The Gilded Age of (Unpaid) Internet Writing

How ’90s webzines heralded the best — and worst — of today’s online media landscape.

Rebecca Schuman | Longreads | September 2018 | 12 minutes (2,976 words)

The ’90s Are Old is a Longreads series by Rebecca Schuman, wherein she unpacks the cultural legacy of a decade that refuses to age gracefully.

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In 1998, my first real job — at which I was terrible — was as an editorial assistant for a New York book publisher. My breathtakingly privileged days consisted of emailing mean jokes about the assistants I didn’t like to the assistants I did, and slacking off at my desk during my boss’s long lunches. That’s when I discovered these things called “webzines.” My 1993 black-and-white PowerBook had been powerful enough for abysmal college essays on Heinrich von Kleist, but not for something called a browser, so it was not until my entrée to the professional world and its professional-issue Windows 98 that I began “surfing the ‘Net” in earnest.

In the nascent years of online ubiquity — when CHHHHHHHHHH BEEboo BEEboo BEEboo became a household noise, and not just something for extreme nerds — the web was both very big and very small. In 1996 there were only 100,000 websites in the Whole Wide World. (Today there are almost two billion.) Plus, aside from a few early leaders in e-commerce, ’90s sites were usually personal homepages, accessible only to the visitor patient and accurate enough to type the precise address, down to the tilde. Alas, what made the webzines of the late ’90s the best was also what would end up making the internet the worst: anyone could publish anything about anything, and very few people expected to be paid.

I did not know any of this back in the late ’90s, when I spent most of my slack-off time paging through webzines. I read the big sites like Salon and Slate, sure, but my favorites were the smaller outfits like Suck (“A Fish, a Barrel and a Smoking Gun”) and Hissyfit (“You’re Entitled To Our Opinion”), pronounced with their “dot com” suffixes. I devoured all their articles at my desk along with my containers of bodega cottage cheese, my cackles echoing through the floor. By the time I left the publishing job, I had made my own debut as a webzine writer — to accolades (from my friend Nevin) and for zero dollars, but also with the distinct understanding that I was part of something new and subversive and interesting, a democratization of the widely-published word in a world that had heretofore limited its purview to a small and insular group of rich New Yorkers.

Alas, what made the webzines of the late ’90s the best was also what would end up making the internet the worst: anyone could publish anything about anything, and very few people expected to be paid.

The way that New York publishing kept itself pure back then was to recruit entry-level workers exclusively from liberal arts colleges in the area. That is how I, a middle-class dipshit from Oregon who knew nothing about anything but somehow landed at Vassar (whereupon I learned primarily about smoking cigarettes), ended up in a cubicle in the iconic Flatiron building, answering phones and parking my tuches in a chair that was the rightful property of some debutante. I knew, though, that even a hayseed like me could make it in publishing with financial discipline, prodigious talent, and sheer, unadulterated hunger.

But it was the ’90s and I had none of those things. I had a brand-new credit card that I used to outfit myself in the era-appropriate vestments of shiny over-pocketed gunmetal, and I had a weight-management plan that consisted of vending-machine Chuckles, and that was about it. My opinion on ambition — any sort, by anyone, toward anything — was unadulterated scorn. That is precisely why webzines were so appealing. Not only did most of them deal in exactly the sort of weaponized sarcasm I already deployed against my well-bred betters, but their writers were randos like me from wherever (Wisconsin! Seattle! Canada!), and seemed just as unambitious as I was.

Later in the decade, as a few cracks appeared in the invisible ivory gates of Fifth Avenue, the average misanthrope could not only manage the keystrokes of s-u-c-k-.-c-o-m but write for it too, if she were only misanthropic enough. “The new breed of webzines,” declared a self-serious 1999 trend piece in the MIT Technological Review , appealed to readers not with the print glossies’ thinly-veiled advertiser worship, but “by projecting an attitude,” which they did in “short” pieces of 1000-1500 words. These strange offerings numbered in the “dozens,” and that was considered a lot.

It was actually the perfect amount. “You might have had a list of ten or twelve sites you read every day,” explains Tara Ariano, now co-editor with Sarah D. Bunting of previously.tv and once the editor of hissyfit.com and founder of Television Without Pity. “And when you read them all, you had read the entire internet.” Unlike traditional publishing, where you had to both know the right people and dress and act and look the right way for literal years to network your way into recognition, with early webzines you could just kind of… send something in. Which is what I did with a painful early Hissyfit piece on conservative author Wendy Shalit’s 1999 book A Return to Modesty, which opened, alas, like this: “And I thought The Rules was as bad as it could possibly get. Man, was I a dumb-ass.

