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The rise and fall of the web-based personal essay


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At the New Yorker website, Jia Tolentino wonders why the kind of web-based personal essays that were once wildly popular at sites like Jezebel, xoJane, and BuzzFeed Ideas have fallen out of favor. Written largely by women, notes Tolentino, these essays once served as a way for newer writers to find their voice. Their no-holds-barred confessionalism also jibed well with the internet’s imperative of self-exposure. Tolentino speculates that this knee-jerk confessionalism was ultimately the downfall of the web-based personal essay, as the competition for clicks led to shallower and more sensational stories. She also cites the increasing interest in the social and the political over the personal, as world events have grown more dire in the past two years. Check out an excerpt from Tolentino’s piece:

What happened? To answer that, it helps to consider what gave rise to the personal essay’s ubiquity in the first place. Around 2008, several factors converged. In preceding years, private blogs and social platforms—LiveJournal, 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 The New Yorker 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. The forms that became increasingly common—flashy personal essays, op-eds, and news aggregation—were those that could attract viral audiences on the cheap…

There’s been a broader shift in attitudes about this sort of writing, which always endured plenty of vitriol. Put simply, the personal is no longer political in quite the same way that it was. Many profiles of Trump voters positioned personal stories as explanations for a terrible collective act; meanwhile, Clinton’s purported reliance on identity politics has been heavily criticized. Individual perspectives do not, at the moment, seem like a trustworthy way to get to the bottom of a subject … Writers seem less interested in mustering their own centrality than they were, and readers seem less excited at the prospect of being irritated by individual civilian personalities. “The political landscape has been so phantasmagoric that even the most sensationally interesting personal essays have lost some currency when not tied head-on to the news,” Bennett said in an e-mail. “There just hasn’t been much oxygen left for the kinds of essays that feel marginal or navel-gazey.” These days, she tends to see pitches “that center on systemic rather than personal trauma,” she added, “or on orienting personal trauma in our berserk new reality.”

Image: Emily Gould, one of the most prominent early practitioners of the web-based personal essay.