On this episode of
Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, Joanna Coles, the chief content officer at Hearst, talks about her new book, “Love Rules: How to Find a Real Relationship in a Digital World.” The conversation ranges from porn (Coles is for it, to an extent) to Snap (she’s a board member) to #MeToo to 9/11 and on.
You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
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Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode. You may know me as someone starting a fashion magazine for the Trump family — I think orange really is their color — but in my spare time I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media podcast network.
Today in the red chair is Joanna Coles, the chief content officer at Hearst Magazines. She previously was editor in chief of Cosmopolitan and is the author of a new book called “Love Rules: How to Find a Real Relationship in a Digital World
,” which is right up my alley. The last time I interviewed her onstage at Code Media
in 2017, she turned the tables on me and tried to interview me, and came up with a sex position called Swisher, was it?
Joanna Coles: It was. It was called the Swisher.
Yes. We’ll see how far you can get today, Joanna. Welcome to Recode Decode.
I think you have to be athletic to be able to perform the Swisher.
Yes you do, yes you do.
That’s all I’m saying.
Yes, you do, you have to do a lot of SoulCycle and a lot of stretchy bendy things.
Yeah, you’ve got to stay flexible in all ways.
Thank you for updating this discussion.
And I want to reassure people that the chair really is red.
Because they haven’t seen the studio here, which is rather fancy.
No, it’s not rather fancy.
It’s quite fancy.
It’s not fancy.
It’s a dining room table and there’s bits of old food in the corner of it.
Yeah, that’s exactly ... that’s my food, I didn’t get to eat it all. Joanna, we’re talking about your book.
Now look, you were ... last time I interviewed you, besides you discussing sex positions with me, which I — the only time I’ve turned red onstage — you were also running Cosmopolitan at the time. You had not moved to your lofty position. So let’s give a little background of you for the people, because the people tuning in may not know who you are, although everybody in New York does. Give us a quick bio of Joanna Coles.
Well, I started in journalism, my first magazine I developed when I was 10, I sent it round to the neighbors, I also sent it to the Queen of England.
What was it called?
It was called Your Choice. Of course there was no choice in whether or not you received it. I actually conceived of junk mail. My father would laboriously photocopy it, deliver it to our neighbors with me. I sent it to the Queen, and to my astonishment ...
What was it about? What was the theme?
It was my random jottings at the age of 10 with my great friend who lived next door. The two of us did it together, and it was our observations on street life where we lived.
Which was where? I’m guessing ...
It was in the north of England.
There was no street life, so we were very ahead of our time and able to write about nothing. In fact, we were precursors to the web. Then the Queen’s lady in waiting wrote back and said she’d very much, her Majesty had very much enjoyed reading it and was looking forward to further copies, which obviously, that was the start of my career.
I needed no further encouragement, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
So the Queen is still enjoying your work. I know you’ve sent a copy of this to her because she needs some help with her ...
I should send a copy. You know where I should send it to, the new British Minister of Loneliness.
Right, we’re going to get to that.
Britain has just appointed a Minister of Loneliness.
I saw that. We’re going to get to that idea because they are some of the themes in your book here. So you then went on from your 10-year-old success ...
Well, I knew I always wanted to be a journalist because I wanted an excuse — not unlike you, Kara — to ask people questions. I’m just super nosy, I love trying to understand what’s going on. So I was a journalist, I worked for the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian. The Guardian eventually posted me to New York where I moved 20 years ago and I had the astonishingly good job of being able to wander across America at will, writing about interesting people I came across and following stories. Then when I had my ...
You wrote really substantive pieces about ... really great pieces.
Well, there was a lot going on. I had the good fortune to start at the beginning of the sort of process ... of Monica Lewinsky and the impeachment process, and what that meant for America politics. And really, I could write about anything, business, politics, American life ...
What was your favorite subject?
There are stories that stood out to me, and one of course was the British nanny story who was accused of manslaughter, of killing a child who’d been in her care. It was a fascinating story because it was a working mother, a doctor married to an Indian, they were living just outside Boston, and it felt like everything in the moment that was yuppie in America at that time, following on from “30something,” coalesced in this story about this girl who was working for not very much money, looking after their child. And it raised everybody’s anxieties over across a variety ...
Yeah, about working parents, about the difficulty of finding great childcare, about young girls being put in positions they really had no experience and weren’t ready for, about the American justice system. It was an astonishing story, it went on for what felt like a long time. She was sentenced to 25 years, and then in an extraordinary judgment, Hiller Zobel, the judge, gave her time served. She spent nearly a year in jail waiting for her trial and he let her go.
And it was the most extraordinary moment, even being in the courtroom, I remember when she was sentenced and she collapsed at being sentenced and was gasping and hyperventilating and crying and weeping, and her parents who’d come over from Britain were crying and weeping, because obviously this was the last thing they’d expected when they sent their daughter on this adventure to be an au pair in America, which in Europe is sold as this incredibly exciting opportunity for young women. And here she was in the worst possible situation, 25 years in an American jail.
And then of course, you had the terrible plight of the parents who’d lost their child and it was unclear quite what had happened. The brilliant lawyering of Barry Scheck, who pointed out that the child could have been hurt in other ways, for the Innocence Project, and so that was really the first story I ended up covering and it was so layered and so fascinating and so sad in all ways. But it was a brilliant start to what became my total love affair with America.
I didn’t want to go back to Britain. I had the opportunity to go back and follow Tony Blair and sort of be what we call the sketch writer, where you’re writing about the Prime Minister every day. And I just suddenly thought, no, my business with America is not yet done, here I am, it’s very hard to get rid of me.
You married and stayed and you wanted to stay because you liked the country, presumably. There’s lots of expats here from Britain.
Although I didn’t hang out with British people, particularly, not because I don’t like them, but I spent a lot of time hanging out with British people in Britain. What for me was exciting about America was just this extraordinary, complex, difficult, fascinating country, and Britain can feel very small. London in particular feels small because everything happens there, so you have publishing, politics, you have finance, everything in Britain happens in London. And if you’ve lived there as I had and worked there for 13 years, I was ready for new pastures. And also the New York media loves British people. I’m not entirely sure why, but we seem to thrive there.