My questionable style here (who hyphenates dumbass?) exemplifies the laziest version of the thrown-off meanness now ubiquitous online, often called snark. It’s almost impossible now to remember that this kind of tone was once novel, but in the late 1990s, as we bobbed in a sea of bland, aggressively-edited legacy print publications and insular, cliquish alt-weeklies with limited reach, snarking into the overflowing sky of wasted stars was considered outré. Sometimes — such as when Heather Havrilesky did it on suck.com — it was elevated to an art form. Conversely, the broad, arm-waving, Schuman-circa-’99-style of snark is now an embarrassment, an immediate indicator of an inexperienced writer who’s been given a moderate amount of exposure and gone mad with power. Today, most snark is just monotonous, but once upon a time, even bad snark was kind of exhilarating.


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The early webzines were like Jordan Baker’s idea of a large party in The Great Gatsby: purportedly huge in their ability to reach the entire world, but really so intimate — the absolute perfect venue for talking shit. For in their intimacy, a sort of safeness germinated — a safeness to punch up at celebrities, political adversaries, and rich people (I considered Wendy Shalit all three). These were people who would never have any occasion to see said shit-talk, so it was effectively harmless, and I wasn’t the only propagator of this opinion. “I’m actually glad nobody was reading me at the time,” says Will Leitch, who along with Andy Wang edited ironminds.com — a sort of proto-Awl — beginning in 1998. “It allowed me to get better and make all my mistakes at my own pace, and mostly in private.”

Of course, the mistakes weren’t always that private. To wit: Ironminds stewarded several of my most ignominious turn-of-the-millennium forays into unchecked, broad snark. This included, most ignominiously, “Sexually Harass This!”, a play-by-play breakdown of what I — by then a fully undeserving editorial assistant at Esquire — perceived as the glaring hypocrisy of the Hearst Corporation, which mandated sexual-harassment prevention training about hostile work environments while at the same time forcing me to sort reader mail about butt sex. Unfortunately, I still remember the last line of this masterpiece, which did not name the Hearst Corporation but offered sundry damning details: Not on your titty-fucking life.

Today, most snark is just monotonous, but once upon a time, even bad snark was kind of exhilarating.

As Leitch reminded me, I wrote that line because the primary draw of Ironminds was that nobody read it. Essentially, he told me, we wrote in a vacuum. The site — which, after a short life as a funded startup, he and Wang ran for fun — had no method of or interest in tracking what we now call user engagement. “We obviously didn’t collect data, and we would have been disgusted if someone had tried to tell us how to,” Leitch says. “Not everything has to be a capitalist nightmare, Dr. Schuman.”

Not only was it once unthinkable, in both practice and principle, to count readers and then steal their identities for fun and profit, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. There was not yet any social media to target people on to make stuff viral, a term that was still primarily associated with herpes thanks to that omnipresent Valtrex ad campaign. Leitch “honestly had no idea if anybody was reading anything” that Ironminds published, and he didn’t care. His goal, “similar to now, really, was to just keep writing and writing and writing, and try to get better.” It was a goal I ostensibly shared — although it would have been prudent to get a bit better than I was before “Sexually Harass This!” got picked up by one of Ironminds’ few consistent readers: media watchdog Jim Romenesko. My tenure at Esquire was, suffice to say, brief, but the damage was minimal; I quit before I could get fired and just marched right into another job, my online reputation very much not preceding me. Had “Sexually Harass This!” run on some middle-grade clickbait factory in 2017 and blown up, I’d be a Jon Ronson footnote, filing for a name-change in court. (And, as was the case in 2000, I still wouldn’t have been paid a cent for writing it.)

So, yes, back then not many people read webzines, but some people did. And that was what set them apart from, say, the Geocities page dedicated to erotic fanfiction about Smurf orgies, which is not a far-fetched hyperbole but rather an actual thing I once read — terrified, but also impressed at the author’s level of detail — huddled around a PC with my friends at college in 1995. Until very recently, I’d blocked this seminal novella from my memory, but when I asked Heather Havrilesky what she was reading online before she started writing for Suck, she brought it up. “There was a ton of alarming content back then,” she tells me, and “mostly you didn’t want to know that this stuff existed.” (God help me, it’s all coming back now, including but not limited to the genre-appropriate cry Make me Smurf!)

Havrilesky discovered Suck in October of 1995 and promptly read the entire site. “They were doing everything right, as far as I was concerned,” she says. She loved the clean layout and “the fact that they updated the site daily (no one else did, incredibly enough),” and of course “the condescending tone, because I was 25 years old.” It felt, at the time, like “the only place online for smart people who didn’t want to go to Burning Man and fuck Smurfs.” Later that year, Suck happened to be hiring full-time editorial staff in their San Francisco offices, and by December, Havrilesky was an assistant editor. Soon she became Suck’s breakout star, and it was her comic strip, illustrated by Terry Colon and ’90s-ironically titled “Filler,” that caused me to guffaw at my publishing-assistant cubicle lo those many years ago.

Webzines democratized who could have a byline — but not, usually, who could list “writer” on their tax forms.

