On the Beauty of Uncertainty, Unknowing, and Being Wrong

A conversation with Flux Weekly Founder,
Isaac Fornarola

by Editor, Joyce Chen

To say that Isaac Fornarola, the founder of Flux Weekly, has a piercing clarity to his views on the world is a neutral statement — neither a positive nor a negative, but an is. I first met Isaac as a fellow grad student in The New School’s writing MFA program, and I remember with fondness exchanging a few words via email but never engaging in too much in-person conversation outside of a few quick “hi’s” and “hello’s” in the hallways and at events.

This was a loss on my part, because what I have come to find in my time getting to know Isaac (primarily via digital means) is a purity of thought — and a willingness to admit to uncertainty — that is difficult to come by these days. And, quite frankly, vibes quite perfectly with the kind of dialogue The Seventh Wave hopes to spark: Those between individuals who are open to owning up to their mutual unknowingness.

It is likely no surprise, then, that when Isaac announced that he was launching Flux Weekly in September 2015, founded on “the idea that everything, from our belief systems to our bodies, is in a state of continuous change,” I knew that he would be a brilliant brain to pick as a part of The Seventh Wave’s first class of side conversationalists.

Flux Weekly is rooted in the idea that polarized certainty — what Isaac calls “self-assured” writing — can stop conversations before they even have the chance to start. And so, the social news and culture site aims to undo that tendency by encouraging people to write about and engage with individuals and topics that they wouldn’t normally otherwise. And what better place to do that than online, at the intersection of so many ideas and voices?

Isaac and I chatted — still not in-person, but over the phone, cross-country — about Flux Weekly, what it means to moderate a digital dialogue, and the necessity and limitations of labels. That we were able to have such an engaging, wide-spanning conversation about all of these things without being in the same room has also made me, like Isaac, believe in the power of technology and the Internet once more. Below is a transcript of how our back-and-forth unfolded.

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THE SEVENTH WAVE: To kick things off, could you talk a little bit about the concept behind Flux and how you came up with the idea for the site? Was there a lightbulb moment, or was this something that you were sitting on for a while? And why the name Flux?

ISAAC FORNAROLA: That’s a great question — I had definitely been sitting on this idea for a while. I knew I wanted to do something with digital media, and digital news media in particular, and so I was always trying to think about what I had to offer, or what other writers I knew had to offer, in that realm. What I was particularly interested in was what kind of space there was to fill that wasn’t being filled already, and one thing I noticed was that a lot of what was out there on digital media or in cultural commentary was very adamant and self-assured. And I felt like that’s not really a reflection of how people actually are or how people actually think. So then I thought that maybe something I could do is to provide a space where other people, especially in their writing and dialogue with each other on the Internet, can change how they think or can evolve on what they think. I wanted to actually represent the processes that go down when we’re trying to work something out for ourselves. Then, I was trying to think of a word that could describe what I was thinking about and it ultimately came down to this idea that things are always in flux.

TSW: I love that. Because you’re right, so much of what’s out there is self-assured these days — and it’s funny, because if you have conversations one-on-one with another person, or in smaller groups, people are less sure of their opinions. Or, perhaps, are likely just more vocal about their uncertainties.

IF: Right. I feel like when people are comfortable with each other, they’re more honest about what they don’t know. Even in watching the [presidential] debates with friends, or talking about politics to friends, sometimes I’ll hit a point where I’m like, “Man, I don’t know. That’s a tough one.” And that’s perfectly acceptable. I think when you’re comfortable, you’re more likely to admit to those things, but our culture of digital media is always calling for these pieces that are really certain and 100 percent solid, so it’s hard to find representations of those [less certain] arguments.

TSW: You mentioned wanting to do something specifically digital because so much of what’s online right now is “self-assured” — or, essentially, people standing on soap boxes. So when you were creating Flux, then, how did you go about setting the tone that you’ve established for the site, one that’s welcoming and doesn’t demand expertise?

