Follow Friday
Funny TikToks, Filipina hip-hop, and Brown dads

Johana Bhuiyan (The Guardian)

A woman in a hijab wearing a smart watch and looking at the camera, underneath the words "Follow Friday: Johana Bhuiyan"
The Guardian US senior reporter Johana Bhuiyan
This interview was originally published in April 2021, when Johana Bhuiyan worked at the Los Angeles Times.

At the Los Angeles Times, tech journalist Johana Bhuiyan writes about privacy, surveillance, and how the actions of companies like Google and Amazon impact real people. And just like the rest of us, she's trying to avoid getting even more addicted to her phone.

"I have not allowed myself to download TikTok except for once," she says. "And it was like a three-day binge."

On today's episode of Follow Friday, Johana talks with Eric Johnson about her trusted source for funny TikToks that ensures she never needs to download the app again; a talented young rapper who's also working on COVID vaccines; and why she's "going to be a reporter til I die."

Follow us:
- Johana is @JMBooyah on Twitter and Instagram
- This show is @followfridaypod on Twitter and Instagram
- Eric is @heyheyesj on Twitter

Who Johana follows:
- Aminatou Sow
- Ruby Ibarra
- Kashmir Hill
- Ahmed Ali Akbar

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Theme song written by Eric Johnson, and performed by Yona Marie. Show art by Dodi Hermawan. Additional music by Katherine Chang, starfrosch, and Purple Planet Music.
Full transcript of this episode
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JOHANA BHUIYAN: I have never met him, I have yet to have the pleasure. But his dad seems dope and really, really funny.

ERIC JOHNSON: Whose dope dad gets the Johana Bhuiyan seal of approval? The answer is coming up, today on Follow Friday.

[ad + theme song]

ERIC: I'm Eric Johnson. Welcome to Follow Friday, a show about the best people on the internet and why you should follow them. If you're new to the show, welcome! Every week, I talk to the internet creators I admire most about who they follow online. These include podcasters, writers, comedians, musicians, and more.

They have amazing taste and will guide us to the people they find fascinating, who we should be following, too. Today on the show is Johana Bhuiyan, an investigative reporter at the Los Angeles Times who writes about tech accountability and how companies like Google and Amazon and Facebook impact real people.

We also used to work together at Recode. And I don't remember if she has any dirt on me from that time, so I will be walking on eggshells, just in case. You can follow Johana on Twitter and Instagram at @JMBooyah. And you can follow along with us today: Every person she recommends will be linked in the show notes and in the transcript at Johana, welcome to Follow Friday!

JOHANA: Thanks for having me!

ERIC: So nice to see you again. It's been a while since, I guess you left Recode in 2018? Does that sound right?

JOHANA: That does sound right, yeah. I've been at the LA Times for a little over two and a half years.

ERIC: Yeah. Well, we still follow each other on Twitter and ... this is not one of your official recommendations, but I gave you the list of categories you could choose from today. And you looked at the category "someone you have a love/hate relationship with" and you wrote next to it in all caps, "PROBABLY MY OWN TWITTER PERSONA." Do you want to explain what you mean by that?

JOHANA: I mean, doesn't everyone kind of hate... ? It's like kind of the way that people hate the sound of their own voice.

ERIC: [laughs]

JOHANA: Sometimes I'll look back over my Twitter feed and I'm like, "Oh God, whatever I was feeling or thinking at that point is extremely cringey." But I highly recommend just doing some sort of annual delete/purge of your Twitter feed. It really is very cleansing, and it makes me feel like my Twitter persona is a little more ... I don't know, manageable?

ERIC: [laughs] Sometimes, I'll scroll back in my old photos and I'll see there was a session where I took a bunch of really cringey selfies. And the only thing worse than that is looking at very old tweets, where I was posturing a little bit too hard.

JOHANA: Yeah. So this is actually combining my like two worst things: Having to hear my own voice on a podcast, plus talking about my Twitter.

