The first-person industrial complex: How the harrowing personal essay took over the Internet.

Why Did the Harrowing Personal Essay Take Over the Internet?

Why Did the Harrowing Personal Essay Take Over the Internet?

Read this first.
Sept. 14 2015 5:45 AM

The First-Person Industrial Complex

The Internet prizes the harrowing personal essay. But sometimes telling your story comes with a price.

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Illustrations by Lisa Larson-Walker.

A few months ago, Natasha Chenier submitted a piece to Jezebel about her sexual relationship with her dad. She described meeting her biological father for the first time at age 19 and being gradually overtaken by lust for him. She recalled being so wracked by disgust and shame after the second time they had oral sex that she dry-heaved over the toilet in his bathroom. “He lay on his bed looking aloof during those episodes,” she wrote, “spouting empty assurances like, ‘You’ll be fine.’ ”

Laura Bennett Laura Bennett

Laura Bennett is a Slate senior editor.

Writing that essay, she recalls now, was “terrifying.” But in a way, it felt inevitable, too. Chenier, now 27, had always kept a diligent journal and had been reading Jezebel for years. “I had this story I’d always wanted to tell,” she says, “and suddenly I felt like the world was ready.”

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Jia Tolentino, Jezebel’s features editor, contemplated the draft. It was sure to be a blockbuster. It had graphic and devastating details, yet a matter-of-fact narrative voice. It would feed the Internet’s bottomless appetite for harrowing personal essays. But she tried to explain to Chenier just what airing this story could mean for her life: “Since she was new to writing, I just wanted to confirm—was she ready for this to be on her Google results forever?” Tolentino gave her the option of publishing under a pseudonym. But Chenier seemed confident that she knew what she was getting into. “She was sure she wanted to build her writing career around this,” Tolentino says. When Jezebel published the piece, titled “On Falling In and Out of Love With My Dad,” it ran with a bright red illustration of a bed between the words “I” and “Dad.” Of course, the essay went viral.

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First-person writing has long been the Internet’s native voice. As long as there have been bloggers, there have been young people scraping their interior lives in order to convert the rawest bits into copy. But we are currently in the midst of an unprecedented moment in the online first-person boom. The rise of the unreported hot take, that much-maligned instant spin on the news of the day, has meant that editors are constantly searching for writers with any claim to expertise on a topic to elevate their pieces above the swarm. First-person essays have become the easiest way for editors to stake out some small corner of a news story and assert an on-the-ground primacy without paying for reporting. And first-person essays have also become the easiest way to jolt an increasingly jaded Internet to attention, as the bar for provocation has risen higher and higher. For writers looking to break in, offering up grim, personal dispatches may be the surest ways to get your pitches read.

It’s been seven years since former Gawker editor Emily Gould sprawled on an unmade bed on the cover of the New York Times Magazine beside the words “Blog-Post Confidential,” arguably the first moment of mainstream cultural grappling with the new age of digital self-disclosure. Since then, the Internet’s confessional impulse has been fully codified. Every site seems to have a first person vertical and a first-person editor. Gone are all the old existential rumblings about the perils of “oversharing” and the ego-amplifying effects of the Web. Early adopters such as Gawker and Jezebel and xoJane and Salon jostle for attention alongside the likes of BuzzFeed Ideas and PostEverything and Vox First Person. Rookie has a rubric called “Live Through This.” The Guardian has “Experience.”

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Take a safari through these sections and the main impression—aside from despair at the exhibit of dire human experience on display—is that all the headlines tend to blur together. Sure, Vox’s essays are chopped up into scannable sections with instructional headlines (“How Medicaid Forces Families Like Mine to Stay Poor”); BuzzFeed’s are often more casual and chatty (“Fat Monica Wasn’t Just Courteney Cox in a Fatsuit. She Was My Truth”), xoJane’s tend toward the sensational and salacious (“I Was Cheating on My Boyfriend When He Died”); PostEverything’s have a newsier tint (“I’m a White Woman Who Dated a Black Panther. I Could Have Been Rachel Dolezal”); Rookie’s are hormonal and whimsically illustrated (“Why Do I Keep Writing About the Time I Got My Heart Broken?”). At Slate, we’ve published essays with headlines such as “Dating While Mentally Ill” and “I Could Have Been Elliot Rodger.” But for all the different house styles these pieces accommodate, it’s striking how many of them read like reverse-engineered headlines, buzzy premises fleshed out with the gritty details of firsthand experience.

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And despite the wide-ranging hardship these pieces catalog, they also share a tendency to reach for the universal even as they dig into the acutely personal. A Vox essay titled “How I Came to Forgive My Rapist” starts out as a powerfully specific story and ends with this: “All that endures now is my wish for an end to rape for everyone else.” XoJane’s “Cheating on My Boyfriend When He Died” ultimately declares, “I hope someone can learn from my mistakes.” A PostEverything essay about one man’s descent into, and emergence from, white supremacy is framed as a kind of how-to manual: “This Is How You Become a White Supremacist.”