IF: I think a lot of it was who I reached out to. When I initially started Flux, I wanted to reach out to people I knew from all over, not just grad school or not just people who were involved in politics or not just certain cultural realms, but everybody that I knew. And I think trying to cast a wide net in terms of contributors is really what I’m after in terms of making people feel comfortable. But also — and I feel like this might sound like BS when I say it — but I really believe in the Internet. And I believe that cool things, that progress, is actually made on the Internet, and even if comment threads can seem super aggressive, I think there’s work being done there. When I was trying to think of a format, I loved the idea of doing something in print, because I just think it’s kind of an exciting, vintage thing to do at this point, but I also recognize that a lot of the conversations that I’m talking about do happen on the Internet. And I thought it would be interesting to have a blog platform or a website that would allow people the space to do that.

TSW: I like that idea of believing in the Internet. I mean, listen: How much of our time is spent online? If that’s where a lot of our time is spent, we do need to focus on what we’re saying on there, and how we’re acting on there, because ideally, our behaviors should match up to how we speak and act offline, IRL. You mentioned, say, with debates, reaching a point of admitted uncertainty in-person — do you think that reaching that point digitally, then, is just a matter of setting up the space and monitoring it, regulating it to make sure people are coming from the right place?

IF: It’s interesting that you bring that up, because that’s something that I’m still trying to navigate. From the back-end of the website, there’s an option for me to moderate the comments so I can, if I want to, approve each comment on each article, and I was thinking maybe that’s a way to go to have a gatekeeping process. But that’s also kind of weird to me because then it’s like I’m in charge of deciding what goes on the site and who gets to take part in the convo. I know a lot of other digital outlets have tried ranking systems for comments, and if someone feels like something is really well thought-out, then they get higher ranked. But I don’t know. I’m trying to navigate that and the thing that I keep coming back to is to try to make sure that I represent different kinds of contributors as equally as I can and hopefully, in doing that, Flux itself won’t have an editorial policy or political stance. I just think that if you can get enough people representing different points of view, nobody can get too mad, you know?

TSW: That is such a hard thing to navigate, because it’s almost a philosophical question in terms of, “Who am I to be saying yes, this comment can go and no, this one can’t?” If they all contribute to the dialogue, then who are we to censor them?

IF: Yeah, and especially since I’m just one person. I get these [notification] emails straight to my personal email and it seems kind of crazy for me to be in charge of that. I would rather have every comment on the site and then deal with issues as they happen rather than outright try to control it in that way.

TSW: That goes so well with the idea of Flux, that you can’t know exactly how this one comment will create a ripple effect or impact the dialogue. Have you run into any bigger issues so far in terms of people not having the right attitude toward the site or the content, or has it been mostly positive vibes and good feedback?

IF: It’s mostly been positive, which is great, and usually the people who are involved in reading a media blog like Flux are going to be interested in hearing different opinions, so I’m lucky in that the people who read Flux are usually well-intentioned. Maybe the one editorial issue that I ran into is that I have one friend that I used to work with who really wanted to — he’s a Libertarian — he really wanted to write a piece about second amendment rights and gun control, and he ended up being opposed to gun control. It was the first time that somebody had pitched something to me that I really disagreed with personally, and it was the first time that I had some personal turmoil about whether I should publish something. My first thought was, “What does it say about Flux if we publish this?”

I ended up saying no, but what helped was that he had two pitches, so I was able to focus on one over the other. I told him, “Maybe we can do something on this in the future.” This was around the time when all the gun violence was happening, it didn’t feel like it was the right time to run it. I would love to run a piece that’s really well thought-out and researched about second amendment rights, but I just thought that was not good, timing-wise.

TSW: I mean, hey, that’s your editorial call, and luckily he did have the second pitch to work with.

IF: Right. I wouldn’t have reached out to him if he wasn’t a smart guy whose opinion I valued, but yeah, it was kind of a tough call. The other big challenge with Flux is finding contributors, because people are definitely always wanting to tell you what they think about things, but they are less willing to tell you that they’re in flux or unsure about something, or that they’ve been wrong about something. I remember sending contributors an email with the message, “Hey, I’d love to run a piece about a time that you found out that you were wrong, or decided that you were wrong about something,” and I think I got two responses back. I mean, people don’t want to talk about the times when they were uncomfortable or unsure,s or the times when they were wrong or maybe not totally right. It’s been kind of a challenge in terms of finding a writer who will publicly state that they were once unsure.

TSW: In trying to get people to engage and get them to talk about things they’re not sure about, then, have you seen a pattern in terms of the people who are more comfortable sharing their uncertainties?

