The 10 most read Future Perfect stories of 2023
The case against pets, what Oppenheimer got wrong, and the magic of meditation.
As Future Perfect has in past years, we’re calling out our most read stories of the year. It’s a great way to get a sense of the breadth of our coverage and the specific stories, authors, and subjects that you, our audience, found most engaging.
In the list that follows, you’ll find classic Future Perfect stories and approaches, like Kelsey Piper’s cogent take on the question of whether masks were really effective during Covid-19, or Dylan Matthews’s story on the first results from the world’s biggest basic income experiment. But you’ll also find new subject areas we delved into in 2023, like Future Perfect fellow Oshan Jarow’s exploration of meditation or freelancer David Zipper’s article on how Norway is rethinking electric vehicles.
As I always am at this time of year, I’m incredibly proud of the work that Future Perfect has done and incredibly grateful for the attention and care of our audience — very much including all of the readers who respond to our newsletters. We’ll continue to grow in 2024 as we branch out into new areas while maintaining our focus on stories that are important, neglected, and tractable.
1) “Why Norway — the poster child for electric cars — is having second thoughts” by David Zipper
One of the most important additions to Future Perfect in 2023 was deputy editor Marina Bolotnikova, who built out our network of outside contributors. So I was very happy to see a freelance piece as our most read story for the year. David Zipper, who writes widely about transportation and urban issues, went to Norway and found that a country that has long been a leader in the electric vehicle transition is discovering that EVs may not be all they’re cracked up to be.
2) “The case against pet ownership” by Kenny Torrella
Sometimes a story you assume won’t get major readership surprises you — like David’s piece above. And then there are stories you just know from the moment they’re conceived are going to get wide, wide readership. Kenny’s feature on the ethical problems of owning pets is the latter. Given how many pet owners there are in the US and how much they care about their pets, I had no doubt that a story titled “the case against pet ownership” would do big numbers. But what made Kenny’s story so great — an example of authentic virality — is the care and passion he, a dog owner himself, applied to the subject.
3) “How a shipping error 100 years ago launched the $30 billion chicken industry” by Kenny Torrella
I’ll let you in on a little editorial secret. One way to goose your numbers is to try to peg your story to a major event — and there’s no event more major in the US than Super Bowl Sunday, when Americans eat nearly 1.5 billion chicken wings, as Kenny points out in his piece. But while the timing with the Super Bowl certainly helped, this story was widely read because Kenny was able to uncover the surprising history of our multibillion-dollar industrial chicken industry. That story involves a single farm in Delaware, a weird shipping accident, and even a mysterious death caused by an exploding boat. But more than that, Kenny showed us how an industry that chews through 70 billion chickens a year globally was born, and how it grew and grew.
4) “Meditation is more than either stress relief or enlightenment” by Oshan Jarow
Oshan was one of three Future Perfect reporting fellows when he wrote this in the summer of 2023 — and you can see why we made the decision to bring him on board full time. This article provides a view of modern meditation from the inside out, exploring how a fusion of ancient traditions and contemporary science may be able to unlock the benefits of meditation for the masses. I particularly loved the way Oshan connected meditation to one of the biggest challenges facing humanity today, one that is becoming increasingly important for us at Future Perfect: the mental health crisis.
5) “The first results from the world’s biggest basic income experiment” by Dylan Matthews
This one made me smile. Top 10 list aside, mass readership isn’t really our focus at Future Perfect. Part of the reason we’re grant-supported is that you don’t generally expect coverage on subjects that are by definition not what the media usually covers to put up big audience numbers. And yet, here is Dylan, who helped found Future Perfect, reporting on the surprising results of the world’s largest test on basic income in Kenya — and it’s our fifth most read story of the year. That’s why I love our audience.
6) “‘Cry baby scientist’: What Oppenheimer the film gets wrong about Oppenheimer the man” by Haydn Belfield
I started editing this freelance story from University of Cambridge existential risk expert Haydn Belfield about 30 minutes after I emerged, utterly dazed, from a 9:30 am first-day showing of Oppenheimer. And as soon as I was done reading it, I rushed to finish it and publish as soon as I could, because I knew that the millions of people who were watching the Oppenheimer half of Barbenheimer that weekend needed to know about the dark and weird side of the film’s immensely privileged hero. What a great counternarrative to Christopher Nolan’s Byronic tale of a scientist done wrong. My favorite line: “Once after a crash of Oppenheimer’s own, speeding in his Chrysler while racing a train and knocking unconscious and almost killing his passenger Natalie Raymond, his dad gave her a Cezanne drawing by way of an apology. Hot dog!” Hot dog indeed.
7) “The new scientific review on masks and Covid isn’t what you think” by Kelsey Piper
You have your takes, and your contrarian takes, but what Kelsey pulls off here is the rare counter-contrarian take. First, the assumption was that masks were an important way to stem the spread of Covid-19. But then came the Cochrane review, a seemingly gold-standard meta-analysis that crunched the data and seemed to conclude that no, actually they apparently made no difference at all. But as Kelsey carefully described, there were significant problems with how the meta-analysis was conducted and which studies it was drawing from, which meant that such conclusions were far too sweeping. It’s a perfect example of something Kelsey excels at: the scientific study of science itself.
8) “The Aubrey Plaza ad for Big Dairy that may have violated federal law, explained” by Kenny Torrella
Sometimes the headline really does say it all. Here was indie comedy darling Aubrey Plaza, shilling for Big Dairy in a commercial for a fake plant-based dairy product called Wood Milk. There’s a vibrant media subgenre in pointing out when celebrities do something wrong on the internet, but Kenny went beyond the easy mockery to show how the ad — which, yes, really did seem to skirt federal law — was just the latest salvo in an ongoing war between Big Dairy and the plant-based products trying to supplant it. Personally, I’ll never look at Parks and Recreation the same way again.
9) “23 things we think will happen in 2023” by Future Perfect staff
You know something I learned in 2023? You all really, really like it when we try to predict the future. I’ve got good news — you can catch our new batch of predictions for 2024 at the start of the year. I only wish my prediction for the Super Bowl last year had done as well as this story.
10) “The viral story of a girl and her goat explains how the meat industry indoctrinates children” by Gabriel Rosenberg and Jan Dutkiewicz
I’m very happy to see how many animal welfare stories made it on our most read list. Of all the subjects we cover, the effort to change a factory farming system that tortures and kills tens of billions of animals a year is the one that faces the longest odds. It can often feel as if nothing can help, as if progress here is doomed. Yet the fact that so many people read about Gabriel and Jan’s story on the scandalous experience of a young girl who came to adore the goat she was raising for a 4-H project, only to have the animal forcibly taken from her by county sheriffs, gives me a little bit of hope for the new year.