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Attention flows naturally to the outrageous, the harrowing, the intimate, and the recognizable, and the online personal essay began to harden into a form defined by identity and adversity—not in spite of how tricky it is to negotiate those matters in front of a crowd but precisely because of that fact.The commodification of personal experience was also women’s territory: the small budgets of popular women-focussed Web sites, and the rapidly changing conventions and constrictions surrounding women’s lives, insured it.
One could “take a safari” through various personal-essay habitats—Gawker, Jezebel, xo Jane, Salon, Buzz Feed Ideas—and conclude that they were more or less the same, she argued.
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.
By September, 2015, online first-person writing was so abundant that Laura Bennett, at Slate, could refer to a “first-person industrial complex” in a takedown of the genre.
“Every site seems to have a first person vertical and a first-person editor,” Bennett, who also cited Gould’s story as a turning point, wrote.
Sarah Hepola, who worked as Salon’s personal-essay editor, described the situation to me in an e-mail.
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“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.And so many women wrote about the most difficult things that had ever happened to them and received not much in return.Most sites paid a few hundred dollars for such pieces at most; xo Jane paid fifty dollars.Personal essays have evidently been deemed not worth the trouble.Even those of us who like the genre aren’t generally mourning its sudden disappearance from the mainstream of the Internet.For the first two years that I edited personal essays, I received at least a hundred first-person pitches and pieces each week.But an ad-based publishing model built around maximizing page views quickly and cheaply creates uncomfortable incentives for writers, editors, and readers alike.She was right: a year and a half later, it barely exists.Buzz Feed Ideas shut down at the end of 2015, Gawker and xo Jane in 2016; Salon no longer has a personal-essays editor.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).Finally, there were those essays that directed outrage at society by describing incidents of sexism, abuse, or rape.