As for Chenier, the original ending of her essay was: “What I want to say about all the women out there who have ever been victimized is you are beautiful and it’s not your fault.” Tolentino tweaked it in the edit to read, “To the victims of their abuse, I want to say what I have finally been able to understand myself: that my attraction, and what it led to, was not my fault.” As Tolentino explains, she “tried to cut everything that would trigger a ‘YEA girl!’ response”—hoping to strike a balance between reaching a broad audience and positing one extreme individual experience as a global truth.

But this is an inevitable feature of today’s first-person essays: the push to ensure that every story, no matter how narrow, will find an ardent audience of cheerleaders (or hate-readers) and a corresponding number of clicks—to dress up the personal in the language of the political. It’s a pressure that wasn’t nearly so intense back when Gould chronicled the aftermath of her breakup on Gawker or when Moe Tkacik cheerfully described removing a 10-day-old tampon for Jezebel in 2008, or when Cat Marnell detailed her drug abuse for xoJane in the early 2010s. “Back then,” Gould says, “I was just writing about myself because it was the thing I knew how to do. I was not thinking about traffic.”

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The “old” school of first-person Internet writers could seem like shock jocks—their work was an ongoing experiment in how to scandalize audiences without fully alienating them. But Gould and Tkacik were building relationships with readers via self-exposure, cultivating boundary-pushing personas that encouraged a kind of voyeuristic investment in their shifting personal dramas and thoughts. So many of these new iterations, by contrast, feel like one-offs—solo acts of sensational disclosure that bubble up and just as quickly vaporize. Rather than feats of self-branding, they seem to be—like, say, the gruesome recent viral sensation “My Gynecologist Found a Ball of Cat Hair in My Vagina”— professional dead ends, journalistically speaking.

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At this point, Gould’s Times magazine cover story feels quaint. “What’s hard to believe now is how upset people got about that piece,” Gould says. Despite the 7,000 words it spanned, it mostly just wandered through descriptions of her job and relationships and instant message chats. “Today, it would seem so tame,” she adds. If the old wave of online first-person writing was personality-driven, this new wave—aside from blunt-force click-baiting à la cat hairballs—is often more issue-driven. Ask Nona Willis Aronowitz, who edits Talking Points Memo’s The Slice, for a few examples of her section’s greatest successes, and she cites an essay by the child of Cuban exiles that ran around the time of the Cuban-American detente and a piece by a young woman who was sexually assaulted at the University of Virginia that was published in the wake of the Rolling Stone controversy. Those pieces, Aronowitz says, “took off insanely”; TPM typically considers an article to be a hit when it reaches 25,000 unique views, but these essays racked up about 100,000 each. “It was scary to write about something so personal on a 24-hour deadline,” says Kirsten Schofield, the freelancer who told the story of her sexual assault at UVA. “But I knew this was in the news and there was a small window of opportunity if I wanted anyone to pay attention.”

The first-person boom has had one significant benefit: There’s more of a market for underrepresented viewpoints than ever. And in some ways, we’re in a golden age for first-person writing online. Just read Heather Havrilesky’s elegant essays-masquerading-as-advice-columns for The Cut, or Cord Jefferson for Matter on working the “racism beat,” or Steve Kandell for BuzzFeed on visiting the 9/11 museum after losing his sister in the attacks, or Jay Caspian Kang on the roots of Korean American male anger. These are models of how to write about oneself in a way that is at once gripping and sensitive and that sheds light on broader sociopolitical issues.

But these essays seem like a different literary species alongside most of the content of today’s teeming first-person verticals, and not just because they feel so much more fully incubated and carefully conceived. Even when they are graphic and raw, their self-revelations are strategically dispensed. They don’t merely assert the universality of their experience; they arrive at it by guiding us through the precise arc of their self-reckoning. In fact, the defining trait of the best first-person writing is exactly what is missing from so much of the new crop: self-awareness.

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Rebecca Carroll, formerly an editor at xoJane, recalls reading one submission by a white woman about how few black people were in her yoga class that was “pretty tone deaf, just totally un-self-aware.” It would have taken too much time to fully overhaul it. Still, Carroll published it, knowing that—brutally honest as it was—it was sure to be provocative. “There was an enormous backlash, and the writer was traumatized,” Carroll says. “I felt like I just shouldn’t have run the piece at all, because I fundamentally misestimated how prepared the writer was for this to go public.” So many of these recent essays make a show of maximal divulgence, but are too half-baked and dashed-off to do the work of real introspection.

This is a key problem with the new first-person economy: the way it incentivizes knee-jerk, ideally topical self-exposure, the hot take’s more intimate sibling. The mandate at xoJane, according to Carroll, was: the more “shameless” an essay, the better. Carroll describes how “internally crushing” it became to watch her inbox get flooded every day with the darkest moments in strangers’ lives: “eating disorders, sexual assault, harassment, ‘My boyfriend’s a racist and I just realized it.’ ” After a while, Carroll said, the pitches began to sound as if they were all written in the same voice: “immature, sort of boastful.” Tolentino, who worked as an editor at the Hairpin before Jezebel, characterizes the typical Jezebel pitch as the “microaggression personal essay” or “My bikini waxer looked at me funny and here’s what it says about women’s shame,” and the typical Hairpin pitch as “I just moved to the big city and had a beautiful coffee shop encounter, and here’s what it says about urban life.”