We like the British, we like the accent.
If only I had known that, I would have come so much earlier.
It remains charming. So you stayed here and then you worked, you moved to ...
I had my second child — I have two sons like you — and I realized with the second son, I could no longer cover stories at the drop of a hat and just travel, as I had been doing. And something had to give and it was really me, it wasn’t the job’s fault, my life had just changed and we no longer jibed. So I moved into magazines thinking that it would be better for me to have more control over my schedule, which is in fact what happened.
I’m always mindful of, I get asked a lot by young women, how do you have any balance? And I always reassure them there’s zero balance, they will never have balance, it’s the wrong question, you have to embrace the chaos. But also that the more senior you become, the more control you have over your schedule, and the more money you have, which really helps, and the more choices you get.
And so you moved up to editing.
I joined New York Magazine and I then became the editor of Marie Claire magazine, which was enormous fun.
Did you have a fashion background?
I had covered fashion a little bit for the London Times, so I’d been to the shows and written about the shows and I wasn’t intimidated by fashion. I was curious about it, and also fashion designers are incredibly interesting people, and the ones that managed to marry creativity with commerce are exceptional people. They absolutely are in New York, a bit like the Valley tech entrepreneurs, because they’re able to do these two things really cleverly.
So I was very interested in the fashion community. I’m interested in what I wear. I’m fascinated by the semiotics of clothes, so it was a great job, and Marie Claire has a lot of really good journalism about women. And it’s underplayed and undervalued. A little bit more valued now, but at the time it was enormous fun to be able to get serious pieces in the magazine.
And so you did that and then you moved to ...
Cosmo in 2012, the sort of bible of American women.
Did you come after Helen Gurley Brown or was there an editor ...
There was an editor in between, Kate White, who did a fantastic job for 15 years. When I got there, I was really fascinated by Helen’s legacy and by happenstance she died the weekend before I got the job, so suddenly the obituary columns were full of her. I went back and I read all her books. I went back and looked at what she’d done with the magazine when she reinvented it in 1965. And it’s easy ... In her last few years, she became politically sort of incorrect in not a great way, but she truly was the great editor of the 20th century. Every contemporary magazine — Vanity Fair, Cosmo now — all owe an enormous debt to the way she reinvented the consumer magazine.
Her and Diana Vreeland, right?
Helen produced something that made a phenomenal amount of money and spoke to women in a way they had never been spoken to before.
When they offered you that job at Hearst, what was your thinking?
I immediately suggested five other people that would be able to do it better than I could, which is always my response when anybody offers me a job, actually. I can immediately think of lots of reasons why I shouldn’t do it, which I think is a depressingly female response, probably.
I went and looked at it and I thought, “Oh, I’m not quite sure I can do this,” because I still felt it wasn’t quite modern enough, but then when I talked to them about it, they said, “Well, we want you to remake it, we want not to rethink it.” And so that’s what I was able to do. When Helen reinvented the magazine, she started in 1965, the same year as the FDA approved the pill, which changed everything for women.
And when I got there, I had the opportunity to read “Lean In” and I knew that it was going to be a big book and I could tell that there was a new ... Sheryl Sandberg’s book about why there were no women in leadership, it’s such a fundamental point that nobody had really glommed onto, and she put the research together and it became this extraordinary document of our times. And I sort of realized there was going to be a new feminist reawakening, which we were able to really start addressing the minute I arrived.
And which you changed, but you kept a lot of it, you did the saucy thing, you did the ...
I do like a little bit of sauce.
You like a lot of saucy, you kept there the sense of it.
We kept the idea that love and relationships are incredibly important in a woman’s life, at the center of it, but what we did do is pivot away from how a woman should please a man to how a woman should please herself.
“Thin thighs in 30 days” and things like that.
Yeah, but more importantly sort of how to set his thighs on fire. We wanted you to set your own thighs on fire. We pivoted it more so it became about women putting themselves more centrally, rather than servicing a man. And we also became more inclusive.
What year was this?
This was 2012.
So this is after the internet age started and obviously you’re running a magazine which was already showing strains, magazines were already showing strains. How did you think about that? Because I want to get into why you wrote the book. You’re talking about relationships in the book, it’s the same, the concept of changing things, and people used to get their cues from magazines about love and sex and how they should behave in a relationship.
What was exciting about the digital age for us in terms of magazines was that suddenly we could get a much bigger audience for Cosmo, so we suddenly sort of blossomed and expanded and we were able to really put our foot to the pedal in terms of marrying Cosmo as a digital brand, not just a print brand. We set up a series of conferences that were about empowering young women and really the concept of empowering women was just beginning to bubble under. And we were able to really explore that.
And unlike a lot of magazines, one of the magazine editors, you were not afraid of the internet. I met so many and they were so afraid, they didn’t embrace it.
Why would you be afraid of something which connects you to your readers? First of all, the most exciting thing was addressing readers’ complaints on Twitter. Suddenly you were hearing back from people in real time about what they thought about the magazine. And then the frustrating part of being a monthly editor is you only get to do it 12 times a year, so it’s this over ... slightly or it can feel slightly overwrought as this thing that you’re birthing every month, whereas the web has this wonderfully sort of slapdash, let’s get it out, let’s join the conversation moment, and I’ve never been afraid of joining the conversation. I’ve always enjoyed it.
And I think Brits are adversarial, our culture is adversarial, our politics are adversarial, the way of proving yourself as a good employee in Britain is to argue with your boss, it’s actually rather different from here. The first time I got into the American workforce, I remember someone pulling me aside after six weeks and saying, “Why do you keep doing this?” And I was like, “What am I doing?” They’re like, “You argue all the time,” and I thought, “Oh God, that’s what I thought you were supposed to do.” And in fact actually it turns out a lot of bosses don’t want to be argued with.
But to me it felt like the opening of the door and letting people in to talk to you about what you were trying to do and you would learn so much from them.
And so when you were moving this, the magazine, you got more and more interested in digital issues and how it affects everything. Was that the impetus for this book?
