Generation Flux: Baratunde Thurston

A look at Baratunde Thurston, the Director of Digital at The Onion, a Harvard philosophy major turned consultant turned standup comedian and author of How to Be Black. Flux to the core.

Baratunde Thurston had been up most of the night. When the New York City police descended on Zuccotti Park at 1 a.m. to roust the Occupy Wall Street crowd, Thurston—who is the digital director for The Onion—was called on to help cover the event. He was at home, in Brooklyn, but he didn't jump on the subway or into a taxi or onto a bicycle and hustle his way to lower Manhattan. Instead he fired up his computer. "I found the live streams of video from the site, so I could see what was going on. Then I monitored police scanners, to hear what they were saying. I looked at traditional news outlets and what Mayor Bloomberg's statements were, and then I accessed all my social media feeds, screening by zip code what people down there were saying. Some people who lived in the neighborhood were freaked out by helicopters flying overhead, shining floodlights into their windows. They had no idea what was going on, said it felt like a police action. Which it was, you know."

For three hours, Thurston pieced together what he was seeing and hearing, and rebroadcast it using digital channels and social media, capturing the unfolding event in depth. "I could never have seen all that if I'd actually gone down there. I had a better sense of what was happening and where the crowds were moving than the people on the ground."

Thurston calls himself "a politically active, technology-loving comedian from the future." He writes for the Onion, does standup comedy, has a terrific book coming out this month called How To Be Black, and does public speaking, using satire. "I was a computer programmer in high school, but I discovered I wasn't very good at it—it was too tedious," he says. "I was a philosophy major [at Harvard]. I did management consulting right out of school. But then I started doing comedy, and I love it. People say to me all the time, "What are you? You need to focus." Maybe so. But for now, this smorgasbord of activities is working."

Thurston is telling me all this over lunch at Delicatessen, a restaurant in Soho on the corner of Prince and Lafayette. "I'm the mayor of this corner on Foursquare, have been for like forever. Last night, the Occupy crowd actually walked by right here, and I tweeted them: That's my corner. Sorry I'm not there, I promise I'd be a better mayor for you than Bloomberg."

Thurston is not bashful. At 34, he's not a kid (though, he says, "I have the technological age of a 26-year-old"). And regarding the pace of change in our world: He's cheering it on. "You can knock on the doors of power, and make your case for access. That's the way it's usually done. Or you can be like Zuckerberg and build your own system around it. That's the way things are now. It's revolution."

There is no hint of nostalgia in Thurston, and that gives him an advantage. "I was talking to some documentary filmmakers at a conference, and they all just talk about loss, the loss of a model. I can empathize. But I'm not upset that model is dying. The milk man is dead, but we still drink milk, more of it than ever. Do we want to return to a world of just three broadcast channels or where five or six labels control the music industry?"

"It's irresponsible not to use the tools of the day," he charges. "People say, Oh, if I master Twitter, I've got it figured out. That's right, but it's also so wrong. If you master those things and stop, you're just going to get killed by the next thing. Flexibility of skills leads to flexibility of options. To see what you can't see coming, you've got to embrace larger principles."

Among those principles: "The uncertainty is the certainty. Change is the constant. Experimentation is rewarded. Stability is an impediment." So what are the important skills, given that environment? "To manage large amounts of information is super important," he says. "And the ability to tell a story is more important than ever. Coalition building is an important skill, the ability to connect. You can have a distinct edge if you can take advantage of community." Growing up, Thurston says, "I used online bulletin boards, hacked into libraries, I was using the web as it was being written, so I got an early understanding of how to leverage the platform. I'm not a very good programmer. Programming is very tedious. But everyone should try it."

He talks about a startup resource he uses, knod.es, which allows him to sift and manage all of his social media contacts and interactions, identifying the people who are most important to spreading his content. "In the old days, you'd need an army of administrative assistants to do that," he notes. He recalls being in Paris, getting ready for an event, "and I decided I wanted to rock a Windsor [knot on his tie]. I didn't know how to make one, I didn't have a father to teach me. But thanks to technology, I now have access to the whole world. I found a video online that stepped me through it, and I was ready to go."

Thurston's career path has been nontraditional, even as a comedian. "The comedy world has an established strategy for success: You do an HBO special, move into sitcoms and then movies. If I could get a big check from TV, that would be cool. But I'm not desperate for those things; I don't have a TV show. TV people want me to pick: You're a black comedian, or a political comedian, or you're a social media guy. 'You need something more stable, you need to fit into a category.' I'm comfortable with a lack of certainty. The way things used to be, you have to trim off something of yourself to be successful, to fit into a silo. Now you can build your own definition of you, you can maintain more of your integrity of yourself."

Thurston's book, How to Be Black, is an assault on nostalgia—a satirical, biographic attack on the idea that "blackness" or any label should be derived from historical description. "Blackness is what black people are doing, all of it. Thinking in the plural is the important part. I'm reacting to narrowness of ideas—You're not black enough, or too black—imposed by old-school storytellers. Identity has been an imposed structure. Media pours out terabytes of information about what being black is, and that's horrible."

Thurston's self-definition includes "political activist," but he has avoided joining the established process. "I could seek elective office, learn how to write a bill and manage lobbyists. 'I can be slightly less corrupt in your corrupt world.' Do I want to knock on that door? That's not how we have to get things done."

He sees two paths for the world ahead of us: "There's a heavy cost if we don't weather this transition well. If the political class doesn't prepare, if our education system doesn't prepare, if our corporate system doesn't prepare—that's a crime against the future." He's agitating for the second path: "Imagine a future where people are resistant to stasis, where they are used to speed. A world that slows down with fewer options, that's the old way and frustrating. Stimulus becomes the new normal. Grandma gets bored without her heads-up display glasses."

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danah boyd DJ Patil Baratunde Thurston Beth Comstock Pete Cashmore Raina Kumra Bob Greenberg

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1 Comments

  • Louis Byrd

    This is great!!! I too believe that people should embrace the future and technology.  I also believe that in order to be successful in this world, you have to focus on one skill set.  With access of so much knowledge and ability to connect with people all over the worl...why pigeon hold yourself? 

    Being flexible is key!!

    ~Louis Byrd
    Creative Herald
    The Nest: Multimedia Super-Vision
    http://thenestms.com