Year in review: 2021
By Trung Phan
PLUS: My favorite book, TV show, podcast, movie and meme.
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It’s been a wild year and I spent way too much time on the internet.
On the bright side, that means I can share a grab bag of 14 highlights from 2021.
Things I did
1. Twitter strategy
In 2021, I grew my Twitter following by 300k (10k —> 310k).
People often ask me, “what is your growth strategy?”
My approach is straightforward and in the first 4 words of my Twitter bio: “Smart threads. Dumb memes.”
Threads, because the Twitter algo obviously wants to keep users on the platform. Instead of sending people to a website to read a long-form article, it’ll boost a concise 15-tweet thread. Yes, there is a lot of “turning Wikipedia into threads” to game the algo and boost engagement. Personally, I try to make every thread worthwhile with good flow, interesting images/GIFs and some laughs.
Memes/Shitposts, because people enjoy a good laugh or a witty take and like to share them.
(Rule of thumb: My threads are serious and my single tweets that sound like shitposts are probably shitposts)
Fortune cookie, outrage, motivational and advice tweets also do well. These are definitely not my jam, though. Different strokes for different folks.
Either way, I’m just swimming with the algo.
2. Context collapse is real
Context collapse is a popular subject in social media research.
It refers to how certain pieces of media broadcast to one audience ends up shared with another audience, which it definitely was not meant for.
On Twitter, the re-tweet and quote re-tweet functions make it very easy for ideas to travel across different audiences. When the “not meant for” audience sees the original content, they are lacking the appropriate “context”. Hilarity and fighting often ensue.
As my Twitter following has grown, so has the surface area for context collapse. I experienced it a lot this year, but also brought on myself by shitposting on the regular.
Here is my favorite example: the time I (clearly jokingly) said the creator of Squid Game should have invested in Bitcoin instead of making the show.
Context was soon eviscerated and many people — who missed the CLEAR joke — were not pleased. The quote re-tweets on this one are incredible:
PS. If enough people reply to this email with “please write a whole article about your experience with context collapse”, I will.
One place where I experience very little context collapse is tweeting at @elonmusk about stuff Elon is doing. Everyone is on the same page here.
When Elon discovered the internet in the early-1990s, his first thought was that humanity would “have a nervous system”. And his Twitter usage seems consistent with someone that believes that.
Anyways, I’m happy that his engagement with my tweets have graduated from serious replies to threads…
…to “laughing crying face emoji” appreciations of my memes:
4. Best interview of the year #1
I had the chance to speak with a number of interesting people this year.
Two experiences were particularly memorable.
The first was with Yeardley Smith, who I interviewed for The Hustle.
You might not know the name, but you definitely know the voice: Lisa Simpson, who Smith has voiced for 30+ years (back of the envelope math: she’s prob made $100m in the role).
Like most people born in the mid-80s, I grew up obsessively watching The Simpson’s. Also, Smith read the line for my fave Simpson’s joke ever: when Marge tells Lisa that she should go to McGill University (my alma-mater), because it’s the “Harvard of Canada”.
To this, Lisa replies:
5. Best interview of the year #2
The second most memorable interview was with Stanley Druckenmiller.
The legendary investor broke the Bank of England, making $1B by shorting the British Pound in 1992 (while working at Soros’ Quantum Fund). He also has an insane track record with his own hedge fund, returning 30% a year over a 30-year stretch (without a single down year).
My 40-minute chat with Druckenmiller covers everything from his view on tech stocks, inflation, Wall Street Bets, crypto (BTC, ETH, DOGE), China and his investment approach.
This was my fave exchange:
ME (not a billionaire): Why don’t you short Doge?
STAN (deca-billionaire): I don’t like putting campfires out with my face.
One final note: during our recording, the USB cord on my mic fell out and the sound totally jagged. I kept the mic up for optics… and this gentleman Jonathan Smith called me out on it hard LOL:
I meme’d my way onto CNBC a few times.
On March 8th, I opined on Cathie Wood’s ARK ETF ($ARKK) and said “I like the ETF” as a nod to Roaring Kitty, the GameStop legend who told Congress “I like the stock”.
It lead to the following (mostly bearish) sequence of events:
March 8 close: $ARKK = $110.26
March 9 close: $ARKK = 121.75 (+10%)
Dec 30 close: $ARKK = $93.83 (-23%)
7. Not Investment Advice
Last thing in the “I did” category is start a banging podcast with Jack Butcher and Bilal Zaidi. It’s literally called Not Investment Advice (NIA), which absolves me from what happened with $ARKK.
If you want to get started on NIA, definitely listen to this interview we did with Tom Osman, who turned $5k into $1.3m in 19 days by flipping an Ether Rock NFT (wild and very entertaining story).
8. Favorite meme
Y’all remember the CEO of Better.com?
He had that super-cringey Zoom call where — acting like a total robot — he laid off 900 employees. Obviously, the Zoom video turned into a meme.
In 2021, the tweet that made me laugh the hardest (legit body-moving laughter) was from Twitter legend Josiah Johnson.
