From Taylor Swift to the world’s largest T-shirt cannon: An internet reader

Image via Unsplash.

I imagine it like this: Our great-grandchildren, who are robots, are sitting in class in the bombed-out remains of Harvard University. This class is taught via hologram by an adjunct who has to cast herself into 30 classes a day just to pay her rent in bitcoin. Disease runs rampant.

The class is “The History of the Internet.” During the semester, our grandrobots will learn how we spent our time rage tweeting, memeing, GIFing, and Snapchatting our way into oblivion.

“That’s how the war began,” the teacher will tell them.

A robot child will raise his hand and say he thought his great-grandma did something on the internet. “I think she went viral?”

“Who didn’t go viral?” the tired hologram will sigh.

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The internet is both eternally new and exhaustingly timeless. People have always gathered to share ideas and information, but the speed and voice with which we now make this exchange is at its best uniquely bizarre, maddening, hilarious, and trenchant. As a result, the writing that happens in this space is quickly dissipating ephemera; it punches us in the gut, changes the world, changes nothing, and disappears, sometimes for good, sometimes just from our collective consciousness. Or sometimes it stays there, lingering in our discursive experience.

Who can remember everything? Who would want to? Jaunts offline into nature are primarily a way to scrub our minds of the endless textual shouting of internet discourse. And yet, creating a record of what makes internet writing internet writing is a useful exercise in understanding what it is we do all day and why it compels us ever-maddeningly forward.

Because I hate myself, and because I want my future robots to remember my contributions to this wild weird world before it all dissipates into the ether, or becomes a wasteland of Russian bots and Incels, I spoke with writers, journalists, novelists, and normal people to come up with a definitive list of essential internet reading. This required coming up with a working theory about what makes internet writing uniquely “internetty.”

It comes as no surprise that finding and creating a cohesive understanding of internet writing is just as dubious, problematic, and maddening as the internet itself. Writer Taffy Akner argued that internet writing is not in and of itself a uniquely internet thing. She posited that there is only internet publishing. Publishers are willing to take chances with liberal use of the “publish” button on blogs simply because of the ephemeral and click-based nature of the enterprise. “Sassy,” she wrote, referring to the long-shuttered teen magazine, “was full of this shit.”

By “this shit,” Akner referred to the unhewn, raw, intertextual style of internet writing.

But Sassy is gone. And there might be an argument that women raised on the magazine, which ran from 1988 to 1996—formative years for aging millennials—have been trying to resurrect it on the internet for the past 20 years.

Some of the criteria for what constitutes memorable internet writing were that the stories initially had to be published exclusively online. They had to have a lingering quality—a memorable refrain that made them stick around in the collective consciousness. Which is vague, but it’s all I had.

Some stories and authors were named over and over—Caity Weaver was the most-named writer, and “It’s Decorative Gourd Season Motherfuckers” the most cited article.  

And there is a reason for this. Both “It’s Decorative Gourd Season Motherfuckers” and the Caity Weaver Gawker canon are perfect examples of the internet’s strengths and strangeness. The swear words alone in the classic McSweeney’s piece make it uniquely internet. But there are other elements, too—the conciseness of the joke, the exuberance, use of all caps, pop-culture references, words like “BLAMMO!”

In the vein of the classic humor article are many other gems, like The Onion’s “Female Friends Spend Raucous Night Validating The Living Shit Out Of Each Other” and Clickhole’s “Which One of My Garbage Sons Are You?” quiz, which plays with the internet quiz format, turning it into a hilarious send-up of modern parenting.

The internet, with its irreverence and short attention span, is a perfect vehicle for crassly delightful send-up humor. This isn’t uniquely internet, and yet the internet has become most often the unique repository for this referential humor.

Similarly, Weaver’s writing is an intertextual mixture of commentary, humor, pop-culture references, and insight. Her stories, especially the early ones for Gawker, almost feel like the delightful drunken things you shout to your friends in a bar. Except smarter. And deceptively focused. Her essay “My 14-Hour Search for the End of TGI Friday’s Endless Appetizers” is both a hilarious story about consumption, mozzarella sticks, and time, but it’s also about loneliness and capitalism. The structure of the piece is organized by time stamps. Many of the articles cited as internet classics had structures that eschewed the paragraph format and relied on elaborate premises.

Weaver’s other most-cited article was her piece titled, “Taylor Swift’s Home Sounds Like It Was Decorated by a Serial Killer.” This story is classic internet in that it was built on top of another article—it’s an aggregation that rises to the level of a good take. In it, Weaver extensively quotes a Rolling Stone interview with Taylor Swift. But in doing so, she makes us see the Rolling Stone article in a new light. In Weaver’s imagining, what was a puff piece for a magazine becomes a sinister warning about Swift’s serial killer proclivities.

