[NB: I just wrote this this afternoon because it's been preying on my mind for literally years and I didn't want to draft this and then never post it because I'm too lazy to edit it. There's a very high chance I'll be dipping in and tweaking it for the next few weeks. That said: let's rock. Also noted: as Mike D'Angelo points out, I don't "make the case that this sensibility is infecting general discourse," which is absolutely true: this is about some very, very niche stuff that has almost nothing to do with most of what's out there. This is some real ephemeral, micro stuff afflicting a tiny corner of the internet that -- demographically -- happens to be my corner, and frankly if you don't already have a good working grasp of Gawker/Tumblr/HRO I'd stop right now. Also: yes, this is a tad over-the-top and disproportionate. I acknowledge that, but that doesn't mean my vehemence isn't real.]
In the summer of 2007, due to a lot of unreplicable circumstances (long story), I was very comfortable financially without having to do much work. I was living in my very first apartment, a large, hardwood floor, nice-ish set-up in a terrible part of Brooklyn (the Bushwick-Aberdeen stop on the L, which is 13 stops into Brooklyn; I was a block from the projects). Since it was summer and I was still in college, I didn't know a lot of people; most of them had gone back to wherever they were from. So it was just me, my then-girlfriend and my laptop. Which is how I spent the summer of 2007 watching Emily Gould have a mental breakdown online.
Before we go any further, let me say that I don't have any real interest in Gould as a living, breathing human being; I say this because, judging by her Tumblr (which frequently consists of her freaking out about people saying mean things about her), she has the Google Alerts turned on like none other. I'm more interested in the language she helped create, which I personally feel is destroying the capacity for intelligent thought on the internet one listicle at a time. But this isn't really a personal thing; I'm not accusing her (or anyone) of deliberate mendacity/being a bad person. (I mean, she well could be, but that's none of my business.)
At the time, Gould seemed like a force for good. I'd been reading Gawker off and on since 2003 [IT SAID 2000, FIXED]; since I almost never have a TV, it seemed like good mental junk food and it fed into my obsession with New York City while I was still feeling stuck in Austin. Initially, Gawker was fairly phenomenal: they did snarky gossip about Manhattan media non-entities unknown to the rest of the country, creating their own mythology as they went. Then Gawker seemed to be jumping the shark (although in retrospect they weren't even close to their current nadir); it was unclear what they were focusing on (the site basically devolved into reblogging bullet points with commentary), and the schtick was getting calcified. Gawker went from a site with a narrative to a site selling only one thing: its voice. And that voice was, for a while, Emily Gould.
What Gould was doing seemed like a reasonable response to the position she'd been placed in: she would write completely bullshit posts about her personal life (accurately tagged "Emily's LiveJournal"), then she would engage in what seemed like passive-aggressive sniping against evil Gawker overlord Nick Denton (the Rupert Murdoch of New Media), and in the last two weeks -- after giving notice and serving out her term -- she went totally bats. Before Twilight and Teams Edward/Jacob, there was Team Emily in the Gawker comment squadron. The best part? No one in the real world cared at all. It was the most entertaining teapot tempest ever. (Aside: blogging at the pace Denton demands takes incredible mental stamina and the ability to write literately fast, which is one of the harder things you can do day-in/day-out. It's hard to really hate any of the Gawker writers per se; they're all clearly people of above-average intelligence hired to do basically demeaning work.)
With all the fun, I failed to notice the real point: Gould came up with and perfected a house style that Gawker now ruthlessly imparts to all its writers, to a degree that's kind of incredible. It's easier to imitate than explain, but basically it's passive-aggressive finickiness disguised as wit. Contractions are generally avoided, giving the prose an affectedly flat cadence that seems "deliberate" and "not like it was written in ten minutes to meet the insane post quota." Punctuation is soiled with great regularity; question marks are used where there's no question, exclamation points proliferate like a five-year-old shouting. The oddly childlike nature of the prose -- its deliberate suggestion of faux-naivete -- blends snark with tweeness, which is about as bad a mixture as I can think of. Chuck Klosterman got the tone absolutely down: "If you've spent any time trolling the blogosphere, you've probably noticed a peculiar literary trend: the pervasive habit of writers inexplicably placing exclamation points at the end of otherwise unremarkable sentences. Sort of like this! This is done to suggest an ironic detachment from the writing of an expository sentence! It's supposed to signify that the writer is self-aware! And this is idiotic. It's the saddest kind of failure."