The Lakers suck this year and Josiah used the Better CEO image to show Lebron “firing” his entire team. I borrowed the template for a Christmas-themed meme.
9. Favorite podcast episode
This Marc Maron interview of Jerry Seinfeld.
It’s a fascinating episode because the 2 comedians have very different views on comedy. Maron’s act is much more vulnerable, talking about his own shortcomings. Seinfeld only cares about the the laugh. You can actually feel the tension when they talk.
My fave part was when Maron asked if there was ever anything “deeper than a joke” and Seinfeld replies:
“My job is to make people laugh, that is the only relevant currency. If there is something deeper in the joke — and with any great joke there always is — that’s great. But never put anything above the laugh, like self-flagellation, opinion or insights. Never weight them more than the laugh. Nothing is harder than getting a laugh. There are other things you can do on stage, but if you want to do the hardest thing, it’s getting a laugh. That it’s. There are comics that will tell you that there are other interesting things to do, and that’s where I’ll part ways.”
10. Favorite TV show
Succession, obviously. I fully subscribe to the theory that the show is a sitcom dressed up as a family business drama based on the Murdochs.
Here’s an amazing YouTube breakdown of Tom Wambsgans’ story arc.
11. Favorite vacation (Senator Daniel Inouye edition)
Earlier in December, I was lucky enough to spend some time with my wife and son in Honolulu, Hawaii. The trip wins by default because it was the only trip my family made in 2021.
When you arrive to the city, you land at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. It’s named after the legendary Japanese-American politician from Hawaii who:
Is the highest-ranking Asian-American politician ever
Was a US Senator for ~50 years
When he died in 2012, was — as the most senior member of the Senate — third in line for the presidency (VP, Speaker of the House)
Was credited by Barack Obama — who grew up in Hawaii — as his first inspiration to get involved in politics
Was a true war-hero
On the last point, the story of how he lost his right arm in battle is harrowing:
On April 21, 1945, weeks before the end of the war in Europe, he led an assault near San Terenzo, Italy. His platoon was pinned down by three machine guns. Although shot in the stomach, he ran forward and destroyed one emplacement with a hand grenade and another with his submachine gun. He was crawling toward the third when enemy fire nearly severed his right arm, leaving a grenade, in his words, “clenched in a fist that suddenly didn’t belong to me anymore.” He pried it loose, threw it with his left hand and destroyed the bunker. Stumbling forward, he silenced resistance with gun bursts before being hit in the leg and collapsing unconscious. His mutilated right arm was amputated in a field hospital.
Unbelievable heroism and a good reminder of what real sacrifice looks like.
12. Favorite movie
Didn’t watch many movies this year.
However, I did re-watch my one of my favorite documentaries: The Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, the behind-the-scene story of how Francis Ford Coppola made the 1979 Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now.
When he decided to make Apocalypse Now, Coppola was coming off the greatest run in filmmaking history: The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather II (1974).
Coppola basically cashed in all of his financial and artistic capital on a Vietnam War movie a few short years after The Fall of Saigon.
The film (adapted from Joseph Conrad’s short book, Heart of Darkness) is extremely dark and its production was insane:
Martin Sheen had a heart attack
Marlon Brando showed up obese and was almost impossible to direct
It was filmed in the Philippines (Coppola had to cut a deal with the country’s dictator Marcos) and production was halted by a typhoon that hit the Philippines
Coppola was almost bankrupted financing it
Based on the circumstances, there will never be a movie like this again.
13. Favorite book (that also results in a dumb movie idea)
Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is a book about China’s Taiping Rebellion, which took place between 1850 and 1864.
The rebellion is almost completely unknown in Western media but should be:
It’s the deadliest Civil War in history, with 20-30m killed. In comparison, the American Civil War — which happened around the same time (1861-1865) — resulted in 600k-800k deaths.
The battle was between the governing Manchu Qing Dynasty and an uprising (called the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom) that was led by someone who claimed to be the brother of Jesus Christ
The book is a great entry into this historical event.
Wild movie pitch: Since Taiping and the American Civil War happened at around the same time, I want to write a historical fiction script with this premise:
A group of Chinese fighters from the Heavenly Kingdom are sent to America by “Jesus’ brother” looking for another Jesus-like figure (Lincoln). The story follows this group landing in San Francisco and making their way out East to help Lincoln and Grant fight the Confederates.
14. Favorite re-tweet
This was cool.
I wrote a thread explaining the brilliance of Ted Lasso’s pilot episode.
TLDR: the show’s writers make you love Lasso within 157 seconds (side note: Season 2 wasn’t very good). Anyways, AppleTV+ re-tweeted the thread in July before the start of the new season (and it started trending on Twitter).
Even more cool: one of the show’s creators — Brandon Hunt (who plays Coach Beard) — recently opined on the thread, saying: “everything we do on the show is intentional, and the intentionality is…intentional” LOL
That’s it for 2021. Have a safe weekend and see y’all next year.