New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino also cited a Weaver article as an internet classic: “Philly Unveils World’s Largest T-Shirt Cannon; Haters Crying Themselves to Sleep; They Literally Cannot Believe It,” published on Gawker in 2012.

Tolentino notes of the article, “Weaver aggregating this news item about a T-shirt cannon in Philadelphia is a magnificent example of how the grind of blogging, under the right circumstances (i.e., total stylistic freedom), can be both extremely good and extremely useful for writers who have a voice worth sharpening. Blogging has mostly migrated onto Twitter, which is terrible—long live the blog.”

Another master of the aggregation blog post is Drew Magary, whose “Hater’s Guide to the William’s Sonoma Catalog,” lives long in the attention-deficit memories of the internet.

Takes and aggregation have been around since Martin Luther first nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg—truly the hottest take, kick-starting the Protestant movement and the 30 Year War. All your other takes could never….But internet takes are notable in their swiftness and irreverent tone. That is is heightened by the context of social media, which offers a fast-moving discourse that can immediately change the tone in which the story is read.

Then there are the ads, which on the internet offer an almost-immersive and unnerving experience. John Mahoney, writing in The Awl, calls the pile of ads at the bottom of internet articles a chum bucket, noting of them:

But ask yourself — when was the last time a piece of internet content asked you, “How well do you understand your subconscious mind” and truly meant it? In what other cultural medium can you find the deepest libidinal channels of the brain truly laid bare, with the quarterly pay-per-click revenue report to back them up? Have you lately exercised your deep-seated impulse to view an image of a weeping soft-cooked egg sitting on top of the pimple-encrusted face of Uma Thurman? What are you waiting for? Into the chumpools. The fetid ball of soggy electric fat at the other end of your clicking finger will thank you for the workout.

These chumpools of ads footnote almost all of our content and upset even the most deeply reverent of takes—yanking our attention away from the deep thoughts of Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, and back into our sublimated desire to see how that woman lost 50 pounds in 40 days and what did happen next?

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Another category of classic internet writing is the review, or the ad. Writing on The Awl in 2016, Silvia Killingsworth calls these form-box gems “the most honest form of expression we have.

Killingsworth cites a now–deleted ad for a Vitamix blender that turned into a personal essay about love:

These little platform-incongruent Easter eggs give us blips of pleasure; they are like the marginalia of the internet, except they’re more than just notes — they’re little standalone works of art. It’s a few notches above I WAS HERE graffiti, it’s more like “Hello friend, I was here, and I’m a person! Do you like muffins? I love them! Here’s a recipe.” It gives you more than you bargained for, but you’re not mad; it brightens your day. It’s only slightly subversive, and mostly entertaining.

A classic in this genre is the beloved Amazon tissue review, where children’s author James O. pretended to be a harassed mother of boys, writing a review diatribe about her teenage sons, tissues, and masturbation.

Daniel Mallory Ortberg, a writer of much classic internet content, noted in a 2014 interview with The Guardian that having his writing career live-birthed on the internet meant that he learned not to be “precious” about his words.

People will move on, and the internet is a constant wave of content. You shouldn’t be mindlessly producing crap, but the more you write, the better you’ll get. You’ll develop your own voice, you’ll figure out what works and what doesn’t. You’ll make lots of mistakes, and you’ll make them in front of other people and they might make fun of you for it. Just write a lot and see what happens. It’s important to look at not only whether you enjoyed writing the piece, but how others interact with it.

The internet, by extension, honed her voice through interaction rather than editing. And if there is a historical equivalent for that, I’m hard-pressed to find one.

Choire Sicha, the New York Times Styles editor, has also had a career mid-wifed through blogs. In a 2018 interview with Fashionista, Sicha notes that the constant grind of internet writing is the iron that quickly sharpens a writer’s voice.

This is boring, but the greatest thing for me — and I see this with young writers sometimes, that they don’t have — is I had to write constantly. It was very good on a sentence-by-sentence level and at establishing voice. Most of voice is just a series of crutches applied regularly, and when you’re writing eight-12 posts a day, you really double down on that. What I see with young writers now is that they don’t have these horrible blogging jobs — which is for the best, probably — but they also are hesitant. Their voices aren’t fully developed. They aren’t put on the spot so they don’t develop as quickly, probably.

From voice, there is another unique aspect of internet writing that is evidenced by the popularity of image series articles. The first, or at least the first popular one, was Edith Zimmerman’s “Women Laughing Alone with Salad.” The article, publishing on The Hairpin in 2011, is just a collection of stocks photo of…women laughing alone with salad.

The images, when stacked one on top of the other, create a hilarious creepiness that is both an overwhelming commentary on the state of stock photos, women, food, the morals of eating; and is also just funny. All without writing a word.

Similarly, Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s classic series “Two Monks Invent Things,” like Zimmerman’s article, relies on images, readily accessible through Google image search, and an inspired irreverence of tone and voice that created a cult following of Ortberg fans.