ERIC: You're welcome!

JOHANA: Yeah. Feel free to follow me, though! I'm a joy.

ERIC: All right, well, let's find out who Johana Bhuiyan follows. Before the show, Johana, as I said, I gave you a list of categories and I asked you to tell me four people you follow who fit in those categories. Your first pick is in the category "someone who makes you laugh." You said Aminatou Sow, who's on Instagram at @Aminatou.

She co-hosts a very popular podcast called Call Your Girlfriend and writes a newsletter called Crème de la Crème. So, talk about Aminatou, and why she makes you laugh.

JOHANA: Yeah. So you and I actually know her through the same way, which is we all kind of work in the same world. And also I, you know, when I would come visit San Francisco, we would stay in the same house occasionally.

So I've followed her for a really long time, but she now posts just a series of TikToks. And as someone who could be like very easily addicted to something like TikTok, I have not allowed myself to download TikTok except for once. And it was like a three-day binge. So I know that I cannot actually have a TikTok account for myself. But she will post a bunch of really, really funny TikToks.

Throughout the pandemic, memes have been a mental health savior for me. And she just has a constant supply of really, really funny TikToks. I think I've seen other people tweet about her TikTok digest, so it's definitely not just me alone. But yeah, she gets the best of the best, puts it all in one place, makes it so I don't ever have to download the app, and yeah.

I think she's funny and really smart and thoughtful outside of that. And you should follow her because she does and produces really amazing content that's extremely thoughtful. And she also is like someone who lives out loud. If you meet her in person, it reflects ... her personality online really does reflect who she is in-person as well. She does really live out loud.

And by that, I mean like good or bad, right? Like, she will talk about tough situations she's dealt with, or her life and stuff like that. Like today, for example ... I think yesterday, she posted that she was running or something like that, and today she posted that like a bunch of people reached out to her asking her for advice and questions. She's like, "I don't, I'm not like a runner."

ERIC: [laughs]

JOHANA: "I'm not good at this." But [she] gave, like, she's like, "Here's what I do do." I appreciate that. And I think that's great, but her account has been particularly important to me because of the TikTok digest.

ERIC: Wait, so this is on Instagram or on Twitter? Or where is she posting the TikTok digest?

JOHANA: She's on Instagram, which is why it's so magical, because she'll just post her story, and you never have to download TikTok yourself. And also, they're always really, really funny. Like, I share her stories more than I share anything else, because she has a good sense of humor, or at least like we have a similar sense of humor. Other people might not think so. And so, all the TikToks sort of are on point and I think for that reason alone, I would highly recommend following her.

ERIC: The thing you you've mentioned about people asking her for running advice, I mean, she does have some history of giving people advice and being very candid about ... the book that she wrote with her podcast co-host Ann Friedman, Big Friendship, they're talking about how friendship is not all good, fun, easy times. Sometimes it's messy or frustrating. Is there any wisdom or advice you've learned from following Aminatou that you've been able to apply to your own friendships, your own work, anything like that?

JOHANA: I can't think of one single thing, but I do think just the way that she's really authentic and I think that's something that really resonates with me. She's also just very real. She's not going to like bullshit and beat around the bush. And I think that's really important in a friendship. I am living across the country from most of my friends now because I'm from New York and I spent most of my life there and I think, yeah, it's true. Long-distance friendships are as hard as long-distance relationships. And it requires a lot of work. And also a lot of honesty and communication, much like every other relationship.

ERIC: Absolutely. That was Aminatou Sow, who's on Instagram @Aminatou. Let's move on to your next follow. I asked you for someone you just started following, and you said Ruby Ibarra, who's on Instagram @rubyibarra. She's a hip hop musician who was born in the Philippines and grew up outside of San Francisco. And she's the co-founder of a scholarship program called Pinays Rising. So talk about how you started following Ruby, and why.

