Ticketmaster’s Swift Meltdown

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Mary Harris: So, Jason, first question. Do you have my Taylor Swift tickets?

Speaker 2: I do not have any. I do not have any Taylor Swift tickets. I didn’t try to buy them outside of just clicking around Ticketmaster to see some of the chaos. But no, I mean, there was a part of me where I was like, you know, should I go? Should I go on for one last job and try to buy Taylor Swift tickets and resell them like I did? Think about it sort of. But then I was just like, You know what? I’m too busy for this.

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Mary Harris: Jason Koebler is a journalist now, but back in college he made a little money by reselling concert tickets with jacked up prices. He’s not exactly proud of this history, but it did teach him a whole lot about Ticketmaster. The live events giant in charge of sales for Taylor Swift’s Eras tour. Like a lot of people, I wanted tickets to one of these concerts. Like a lot of people, I did not get them. So I asked Jason, what would he have done in my shoes? He said scoring tickets starts months or even years ahead of time. You need a credit card that gives you pre-sale access. You need to become a verified fan. Join Taylor Swift’s Fan Club. Have a history of buying Taylor Swift tickets, and then you settle in in front of your computer and you wait.

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Speaker 2: The tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. local time at each place. And so what I used to do would be I would log on at like 9:45 a.m. and I would open up tabs for each of the places that I thought I wanted to buy tickets. So in the East Coast, that means Boston, it means New York, It means like Cincinnati is in the Eastern time zone.

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Mary Harris: I’m imagining you there with like your Big Gulp like, and just settling in.

Speaker 2: Yeah. I mean, you get your Mountain Dew ready now and it’s like you have every ticket broker is going to have a really good Internet connection. They’re going to have a very powerful computer.

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Mary Harris: The powerful computer is important because they’re about to enter a digital obstacle course. Before you can buy anything, you have to enter a little code and then you are admitted to a waiting room.

Speaker 2: In each browser, you can enter the waiting room one time, so a sophisticated fan might have three or four chances. Maybe they like text their sister or their friend and say, Hey, can you try to get tickets for me and I’ll give you my credit card. Like at most you have 5 to 10 entries into this waiting room.

Mary Harris: But as a broker, would you have more.

Speaker 2: As a broker, as a serious broker, who knows what they’re doing? They are going to have hundreds or thousands of entries.

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Mary Harris: Oh, my gosh. You can even buy a special web browser that will let you into these Ticketmaster waiting rooms as many times as humanly possible. It’ll cost you. But for a ticket broker, a browser like this one is a business expense.

Speaker 2: It’s like there’s all there’s all these things that people learn by buying tickets every single week for years. It’s like. This is their job.

Mary Harris: This is part of why Ticketmaster’s system crashed last week as professionals did battle with Taylor Swift’s fans. Are you ready for it?

Speaker 3: No. No one was.

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Speaker 4: And at this point, I’m just going to say it. God gives his toughest battles.

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Mary Harris: To the strongest.

Speaker 4: Swifties. And I think I qualified.

Mary Harris: I don’t know what to do anymore.

Speaker 4: I am 5 hours into this thing. Oh, no. What do you mean? He can do it for you? It’s not up to me. It’s not. It’s not.

Speaker 5: Working. That’s it. I’m going.

Speaker 4: In. You can’t. You don’t have a coach. Take my money. I’m here waiting for you to take my money. Come on. The amount of gaslighting that Ticketmaster does.

Mary Harris: A lot of fans lost out.

Speaker 4: And my fellow.

Speaker 2: Of I just want to share my terrible experience yesterday.

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Speaker 4: So Tigger Monster just tweeted, We want to apologize to Taylor and all of her fans. Do we accept? No. Understandably, these fans wanted to get tickets. A lot of them have already dealt with website issues, hours long waits just to become a so-called verified fan so that they could then try keyword.

Mary Harris: Try to then get tickets this morning after this whole debacle. Are there any tickets left to a Taylor Swift concert? Do we even know?