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The speed of the churn is grueling enough when applied to news analysis; when it comes to personal essays, the stakes are even higher. In one case, for an xoJane piece titled “I’m Living With My Abuser,” the editors were scrambling to get a piece online and accidently published the writer’s picture and name despite having promised to make her anonymous. “I think there is just a very fine line between providing a platform for these writers,” Carroll says, “and exploiting them.” Ryan O’Connell, who wrote about his personal life for Thought Catalog from 2010 to 2014, said that the volume expectations and traffic pressures kept escalating until he found himself emotionally exhausted. He moved to Los Angeles last year, partly to, in his words, “escape the first-person Internet.” “It’s disturbia out there,” he says.

It’s harder than ever to weigh the ethics of publishing these pieces against the market forces that demand them, especially as new traffic analytics make it easy to write and edit with metrics in mind. “I’ve always loved unvarnished, almost performative, extemporaneous bloggy writing,” Gould says. “But now an editor will be like, can you take this trending topic and make it be about you?” Sarah Hepola, who edits Salon’s personal essays, says that the question “What am I doing to these writers?” is always in the back of her mind: “I try to warn them that their Internet trail will be ‘I was a BDSM person,’ and they did it for $150.” But editors’ best efforts aside, this is, more than anything, a labor problem—writers toiling at the whims of a system with hazardous working conditions that involve being paid next to nothing and guaranteed a lifetime of SEO infamy. The first-person boom, Tolentino says, has helped create “a situation in which writers feel like the best thing they have to offer is the worst thing that ever happened to them.”

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Within 10 minutes of hitting “send” on her pitch, Natasha Chenier had a response in her inbox: Jezebel was interested. When “On Falling In and Out of Love With My Dad,” went live, she watched nervously as it spread through the social Web. On Jezebel, it racked up nearly 300,000 views; other publications picked up the piece and aggregated it with headlines like “I Had Sex With My Father.” She got emails from distant friends saying that their distant friends had sent it to them. “It was beyond what I ever could have imagined,” Chenier said.

We’ve arrived at a strange, counterintuitive point in the evolution of the first-person Internet. On its face, the personal-essay economy prizes inclusivity and openness; it often privileges the kinds of voices that don’t get mainstream attention. But it can be a dangerous force for the people who participate in it. And though the risks and exploitations of the first-person Internet are not gender-specific, many of these problems feel more acute for women. The reason—aside from the fact that the “confessional” essay as a form has historically attracted more women than men—is that so many of the outlets that are most hungry for quick freelancer copy, and have the lowest barriers to entry for publication, are still women’s interest sites.

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“Writing about my interior life for the Internet has disfigured my relationship to it,” Alana Massey says. Massey had been working in PR, knowing she wanted to be a writer but not quite knowing how to start, before she began writing online essays about her body-image problems and her eating disorder, first for xoJane, then BuzzFeed and Medium. “The minute I have an interesting idea or turn of phrase or experience now, I’m like, OK, who do I send this to? How fast can I monetize it?”

Even Gould, who came up in what was in some ways a gentler era, burned out and spent years hardly able to produce a word. Writing about herself had strained her relationships and left her feeling totally depleted. “I would sooner lick the floor of the café that I’m sitting in right now than read the early first-person posts I wrote,” Gould says. “I’ve gotten more self-conscious. It’s harder to write about myself now, because I’m too aware of the consequences.”

Since publishing her essay, Chenier is no longer in touch with her mother’s family, who have struggled to come to terms with her decision to write about her experiences. She’s working on a novel about her relationship with her father and the broader phenomenon of genetic sexual attraction. She just finished a master’s in literature and is currently applying to Ph.D. programs, but hopes to keep writing nonacademically on the side. Shortly after her essay was published, feeling emboldened by its success, Chenier pitched Jezebel another piece. It wasn’t about sex or abuse or her dad—it was an op-ed about the portrayal of women in Mad Max. This time, she got no reply.

No one could blame an editor for turning down such a pitch in a landscape already swarming with Mad Max think pieces. Still, it gave Chenier a nagging feeling that if she wanted to be a writer who didn’t want to write about sleeping with her dad, the scales weren’t tipped in her favor. “All I’d said in that first pitch was, I’ve experienced this trauma, and the editor was like, ‘You’re in,’ ” Chenier says. “They didn’t know who I was; they didn’t know if I was a good writer. They just knew I’d experienced something terrible.” Chenier remembers being so sure that she wanted to write that piece. She’d felt so strongly that it was worth the risk. “But when I step back and think about everything I put on the line …” She pauses and takes a breath. “It’s just—wow. It’s a lot. It’s everything.”