Q&A with Huge Ma (@TurboVax): “The short shelf life was a feature, not a bug.”
The sun is shining, birds are singing, Ed Yong is writing about insect endosymbionts, and at least in some parts of the world, people are starting to take off their masks now that we’re no longer deathly afraid of mouth-breathing killer aerosols on each other. Progress!
The latest development we can file under “nature healing”: after helping countless New Yorkers get that sweet sweet jab appointment, @TurboVax shut down last week — so naturally, as a newsletter that aims to chronicle the most interesting Twitter accounts of our time, we had to have a little exit interview with the Vax Daddy himself. Here’s Huge Ma, on media thirst, creating actually useful MVPs, and life after vaccination:
In the wake of your profile last month with NY Mag, what are your feelings on going from like, “the TurboVax guy” to official “Vaccine Daddy”?
It was fun! I took the interview with Sangeeta because I figured we’d show a different side to the TurboVax Guy. I didn’t know we were going to show *that* side. So yeah, I was blown away by the response on Twitter. By then I had been profiled in other bigco publications so I had learned how to handle a media cycle or two. Media twitter thirst….that I was not ready for…
When you grow up as an unremarkable kid from high school like me, you can’t help but lean into the spotlight for a little bit. But I’m aware the half-life of internet fame is very short. I will try not to feel a tinge of jealousy when the internet falls for the next handsome twitter bot creator. I had a good run.
The story of how you built TurboVax in less than two weeks, for less than $50 is basically common (NY) lore now. But I am curious — why choose Twitter as your distribution/promotion platform? Did you consider other routes — like email lists or Facebook?
My goal was to build a useful product with the least amount of effort (tech people love to call this the Minimum Viable Product). I could’ve built a brand new app to instantly notify people of new vaccine appointments, or I could use Twitter. Why reinvent the wheel?
The same idea for the website. Early on, turbovax.info was just a Google Sheet embedded on a html page, hosted on GitHub. This janky infrastructure allowed me to serve more than a million pageviews/day at no cost. Thank you, tech monopolies!
I didn’t consider email because user acquisition is hard—it would’ve required a certain level of trust in TurboVax that didn’t exist at the beginning. Beyond that, I didn't want to own other people's data —Twitter allowed me to defer privacy concerns to the platform. By leveraging mature platforms, I could focus exclusively on the important things (e.g., getting vaccine data).
How did you go about spreading the word in the early days?
I got lucky. I spent all this effort building this useful product and was certain that the media would jump to cover it — sent emails to many reporters/tiplines but didn’t get a single bite. I posted the website to Reddit in resignation when Sharon (author of the original Times piece) picked up on it. On another day, TurboVax might’ve never made it into the light.
So while the Times piece was the big break, the product eventually promoted itself because it just worked. It was really good at finding people their vaccines so the word kept spreading.
It didn’t hurt that the bot was built on a platform that enabled virality, so that helpful followers would amplify the notifications whenever the websites released big appointment drops.
Was there one defining moment that made you think, wow, ok, this is going to be big?
I never thought it’d be a big thing until Times piece hit and the story was aggregated many times over. I started getting emails from people around the world: could you make this for City A or Country B? TurboVax became part of the global vaccine rollout discourse. It’s about as fun as it sounds!
After the initial Times article was published, followers jumped from ~2k to 25k almost overnight. The Nates (Silver and Cohn) were early followers in all their forecasting prowess. Then came the Rachel Maddow follow in March. The AOC follow in April was a real coup. They are great, but I love all my followers equally.
I’ve had conversations with people in media and tech who either think it’s short-sighted or actually cool that TurboVax was, at the end of the day, a project with a short shelf life. Has that been a weird thing to square with your tech background, since tech can be so focused on scale and “disruption” and basically playing the long game?
Not at all. The short shelf life was a feature, not a bug. I’ve been very intentional about this project scope: give people the info they need to get the vax — nothing more. While TurboVax may make for a nice story, I don’t believe volunteers like me should be doing the government’s job. We need to let the government itself provide these kinds of services.
I think in the end TurboVax *is* a story of disruption. I helped hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers (my estimate) get their vax. How could one person — in his spare time — provide a product that the government could not? One answer is that our government is constrained by different standards and stakeholders. Another is that Twitter, Google and etc. can provide almost unlimited scale to any developer. I do hope that my experience opens up more opportunities for civically-minded people to engage and improve our government systems.
Finally, now that TurboVax is shut down, what are you going to do next?
Regular private citizen things. I started learning electric guitar last year but haven’t picked it up since starting work on TurboVax. As an avowed Post Malone stan, I might even check out a music festival or two (an embarrassing admission as someone in my 30s). I’m also actually kind of looking forward to being back on work slack and having coworkers again?
I do feel like there’s a bit of an expectation that I should come back with a blockbuster sequel. I have no idea what’s next. I have a couple ideas floating around in my head but am open to interesting opportunities (readers: feel free to send me a note at email@example.com). My intuition is what got me here today and is what I will keep following tomorrow, and the day after that!
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