Speaker 2: Ticketmaster canceled the public on sale, which is something I’ve never seen in the history of Ticketmaster. Like this is not there’s no precedent for this ever. And Ticketmaster said that there are not enough tickets left to the public on sells. And so I took that to mean that the tickets are gone. It’s like maybe there’s a few hundred left, maybe there’s like a thousand left. But, you know, by and large, she’s playing these football stadiums that hold 80,000 people. Like, there must be a tiny fraction of tickets left.

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Mary Harris: And today on the show, there are tens of thousands of tickets for Taylor Swift’s upcoming tour. That does not mean you are going to get your hands on them, though. And Ticketmaster is taking the blame. But even after all this outrage, this ticketing giant, it still may be able to shake it off.

Speaker 4: Should she?

Mary Harris: I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around.

Mary Harris: Understanding what happened with Taylor Swift and Ticketmaster starts by understanding how ubiquitous Ticketmaster is. Their reach goes way beyond ticket sales, along with their parent company event manager Live Nation. Ticketmaster has a hand in every aspect of most big concerts. They own venues, they promote tours, they manage concessions and security. And as a result, they’ve become an industry bad guy. In fact, one of my first questions for Jason Koebler was does anyone like Ticketmaster?

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Speaker 2: I would say that the ticket brokers are fans of Ticketmaster, by and large. It’s like they have problems with with Ticketmaster like everyone else. But I don’t think there’s any fan that like Ticketmaster. I don’t think there’s any artists that like Ticketmaster. It’s like a necessary evil in this space because Ticketmaster and Live Nation, which are the same company that they merged back in 2010, control everything from top to bottom.

Mary Harris: I wonder if we can go back in time. I’m wondering if you remember what buying tickets was like before Ticketmaster was a behemoth.

Speaker 2: I remember this when I was a kid. Like my mom would take me to the record store at the mall around the corner from our house and we would stand in line outside of the record store before it opened at 9 a.m. or something like that. And there would always be these people in line, and I don’t even know what she was buying tickets for. Like, I wasn’t invited. I was five years old. But as I remember and as I’ve talked to her, it’s like you had to get in line and the store opened and you talked to a cashier and the cashier had a computer like a terminal, and they were pulling up tickets like they do at box offices, and they would select the tickets. And then you’d say, you know, I want them, and you’d pay them, and then they’d print out the tickets and then you’d have the tickets.

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Speaker 2: The thing is, is that when it was a really popular concert, at least at the at the record store we went to, they would do a lottery where everyone who was in line before the store opened and the tickets went on sale would get a number and then you’d buy in that order. And it’s like if the cashier was really slow, by the time you got up to the front, maybe the tickets would all be gone.

Mary Harris: Yeah. I found this article from 1985 with people waiting in line for Bruce Springsteen tickets in New York City. They were there for hours. They’re there for like 12 hours. There’s an elaborate wristband system where people were sort of being sorted the way you’re talking about. And it was just really interesting to go back in time. Remember when oh, yeah, we used to all just kind of camp out for tickets, but it felt like you had a chance. Was that just an illusion?

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Speaker 2: You know, I can’t say for sure, but I. Because just because I was a kid. But it’s like. As I. As I remember and recall, it’s like, you know, my mom’s family, all of them went and saw the Beatles at RFK Stadium in D.C., and my grandpa was able to get tickets for the Beatles. And it’s like transplant the Beatles to now. I mean, I don’t think that the average random person would be able to buy tickets. It would be a complete frenzy like we saw with Taylor Swift.

Mary Harris: Yeah.

Mary Harris: So when did the ticket buying story begin to change? Like, I’ve heard some people say that the Ticketmaster story, especially the story of Ticketmaster’s monopoly and the consequences of that really starts in the 1990s when they merged with their rival ticket Tron. And then they were like this super ticket seller. Is that where you’d start started?

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Speaker 2: Yeah. In the nineties, Ticketmaster and Ticket Tron merged and then Ticketmaster began selling tickets all over the country.

Mary Harris: Were they not doing that before that?