Ortberg was also responsible for the “Texts From Jane Eyre” series, begun on The Hairpin. That series, which launched a book, is an absurdist presence that works in an intertextual way that thrives in the internet era, in which anyone on the outside of an inside joke can just Google their way in. Ortberg was another often-cited writer of the internet genre; many of his classic pieces were on the now-defunct, cult-classic website The Toast (which lived and died briefly and brightly).

Another absurdist form of internet content is the unself-aware question-asker. This person is not (often) a professional content creator, and thus, the questions are a pure form of internet content that has for years occupied our minds and imaginations. Many a Reddit poster has run into controversy after asking why they cannot sue the mother of their child for custody after running out on her 10 years prior. Sadly, so many of those are lost to the yawning maw of the internet. Deleted in shame, to quell the trolls, or pulled down because time is cruel. Writer and podcaster Aminatou Sow recalled the viral Ask a Manager post, in which a question-asker wondered what to do after the woman who was hired as his new manager turned out to be a woman he cruelly ghosted years before. The lingering delight of this piece, besides the candid lack of self-awareness, was the follow up that ensued, when the question-asker doubled down on his actions and horribleness, and quit his job. A revenge story served cold for the unvoiced woman, but happening in near-real-time.

Falling somewhere between this category and the following is my personal favorite, the Reddit AMA with the man who has two penises. Part personal essay, part unselfconscious internet exposure, the AMA was a classic of our era. I would explain more, but the guy has TWO penises and he talks about them on the internet. If that’s not peak internet content, then I am not sure what is.

Along these lines, a critical aspect of internet writing has become the reviled but often madly consumed, unhewn first-person essay. XO Jane is a standard bearer of this genre in its “It Happened to Me…” column. These articles often relied on female writers with amazing and cringe-inducing stories. The masterpiece of the genre was and is “IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Gynecologist Found a Ball of Cat Hair in My Vagina.” The story tells exactly what the headline states: a woman who has a giant ball of cat hair pulled out of her vagina. The piece is a classic gross-out story that triggered a Vesuvian eruption of internet scorn, shock, and delight. In a 2015 story for Slate, Laura Bennett pulled apart this essay and others, calling them part of the “first-person industrial complex” of internet writing. She explains:

“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.”

These stories are of a performative genre—writers writing the worst thing that ever happened to them. As long as there has been writing, people have been eviscerating themselves for it, but Bennett argues that the internet’s bottomless appetite created a vacuum into which these stories have fallen. Another memorable internet moment in this genre is the essay “Falling Out of Love With My Dad,” a story about an incestuous father–daughter relationship, published on Jezebel in 2015. That same year, Jia Tolentino published an interview on Jezebel with a man who had sex with a dolphin. Both stories could have arguably lived elsewhere in print, but they seem uniquely internet in their relentless forward-facing of our darkest humanity.

And then there are the internet articles that take on issues like rape in a clear-headed manner. While these stories are not unique to the internet, they are uniquely internet in that the internet provides a place for them, more often than any other medium. Often they are raw, often they are angry, more often they are written by women; so the internet becomes the pulpit for these voices, which might have otherwise been lost, buried, or rejected. The first is  “Rape Joke” by Patricia Lockwood, which was written as a response to a controversy around rape jokes in popular culture but ended up becoming an evergreen lyric essay about rape culture and sexual assault. Similarly, Lindy West’s “How to Make a Rape Joke” is a raw, angry, irreverent, and darkly funny op-ed—a counterbalance to the more mediated tones of print publishing.

Yet with this category and previous ones, the propelling force seems to be, as Akner suggested, more internet publishing than internet writing. Perhaps this writing would have existed without the internet, but would publishers have had the courage to put it in the world without the publish now, amend later style of the internet? It’s a chicken-and-egg argument, more suited for our garbage robot sons than for us in this moment.

There is also an argument to be made not for specific voices, but the content created by the raging Greek chorus of our voices, collected by social media. Moments and movements like #MeToo, #SayHerName, #Covfefe, and #TakeAKnee—they are a kind of voice, a way of moving, that find their way in the free-associations of internet discourse. Not content itself, but content fodder, often aggregated and collected, feeding on itself over and over until its hue and cry reaches an apex.

There are other arguments to be made, other stories forgotten by our short attention spans, as well as many writers and publishers who propelled internet writing forward, like Elizabeth Spiers and Emily Gould—who have as yet been unnamed in this article, but are the foundation on which most of it stands. And there are writers who seem to embody the genre but have made careers publishing in print. But we will leave it here. Like the internet itself, this project was enthusiastic, full of problems, and incomplete, and is certain to be amended and honed by social media, ragey comments, and time itself.

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Lyz Lenz is a writer based in Iowa. Her writing has appeared in Pacific Standard, Marie Claire, Jezebel, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @lyzl.