JOHANA: I don't even know if I'm supposed to say this publicly yet, but I'm helping out on the LA Times podcast Asian Enough. It's in its second season. And obviously, people cannot see me right now, but I am Asian. I'm half Filipina and I'm half Bangladeshi, and as someone who is mixed ethnicity, I struggled with the same question everyone who's mixed ethnicity or biracial deals with, which is figuring out what your identity is and sort of floating between two identities. And as someone who is Brown and ... I speak Bengali and you know, my mom, who is Filipina, learned Bengali to speak to my grandma, it was a lot easier growing up to sort of identify with and engage in Bengali culture as opposed to Filipina culture.

I have spent the last few years, I think, trying to get closer to the Filipina side of my identity, but in particular, because of this podcast, you know, the title is Asian Enough, right? And it's a question that I've sort of asked myself all the time, but as part of that, I've just been looking into like more Filipino creators and Filipino scholars.

And in particular, I was looking at people who could speak to what was going on with the disproportionate impact COVID has had on a Filipino nurses, which we know we've seen for some, you know, even though Filipino nurses don't make up a majority of nurses in the U S they do make up a really big percentage of the people who have either contracted COVID or passed away from COVID.
And so she came up because not only is she a rapper — and like a really, really talented rapper at that — she also works at a biotech company.

ERIC: Huh!

JOHANA: Yeah, her day job is working — I'm pretty sure she's a scientist — working at a biotech company on both COVID tests and also vaccines, according to an article that I read about her.

ERIC: Wow!

JOHANA: Yeah, so she's fascinating. And she actually is like incredibly talented. Like, I didn't go to her or find her because I saw or heard a song of hers and thought she was great. I went to her because I was like, "oh, she's like a biotech scientist or something."

And then, then turns out, she's just like this incredibly talented ... you know, she's very social justice-oriented. And her Instagram account really does dig into some of the issues that Filipinos deal with generally. You know, and this is a little bit into the weeds of Asian identity generally But yeah, not only was I between two identities, like Filipinos and Bengalis, my two ... South Asians, even, aren't really seen as like capital-A "Asian" by a lot of people, even within the Asian community.

And so, the Filipino side of me is the one that's probably closest to like what people think capital-A "Asian" is. And she talks a lot about that and talks a lot about what it like being a Brown Asian means and sort of the rejection of ... or whether even Filipinos are claiming that title, you know? And kind of be the tension of ... or just the not tension, but kind of grappling with where the Filipino identity fits in with the broader, you know, Asian community.

That all is really instructive for me. It's also really, you know, as someone who is just trying to get in touch with that side a little bit more, it's really cool to see a female Filipina creator just kind of killing it.

ERIC: Yeah, she and her band — uh, maybe help you pronounce this — Balikbayans?

JOHANA: Yeah, close. Balikbayan.

ERIC: Okay. She and her band, the Balikbayans, they submitted to the Tiny Desk contest that NPR does, they submitted in 2019. I don't know if you listened to this particular song, but it's called "Someday." It's deeply personal, very like lyrically dense, but it's, it was so good. I was not expecting to be really getting into a hip hop musician. It's not generally the type of music I listen to most. But it's just, it's so good. So I would recommend you check that out.

[clip of "Someday"]

JOHANA: Yeah, I'm a huge fan of hip hop. And I just, I did not go to her for her music and, and then ... she's an amazing lyricist, like really amazing. And I was really taken aback by that. Particularly because I had just had no idea. And there are also like two documentaries, I think, that she is the center of.

ERIC: Oh, wow.

JOHANA: Yeah, so she's kind of like killing it! Jack of all trades. Literally, like a scientist and musician.
ERIC: Saving the world and entertaining us at the same time. It's awesome.

JOHANA: Yeah. So yeah, highly recommend following her.

ERIC: My general thing with discovering new music is like, I just don't make time to listen to anything that's as smart and lyrically dense as her work, because then I need to have the lyrics in front of me.

JOHANA: Oh, yeah.