Speaker 2: It was a more regionalized thing. As I understand. It’s like many box offices like, controlled their own tickets. And I think eventually it’s like Ticketmaster signs all of these. Deals with venues like all over the country, and they become sort of like the sole ticket here for these for these venues. And so Ticketmaster then controls kind of like all of the tickets that are being sold for a given event.

Speaker 2: And it’s around this time, as I understand it, that fees sort of make their way into our culture where, you know, you’re paying all these convenience fees, you’re paying fees to have the tickets printed out, It’s like, I want to buy a ticket for $15, and then you end up with like $8 of fees on top of it and you’re sort of paying like half the price of the tickets in fees. And so I think it’s around this time that, you know, some artists start saying, this is crazy, like the fees are crazy. The fact that we have to work with this company that has nothing to do with us making the music, and yet they are pulling like these huge fees from the money that, you know, we should be making as well as making it more expensive for our fans to see us. Like that’s the beginning of the Ticketmaster that everyone hates and hates. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Mary Harris: Yeah. A few years after the Ticketmaster tickets on merger, Pearl Jam really stepped up, they basically said like, we don’t want to work with Ticketmaster. And not just that, but we kind of we want to bring them down. We want everyone to understand what it means to work with Ticketmaster. And I wonder if we can go back in time and talk about that a little bit because it was really interesting to me to go back and look at, you know, Pearl Jam testifying in front of Congress and basically saying this is a monopoly and it has negative impacts. And their main thing that they were worried about, at least what they said was costs for the fans. Pearl Jam was supported by representatives.

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Speaker 4: Of R.E.M. and Aerosmith, whose manager left no doubt that more than one band is unhappy with.

Mary Harris: Ticketmaster.

Speaker 5: All the members of Pearl Jam remember what it’s like to be young and not have a lot of money. Minnie Pearl Jam fans or teenagers who do not have the money to pay $30 or more than it’s often charged for tickets. Today it is well known.

Mary Harris: Like they wanted to sell $18 tickets to their shows and then have a fee of, you know, 10% like 180, which is low. But they they position themselves as like we know that some of our fans don’t have the resources to spend 100 bucks on a ticket.

Speaker 5: As a result, our band, which is concerned about keeping the price of its tickets low, will almost always be in conflict with Ticketmaster, which has every incentive to try to find ways to increase the price of the ticket it sells.

Mary Harris: So tell me the story of Pearl Jam versus Ticketmaster.

Speaker 2: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s like. Pearl Jam, a grunge band from Seattle. Very famous, still famous to this day, says. A lot of our fans are teenagers and a lot of them don’t have money to spend $30 or more for tickets. And it’s like, Well, I would love to.

Mary Harris: $30 seems like.

Speaker 2: It. And it’s like inflation is obviously a thing, but ticket prices have gone up like many times over inflation. It’s not even close. It’s like. The price of a ticket now is like 800% more than it would have been, you know, 20 years ago. In any case, it’s like Pearl Jam goes and says Ticketmaster is a monopoly. And they also say, you know, we don’t want to charge our fans $30. But Ticketmaster is sort of making us charge that because they have these exorbitant fees. It’s like Ticketmaster, especially now, has a lot of leeway to sort of like pressure bands to charge a lot of money for tickets.

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Mary Harris: Yeah, it was interesting during the congressional testimony, it wasn’t just Pearl Jam, but also Aerosmith’s manager testified and talked about approaching Ticketmaster, about lowering ticket prices. And instead the Ticketmaster representative suggested raising prices and splitting the revenue. Like, it was just so interesting because it sounded like you couldn’t even go in there and have a conversation about it without the conversation totally turning around.

Speaker 5: Last week I was with Aerosmith in Italy, where the band is currently on tour. We were talking about Ticketmaster and how it relates to our concert business. Steven Tyler, Aerosmith’s lead singer, said to me, Mussolini may have made the trains run on time, but not everyone could get a seat on a train. That’s the problem that Aerosmith and I have with Ticketmaster. Yes, they have an efficient and profitable system, but its monopolistic aspects are unfair and hurtful.

