Sometimes, on his way to work, a feeling of pressure begins thumping in Paul Ford’s chest. His breaths shorten. They speed up. And sometimes, in those moments of extreme anxiety, Paul’s phone talks to him. It tells him everything that’s wrong with him.
Our theme song, and other songs from this episode, are by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder.
Our ad music is by Build Buildings.
Here’s Paul Ford’s very excellent blog.
And here’s the now-defunct Anxiety Box.
PJ: How many websites are you at at this point?
Paul Ford: So I’d say probably 10, that are my actual sites. And then a bunch of really dumb domains that I register when I’ve been drinking. I’m not really supposed to get anymore URLs.
PJ: From Gimlet, this is REPLY ALL, and I’m PJ Vogt. This is a show about the internet, and this week we’re talking to a man who makes websites. A man named Paul Ford. Paul gets websites like some people get tattoos. He pulled up the master list of all the domains he currently has registered.
Paul Ford: So let’s see. I have Leave Kitty Alone, because that’s the thing I say to my children all the time. So I was just like, “Well I’ll just register this.” I have one for my novel that didn’t sell very well. I have This Day in Anger dot com, which I reigstered a while ago. That’s about to expire if anybody wants it. Featurism.com, that was going to be a magazine about features. Oh! I registered TodayDidYou.com, I had no idea I owned that. That’s a good domain name.
PJ: Physical bookmarks or web bookmarks?
Paul Ford: Web bookmarks. So when you go to Safe Publishing it gives you a bookmarklette and you can apply it to any page and it finds all the tweetable sentences. So that way you don’t even have to read the article, you can just find the tweetable sentences and tweet that out. And I called it Safe Publishing because everyone else has a plan. Platishur.com, which is someone wrote an aritcle about how platforms and publishers were like, combining and then they wanted to call it a platishure, and I was like, “I’m going to get that domain name,” and if you go to it it’s just Snoop Dogg shaking his head no.
PJ: because the word’s so bad?
Paul Ford: Because that’s my world. I live in that world and I’m like, “I can’t have ten years of platisher,” so I’m like I gotta just, I had a nice website/web journal/magazine and it became called a blog. We’ve gotten used to that word, but it’s a terrible world.
PJ: Paul uses the web to solve his own personal problems. When he wanted to lose weight, he hand coded his own calorie counting website called One Huge Lesson in Humility. He gave his therapist a login so that he couldn’t cheat. Another thing he’’ll do is set Google calendar reminders for himself in the way off in the future, sometimes decades.
Paul Ford: Cause you know sometimes you’ll see someone make a weird career decision and they’re a little older than you, and you’ll go, “I never want to do that, that’s really bad.” And I’m like, well, I can schedule that. So it’ll pop up 30 years from now, and go, “Remember that it’s important to end things.” That’s all it says.
PJ: It’s a way to force Future Paul to heed the wisdom of Present Paul. Or Past Paul. Or whatever. I don’t know. It’s time travel. It’s confusing. But like all things time travel, the past can affect the future in terrible unanticipated ways.
Paul Ford: It’s a battle. My wife and I were having fertility issues, and a Google Calendar alarm popped up, because she subscribes to my calendar, and it said, “Think about having children!”
PJ: How old was that pop up?
Paul Ford: Like 5 years old. Before any of this. It was rough. It was rugged. She came in and said, “What the hell was this?” and I was like, “Ohhh. Sorry. Sorry.”
PJ: Maybe it’s not terribly surprising that someone who loses sleep trying to control decisions they expect to make in decades is also an anxious person. Paul has anxiety. It got so bad at one point that it was hard to take the train to work.
Paul Ford: That was a really big thing. To get on the train, and it’s really crowded and you’re just surrounded by bodies. My body and everything is pulsing, and I’m just like, the whole world will start to throb on the way into the city, and I would just go, “OK, this must be it. I wonder if I’m gonna die here. Here on this train right now.”
PJ: It wasn’t much better at home.
Paul Ford: I’m a dad. I got two little kids. Twins. Two little children screaming at home and they were making me worried, and in all the regular ways that kids make you worried, and I was not finishing a bunch of projects. I was feeling really at lose ends, and i was stressed, and I was anxious and overweight and terrified and I was just like holy shit. I gotta do better. And then the anxiety would be like, oh hey wow! I’m dying. No wait I’m covered in worms. No! I’m never going to get anyhting done. I’m a bad person, I’m a failure. I have a book deadline, Oh My God. Destory me! When will this end. I’m here, I better go upstairs. [MUSIC OUT BY NOW] I mean it’s the same little voice all the time. It’s like Basketcase, where a guy has a weird siamese twin in a basket in front of him, it’s just like a bad, gore-covered puppet that says evil things.
PJ: How does a man who solves his problems with websites solve the problem of crippling anxiety — you can guess– after the break.
PJ: Welcome back to Reply All. When we also left Paul, he was dealing with aparlzying anxiety.Paul decided what he needed to do about that anxiety was to treat it like an IT problem that needed troubleshooting.
Paul Ford: What is this weird force that is now running a chunk of my life and making me feel weird and bad all the time, even though externally everybody is telling me that things are good and I’m doing OK.
PJ: Was it a moment where you needed to do something about it, or was that living in the general, anxiety ocean.
