Leah Reich is a researcher, writer and occasional photographer in the East Bay. She works at Automatic, a startup based in San Francisco, conducting research about consumer behavior. Leah also writes first-person essays, creative nonfiction and art criticism on the side, and she has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Atlantic, the Bygone Bureau and elsewhere.
The Daily Californian: How about we start with you telling a little bit about yourself.
Leah: Sure. I’m from the East Coast, I grew up in Colorado in a tiny ski town. I moved to California to go to Berkeley. I got my bachelor’s degree in comparative literature and worked in San Francisco for a while. I moved back to the East Coast to get a master’s at Georgetown. I then went to Southern California and did my Ph.D. in sociology at UC Irvine. Came back to the Bay Area, and I now work at a startup called Automatic (not Automattic). I do a lot of research, and because I trained as an ethnographer, I do a lot of qualitative research. I interview people, get a better understanding of their needs, of the products they use. And I also write on the side.
DC: I know that one of your first post-college moves was working at the video game website IGN, and you had this “Ask Leah” advice column for video gamers. How’d you fall into that?
Leah: I was working in the video game industry, and I kind of fell into it because I was a comparative literature major and I didn’t really know what to do jobwise. I got a job in marketing and promptly learned that marketing was not my strong suit. This was in the mid-to-late-1990s, when a lot of sites were relying on affiliates to drive traffic, and so I was managing a lot of the affiliates and relationships and so on. They were a website produced by guys, mostly men, some women, but mostly guys into video games. So it wasn’t the most satisfying job, and I really, really, really wanted to be on the editorial side of things. I kind of transitioned over to doing a holiday game guide, and I was working on the IGN TV site and conducting interviews and stuff like that. When I was doing that, the readers found me on the masthead, and they were like, “There’s a girl!” I’m not kidding, they were like, “There’s a girl on the site at IGN! Who is she?” So I became this figure, and it was kind of a joke, and when you think back on it, you think it probably should not have been a joke, but at the time, it was a joke. Sometimes guys would joke about me being in the office. Because there’s a girl, and they said, “Can we talk to the girl?” I started the letters column when I was doing the gift guide, and I started a little column and chatting with them. Sort of a “What am I listening to?,” and they’d write me letters. And we’d just talk about stuff.
So I got the first email, and I looked at it, and I thought, “OK, I have a couple options here.” I can make fun of him, which was the tone of our site, or … I could rip him apart, like Dan Savage-style. Or … you know, he’s 15. He doesn’t have anyone to talk to. I could be nice to him. And maybe if I’m nice to him and I give him some useful advice, maybe he will take it and listen and be thoughtful. And this could tell him, going forward, that somebody cared enough about it. I remember thinking, “This is an opportunity someone has granted me.” So I looked at the question and pretty sincerely answered, “This is how you talk to a girl.” I don’t even remember what the question was specifically.
A couple of the guys wrote me back, saying, “You answered his question. You were really nice to him. Can we all write you questions?” And they wrote back to me.
DC: In the last six years, you’ve tweeted just over 40,000 times —
Leah: Which is not as bad as it sounds! I think there’s an inherent discomfort in Twitter that a lot of people don’t like to address. It’s my favorite thing, watching a lot of people on Saturday night, tweeting. It’s like you’re yelling into the void. Who is here? That’s one of the reason we like bots so much. You know, a bot will talk to you whenever. People are checking in on Foursquare — “Hey, I’m here. Is anyone else here?” You know, there’s that desire to connect, and it’s sort of weirdly lonely to me. I remember one night on Twitter, I was in the bath, I’d had a little bit to drink and I tweeted “DM (direct message) me your secrets.” And I actually had to respond to so many secrets that I got put in “Twitter jail” (when Twitter prevents your account from tweeting anymore because you’ve reached a limit); I couldn’t respond to any more. I think there’s a really deep, and sometimes I feel it, too, this desire to be simultaneously connected but be very out of place. I think it’s true of a lot of people, not everyone. It makes me feel so deeply human: I can’t handle all this interiority in other people’s lives.
DC: How do you mean?
Leah: Just thinking about the conversations everyone’s having and how do you think about those people just … How do you feel, is there a place where you can feel you can just be you? For some people, Twitter does that. Not for me. For me, Twitter is turned at just enough of an angle where I can say a lot of things I want to say but not everything. I think there is that hint of melancholy that still comes through. Because there are people who say, “I want to connect with you.”
DC: They’re just getting at the surface of it, like this melancholy is just around the corner. We get glimpses of it.
Leah: Right. And I think that I’m pretty honest, and I’m pretty much just me, but I also think i’m “me” in a way that’s performative. I’m never just like, “here’s how I feel” and then let it all loose.
DC: So it’s that it makes sense and it doesn’t at the same time.
Leah: Yeah, I think that’s the beauty of being on Twitter. And that’s why you can’t explain Twitter and what you should or shouldn’t do on Twitter. Either that clicks or it doesn’t, and that’s OK. Because sometimes those elements shift out of place for me, and it gets very disjointed. And there are days that I can’t do it, and I can’t talk with this many people or engage with them. And I have to say a thing and go away. I think there are also times when it’s just off-kilter enough that’s comfortable, and times when it comes together and I think about how everyone is really great. And then it slides back out of place.
Noah Kulwin is an associate editor of The Weekender.