Speaker 2: And that that persists to now. It’s like Blink one, 82 just announced they were doing a tour. The tickets went on sale. They were extraordinarily expensive and people were really mad. And Mark Hoppus, who is, you know, a member of Blink 182, was like, Oh, sorry. Like, we had no idea. Like, this is one of the three guys in the band. It’s like he’s he’s one of the two frontmen. And he was like, oh, I don’t know why the tickets are so expensive. I had no idea. That’s just like what Ticketmaster and Live Nation told us we should do and we had to do. It’s like they have the ability to pressure these artists to charge what they think that they should be charging.

Mary Harris: What happened when Pearl Jam tried to tour without Ticketmaster?

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Speaker 2: They didn’t have venues to play in. It’s like Pearl Jam was really big at the time and they would have to play these really small venues that didn’t have contracts with Ticketmaster.

Mary Harris: Well, my understanding is like the band themselves were taking calls about fencing and porta potties because there just wasn’t anyone to handle that.

Speaker 2: Yeah, that is the case as well, where it’s like for any band that is like on the radio or is popular at all, you’re going to have to deal with Ticketmaster. It’s like there are very few venues in the U.S. that don’t touch Ticketmaster in any way, shape or form. And it’s like if you wanted to plot a tour out that only hit those venues, you’d have like a really weird route and it would be you would have to skip a lot of cities. Like you wouldn’t be able to play any shows in some cities. And that was the case back, you know, in the nineties. And it’s the case now and it’s pretty depressing that like this has been a problem for 30 years, longer than 30 years. And very little has changed. Ticketmaster still monopoly. The fees are still outrageous. The tickets are still too hard to get and brokers still have the advantage at every turn.

Mary Harris: After the break, how big data and algorithms make the Ticketmaster empire stronger than ever.

Speaker 4: And.

Mary Harris: Last week as Ticketmaster announced it was shutting down access to Taylor Swift tickets, the New York Times revealed something else that the Department of Justice had opened up an antitrust investigation into Ticketmaster. This is not the first federal investigation of Ticketmaster, though. Back in the nineties, when Pearl Jam eventually relented to having Ticketmaster service their shows, their manager said, We did everything we could. Over the past 14 months to get around them, but we failed. And it’s up to the Justice Department now. But back then, the Justice Department did nothing. And Jason Keppler says over the next few years, the feds continued to do nothing as Ticketmaster grew.

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Speaker 2: I mean, a decade later, Ticketmaster merged with Live Nation, and the Obama administration was called on to, you know, stop this merger like it was a huge deal at the time. And everyone in the entertainment industry was like, this is going to be bad for artists. It’s going to be bad for fans.

Mary Harris: So it’s not like nobody knew.

Speaker 2: People have been screaming from the rooftops for decades. There have been various investigations. There’s been investigations by state. DOJ is like, I believe this attorney general of New York investigated sort of ticketing bots and ticket monopolies and so on and so forth a few years ago and came out with this pretty scathing report. But nothing happened. It’s like nothing nothing has happened so far. And so that is like what I have my eye on right now because people are so mad about what happened with Taylor Swift. Like Taylor Swift is so much more popular now than Pearl Jam was at that time, even though Pearl Jam was popular. But it’s like she is a superstar.

Mary Harris: Part of the problem with investigating Ticketmaster is figuring out what you’re investigating them for. Over the years, this company has developed a web of interconnected problems. Back in the nineties, Pearl Jam was pissed off about the company’s service charges and fees. In the Taylor Swift era. Some fans have accepted those fees as the cost of doing business, but they are angry that online resellers are beating them to the box office. Jason Keppler says all these problems are made possible because Ticketmaster has no functional competition and that warps their decision making. Take how the company thinks about ticket brokers. They’re definitely a problem for regular buyers like you and me. But for Ticketmaster, when they jack up prices.