IF: Yeah, definitely. I have a friend who wrote a piece about being gay and visiting the Pope, and I was really interested in that — not only because I grew up queer, but also because I grew up Catholic, and that intersection is really interesting to me. I’ve had a lot of people who are really eager to talk about interesting intersections in their lives, but to get them to write about it is harder to come by than I initially thought. Obviously, as Flux’s net is cast wider, then we can have more reach, but it’s always easier to find people who want to say “This is what I think about this and this is why I think this way” — but to find people who are willing to publicly second-guess themselves is more difficult.

TSW: That’s fascinating.

IF: Yeah, it’s been a really eye-opening thing for me. Because also, when you start something like this, you’re pumped. You’re like, “Everybody’s gonna wanna write for this!” but it’s actually more of a personal call than I initially thought. I’m asking people to be a bit more invested in their pieces than other publications might be asking.

TSW: Yeah, definitely. Because it’s asking people to not just put their work out there, but to put themselves out there too. I think that’s kind of what you’re talking about, creating a safe zone where people can not only voice their opinions, but also voice their uncertainties. Are there certain kinds of topics or touch points that have really hit home for you, in terms of stories that you’ve published or pitches that you’ve worked with?

IF: I actually had a conservative friend who wrote about why he believes conservatives were wrong about the Syrian refugee crisis. And I just found it really compelling because it was the kind of piece that was reflective and willing to criticize his own beliefs and the beliefs of his own party. And to be perfectly honest, I would love to have more conservative writers, and get more educated, moderate viewpoints. I think most people, despite what the media wants us to believe, want to have a conversation, and that includes people across all political spectrums. And people want to talk about these things with each other, so I think it would be nice to feature some of those voices too.

Part of what was interesting to me was this idea of, “What does it meant to be a gay Republican?” Or any of these other intersections that we don’t usually see? In broader terms, it it had a lot to do with labels and the intersections of gender and sexuality and politics, which is linked to how we self-identify. For instance, the biggest shock to people about the whole Caitlyn Jenner thing wasn’t that she was trans but that she was conservative, you know? People were really up in arms about that and that has to do with identifying with more than one label. There are parts of us that don’t fit these connotations 100 percent no matter what we do, so I’m interested in labels because I’m interested in the idea of erasing them and whether or not that’s beneficial. I don’t know. I think it benefits people to identify themselves, but there are also drawbacks, because there are assumptions made about you and your beliefs and your politics and whatever else based on those labels.

TSW: I love that you’re so readily admitting that you’re not sure if it’s right to erase labels, or to have them, or whatever it is — why do you think people are so adamant about labeling and classifying people these days?

IF: I feel like identity has become such a big thing in our public eye right now, and I think that a lot of people, especially young people, feel a lot of pressure to put labels on themselves where they maybe wouldn’t normally. A lot of trans groups, or online trans message boards, oftentimes have young people who will post things like, “I woke up yesterday and I thought I was transsexual and today I’m not and today I’m actually asexual and I have tendencies toward X, Y, and Z.” And I think part of this might be a generational kind of thing, but before this was such a cultural phenomenon, I don’t remember there being such an external pressure to label yourself. Like, not that it isn’t beneficial to do so, but the pressure seems to be really anxiety-provoking for a lot of people. I don’t know. I guess if it helps people to label themselves or identify a certain way, then I think more power to them, but we definitely do put a lot of emphasis on that.

TSW: I know that the mission statement that you’d sent over detailed the three main principles of Flux, and one of them is visibility. I was wondering if you could tell me a little more about why that’s one of your three main guideposts.

IF: [Visibility] is really big part of the site — especially when I was coming up with the idea for Flux. Originally, I really wanted to provide a space for LGBTQ writers — not only because it’s something that I personally care about, but also because if there’s anybody that knows change, physical or emotional change, that would be people in the LGBTQ community. I also felt like we’ve been increasingly seeing a lot of writing that’s about that community, but we don’t have a ton of writing that’s actually done by members of that community, and that’s an issue. Visibility was my way of saying that I want to bring visibility to opposing viewpoints, but also to opposing people, people who brush up against establishments, because I want to feature actual writing from them instead of just about them.