ERIC: So I can't do it while walking or driving. I need to just like block out some time, make some time, to dive into her catalog. Cause I really liked what I listened to so far.

JOHANA: Yeah. I mean, during the pandemic, the only music I've actually listened to is like 2000-era pop, while I'm going on runs. And I think there's like something about nostalgia and like the fact that time doesn't move right now that has to do with it. So, that I even discovered her music or new music at all is a big deal.

ERIC: Yeah. That was Ruby Ibarra, who is on Instagram @rubyibarra. We're going to take a quick break now, but we'll be back in a minute with Johana Bhuiyan.


ERIC: Welcome back to Follow Friday. Johana Bhuiyan, I asked you to tell me about "someone you're jealous of," and you said the journalist Kashmir Hill, who is on Twitter @kashhill. So, talk about Kashmir's work and what she does that makes you jealous.

JOHANA: Yeah, so I wouldn't say "jealous" necessarily. I would say, like, a combination of intimidation and respect, which I guess together could be jealousy?

ERIC: [laughs]

JOHANA: She's just an incredible reporter. And she's been around for a while and has been doing really amazing privacy and surveillance journalism. And the thing that I respect the most about her is that her motivation and her North Star always is keeping the powers that be accountable, and just doing good journalism, right?

And I think that there are a lot of people who are big names in their own right, or have sort of ascended to almost celebrity status within the journalism industry and sort of are coasting off of that now. Like that's their brand and that's their calling card.

Whereas for her, like she could have easily gone that route. Like she's a big name reporter who's been around forever and like, you know, everybody knows who she is, and yet, all she does is amazing reporting. Every single story is just really good and really well-reported, and I don't think I've ever read a story of hers that wasn't a bombshell.

I just really respect her. I mean, it's great to have someone who is a woman in the industry, doing this as well as she does, and now I'm covering surveillance, so like there's probably a little bit more ... envy involved now. [laughs]

ERIC: [laughs]

JOHANA: I mean, I don't really think that I'm in the same caliber as her, but it's like, when she gets a privacy story, it's a story that I didn't get, right? So like, there's probably going to be a little bit more envy now, but it genuinely is all just respect and awe. It also is very motivating for me. Especially when I first started in media, and I don't know if this was the case when you started, but it did seem like ... it was like 2013, 2014, there were a lot of individual media/personality-centered brands.

And there was a lot of elevation of that, and we might be returning to that with Substack and stuff like that. But I think like the route forward really increasingly looked like — or, at least, like the sustainable profitable route forward was like, "Be a brand and really build a brand around yourself and your journalism."

That is like a totally fine, totally great way of going about media, and a totally great route if that's what you choose. But in my mind, what I've always wanted to do is, like, do really good journalism. And if notoriety or fame, or building a brand comes as a consequence of that good journalism, I think that's great. That's totally fine, but it's not what I would be seeking out.

Having someone like Kash Hill in the industry, doing what she does, shows that there is still like that option as a reporter to just like report til you die. 'Cause that's what I tell people all the time, "I'm going to be a reporter til I die. If you want me to be an editor, sure. It might just suck for all the reporters, because I'm going to be a reporter until I die."

ERIC: You'll still be reporting in the background. Yeah.

JOHANA: Yeah. Like, the worst editors are the reporters who are not done reporting.

ERIC: [laughs]

JOHANA: But yeah. I think her work speaks for itself, she's just incredible. She's a force to be reckoned with. If you don't follow Kash Hill already, even if you're not like a super-interested in privacy issues, like privacy reporting or anything like that, she writes about it in a way that makes you care, or at least tells you why you should care.

ERIC: Yeah. I mean, it's super important. This is one of the most important things to be writing about now. She's at the New York Times, you're at the LA Times, and something that you've been focusing on there is a government surveillance, how it affects vulnerable groups, especially like Black and Brown people in America, Uighurs in China, people like that.

Could you talk a little bit about how prevalent this technology is — just getting to why this is so important — and what, if anything, people are doing to protect themselves?

