The forms that became increasingly common—flashy personal essays, op-eds, and news aggregation—were those that could attract viral audiences on the cheap.
“The boom in personal essays—at Salon, at least, but I suspect other places—was in part a response to an online climate where more content was needed at the exact moment budgets were being slashed.” When I worked as an editor at the Hairpin and Jezebel, from 2013 to 2016, I saw up close how friendly editors and ready audiences could implicitly encourage writers to submit these pieces in droves.
For the first two years that I edited personal essays, I received at least a hundred first-person pitches and pieces each week.
The essays that drew the most attention tended to fall within certain categories.
There were the one-off body-horror pieces, such as “My Gynecologist Found a Ball of Cat Hair in My Vagina,” published by xo Jane, or a notorious lost-tampon chronicle published by Jezebel.
Thought Catalog chugs along, but it seems to have lost its ability to rile up outside readers.
Of course, published a first-person cover story by Alex Tizon, with the provocative headline “My Family’s Slave.” But there’s a specific sort of ultra-confessional essay, written by a person you’ve never heard of and published online, that flourished until recently and now hardly registers.Bennett deemed the personal-essay economy a “dangerous force for the people who participate in it.”By that point, writers, editors, and readers had become suspicious of one another, and the factors that produced the personal-essay boom had started to give way.Some of the online publishers that survive have shifted to video and sponsored posts and Facebook partnerships to shore up revenue.The change has happened quietly, but it’s a big one: a genre that partially defined the last decade of the Internet has essentially disappeared. To answer that, it helps to consider what gave rise to the personal essay’s ubiquity in the first place. In preceding years, private blogs and social platforms—Live Journal, Blogspot, Facebook—trained people to write about their personal lives at length and in public.As Silvia Killingsworth, who was previously the managing editor of and took over the Awl and the Hairpin last year, put it to me, “People love to talk about themselves, and they were given a platform and no rules.” Then the invisible hand of the page-view economy gave them a push: Web sites generated ad revenue in direct proportion to how many “eyeballs” could be attracted to their offerings, and editorial budgets had contracted in the wake of the recession.There were essays that incited outrage for the life styles they described, like the one about pretending to live in the Victorian era, or Cat Marnell’s oeuvre.There were those that incited outrage by giving voice to horrible, uncharitable thoughts, like “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing” (xo Jane again) and “I’m Not Going to Pretend I’m Poor to Be Accepted by You” (Thought Catalog).Most sites paid a few hundred dollars for such pieces at most; xo Jane paid fifty dollars.When I began writing on the Internet, I wrote personal essays for free.While she granted that not all first-person writing on the Internet was undignified, there were far too many “solo acts of sensational disclosure” that read like “reverse-engineered headlines.”The market, in Bennett’s view, had overinflated.She was right: a year and a half later, it barely exists.