TSW: I could not agree more. I feel like a lot of times, vying for visibility gets pushed to the wayside — it’s like, “let’s talk about X,Y, and Z topic,” but we then fail to go to that community directly. I mean, there are people within these communities who have thoughts and opinions that need to be heard, so I do love that that’s one of your driving points. And the other two — engagement and responsibility?

IF: So engagement is this idea that I really want readers to be involved with the site’s content. I feel like these days, especially now what with digital media, I’ll oftentimes see an article where if I feel like I’ll get the gist of the content from the headline alone, I’ll just move on. So I really wanted to make content that people could be engaged with, that had different points worth talking about in conversations that could be had outside of the article itself. And so I really wanted to find pieces and contributors that encouraged that. And as far as responsibility goes, what I realized is that when you’re trying to make something successful, it’s easy to fall into the mindset of, “Well, what’s Facebook’s algorithms for how successful a post is?” and things like that. I know for a fact that most digital media does that — and does it successfully, because in a lot of ways, you’d be stupid not to. But I guess for me, I wanted to make sure I was responsible and I wanted to be a publication that wasn’t publishing things just for the sake of getting clicks or getting traffic.

TSW: Right, not a site full of clickbait.

IF: Yeah, I just want to avoid doing that. I mean, to a certain extent, obviously, you have to promote your stuff the best that you can, but at the same time, I think the biggest thing is to get a young readership to stay on your page for a long period of time. And for me, as soon as I see a publication run something like that, even though I might not stop reading that publication altogether, I’ll have it in the back of my mind. To me, it’s like, “Yeah, this is the same publication that ran that clickbait story,” and I just didn’t want to become another one of those sites.

TSW: No, definitely. And in terms of having the kinds of pieces and posts that are engaging to readers, what are the biggest things that would help promote engagement for Flux?

IF: For me, the biggest thing that I want to do in the next year is I want to come up with an interesting discussion platform. So right now, we have a lot of open-blog platforms like Medium or a lot of discussion platforms and comment threads, but I would like to find something that’s unique to Flux that allows people to be in dialogue with each other and to be in dialogue with the piece. I haven’t quite figured out what that looks like yet, but I think that discussion is the biggest thing, and then finding a cool or original way to facilitate that will follow, whether that’s having live conversations between people or designing something that features discussion.

TSW: That’s fascinating, and such a great way to approach this amorphous idea of talking about the things that make us uncomfortable. Like say, for instance, privilege. People are so often afraid to talk about it because there isn’t a safe space created to discuss the issue freely and without judgment.

IF: Right, right. And that’s not to say that the people who are calling attention to privilege are going about it the wrong way or that people are reacting the wrong way. It’s just to say that it’s important to acknowledge our privilege in certain areas, and I think a way to do that is to realize that they’re intersectional. And it’s not an admonishment, it’s more of a call to everybody to help out people who might not have certain advantages. It’s not like accusing people of having a free ride — nobody’s saying that, really. It’s more like, instead of thinking, “Oh this is getting too heated!” and cooling off, to actually push past that and get somewhere through the uncomfortable process of discovery.

TSW: I really really like that. The idea that these topics can be interpreted and dealt with in so many ways depending upon how you focus on them or talk about them. I think that’s kind of a big thing I noticed with Flux, is that at no point does it feel like any of these pieces that are coming from a place of snobbishness and certainty. It’s very much an open space, and it’s great that you’ve created that.

IF: Im excited to see what happens with that space! And to backtrack a bit: I also wanted to mention that even though I had the idea to start a site for a couple of years, it wasn’t till I was teaching at The New School last year that something clicked. I had my students write interview profiles of people, and this one student was like, “Can I do two people?” and I was like “Well, why?” and she said, “I’m dating a guy who’s here, he’s an immigrant, but he doesn’t have legal status, and my brother is an adamant immigration reform guy. Really wants to close the borders.“ She said she’d love to put them in conversation with each other, because they’re always seeing each other anyway at family functions. To me, this idea that two people could have such vastly different beliefs about something that so gravely affects at least one of the parties in the discussion, and that they can share their thoughts to each other, to family, and have conversations — that to me was kind of an inspiring moment. I think that’s a really powerful thing. It’s just cool what comes from student papers sometimes. Grading can be the worst, but then you get something that’s just so cool and inspiring and it makes it all worth it.

 

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