JOHANA: Sure. The reason why it's so important right now is because it's not only ... there's a lot of focus on like overt surveillance tech. So we're talking facial recognition, license plate readers, things like that, right? There's also this other thing happening, where our data, because we're so unconditionally willing to give it away to tech companies and whomever, that is also being used to track us as well.

So we're sort of at this point in our privacy where we have very, very low expectations for privacy and then we have law enforcement agencies and private companies, they're trying to make revenue off of our data. But in the case of law enforcement agencies, we're giving them access — or we're giving them this treasure trove of data, or personal information, that they now like know and have the legal authority to tap into.

So yeah, there's facial recognition, and we should definitely be worried about that, because there are security cameras with facial recognition features, right? It's a feature that's being sold in the security camera industry as a perk, even though there's all of these really valid ethical issues about it. And we also don't even know how well it works.

ERIC: Right.

JOHANA: Or in fact, we actually know that it does not work that well on Brown and Black people. But then yeah, there's this other crisis of humans ... we literally are, our user information is not protected at all. And these two things together makes an environment where it's incredibly difficult for us to protect ourselves from being monitored or tracked, either through tools that are built to do this, or through things like law enforcement requests to companies like Google, which I wrote about today.

Federal agencies are able to just request your user information from these tech companies, by law, through several different types of requests. And so, the combination of the two things is I think is ... it's not new, but it is a very terrifying phenomenon.

ERIC: Yeah. So back to Kash Hill for a moment. As reporter following another reporter, is there anything that you've learned from following her work that's made you either a better journalist in general, or that has, I don't know, changed your mind, changed your perspective, on surveillance and the things you're both covering?

JOHANA: Yeah. I mean, definitely. I think the big thing is, a lot of people because there's such a low expectation for privacy, what I've found so far is that readers say that they care about privacy and they'll get riled up about a story based on a tweet or whatever, but they're not actually reading the story.

And I think the issue is that privacy journalism, typically, has not made it about the humans, about people, and brought it back to show what the actual impact is on people. And Kash does this amazing thing where she puts herself at the center of the story in a way that is journalistically sound.
I think that journalists should never be a part of the story except for the way that she does it, which is like, she will go and FOIA records on herself, or she'll find out what information tech companies have on her. Even if it's not about herself, she's able to just show you the actual human impact of privacy issues, which I think, one, is really hard to do. And two, is just not done enough.

And it's why even my eyes glaze over when I see some privacy stories. "I care very deeply about this, but I cannot bring myself to care about this story." And so that's something that I've been trying to do more of as well, which is like center it more on the human. Obviously, there's going to be an audience for someone who wants to know about the data broker side of it, or like the tech side of it, like how that technology actually works. I think if my broader motivation is to just bring a lot of these issues to light and hold the companies and agencies that are participating in this surveillance apparatus accountable, the strategy should be to bring it back home to people and show them why it matters and how it matters.

ERIC: Yeah, I think this was her ... I think she did a series where she was trying to cut all the big tech companies out of her life. Like, she was trying to cut Google out and cut Amazon out completely, and see how much she could extricate herself from all of the ways that they are collecting data about people. And I think it was Google where she was just like, "This is basically ..."

JOHANA: Impossible. Yeah.

ERIC: It's nuts.

JOHANA: Something like that could be totally stunt journalism, right? Like, done by almost anyone else, it would be kind of like a weird shtick and it'd be sort of passed off as performance art, basically. But hers was just like ... in addition to actually testing it out in herself, she brought in real, deep reporting and yeah, I think it's hard to do. She does a lot of things that are really hard to do ethically really, really well.

ERIC: Yeah. Well, that was Kashmir Hill, who's on Twitter @kashhill. We have time for one more follow today. Johana, I asked you for "someone super-talented who's still under the radar." And you said Ahmed Ali Akbar, who is @radbrowndads on Twitter. Talk about what Ahmed does and why he needs more followers.

