare crack in the door, Willy had to prove his utility both as a writer and an editor. Over time, he proved to the right people that he was worthy of the final call-up to the Charming Castle of journalism (No doubt buoyed by his facility as a poster with a knack for zeitgeist-tapping virality).

I’d always been interested in asking him about his experience, both online and in his professional life. For Willy, it can be difficult to differentiate those two aspects of his digital footprint, which is the exact point of this series. So after months of pestering him, Willy generously agreed to sit with me over Zoom to discuss many things, but primarily the role Twitter has played in his life, and what it still means.

(Author’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed to make me sound like less of an asshole)

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