What I loved was ... There are two things. What I loved was the ability to then be able to talk to readers on a daily and hourly basis, so you went from monthly to ... at Hearst, we call it from months to moments, but as an editor I was thinking about it in terms of, I want to be your best friend. Cosmo has the reputation for being the big sister that you can ask questions you don’t want to discuss with your mom and your friends don’t quite know the answers to. But your older sister or your older cousin is going to be the sympathetic woman at your ... A bit like having Kara next to you.
I don’t have any advice to give anybody.
I don’t believe that. But I wanted people to feel like they could have Cosmo, this older sister, with them at all times, in their pocket, and you could ask her things and she would be there and she would have a point of view on things that were going on in the culture, be it about Kardashians or Stormy Daniels or whatever, that Cosmo would have a point of view. And so being allowed to do that on a daily, hourly basis felt incredibly exciting, and also meant that young women were sort of propelled to have a conversation in the center of the conversation.
So did the magazine become the center then? Or not the center?
I think it became a really powerful voice for young women.
So a brand around that could be anywhere.
It suddenly meant young women were being heard in the larger conversation, whereas before their voices have been largely excluded.
Or you just talk down to them, essentially.
I don’t think we ever talked down to them. I think finally the web allowed people who had been silenced to have a voice, that’s one of the wonderful things about it. Now, of course, it also amplifies voices that you don’t want to be heard, but the good news is it allowed a whole generation of young women who had something to say to be heard.
So you then move to become chief of content. What is that?
We have 300 magazines globally at Hearst and I wanted to rethink the way we were making content. We were making it in a way that magazines have been made for 25 years, which felt old-fashioned, given suddenly all the tech tools we had at our disposal. And I wanted to think about, now the world is much faster and what’s happening in China impacts what’s happening here, and we can have the same global conversation.
Why were we doing magazines so specifically aimed at local audiences? Was the opportunity to do an English-speaking version of Cosmo, as opposed to a different Cosmo with a different team in every country? And as the world gets closer, we’ve been internally reorganizing to allow us to be able to do that.
How does the magazine business look now from your perspective? Hearst got most of its money from ESPN and A&E and now those are troubled, those are more troubled assets than they were. What does the magazine landscape look like going forward?
I wouldn’t say there were troubled, I’d say there were challenges and they were going through disruption like many other businesses, but as we know from all sorts of businesses, you can come out much stronger. I think the magazine and print looks pretty exciting, actually, given the break in trust of a lot of content online. And I do think — and I will certainly talk about this in regards to the book — but we’re in this moment that I call post-digital euphoria, where our excitement over these devices and all the promises that they gave us of creating a frictionless life, we now know the upsides, but we’re beginning to appreciate the downsides.
And I know and you know from your own behavior that the longer you spend on your device scrolling through, yes, you can get better informed and it certainly allows you to stay on top of what’s happening right now in the moment, but it can also leave you feeling listless and jangly and edgy. If you can bear the panic of disconnecting from it and putting it down and picking up a magazine or picking up a book, it is so much more restorative and you can follow a narrative. And if you can focus your concentration span on something for half an hour, you know that you learn more than you do ...
And I read a fascinating statistic that the Statue of Liberty is 304 feet tall, which is exactly the amount — the average amount — of content that people scroll through on Facebook once a day. You know you can’t read that much content a day.
“Scroll through” is a good way to put it.
You’re just sort of aimlessly drifting through it to stay connected. And I understand it’s very compelling to want to be connected at all times, but it’s also incredibly empowering to disconnect, sit down and actually read and learn something.
I think that’s a perfect segue — when we get back — into this book, because you were talking about what has happened to love in this jangly ... post ...
I think of it as post-digital euphoria.
That sounds like a sex thing.
We should create a position for that.
It’s called sleeping. We’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsor, we will be back with Hearst executive Joanna Coles, who’s written a book called “Love Rules: How to Find a Real Relationship in a Digital World.”
We’re back with Joanna Coles, she has a new book, she’s a big executive at Hearst and she ran Cosmopolitan.
You are. I’m not sure what you do, but still, I don’t know what anybody at the top of these magazine companies do, but you have a book called “Love Rules: How to Find a Real Relationship in a Digital World.” So talk about the impetus for the book. Was it from running Cosmo you got this idea, or what?
There were two reasons I wrote the book. One was that I had spent a lot of time with young women. Over the years at Cosmo and Marie Claire, I talked to hundreds of young women. I was often going on college campuses. I was at women’s conferences and I became aware that although a lot of these women felt that they were really beginning to achieve in the workplace, they were disappointed in their relationships, they were having difficulties figuring out how to have a 50/50 relationship. And they were frustrated. They felt that the ubiquity of porn on devices meant that they were competing with porn, and that while digital apps are a great way of meeting people and extending your social network, they can also make people using them feel interchangeable.
You are interchangeable.
You are interchangeable, which doesn’t mean you can’t meet someone on it. I don’t want people to think this is an anti-digital book, it’s absolutely not, but it’s looking at the disadvantages of digital and how can we do a workaround, really, especially where love is concerned.
Because love is — besides your genetics and your DNA — the most important ingredient as an indicator of whether or not you will live a long and happy life. It’s who you love and who loves you back, and people with strong social networks in real life live longer lives and are more satisfied. And we mentioned earlier that Britain has just appointed its first Minister for Loneliness because they’re saying that loneliness and isolation in Britain in particular is now at epidemic levels and they need to address it.
And loneliness brought about by online, correct?
What’s interesting about being online is that it’s very easy to think that you’re communicating with people and that the value of that communication is somehow the same as sitting down with someone in real life and having a chat or having dinner with them, and of course it’s not. You don’t get the same levels of satisfaction. I worry that for a generation that spends an enormous amount of time online, it’s easy to become a voyeur of other people’s lives and stop participating in your own life.
That’s a normal observational we’re talking about with online, with this tech addiction, and that you don’t ... Let’s talk specifically about love. Now the bone I do have to pick with you and this book is it’s all around food. I don’t like food ...
I call it a diet book for love. My analogy is ...
I hate ladies and food.
You may hate it, [but] women spend an enormous amount of time thinking about food, and I wanted to compare the idea of food and love, because they’re both so incredibly important, you can’t live without them. One can get obsessed about both, and just as there is junk food that can make you obese and leave you feeling crappy, so there are junk relationships, and it’s easy to get caught up in a junk relationship with toxic people, just in the way that you can get addicted to junk food.
