It has to start with the obituaries.
Last spring, after many years of imagining different possible iterations of it, I finally had the opportunity to teach a course called “Hot Takes: Cultural Criticism in the Digital Age” in the American Culture Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis, where I am a lecturer. (I am heartily sorry for the craven cheesiness of that title — the course catalog is a mortifying medium and we must all debase ourselves.)
Written nearly five years ago while I was applying for positions on the academic job market, the original syllabus outlined how a new and exciting form of cultural criticism — “the space betwixt and between the comments section and the little magazine,” I wrote at the time — had arisen from the gargantuan yet idiosyncratic online networks of the twenty-first century, and along with it a new wave of public intellectuals, like Roxane Gay, Anne Helen Petersen, Jia Tolentino, Jenna Wortham, Molly Lambert, Alyssa Rosenberg, Hanif Abdurraqib, Scott Tobias, Ezekiel Kweku, and so many more. The class was supposed to signify a sense of boundless ramshackle possibility, both for me as a job candidate and for the critics who occupied my reading schedule.
But by the time I had an opportunity to teach it last year, the online critical sphere I hoped to illuminate for students had cratered spectacularly. I thought the course would be animated by the energy and immediacy of these writers; instead, it was haunted by loss and decline. It was staggering to see how, without selecting for it intentionally, so many of the writers I assigned had written for publications that had since been shuttered or hollowed out. I thought it would be a class about contemporary discourse, but it turned out to be a course about an historical period.
And so I began it with the obituaries. Alongside a suite of essays in defense of cultural criticism as a practice, students began the second week of the course with a parallel suite of essays eulogizing shut-down or stunted websites. Alex Shepherd and Max Krotov on the 2015 sinking of Grantland; Max Read on Gawker‘s 2016 dismantling; Bryan Curtis on the 2017 house-cleaning of MTV News; Jia Tolentino on the 2018 collapse of The Awl empire. The causes of death were diverse but interrelated: lawsuit, creative difference, corporate buyout, pivot to video. These were not perfect sites, but they were spaces where wild and wooly takes could roam freely. As Sady Doyle (creator of the now-defunct feminist Tiger Beatdown blog) noted this week, appreciations of sites like these often loosely employ the word “blog.” But these were largely not blogs, not in the traditional sense. As Doyle rightly suggests, the true Blog Era ended in the late aughts and was replaced by sites like these that collated talent from platforms like blogspot but sought to pay their writers and give them some degree of institutional stability. But even the most corporate of these platforms like Grantland and MTV News mercifully maintained the intimacy and over-sharing and critical closeness of the blogger. These sites, at their peril, proved resistant to any notion of top-down control.
And since then, of course, there have been more obituaries. They’re still being written today about the ghost ship of Deadspin, a pristine example of what Gawker-founder Nick Denton once called “the good internet.” To read Will Leitch or Katie Baker or David Roth or any of the murderers’ row who’d cycled through there was to have an unmitigated experience of hope about what writing in the 21st century could be. It was a site that embraced the most maligned forms of internet writing (the listicle), as well as its most highly-regarded (the long read), and gave them energy in juxtaposition. What would it mean to acknowledge that sports are both bone-shakingly stupid and also the most important thing? Were these critics writing to you or talking to you? At what point did the jokes transmogrify into penetrating insights? When did this meandering conversation about memories of old baseball players turn into something poignant? And why would anybody have ever wanted this to stop?
I assigned those memorials at the beginning of class to set an appropriately mournful tone and to spotlight the idea that the criticism we would read had been produced under labor conditions that were tremendously precarious and getting worse. But the second unsettling revelation of the course was that many of my students had never heard of these places to begin with. To a roomful of 19-20 year olds, the titans of the blog era only just passed were also, for all intents and purposes, lost to them historically. Message boards and Television Without Pity might as well have been phenomena of the 19th century, and the trail from the Jezebel comments section to The Hairpin to The Toast as remote as an ice shelf in the Arctic. The rhapsodic space of “freedom and fun” Jia Tolentino wrote about in her Awl tribute was a concept that seemed not only invisible to them but antithetical to what they knew of the internet.
Part of this certainly has to do with the changed mood of the online space after Gamergate, after Trump. It’s one thing to explain to people the context in which the pilot of HBO’s Girls was heralded as a feminist masterpiece and pilloried as privileged propaganda within the space of a week, and that the responses and counter-responses it catalyzed — from Emily Nussbaum and Jenna Wortham and Anna Holmes and everybody else you were reading — just as quickly altered the popular terrain for discussions about what “progress” meant for white women and people of color on television, and that all of this happened before most people had even seen the show. It’s wholly another thing to explain to people why anyone ever had the cognitive space to care about it that much.
And, of course, the space of “freedom and fun” was never wholly free nor entirely fun. The misbegotten blogs and online magazines could be feminist and anti-authoritarian and brave, but they could also be intermittently provincial, they could be mean, they could be unbearably white. Culturally, the blog era and its better-capitalized afterlives didn’t represent a utopian project, but it did represent a responsive one. As these blogs leveled unabashed criticism at the powerful, they also remained open to criticism themselves, nimble, ready to change with the discourse they helped create. They held the little power they had well — lifting up new voices, giving writers editorial responsibilities, letting people say what they wanted to say and listening.
I was never really a part of this movement, marginal to it, at best. But, all the same, it’s a weird feeling to watch your own present book-ended and turned into a discrete “era” or “period” or “movement” in front of your eyes. I came to online writing too late, without enough of the renegade energy to ever really write the way they wrote then. But their style was the style I emulated. I inhaled This Recording and Free Darko and The Awl and, later, Grantland — the people who populated these places are roughly my peers, some of them are my friends, but I watched them from a few steps back. It’s from this admiring distance that I carved out my own space with friends online, and from this admiring distance that I had to design my class in retrospect.
From over here, it’s clear, in the wake of all the bad vibes, that what these sites represented, what they tried to mainstream — or at least fund — is done. Experiment after experiment has failed, not because these writers couldn’t produce extraordinary writing, but because the people in a position to value it consistently failed to know how to value it, and because those same people often failed to see those writers — who used to write for free! — as deserving of workers’ rights and protections.
The question now is not whether a new angel investor will provide a life raft for everybody floating out there who hasn’t been scooped up by Vox or The New Yorker or whether The Ringer‘s unionization will yield positive results. The question is if what they did and who they were and how the now-foreclosed future they dreamed of will be remembered. The internet, notoriously, is the mechanism by which all our most embarrassing and evil deeds live on forever, but it’s also a fragile, immaterial place. The keystroke of a petty billionaire could take thousands upon thousands of words away without warning, and the snip of an underwater cable could take it all away irrevocably. But even without such an extinction-level event, what’s lost on the internet threatens to be lost for good.
I taught that course last spring as a pilot course, but I’ll teach it again. It’ll be taught at a required intro course number for the major — fulfilling the program’s “multi-disciplinary” requirement with hilarious ease. The writers I teach may well all have staff jobs or regular freelancing jobs, they may rattle off newsletters and host successful podcasts, but the creative and intellectual milieu from which they once emerged will likely belong mostly to nostalgic barroom arias in Bushwick and people like me, whose job it is to help college students learn from the past, to read great writers, and — to appropriate The Awl‘s slogan — “be less stupid” than the people who came before them.
If all goes well, dozens of students will take it over the next years, and, when they do, they’ll begin with a story about how a kind of miraculous and momentary thing was born and died in their lifetimes without them knowing it. But then they’ll read those funny and clean and unending words. And they’ll feel the sting of something that was good but can’t ever be good in the same way again.
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