The problem with this kind of writing is that it precludes actually writing anything funny, or surprising, or fresh. It's an updated version of the problem George Orwell nailed in "Politics and the English Language" (which I realize may well be the most overquoted essay pulled out by anyone complaining about bad writing, but it's still the best): "the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." This language isn't slovenly, but it's self-satisfied even when it's blatantly terrified. Example: a few months ago, a blogger synopsizing "The Hills" -- apparently mandatory for any website that wants traffic -- referred to it, pseudo-humorously, as a "Pynchonian text." This literally makes no sense, and there's no bullshit analogy she pulls out to extrapolate or justify it; it's just a reference whose sole function is to say "Look! Although I'm blogging about 'The Hills,' I'm actually a serious, literate person exercising my analytical/linguistic skills in the name of frivolous careerist bullshit so that someday I can write about something I care about. Just because I like this show doesn't make me an idiot." Which is sad, but doesn't make it any less annoying to read. And this stuff is all over the internet as a default style. I hate it so much: it makes personal tone a matter of robotic consistency.
Think I'm getting needlessly worked up over nothing? I'm just getting started. (Feel free to get some more coffee/beer; this is going to take a while if you have the fortitude to tough it out with me. God knows I'm sheepish about how long this is.) That, more or less, was Phase I of Language Stuff That Makes Me Hate The Internet More Every Day. (Trust me: no one hates the internet more than people who work "on" it in some capacity, and that goes double for me.) Phase II arrived with Tumblr, the easy-blogging format that actively celebrates incoherence, illiteracy and using loooooooots and looooooooooots of vowels and CAPITAL LETTERS FOR EMPHASISSSSSS in the name of "sincerity." The company's public face -- its optimal user, its alpha and omega -- is one Meaghan O'Connell, who I'm sure is a perfectly nice person but whose writing makes me want to claw my eyes out (or maybe just spill coffee on her iPhone, not sure which). At the top of her blog it says "Life is hard. Here is someone," which sounds nice and maybe like hard-earned wisdom -- life is difficult, here I stand with existential fortitude ready to battle it out -- and then comes falling apart with the sub-hed: "My name is Meaghan O'Connell and I am 25 and I live in Brooklyn and work for Tumblr and here goes nothing." All the Emily-isms are there: the deliberate overuse of "and" as a cutesy affectation (what those of us who sweated it out in Latin learned to refer to as "polysyndeton," technically), the conflation of name/location/technology as an emotional statement, the implication that we're just getting someone's bared soul and something brave is happening here.
If Emily Gould made "oversharing" fashionable (or controversial, or at least a buzz topic, or maybe just a stupid word), she was at least trying to write about it directly and clearly. Tumblr ups the ante, throwing every piece of moronic internet jargon and slang into the mix, shaking vigorously and downing the whole sewage cocktail with relish. I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time close-reading this stuff or providing examples: it mostly speaks for itself. Meaghano (Meaghano!) would like you to believe that this has a lot to do with David Foster Wallace (a common delusion among Tumblr practitioners). Hence posts like this (there's way more where that came from, trust me), which invite us to contemplate that DFW's polemics against irony/investment in being honest and kind even when it's difficult/unfashionable have finally blossomed amidst a thousand dancing-cat .gifs.
Because that's what Tumblr comes down to. There's a vile sub-section of Tumblr-istas who I'm not going to name because they're crazily vigilant about monitoring themselves and prone to throwing long, maudlin fits about "people being mean on the internet" and so on and I don't need the trouble, but here's what they do: 90% of their posts will contain some kind of image (frequently animal based), LOLCATS-speak and/or songs that are "meaningful" that they have a lot of "feelings" about. (The fact that the word "feelings" has been rebooted as something inherently positive is completely insane, but let that pass.) Or they'll talk about "The Hills." Or whatever. But then -- like an '80s sitcom in sweeps season -- there will be A Very Special Post occasionally, about something that's clearly emotionally important to the person writing, generally concerned with a) a past relationship in its failing stages b) childhood traumas and fears remembered, frequently family-related c) getting drunk and experiencing a mental breakthrough. The prose will often emerge like a groggy, hungover New Yorker refugee: the prose will be "terse" (or someone's idea of terse), frequently in the present tense, laced with heavy doses of the maudlin and faux life lessons wisdom. We are then supposed to applaud the Tumblr person, who has proven that they can skim the tides of crap pop culture without losing their intellectual/moral seriousness; they're just saving themselves for the big moment, when they can speak for a generation.