And I felt there were certain analogies there. I think of dating apps as being a little bit like Costco, full of options, but you really need to head straight for the fresh produce aisle, otherwise you’ll end up with a cart of stuff that you think you want, and then you get it home and none of this goes together, none of it fits.
So you have a bunch of rules. You start off, establish your ideal love weight. Explain that to me.
That’s really about trying to figure out what do you want. I ask people to do quite a lot of work on their selves in this book and try and figure out what you want, and one of the interesting things that I think people aren’t always honest about is what they’re looking for. And I remember talking to someone and I said, “Well, who is your perfect man, what is the kind of man?” She said, “I really want to meet Kevin Costner.” It was just not going to happen.
And sometimes I think when you spend a lot of time online, it’s easy to sort of fantasize about breaking the connection and getting to meet someone who, frankly, was never going to be interested in her, and so it’s really about ... and if you’re on a diet, people go on diets and they say, I’m going to lose 30 pounds by Friday, and I’m just not going to eat anything, and then of course the next day, you’re completely out of whack, you’re stuffing yourself with everything you can get your hands on. And it’s like, no, slow and steady wins the race, just cut out the fries, cut out the chips and you’ll get to the place you want to get to, but you have to be realistic about it. That was the point about set a realistic love weight.
But online just encourages, you said clear out your cupboards, sweep the fridge, another one was don’t eat, detox, reset your metabolism.
One of the things about being online is it’s hard to forget people, so it’s very easy to stalk an ex, it’s very easy to follow what people are doing, it’s almost impossible to forget them. They crop up on other friends’ social feeds, so it’s this sense of you’ve got to try and get rid of the toxic people in your life to make way for people that may be healthier. And in the way that a good balanced diet will actually sustain you over the long haul, you want a good balanced diet of friends and lovers that are going to keep you satisfied and sustain you.
So how do you do that?
And when I say lovers, I don’t mean all at the same time.
I know you do. We’re in San Francisco, Joanna.
Is that more relaxed?
You can date a goat. Don’t knock it.
On my 40th birthday, I went to see a play called “Who Is Sylvia?” which was about a man who fell in love with a goat, it depressed me even more than being a 40. I came back and I was like, what was that about, that was not good. It was Edward Albee and it was how I spent my 40th birthday, thank God it got better from there. What was I thinking? And I still don’t understand the metaphor of the goat.
We were talking about this idea, but how do you establish that online, because I think everything that it’s designed to do is not to make connections, it’s to make something else.
The key thing to do with dating apps is to get off the app and to get into real life as fast as you can. Here’s one of the things that I found most interesting about what people have been doing, and I heard a lot of complaints from women about it, was that when you get a match, you immediately go into the next phase, which is flirty text exchanges. And they can go on for weeks without people ever speaking on the phone, or without people meeting in the flesh.
And when they do eventually meet in the flesh, one of the things I heard repeatedly from men and women was that you would meet this person that you’d have this flirty exchange with that you thought you knew, they came in, they didn’t look at all like you expected them to look, because you’d filled them with positive attributes over this kind of weird spectral exchange, and then one or the other would frequently say, “Oh, hi, oh, it’s great to meet you, look, I think we can both tell this isn’t going to work. I don’t want to waste your time, it’s been great.” And off they went. And you then spent a month wasted, fantasizing about who this person i, and that you might really get on when you eventually meet. It’s such a waste of time.
So too much texting.
If you think there’s a connection there, you should certainly have a phone call to figure out whether or not it’s worth taking it to the next level of meeting them in real life, but the idea that this sort of flirtatious exchange is worth anything until you’ve actually met them, it’s not worth anything.
I think text is demonic for relationships.
I think it’s very useful if you’re in a relationship and you want to say you’re five minutes late on the bus, but I think as a method of communication, it falls so short, it’s comical.
I think people don’t ever see it ... I’ve had the worst discussions on text in any of the relationships ... all kinds, friendships, anything. You end up getting in a very different frame of mind. But all of these things do encourage that, they encourage too much selection, too much choice, too much everything, and then you feel dehumanized in a lot of ways.
You feel dehumanized and also it takes you away from the work that’s involved in creating a real relationship, which is about the awkward stuff of talking to someone, of establishing eye contact, of talking over each other, of trying to figure out if you find each other attractive. And the idea that you can tell if you find someone attractive by an online exchange is ridiculous. You need to have all five senses in play to figure out whether or not you want to see this person again.
It is the way most people are meeting.
It’s a way a lot of people are meeting and that’s great. And if you look through the New York Times, you’ll see the wedding announcements, you’ll see that many people now, I think a quarter on Sunday when I was checking, had met on dating apps. They can be incredibly useful, but if you swipe, have an exchange and then think you’ve met the one, you are going to be sorely disappointed.
They’re brilliant, though, for extending your social network, and the question you should be asking when you meet someone offline for the first time is not, “Is he the one? Am I the one for him?” or, “Am I the one for her?” It’s, “Can I add this person to my actual network, could they be a friend, could I introduce someone else to them, do I want to see them again?” But don’t sit there thinking, “Is this the one?”
But these things do suggest that, these apps, do you think the design of the apps is a problem? Or the gamification of them?
I do think that Mary Aiken, who I quote extensively in the book and who is a brilliant cyber psychologist, talks about the fact that the web — as you’ve talked about many times — is designed by men for men. I do like the Bumble app because it allows women to make the first move.
And another repeated complaint you hear from people is that the minute you have a match or the minute you’re on one of these dating apps, you’re treated to a deluge of dick pics and videos with guys masturbating and crying your name. And note to the men, this is not sexy behavior, this is threatening behavior, it’s bullying behavior, it’s designed to make the recipient feel embarrassed or ashamed or awkward or revolted. Why are people doing this? It doesn’t work. If you send a dick pic to someone, the woman is very unlikely to respond.
How do we redesign these in that way to create ... because a lot of it again is gamification, that you swipe through people. I was looking at this young woman friend of mine who was doing it and it just was ... like you get drawn into it. I felt sick to my stomach that I got drawn into it and I’m thinking, treating people like they don’t exist.