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Speaker 2: It’s like Ticketmaster sees that, that people are buying all of these tickets on StubHub for. To three or four times what the face value was. And they’re saying, well, why don’t we just make the face value higher since people are obviously willing to pay this?

Mary Harris: I mean, you’re laying out this kind of interesting relationship between Ticketmaster and the resellers where the resellers are kind of a problem for Ticketmaster because they buy up the stock and they mean that people can’t get to the tickets that they want to get. But at the same time they make. Making more money off of concerts possible. They create like a world of possibility, essentially.

Speaker 2: Yeah. So Ticketmaster does not hate ticket scalpers. Like, unequivocally it does not. And I know that because Ticketmaster sends its representatives to all of these ticket broker national conventions, of which there are several. There’s a big one in Las Vegas that, you know, Ticketmaster sends people there and they’re like, how can we work with you better?

Mary Harris: Why would they do that?

Speaker 2: So the reason is because ticket scalpers buy tickets. They buy a lot of tickets. They’re some of Ticketmaster’s best customers. And I think a good a good way of thinking about it is like ticket scalpers buy a lot of tickets that other people that would otherwise go unsold. And the reason that they do that is because they’re often able to make up the difference elsewhere. Like most baseball teams don’t sell out random Wednesday night games in May. But when the World Series comes along, it’s like you can make thousands of dollars on those tickets and season ticket holders get those tickets. And so Ticketmaster likes brokers for that reason because they help them sell a lot of tickets that would otherwise just be empty seats.

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Mary Harris: Of course, when resellers flood the zone the way they did with Taylor Swift’s tour, nobody is very happy. Which is why Ticketmaster has tried to rein brokers in just a little bit by using a system they call dynamic pricing. Dynamic pricing uses an AI algorithm to set ticket prices, similar to how Uber determines the cost of a ride. In other words, you’re going to pay more to see a popular artist pumping up prices ahead of time. Means reselling tickets is a lot less lucrative. But this doesn’t really change anything for customers. They still pay the same amount only with the extra cost going directly to Ticketmaster rather than third party brokers.

Speaker 2: It becomes a much riskier investment. The margins are much smaller. It’s like not a good buy for these brokers. And so in that sense it works. But it also makes everyone really mad because under the current system, it’s like where, you know, a floor seat cost a static, rigid price. Some fans are going to get those tickets and they are going to pay $100 for that ticket and they’re going to be happy that they got that ticket. Under dynamic pricing, it’s like everyone ends up paying many hundreds of dollars and everyone feels like they’ve been ripped off, even if it ultimately is worse for the scalpers. And so we have this this like really complicated system where everyone is mad no matter what.

Speaker 2: And I understand why people are mad. I don’t get me wrong, but I think we need to do a better job of sort of realizing that it’s always going to be hard to get tickets for the Super Bowl. It’s always going to be hard to get tickets for Taylor Swift. And the reason that it’s hard to get tickets is not necessarily Ticketmaster’s fault.

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Mary Harris: The problem is us that we we all want to go see Taylor Swift. I’m the problem.

Speaker 2: It’s me. Exactly.

Mary Harris: I mean, talking to you, I’m getting a sense that all of the quote unquote fixes for the problem that is Ticketmaster aren’t really fixing much. And not only that, but like, we can’t really agree on what we’re fixing. Like, are we fixing access to tickets? Are we fixing the tickets cost to a consumer? Like, what are we as people in the hood? Like, what are we doing here? And I don’t know that we agree on that either. And so I got to wonder, for someone like you, is the only solution here to take a hammer to Ticketmaster and just see what happens next.

Speaker 2: I think that be a good start. It’s like people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are saying, like break up Ticketmaster. There’s like many Swifties who are like, Hey, we need to break up Ticketmaster. They’re they’re radicalized. And I think that that would be a good start because despite, you know, despite it being hard to distribute tickets in a fair and equitable way, Ticketmaster is a problem. It is a monopoly. There’s just not an alternative. And I think that if there were an alternative, maybe if each. Region had a different ticket seller or something. It’s like we would at least see what different models look like.

