Clare Egan reflects on an era of online feminist writing
I don’t want to be that sad, old millennial complaining that the internet isn’t as good as it used to be. And yet, here I am, mourning an era of women’s writing that flourished more than a decade ago.
Like most people of my generation, my early excursions onto the internet were through a dial up connection. Writing those words, this iconic & endlessly irritating sound echoes through my memory. As a teenager, I was allowed one hour of internet time after 6pm when it was cheaper. If someone picked up the phone while you were online, the connection would drop. The speeds were slow; I spent most of my time watching the egg timer fill and drain in a mind numbing loop. This was before Bebo, before MySpace, before anyone thought to use the internet to make money or build a career. I’d meander around the mostly vacant webscape, wandering into obscure subject areas. It was the first time I experienced a kind of intellectual autonomy, the ability to go deep on my idiosyncratic obsessions. At the time, that was forensic science.
Within a few years, I’d started my first blog and was reading a lot of feminist media. I devoured The Hairpin, Jezebel, early Buzzfeed, The Toast, Feministing, The Awl and many others. Women’s magazines have always served advertisers more than women. Vogue was the first English-language magazine to print the term ‘cellulite’, creating a “problem” which women would spend money trying to solve. The fact that cellulite isn’t real was beside the point.
In their heyday, independent feminist sites served their readers ahead of everything else. They printed stories that would inform and delight a mostly-female readership that had been woefully underserved by mainstream publications. Stella Bugbee, former editor of New York Magazine’s women-focused vertical ‘The Cut’ described her goal as to “create an environment where women can hear themselves think, and those thoughts aren’t dictated by gender, necessarily”. These sites provided a space to read and think about women’s lives without a paternalistic lens. They disrupted the static format of opinion pages which forced every question into a two-sided argument enforcing ridiculous ideas of ‘balance’ even on topics where significant consensus exists. This is especially clear on issues like abortion. For decades, traditional media has framed it as a moral quagmire, not simply another aspect of women’s reproductive healthcare.
In particular, I devoured personal writing. I loved the ‘come here t’me’ tone, the informality, the intimacy of small, domestic stories. Women wrote about their lives from within them, working through their ideas on the page in an ever-expanding series of vignettes. The writing was often provocative, blending humour with a reassuring nod toward the daily grind of life. I found a unique pleasure in seeing myself in the echoes of someone else’s psyche. Much of what I read originated in the US. As Helen Lewis one wrote, “Sharing the internet with America is like sharing your living room with a rhinoceros. It’s huge, it’s right there, and whatever it’s doing now, you sure as hell know about it. It was an internet era that allowed niches to flourish. You could dip into an obscure digital hole about your favourite episode of a TV show or fashion inspired by a 90s children’s book star. I read very detailed descriptions of people’s Saturdays and the cultural critiques of a trend theorist. I approached my reading with the nerdish focus of an olympian. A finely tuned combination of RSS feeds, aggregators, newsletters and reading lists brought me to the content I loved. From this, I distilled my favourites into dense link roundups that most people ignored but a handful of people devoured with gusto. I’ve been compiling these pieces – a smorgasbord of things to read, watch, listen to etc – for more than a decade. Collectively, they trace an intellectual path through the last ten years of life.
That era ended for the reason most fun things end: money. In 2013, Google retired its Google Reader. This was an important shift from empowering the individual to curate the content they’d consume to allowing social media companies to algorithmically sort the internet’s content for profit. The internet became a radicalisation machine as we’ve seen with the election of Donald Trump and a Facebook-fuelled genocide in Myanmar.
Where once I used to wander the internet’s cavernous halls looking for something interesting to read, now I can’t click anything without falling into an algorithmic funnel which ends with someone trying to sell me something. Everything we consume online is permeated through a dense lens of commerce. The internet connection in my childhood home malfunctioned when it rained. Now, our smartphones are millions of times more powerful than the computers that guided humanity’s first visit to the moon. Back then, the internet was somewhere you went, a pleasant way to pass an hour. Today, it is omnipresent, inescapable.
I have lived through several eras of internet content: the personal essay, the pivot to video, the rise of newsletters (first Tinyletter, now Substack), the invention of the influencer and the most suffocatingly the increasing role of algorithms and optimisation in navigating our online lives. As an elder millennial, I’m nostalgic for the time before tech giants turned data into gold, when there was space for quirkiness and surprise. Human beings are more than data. We are not just nodes on a screen, but complicated animals who shouldn’t spend nearly as much time in front of screens as we do. These days, I don’t know where you could read a piece about almost getting rabies or a crowd-sourced list of advice for successful cunnilingus. What a pity that is!