They’re interchangeable and reduced to a photograph.
You immediately made all these leaps that was not like me to do, but then I just did.
I just think you can’t imbue it with more power than it has. It’s an introductory tool, it’s an arrow in your quiver, it’s not the solution itself.
To many men it is. Like, many men can do that all night long.
Women can do that too, but I think that what you can’t expect is the dating app itself to have the right algorithm. You have to figure out the kind of people you think you’re going to want to meet, the people with whom you will have something in common. The dating app can’t do that for you, it can simply act as an introductory tool. And actually one of my favorite stories is a couple that met on Bumble. Whitney Wolfe Herd, who is also a co-founder of Tinder, interestingly.
She had to fight to get that title.
That’s right, and settled with a sex discrimination suit against them and then set up on her own, initially because she was so appalled by hostility online that there was and set up a social network which was designed to give compliments, and then it morphed into the dating site that is Bumble.
But there’s a great story she has of a couple that actually lived in the same building. He would come out of the door, turn left in the mornings, half an hour later, she would come out of the door and turn right. They met on Bumble, they now live in the same apartment building in the same apartment. That’s a wonderful way that a dating app can bring you together with somebody, but it can’t do the work of finding the relationship and finding the one, you have to do that yourself by taking it offline.
Do you think we’re training a group of young people to think that it does? All joking aside, my son met one of his first dates on Snap, which I thought was awful. And of course when they met it was a very different experience than online.
I’m thrilled of course that they met ... no, I think it’s fine to use them as tools to meet people, but don’t think that it’s any more than that. We can’t imbue it with a magic.
No, it doesn’t have a magic, but I have to say most of the communications with his friends and people he’s going to date are on Snap or talking ... or it’s all digital, they have digital discussions. It is like being on the phone all night, they do put video up and they clearly are interacting as real people, but it’s all digitally ... it’s a photograph and then a filter on it and then a funny ... that’s how they ...
Communicating with Snap is different to communicating with different platforms, and it’s much less perfect, you’re not striving for this terrific thing, the thing is designed to disappear on you. It’s really like the telephone of the 1970s, when I would go home off the school bus and immediately call my friend and say, “What the hell’s going on?” And she’d say, “Nothing, it’s 25 yards away from your house and we’ve just been talking to each other.”
So I understand the need and the excitement around communication. What we mustn’t lose sight of is the importance of communicating in real life by talking on the phone and actually listening to people, by having eye contact, and there isn’t a boss in the country that hasn’t said, “I can’t believe you texted me, you’re working in the next cubicle.” There isn’t a spouse who hasn’t screamed at their spouse to put the phone down, and there definitely isn’t a parent who hasn’t screamed at their kids to put the phone away.
And so we’re all screaming out for, I think, more attention, more human attention, and that’s really what the book is about, how to create that.
One of the things you do talk about is the addiction level of it. It’s a really interesting issue because it’s hard to ... it’s not just love relationships, it’s all relationships in terms of how you interact. At my other son’s birthday party, I made them all put their phones in the middle of the table, which was met with quite a lot of problems.
You have to have the ability to put the phone down, you can set a timer and you can say I’m going to be on this for half an hour, and then I’m going to walk around for half an hour or I’m going to go outside. And I think we have to encourage people to get out there and join things and join clubs, join choirs, join sports teams, join amateur dramatics clubs, and remind people of the value of teamwork with sports teams or putting on a play and the fun of actually hanging around with people and getting to know people and forming groups with people and doing things.
There’s this whole idea now that it’s fun for people to sort of Netflix and chill in the evening, and you think, how depressing to sit on your sofa watching other people do things when you could be out there doing things. And I really do think that it’s impacted a generation of women in particular, who are beginning to sound as if they’re lacking agency, and I think that’s because we’re spending a lot of our time living slightly once-removed.
So one of the things you talked about in the food thing is stick to your natural sugars, porn is like chewing gum. I want to talk about porn, you and I have talked about this a lot. I do agree, I think there’s something really malevolent about the rise of casual porn, I don’t know how to put it.
It’s the ubiquity of porn. It’s really astonishing at this stage, and they say up to 60 percent of the web is used for porn. And I’m not anti porn. I’m anti porn as our default sex education. Only 13 states across the whole of the U.S. mandate medically accurate information about how babies are born at school. So you have a ton of states where this isn’t even mandatory and porn becomes the default sex education for kids, it’s where they learn about sex.
And of course, porn is developed for two reasons. It’s developed to get men off, but also it’s developed around the camera angle. And we know that what works for the camera doesn’t necessarily work for women in real life.
A lot of the women I talked to complained that they felt they were competing with porn because if they didn’t put out, men would just go back and log into Pornhub. And that men expected them to behave like porn stars and so they wanted them to look like porn stars, so no pubic hair and they wanted them to moan and say the things that porn stars say. And a lot of that is really cliches and it nearly always involves the man at the center of things. And I just heard relentless complaints from women about how are they supposed to handle this.
And again, it goes back to communication. I think one of the things that dating apps has allowed people to do is to meet much more frequently, it sets up the expectation of hookups, and of course it’s difficult to have good sex with strangers, especially if you’ve not had ... if you’ve had very little communication beforehand. Good sex is about good communication, it’s very difficult to have good sex with someone you barely know.
And so a lot of women were drinking through it, and then the men would want them to behave like porn stars and often there’s a sort of undercurrent of violence in a lot of porn you see. Women are expected to enjoy being flipped over and have their hair pulled and have anal sex on the first date, and this is all not the experience of women I was talking to.
Which is made readily available by online sites. It used to be hard to get porn.
It’s one click away on your phone. And one of the other things is that there’s an enormous amount of shame around porn, too, which we can come back to.
We’ll come back to that when we get back from a word from our sponsors. We’re talking with Joanna Coles. She has a new book out called “Love Rules” and it’s about dating in the new digital environment. I want to talk more about that, about the MeToo [movement], where MeToo is going, and also a little bit about Snap because she is on the board of Snap.
We’re here with Joanna Coles. She is the chief content officer at Hearst Magazines, but more importantly, she’s an author — or an auteur — “Love Rules: How to Find a Real Relationship in a Digital World.” Is that going to be increasingly hard to do? Bots are now coming, the idea of virtual reality, robots, not just bots, but actual possible cyborgs, things like that.