Mary Harris: Yeah, it’s funny because so many politicians have been trying to, like, make anti-monopoly. Like, make that like a thing. Make that happen. And it’d be funny if Ticketmaster was the one that really made it take off.

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Speaker 2: Yeah, I mean, we’ve been talking about breaking up big tech for quite a while, like break up Facebook, break up Google. You know, there’s concern of Elon Musk buying Twitter for many, many different reasons. And it’s like. Ticketmaster should be right up there with with all of them. And it’s a Ticketmaster is a tech company like it is big tech and they’re using technology to allocate these tickets.

Speaker 2: There’s no transparency whatsoever into how any of this works. It’s like I’ve been writing about this for years and and very little information has come out from within Ticketmaster. It’s like we have hundreds of reporters reporting on Facebook and its algorithm and so on and so forth. And and it’s content moderation, and that’s really important. There’s very few reporters who are trying to get leaked documents from within Ticketmaster about things like how the tickets are allocated. Is Ticketmaster selling tickets directly to scalpers like which is a big conspiracy theory.

Speaker 2: And to be honest, I have no idea if it’s true. And I just know there’s like all of these sort of like. Rumors and. Hearsay and so on and so forth about how the whole system works and very little information has ever come out. And one of the reasons that is, is because it’s one company, like a lot of this information would probably come out of Ticketmaster and Live Nation were separate companies and it was a different company that owned the venues and a different company like that manage.

Mary Harris: These whistle blowers, could walk out the door and go somewhere.

Speaker 2: They could walk out the door and go somewhere. And they’re also be like inter-company communications that like lots of people would see and like maybe someone would be like, Wow, this is messed up. I’m going to tell the press. But in this case, it’s like it’s one company doing all of it. So it’s all internal documentation and it’s like. There’s a lot of people that work for Ticketmaster, but to this point, there hasn’t been sort of like a Ticketmaster whistleblower in the same way that we’ve seen for for other companies.

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Mary Harris: If you could, like, press a button and. Tickets would go back to buying them the way we did in the eighties. We’d go to the record store, would stand in line, would accept as a given that maybe the guy behind the counter had a friend. He was given a deal to go ahead of us. Would you do that?

Speaker 2: I think my answer is no. The reason my answer is no is because it’s November right now. And I just thought a bunch of, you know, 20 year old Swifties camping out for days in front of the mall. I think it might be fairer, but I think it would also be we’re so used to buying stuff online now, there has to be a way to sort of like figure out how to do online ticketing in a way that doesn’t always benefit the brokers. It’s like the technology simply must exist, and I think we need to figure it out. I just I think we’re past going to the mall to buy the tickets. It might be better, it might be more equitable, but I don’t think people are willing to do it.

Mary Harris: I’d totally be willing to do it. So interesting. Like, I mean, I agree that maybe people aren’t willing to do it. They’re so used to it. But like, it was funny, I was looking at that article from 85 and like one of the quotes of the people there, he was like, This is the event of the summer, you know, standing in line. And I was like, there’s like the communitarian aspect.

Speaker 2: I’m willing to say we should try. We should try.

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Mary Harris: Okay. I’ve convinced you. Jason, thank you so much for your time. I’m really grateful. I learned a lot.

Speaker 2: Thank you so much for having me.

Mary Harris: Jason Koebler is the editor in chief of Motherboard Advice. And that’s the show. If you are grateful for what we’re doing here at what next? You’re sitting there of your Thanksgiving turkey just thinking about it. There’s something you can do to help us out. Go on over to Slate.com, Slash what next? Plus and sign up to join our membership program. Say, plus, you’ll get ad free versions of this podcast and access to all the great content at Slate.com. Just do it. What next is produced by Elena Schwartz, Carmel Delshad, and Madeline Ducharme. We are getting a ton of support right now from Anna Phillips, Jared Downing and Victoria Dominguez. We are led by Alicia montgomery and Joanne Levine. And I’m Mary Harris. We are taking a little break for the holiday. But we’ll catch you back here on Monday.