Paul Ford: Well all my projects are like that, where I hit the wall and I’m like — I need to make a website. And so I went off and made this thing called anxiety box.
PJ: Anxiety box. A website built by Paul but run by a robot. Paul had this idea that we’re always outsourcing the good things to robots. Like our jobs. Why not give the robots the crappy things to do, like take over for the part of paul’s brain that was telling him nothing was going to be ok.
Paul Ford: So the way it works, if you look at the website, you go to the website and you put in your name and your email, and then you put in waht your anxiety is. And you can keep adding anxieties, and it saves all that to a database, and at 12x a day, but random, like random each day, but frequently, it sends you emails from your anxiety.
PJ: So now Paul’s anxiety had his email address. And it was using it.
Paul Ford: So like let’s imagine that I’m standing on the train and I’m about to go down into the train platform, and like, and I look at my phone and I have an e-mail and it’s the fifth email I’ve received that day and it’s from my anxiety. Here’s an email from June 2nd, in the afternoon. Here’s the subject. “History will forget you because history forgets people who are unable to finish anything.”
“Dear Paul, everyone’s really curious to see if you can finish your book. Is there anything you can do to keep this from being a total disaster? I don’t want to doubt you but inform me. Are you just going to screw this up? I mean the thing that matters is are you actually ready? Sincerely, Your anxiety.
PJ: and you made this to make yourself feel less anxious and better?
Paul Ford: Yes I wanted … I wanted to look at the robot.
PJ: The language of these emails was really important. Paul had given the bot a list of his anxieties, but he also gave it little sentence fragments to construct these emails from…the upshot is.. keep me in the loop! He had to give his robot the perfect voice — he wanted it to sound like a ruthlessly cheerful underminer. All throughout the day, his phone would ping and there’d be a new email waiting. While he was at work on his book. PING
Paul Ford: first insult
PJ: When he was watching his kids. PING
Paul Ford: another one
When he was out running errands PING
Paul Ford: SELF DESTRUCT BUTTON
PJ: Seeing the voice in his head written out — it seemed crazy that he had ever believed that what it was saying about him was true.
Paul Ford: It’s like SPAM. You look at Spam like, Viagara spelled 90 mill ways, or you’re gonna make a billion from this nigerian prince, the minute you see that you’re like NO.
Paul Ford: That’s crazy poison robots telling me this, and I don’t want anything to do with it. And let’s say you wanted a penis like the one in the ad, that would still be the wrong channel to make that decision. You wouldn’t be like oh my god! I always wanted one of those! And this email is fantastic, I’m gonna follow up.
PJ: Was there ever one that did knock you down.
Paul Ford: That’s the fantastic thing. You gotta acknowledge the good burn because it’s an effective burn. My anxiety is incredibly intelligent about identifying ways to make me feel bad about things, and using language to great effect. I am a word person, nothing sounds less literate than saying I’m a word person, but I wonder if your’e a musician if you’re anxiety is musical.
PJ: Right. because it has your strengths and it uses them against you.
Paul Ford: That’s exactly right.
PJ: I feel like having it in email lets you fight back against it.
Paul Ford: You can reply, right? I would reply and be like GO FUCK YOURSELF over and over. The ability to yell back at something, which i associate with being terrible on the Internet, because I can yell at the robot and tell it shut the FUCK UP.
PJ: Did it work?
Paul Ford: Yes. It was immediately effective. What it was was seeing it as a bot was really funny. It turns your entire emotional freakout into this relentless form of comedy. Yeah. It turns out that you’re not as important as you think, nowhere near as terrible, and actually fairly ridiculous. It’s so ridiculous to scream at yourself all day long, and yet there it was. There was the evidence. And it seeing it externalized as 20 messages in a gmail box, it was so much like what my brain was producing, I’ve been wasting so much time with this son of a bitch.
PJ: And do you feel like to physically feel better like when you would like get on a train, would you just feel calm.
Paul Ford: I calmed down a lot and I actually ended up like I had a little trick, where I’m like alright if I start to feel this way I’m going to take ten deep breaths and start to think about what my brain is saying to me, so on and so forth so like it’s just this reminder that like when you hear that voice you know who it is. And so instead of having those like those anxiety episodes on a regular basis I stopped having them for the most part. If you tell me I had to get on a Q train and go on in the city right now I wouldn’t be worried at all .
PJ: That’s crazy it’s crazy to think that anything ever gets solved.
Paul Ford: It is I think it doesn’t necessarily get solved you just get more aware of it. it’s still there. it’s still moving. it’s still part of me. I’m sure it’ll be there till I die. but it doesn’t have as much control.
PJ: Paul Ford is a kind of cyborg. He’s taken human parts of himself and replaced them with technology.But instead of Paul becoming less human, Paul’s humanity has just been slightly expanded — it lives in him, but pieces of live online, too. He’s happier for it.
PJ: REPLY ALL is hosted by Alex Goldman and me PJ Vogt. Our producer is Lina Misitizis. This week’s show was edited by Alex Blumberg and Starlee Kine. Matt Lieber is a keeps this place running. Our theme song and scoring is by the Mysterious BMC. Ad music by Build Buildings. We’re on all the websites, and if you like us, please recommend us to a friend. We’ll see you next Wednesday.