I do worry that the work it takes to create relationships is undervalued and that the real power of communication between people is becoming increasingly undervalued. And we live in a culture which encourages us to build up an army of followers and fans who are essentially anonymous to us and we think that if they like something that we’ve posted that that’s a gesture of friendship. Whereas of course it’s nothing of the sort.
True friendships are built over time, they are built because you have to listen to people and turn up and do the right thing when you don’t feel like doing it, and the value of those friendships, it’s very much like slow food. It’s much more valuable to one’s sense of well-being than someone anonymously retweeting you.
When you say you worry, because there are more technologies where you can continue to separate from each other and you have to cope with, in terms of meeting people. I’m not kidding about virtual reality, think about it, you could have a relationship with Kevin Costner. You were talking about the person who didn’t, you could have one.
That’s true, but you wouldn’t really be having a relationship with Kevin Costner. I think a lot of the tools that are happening now with virtual porn and things, why would you rather do that? Because real relationships are complicated, but they become even more complicated and communication is even harder the less you do it.
So where do you imagine the relationships going? You ran a magazine that was all about creating the best relationship you could have or giving people advice about that or feeling good about yourself. A lot of these technologies, it seems, even though they say they do make connections, really are deadening, some of them are. I have been addicted to nothing, but now I know I have a Twitter problem, in terms of like ... and realizing that it’s a waste of my time but not really totally because it gives a certain kind of pleasure in a way. Not a sexual pleasure but something, it’s appealing to something within me.
I think it’s about staying connected, feeling that you’re staying on top of things, that you know what’s going on, that you’re a part of something bigger. I think it’s very easy to use these devices to connect to people. And they do make it easier to connect to people, but they make it harder to get to know people.
I’m an optimist. I think that being in love is so exciting that hopefully people won’t forget how powerful it is, it’s what powered all the great art, all the great books are written about it, all the great music is about love and the time that you feel alive in your life and you don’t want people to lose sight of that.
I was listening to a fascinating interview the other day with someone who said that sex will eventually only be for fun and all babies will be created in labs, because it’s just much more satisfactory to do that. It’s a book by is someone Greeley from Stanford, I think, but a very interesting development.
I’m an optimist. I firmly believe that we’re in process of beginning to correct our over-reliance on digital. You see someone like Tristan Harris at the Center for Humane Technology, you know these conversations are beginning to happen, you have Tim Cook saying he doesn’t want his nephew to go on social media, you see that the leaders in Silicon Valley are beginning to wrestle with this stuff and you can only hope that the power of love, the power of human communication — one on one or in groups in real life — will eventually win out.
What are your worries when you think about that? Because you are saying how to find a real relationship in a digital world, there are some points where digital is more appealing.
Digital is easier, it’s easier to have a relationship with someone on the phone because you don’t have to turn up, you don’t have to do the work — and by phone, obviously, texting. And you don’t have to listen to someone in quite the same way, you can maintain control. But I think it’s incumbent on all of us to teach our children that you must have moments without your devices.
I worry that we’re losing the value or understanding the value of solitude, that there’s never any reason now to be bored. That being able to walk out across a field and not have anything in your sight feels very boring to be people, it doesn’t feel like it’s a liberating, exciting, creative thing to do. And it’s hard to see how people will become really creative if they’re cramming every waking moment with stuff that other people are doing.
What does it do to a current relationship? This book is about starting relationships and having a realistic way of meeting people, what about current love relationships and digital?
I’ve talked about women I think feeling that they’re competing with porn, and I think people feel that they’re competing, we’re in the attention economy and sometimes you don’t feel like being a hundred percent with someone because you’re tired, you’ve had a long day at work, you just want to sit and sort of relax or stare out the window. And of course, you’ve got this device which is promising you everything that’s much more exciting just a click away. I think it’s really challenging for people and I think we have to help people build behaviors around it where they feel okay being disconnected. Nothing’s going to happen to you if you put your phone down for half an hour. But you’re so terrified you’re going to miss something.
Let’s blame Trump for that.
We can blame him for many things. I don’t know if we can actually blame him, although it’s true that you wake up in the morning thinking, “Oh, what’s he done now?” But we also don’t need to follow every single tick of his behavior; we’ve been doing that for 18 months and it hasn’t got us very far.
So when you’re thinking about what of all the very different things — and then I want to go into MeToo — what is the most important advice in this idea of “Love Rules”?
I think the most important advice is get offline and get out into the real world and do things.
You’re channeling Arianna right now, aren’t you?
Her thing is go to sleep, so she would sleep through the whole thing. I say, no, you can sleep when you’re dead. No, I’m a big proponent of sleep. I think it’s very important, I was actually in the friends and family around on Thrive. But I’m a huge believer in getting out there and getting involved in life and doing things with other people, because that’s where you build relationships, which are the connective tissue between humans, it’s the stuff that’s important. And we all know this and yet we all fall for the seduction of the phone. It’s like we have this constant lover in our hands that’s demanding of us and delivering just enough that we can’t quite put it down.
It’s every toxic relationship you’ve ever had.
It couldn’t be more important to learn how to put it down and switch it off.
And what do you think is a good thing about it?
I think the fact that it can connect you to people. If you’re living in a small town somewhere in rural America ...
I was thinking gay, when Planet Out came out.
Absolutely, it’s a fantastic tool for connecting you, and if you live in a small town and your reliance on your best friend’s cousin turning up for some variety, then these are fantastic, they connect you to people you didn’t know were living parallel ... they give you a voice.
We’ve seen the extraordinary outpouring of support for gun safety and the kids in Parkland. They’re incredible devices, it’s just that the promise they were going to solve everything is clearly not true, and we’re now at the beginning of that understanding, that we have to be responsible for our own behavior around them.
So a plus or minus on relationships and phones?
It’s really tricky. I think a plus for connecting people but then a minus if you don’t put the device down.
I think a minus. Remember when you didn’t have to get back to people — like phone — until you got home?
I still don’t get back to people. And people forget. The good thing about these devices is people reach out and then they forget. If you don’t respond to them, they forget.