JOHANA: Yeah. So Ahmed, full disclosure, is a friend, and we used to work together at BuzzFeed. And he had a podcast at BuzzFeed called See Something, Say Something, that talked about like Muslim identity and Muslim diaspora, things like that. And he's really, really funny.

His name is Rad Brown Dads because he started a blog, like a Tumblr that were pictures of cool dads, back in the day. You know, like Indian dads with bell-bottom, stuff like that. Um, and so he's really, really funny and a really great, incredible guy. Obviously, I'm biased, because he's a friend, but he does really incredible work as well.

So he does a lot of food writing that is really unique in that it doesn't just talk about, "This food is really popular in this culture." It really talks about the meaning and the importance of different foods and how it really intertwines with our daily life. But also, you know, his podcast is really great. See Something, Say Something is still on Spotify and he has his own Patreon, and writes every so often about identity and things like that. But he's also just like really funny on Twitter. You should, you should definitely follow him.

ERIC: Yeah. If I, have the history right ... See Something, Say Something started at BuzzFeed, and now he's independent. He's an independent podcaster, writer, et cetera. Is that right?

JOHANA: Yeah. So BuzzFeed got rid of most of its podcasts after a while. And so, you know, the good thing is he was able to continue it on, on his own.

ERIC: That's so good. And you've been a guest on that show, right? In the past?

JOHANA: Yeah, the first episode! So again, full of bias, right? The first episode is probably the worst episode. So you do not have to listen to it.

ERIC: Not because you were there! For other other reasons.

JOHANA: [laughs] Probably because I was there!

ERIC: [laughs]

JOHANA: But like I was saying at the beginning of the episode, I just get so like fully embroiled and sucked into the thing that I'm working on, that the outside world does not exist. It just moves on without me. And so, you know, I went on this episode to talk about Muslim identity, and everything went back to tech reporting, and I just could not pull my head out of it, which is like, unfortunately for you, why I'm not a great podcast guest. [laughs]

ERIC: [laughs] Nonsense!

JOHANA: Um, but yeah, other than that first episode, you should definitely listen to the podcast. There are a lot of people who are writing about South Asian identity, but Ahmed is really educated about it. And he, you know, is really smart about it, and probably more thoughtful and has more nuanced ideas than most people. And, you know, definitely a worth a follow.

ERIC: Do you have ... I don't know if you recall from any of his Rad Brown Dads days. Do you have a favorite example of a Rad Brown Dad that he put on his platform?

JOHANA: I can't think of a specific example, but he does a lot with his own dad. His own dad has come on the podcast and ... I have never met him, I have yet to have the pleasure. But his dad seems dope and really, really funny. And his relationship with his dad is actually very sweet. So I think, probably the raddest Brown dad that Ahmed has ever talked about is his own. [laughs]

ERIC: [laughs] Well, that was Ahmed Ali Akbar, who is @radbrowndads on Twitter. Johana, thank you for sharing your follows with us today. Before we go, let's make sure listeners know how to find you online as well. Where do you want them to follow you?

JOHANA: You can follow me on Twitter at @JMBooyah. And yeah, I mean, I'm on Twitter. And I'm very annoying on there, I'm very self-promotional about my stories, but then sometimes I'll tweet about weird things that my family members — mostly my husband or my mom — do. So, you want some weird tweets mixed in with tech tweets? Feel free to follow me! [laughs]

ERIC: [laughs] Find me on Twitter at @HeyHeyESJ and this show on Twitter or Instagram @FollowFridayPod. The most important thing you can do to support Follow Friday is to tell a friend about it. So take a minute now, think of one person you know who would like this episode, and please send it to them. Thank you.

Follow Friday's theme music was written by me and performed by Yona Marie. Our show art was illustrated by Dodi Hermawan. Additional music by Purple Planet Music, starfrosch, and Katherine Chang.

That's all for this week. This is Eric Johnson, reminding you to talk about people behind their backs. And when you do, say something nice. See you next Friday!

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