It's all pretty terrible.
Let me be unambiguously clear, and perhaps unnecessarily harsh: if there was some kind of hypothetical scenario in which the late and sorely missed (we need him more than ever, honestly) DFW was invited to sit down and contemplate the contents of our leading Tumblr-ists/-istas, there's a 99.7% chance he'd be appalled at the spectacle of people congratulating themselves for sharing every last thought they have, especially the heavy emotional ones that they haven't really thought through. Among other things, Tumblr celebrates drunken babbling and deep feelings; it prefers them, because it's "sincere." (In other words: the bloggers may want to be DFW, but mostly they're an even shittier Dave Eggers.) And this is stupid; it's the opposite of rigorous self-contemplation. It's narcissism disguised as something brave and positive, and as community-building. Worse yet: it's actively corrupting the minds of potentially decent writers, turning them instead into little more than riffers of the moment.
Now: am I saying this is Emily Gould's fault? OK, maybe it is a little (although I doubt she thought people were going to be looking up to/imitating her). But this Phase II mixture is way more toxic than her original brew because it's perilously close to being completely incoherent; when you start labeling the paterfamilias "LOLDAD," it's time to pack it up and go home. It celebrates the worst of the internet as its crowning achievement, and it's freakishly self-righteous in the process.
This, finally, brings us to Carles and Hipster Runoff. The Carles "project" basically involves pissing all over everything, all the time; it's kind of hilarious. What Carles does is talk about "relevant" music and what we can sloppily shorthand "hipster lifestyle choices and accessories" in a deliberately obtuse tone, combining newly coined words with text speak and daring you to take it seriously. His biggest weapon: scare quotes, deployed frequently. He knows what he's doing though: he doesn't vomit them up as randomly as the Gould-ites and Tumblrs use exclamation points. What Carles has figured out is that putting scare quotes around even something so ordinary as, say, "going to a movie" points out how self-conscious someone who's invested in a "lifestyle" can be about how every decision and action they take will reflect on them. This is a reasonable thesis. (The fact that Carles predated the rise of Tumblr and accurately predicted what it would develop into is kind of remarkable.) His use of text-speak isn't celebratory; it's openly derisive and vaguely terroristic. It's an appropriately contemptuous response to the state of things; the fact that the Tumblr-ites have appropriated some of his language (especially the practice of using "bro" as a suffix -- cf. "dadbro") without seeming to get the joke tells you everything.
I used to really despise Hipster Runoff -- it seemed unbelievably self-loathing -- but lately it's grown on me, especially when "Carles" (or whoever's manning the helm; he, too, has a house style that can be learned) just riffs on "news reports," taking the logic Gawker has adopted (i.e., that the art of media aggregation and commentary is one of style rather than actually contributing anything to the conversation) to its logical conclusion, refracting everything through one myopic lens. The difference is that Carles' lens is actually funny, while Gawker is just a deeply cynical exercise in seeing how many hits one alleged photo of Britney Spears getting drunk can rack up. This basically destructive attitude has alarmed some people: in a long, breathlessly sincere missive on the subject, Nick Sylvester seems to literally propose that this kind of attitude will filter down to the children of current hipsters and deprive their childhoods of joy (" Why won't you let my kids be kids? They will be the better for it. And you were too--and I'm so sad you don't see that. I'm so sad you don't remember how fucking hard it is, being that age, not knowing fuck-all how anything or anybody works, let alone yourself."), which would be fair if it weren't the case that 99.9999999% of the global population will never come within striking distance of the site. Once again, allying yourself with emotion for its own sake gets the better of a writer who clearly is not without talent.
And so personal internet writing in 2010 is an unholy beast indeed, combining bad slang, sloppy emotions and an alarmingly monolithic sensibility (allowing for regional deviations). I don't have a constructive suggestion for any of this (plus in the Big Internet Picture I'm basically a nobody, so who cares) except the obvious: write often and try to improve, think hard, learn to create unflashy but not putridly functional prose that will allow you to express yourself lucidly. All of which seems to have gotten lost somewhere, which is why Emily Gould haunts my dreams: like Morrissey, she started something she couldn't finish, but other people are perfectly happy to finish it for her.