Nora Ephron had a great essay about this, like how she moved from email to text, how you just drop things off as you keep going.
And if they drop off the bottom of the screen, good-bye.
One of the things you did talk about was the toxicity of relationships and some of them have been in the workplace, a lot of this sexual harassment. Where are we right now?
I think we’re exhausted by it but we’re also freed by it. I think it’s been an incredibly liberating thing for a lot of women to realize how consistently badly they have been treated in the workplace. For a lot of women I think it’s a huge relief to learn that they weren’t the only one, and we sort of know this when we hear about yet another man that’s been caught, the patterns of behavior, the fact that it was never just one, it was eight, then it was 20, then it was 30.
I think it’s been very liberating. I do think we’re at a moment now where men are claiming that they’re scared, they don’t want to be seen with a woman on their own.
The Mike Pence thing.
He can only have lunch with mother, no one else is included. I’m curious about that, is that because Mike Pence thinks that he’s just rapacious and out of control and he’s going to jump you, so he has to have his wife there? I don’t understand what that’s about, it was a weird thing for him to say.
I think that’s it.
Very weird, but I think we’re at sort of a very liberating, exciting moment for women and we’re ready to sort of move on.
To working with men and women much more productively together. And I think if this says anything, it says the incredible importance of having more diversity in leadership and we know we are still woefully behind in that. And it’s really shocking, there are 55 — and I know you’re going to ask me which company it is and I can’t remember — but of the Fortune 500 companies, 55 of them are in New York City and only one of them is led by a woman. That’s astonishing in New York, which is a fabulous place to be a working woman.
So we’ve got a lot of work to do on diversity. And what I think was astonishing — and I’ve talked to Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey extensively, the journalists at the Times who got the Pulitzer for the Harvey Weinstein story — and they said when they set off on the story, people would say to them, “Oh goodness, everybody’s tried to do that story.” And they were like, “Yes, well, we’re going to get the story,” and they’re like, “You’ll never get the story.” And here’s the thing, everybody knows he does it, everybody knows.
So the sense that people knew this, it was somehow okay and they’d enabled it but somehow they could live with it, and that I think is going to end now and people are going to be much more apprehensive about behaving badly. And also people are on guard now.
There are lots of companies who have a mini Harvey in them, who’s a bully, and what this really comes down to is bullying in the culture. Harvey Weinstein didn’t just sexually abuse women, he bullied men too. Almost all these guys that have been brought down bullied everybody, they were equal opportunity bullies, nobody wanted to work with them, they just sort of figured out a way to work with them.
What was interesting I think in the Harvey Weinstein case is everyone knew pieces of it, but they couldn’t imagine the whole.
The whole was so egregious, no one could quite believe it.
People heard little stories but not enough of them and then when you assembled them together — and I was saying this earlier today at an event — it’s no mistake that it was a bunch of women at the Times and a gay man who wrote about this stuff. Which was Ronan Farrow.
Ronan Farrow in the New Yorker. But I think what’s interesting is that the women coming forward to talk about their stories wanted to talk to other women about them, so yes, male journalists absolutely tried to get this story.
I remember being at New York Magazine when David Carr, who went on to be media editor at the New York Times, wrote a long profile of Harvey and could sense some of these things that people had told him, but he wasn’t quite able to bring that story home. But the women wanted to talk to other women about it, they didn’t want to talk to men about it.
Once you get them as a group, it was really interesting.
All you need is one person to come forward and then other people come forward.
You’re on the board of a tech company, lots of guys at Snap, too many, not enough women in management positions there, and they’re not unusual, it’s all of them, it’s pretty much all of them. Why did you join a tech company? What was the perspective you were bringing? I don’t think you’re just coming as a woman, you’re also a media person, it has media elements. What is your role on a tech board?
I was thrilled to join the board of Snap because I was very excited about the Discover platform that has really become the de facto news platform for millennials. I had some incredibly interesting and very thought-provoking conversations with Evan Spiegel, one of the co-founders, and Nick Bell, who runs the Discover platform. And it was really about how important quality content was online, that there was so much bad stuff out there, so much stuff you couldn’t trust and how could they build a platform.
Snap actually curates and takes responsibility for it.
They’re huge believers in human editors and they wanted to use media brands that were trusted and had stood the test of time. So Hearst has seven brands on Snap, we’re absolutely thrilled with the level of connection you get with readers, so that’s why I joined, because it was very clear it was going to be a dominant force in our times. And I love it because it’s a fun medium. My kids, my teenagers use it, all their friends use it, and they’re always laughing when they’re on it, and the whole point is you’re not supposed to be perfect on Snap. It doesn’t mean to be curated to perfection, it’s a silly picture, you’re sticking your tongue out and then it disappears.
And yet it gets rolled over by Facebook. The constant monster truck of Facebook has impacted Snap.
We don’t think of it in those terms. I think that Snap is very much its own thing, we’re very fixed on what we’re doing, it’s very much opening a camera onto the world, it’s an aperture through which to see the world. And that’s really what we’re fixed on. And it’s very helpful to be in LA and not be caught up in the madness of Silicon Valley, which is very self referential.
Snap got beaten up since it went public, it’s gotten beaten up in the stock market, it’s gotten beaten up in growth things and right now is a moment where people are realizing maybe Facebook’s not the best solution for our country, in terms of communicating or whatever.
We’re at the beginning of all these companies and we’re trying to figure out the ways that the business model works with the ways that we actually use them.
And when you look at what happened last week with Facebook, how did you look at that, what did you think that was about?
I thought that was about how little our politicians understand tech and how complicated it is to be able to try and regulate these things. I came away still unclear what Facebook is from it. I think the existential question that they were all trying to understand was what is Facebook, and of course, what’s complicated — and I think perhaps the senators and the politicians haven’t fully recognized — was that each of their experiences of Facebook was different to another politician’s because you have a very personal connection with Facebook. And clearly they contract out their social media to younger members of their teams, and that became so apparent with the questions they were asking.
So what happens? Because it’s not a good moment for tech right now and Facebook’s just the example of it.
