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Jan. 23, 2019, 9:55 a.m.

With tech’s reality a little too dystopian, The Verge is turning to science fiction for inspiration

And turning away a bit from Facebook video: “Our video lives on YouTube. We’re going to program for the YouTube audience.”

Maybe you cringe when you see breaking news on (or about) Twitter, or flee from Facebook Portals, or can only imagine each dystopian news cycle drawing us closer to The Handmaid’s Tale. If so, try thinking of tech as a tool that can replicate you to keep your dog company after you die, or that can open-source a rocket ship to escape the charred Earth for Jovian Europa. Nice, pleasant thoughts.

These are two storylines of the 11 The Verge is releasing over January and February as part of its Better Worlds project. It’s an attempt to brighten up their coverage of the dismal real world and push for science fiction that inspires. It’s the seven-year-old site’s first steps into fiction, and it’s planting the series across all its regular distributed platforms — but with less of a focus on Facebook.

“The reality of doing journalism around science and engineering right now is there’s a bunch of fun stuff — but there’s also a bunch of pretty negative stuff,” Nilay Patel, The Verge’s editor-in-chief, told me. (Recently departed culture editor Laura Hudson came up with the initial idea last spring.) “We’re trying to strike a balance where we’re showing people as much opportunity, the democratization of culture, innovation as we are [showing that] ‘Hey, Facebook should get its shit together.'”

In other words, if you can’t report positive news, maybe kick in some fiction to cheer folks up! (Just kidding?) The Verge is trying to intersperse Star Trek-level sci-fi encouragement among its reporting on, say, whether Nest cams are being hacked to transmit fake nuclear bomb threats. (They’re not.) Here’s an snippet from Justina Ireland’s piece:

Luis runs off, and Carlinda turns back to me. “This was always the plan, Mimi. The game is rigged, and we all knew that as soon as a few people found out this was happening, they were going to come down. Hard. And that’s what we wanted. Sure, getting people to Europa is great, but disrupting the entire system? Turning their tricks against them? That’s the real way we win.”

The buzz of drones comes from overhead, and she looks up. “It’s the media. Right on time. You’d better run, Mimi. You got a ship to fly.” And then she darts off into the crowd.

“We didn’t want something that was Pollyanna and didn’t want to glaze something over,” Helen Havlak, The Verge’s editorial director, said, also highlighting their goal to commission from authors with diverse perspectives on science fiction. “We asked writers to come up with stories that presented conflict but with the possibility for tech and science to make the world better and a glimpse of a better future. And we saw great response from the authors on that premise because they too have been in the zone of ‘dystopian fiction has been what’s getting optioned for TV’.”

The fiction project is one way to refresh the feeds of followers who may be getting burnt out of Facebook data privacy explainers or the government shutdown’s (still ongoing!) impact on the future of science — and of course to harness new readers coming through the fan followings of writers like John Scalzi and Leigh Alexander.

A lot of that audience is coming from YouTube and Instagram Stories, not necessarily Facebook — a twist for The Verge, which leaned on its Circuit Breaker spinoff for high Facebook engagement. Each story is published in full in the Better Worlds section on the site with an author Q&A and either a video animation or an audiobook making the piece more vivid. But now — as the industry recuperates from Facebook’s failed pivot-to-video promises and faulty metrics — they’ve pushed off from Facebook a little more.

Video strategy on and off Facebook was the nut Patel was trying to crack in 2016. He told Nieman Lab then: “The biggest challenge, the hardest one, has been our video strategy: why we make videos, who we make videos for, what kind of stories we want to tell with video, what platforms the videos belong on.”

But videos on Circuit Breaker, The Verge’s spinoff gadget blog-as-a-Facebook-page, were taking off. A little more than two years ago, Circuit Breaker views on Facebook — with 500,000 followers — were neck and neck with views from 2 million followers on YouTube. By 2019, the tech dystopia has shown that Facebook is not social video heaven. In its first 36 hours, the video for John Scalzi’s piece got more than 35,000 views on YouTube compared to 14,000 on Facebook.

“A lot of the grueling questions in 2016 of video on the internet we just answered and said: Our video lives on YouTube. We’re going to program for the YouTube audience,” Patel told me. “We solved the main thing that made this a challenge, which was where does this live and what does our community look like. We made the call, and now after two years of investment in that decision, we’re able to spread out a little more.”

Havlak also noted that Instagram stories has brought a surprising amount of engagement to the series so far, and the team is planning Reddit AMAs with the authors as well.

This project wasn’t cheap for The Verge, which is also coming off building a house with Vox Media sister site Curbed. Boeing sponsored Ireland’s “Theory of Flight” piece, though the months-long process consumed Havlak, Hudson, and design director William Joel, Havlak and Patel said, with help from others on The Verge’s staff. But the spread of engagement might mean more fiction in the future — no matter how dystopian that future may look.

POSTED     Jan. 23, 2019, 9:55 a.m.
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