I think what the public probably wanted was some sort of reckoning, they wanted to see a young billionaire get beaten up by politicians for a massive breach of trust. And we’re seeing a company wrestling with how to rebuild that trust. We’re at such an interesting point in our culture in terms of trust, because half the country doesn’t trust the president, the other half doesn’t trust the media.
Trust is at an absolute crisis point. And who do you end up trusting? You don’t trust the banks, they brought about the world’s economic crisis. Kids don’t trust their colleges necessarily anymore because they think they’re being ripped off over student loans. And I think you end up believing in the people that you know and you’ve had relationships with, those are the people you trust. That’s where trust resides.
And so what happens then in that because it feels like things are careening apart, I think the last rule of this is ...
The rule is life is a feast, take your seat at the table, but it’s really about what happens ...
Life is a banquet, most poor suckers are starving.
I end the book reflecting on 9/11 and quoting Ian McEwan, actually, who had a wonderful essay. There are moments of poetry in the book.
But if you imagine a crisis in your life, who do you want there with you? Yesterday I was in ... well, actually, yesterday I was here in San Francisco and there was supposedly an earthquake. Now it was only 3.3 on the Richter scale but nevertheless, I was thinking about, well, what do you want in an earthquake? You don’t want a Facebook friend, you want an actual friend to cower under the table, under the stairs with you. That in the actual important moments in your life, you want to be supported and you want to support real people, not people that you think you have a connection with, who in fact you’re never going to meet.
Except we’re not often in earthquakes every day, you live a regular life.
That’s true, but when something like 9/11 happens, the thing that everybody wanted to know was who’s the person you were going to call? And I remember a friend of mine turning to me and saying, “One of the worst moments in my life was after 9/11, realizing I didn’t have anybody to call.”
Wow, that’s depressing.
I had some early readers who were very bright, smart young women and they all thought that note was a bit sort of gothic for them, but I think that people do think in terms of, “What’s important in your life? What are you going to give back? What are moments of great meaning?” And nearly always they involve real people.
The last part you said is find real role models.
Yes, I think this is really important, it’s completely underlooked as a ... I should say overlooked, completely, overlooked as a real source of value in relationships. Frequently, you go for job interviews and people say, “Who’s your role model?” I’m sure you’re always being asked who your role model is, I probably get that question once a week at this point.
Who is yours?
My role models are actually younger people who are coming up with great ideas and who are completely fearless. My role models are the kids at the school in Florida. I can’t believe what David, Emma Gonzalez have been through and I think they’re extraordinary, but in terms of relationships, you’re probably surrounded by people who’ve actually got great relationships and it’s worth asking them how they do it.
And in terms of romantic relationships, asking grandparents, asking aunts and uncles, asking parents of friends how they managed it, how did they navigate the lows, how did they get through the highs, and what are the tips that they have? And these are questions we don’t actually ask of each other, and yet they’re incredibly ... couples who’ve stayed together are incredibly useful resources.
Since you’ve been with your husband a long time, what’s your ...
We’ve been together ... We met in 1990, we had a fairly sort of tumultuous first two or three years, and then we’ve been married for 16 years.
Wow, so what’s your advice?
My advice is one day at a time. My parents have been married for 55 years, my husband’s parents were married for 55 years, and you’re much less likely to get divorced if your parents are still together. And I think what you’re looking for is couples that have great energy. I quote a couple in the book who started an argument while we were all having dinner, and then one of them turned to the other and said, BIC. It means “bollocking in car,” which means you’re going to take the ...
Explain bollocking to the non British ...
It means we’re going to shout at each other in the car later, i.e., we’re not going to do this in front of other people because you feel incredibly awkward when couples get to it in front of you. So I think that for me was a couple that, oh, that’s a good thing to do. I might have been tempted to argue in public, make everybody else feel awkward. No, just take it offline.
So to end ...
I’m just getting going. I wanted to go for another 90 minutes. Oh God, I can hear people rolling their eyes, groaning.
You are riveting, Joanna Coles.
I fear I’m not remotely riveting.
Of all these rules, which one’s the most important. Is there one?
I do think that the rule about the treadmill won’t start itself, climb on and press start, you’ve got to get out there and do this, you can’t sit whining that you want a relationship but not be prepared to put the work in. You’ll kiss a lot of frogs.
And you feel that people in the future will be more ... if they follow these rules, they will be happier.
They’ll definitely be happier, there’s no question. I want to remind people of the enormous fun of falling in love, of the fact that it makes you feel alive, it’s exciting, and that it’s so much more fun doing that than staying in hoping for a little drop of dopamine every time you get a little ring that you’ve got a notification or someone’s “Liked” something that you’ve done.
Love, love, love.
It’s all about love. Kara, I love you.
I love you too.
I love Recode.
I enjoy it very much and I love your Too Embarrassed to Ask, because I’m always too embarrassed to ask.
This week you might not like it, it’s on space.
Why wouldn’t I like space? I’m fascinated by space.
Do you want to go to Mars?
I would love to go to Mars but not right now. I’ve got a book tour to finish. I’d love to go to space, I’m just nervous that I would burn up on re-entry.
You would, that’s the whole point.
I can understand why people sign up to go to Mars.
Not Kara Swisher. She likes planet Earth, this big old mess that it is.
Going to space could be one of the things that I would approve of doing virtually, not in real life.
That’s perfect, so you’re going to send a copy of this ... and so you sent it to the Queen, is this going to go to Donald Trump?
I don’t think Donald Trump’s a reader.
We’ll have to settle for the Queen. She’s been married for 400 years.
She has. I think three of her kids or all four kids are divorced, no, three of her kids are divorced.
Do you think she uses online dating apps?
I don’t think she goes online. I think she’s like those politicians and she just contracts it all out, because actually the Queen’s got rather a good Twitter feed but it’s all done I think from palace officials. Possibly the same maid in waiting who sent me that lovely letter.
We’re getting a new princess, so exciting. An American princess.
Yep, that’s all good.
All right, Joanna, as usual it was great talking to you. I could talk to you all day, I really could, but you have to get to Los Santos and I have to get ... I don’t know where I’m going.
You’ve got to get home.
That’s right, and thank you for coming on the show.div id="newsletter-signup-short-form" data-newsletter-slug="recode_daily"">>
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