Havrilesky — now an advice columnist for The Cut and author of several books, including the forthcoming What If This Were Enough — is living proof that some people actually got paid to write for the internet in its early days. These were the truly brilliant people who were not me: Ironminds, for example, paid in weird reader emails and friendship, as did every other forgotten outlet I wrote for besides Hissyfit, which itself was anomalous, given that Ariano sent every contributor a care package of interesting goods from Canada, and, in later years, a small check. “We couldn’t pay much,” previously.tv’s Bunting tells me, “and we knew what we were asking in terms of the effort, but we did want that professional understanding in terms of ‘in exchange for this tiny check or gift basket, you will turn in on time, take edits, [and] the work belongs to us now.'” Thinking back on it, Ariano says her primary conclusion is People probably would have rather had money. At the time, I didn’t think that kind of web writing deserved money, because it was actually fun to do — you know, I was doing what I loved, and who should expect cash for that?

What a lot of us forget — even those of us who once got a check for $600 for an unremarkable feature in the print-only issue of The Oregonian — is that print writing, ruthlessly edited and heavily regulated though it was, did pay once upon a time. Not Carrie Bradshaw shoe-habit paid-paid, but money nonetheless. There was a reason the gatekeeping at legacy publications was intense: the gig was good. I saw contracts go out to Esquire contributors for $10,000. Webzines democratized who could have a byline — but not, usually, who could list “writer” on their tax forms. This is why people like Havrilesky are legends.

She tells me Suck initially hired her at $40,000 a year, which any Chuckles-huffing book assistant would agree was “great money for the time.” But then “Filler” blew up, and when Havrilesky went up for review she asked for $100,000 in the hopes they’d give her $80,000. “It worked, which is absurd,” she says. She remembers telling a friend, This is the biggest salary I’ll ever make. And it was true. “I’ve been making the same amount for two decades now,” she says, and she feels lucky for it. “Conditions in media have deteriorated many, many times since then.”

Why, yes. Yes, they have. I agree with Leitch that not everything has to be a capitalist nightmare, but in the 2018 online media landscape, most things are, albeit in a completely different way than the original webzine naysayers predicted. “Five years ago,” argued a 2001 obituary for web publishing in the New York Times, “Slate and Salon arrived amid proclamations that ‘Webzines’ would become a multibillion-dollar business and displace print publications by stealing their readers and sucking their advertising dry. Many people, including not a few print publishers, believed it. But none of it happened.” The author of this condescending print article was a young reporter named Jayson Blair, and much of it was later retracted or amended as dishonestly reported. But more importantly, it was also wrong. “Webzines” have displaced print publications so thoroughly that there is no longer any such word as “webzine” — because everything is a webzine.

Salon and Slate are still webzines. This is a webzine that you’re reading right now. But the prom dress/wedding dress place is also a webzine, and so are Babe, Return of Kings, and Breitbart. The few outlets who do pay in actual human Earth dollars are considered generous if they pay $0.25 per word — for work they often expect to include hours of reporting and fact-checking, as well as answering all of the hate tweets the author will get based on the inflammatory headline the piece was given for the specific purpose of generating those hate tweets. (Disclosure: Longreads pays well and I rarely get hate tweets anymore, so there are exceptions.)

That 1999 MIT Technology Review analysis also now seems quaint in its predictions. “Whether webzines’ unique attributes will lead to financial success — and hence long-term survival — remains an open question.” Not anymore, friend. That question is closed, and the answer is: A publication’s financial success depends on a glut of ambitious young Content Creators willing to write for free, not because they need a creative outlet or want to practice their craft. It’s because if they don’t write for free someone else will, and then that person will get a nine-episode show on Facebook Watch when their listicle blows up.

“Webzines” have displaced print publications so thoroughly that there is no longer any such word as “webzine” — because everything is a webzine.

This is not snarky hyperbole: Many of the internet’s most successful writers now quickly pivot to TV when they get noticed, and this should not be a surprise; it’s one of the few ways someone can still list “writer” on their tax forms and also eat. And who doesn’t love TV? (I mean, not actually watching it on a TV like some sort of caveman, but shows.) The problem is, that still leaves us with 1.8 billion websites and nothing to read. “I don’t want every last great writer to focus on making TV shows,” says Havrilesky. “I don’t want to watch another TV show about spoiled rich people bickering. I want to read funny shit online.”

There is plenty from the late-’90s webzine era that I am grateful is now extinct, gunmetal cargo skirts and unchecked uses of the word “twat” among them. (Sorry I called you a twat in 1999, Wendy Shalit.) But I agree with Havrilesky in wishing that someone, somewhere would still bankroll “seriously freaky, opinionated, bizarre, illustrated, odd material with no timely angle or link to some fucking movie or book or product. I’m part of the problem,” she says, given that this very interview coincides with the upcoming release of her book. “But I’d love to see the Sucks and Gawkers and Grantlands and Awls of the world find a nice tolerant Sugar Daddy who keeps them alive eternally. It’s not like it’s that expensive to pay a handful of great writers to write great stuff. Popularity should not be the only metric we use to measure value.”

And that’s just it. On the best of the ’90s internet, popularity was somehow still the enemy — it was unpopularity that everyone prized. In High Fidelity, the protagonist, Rob, insists that we’re defined not by what we are like, but by what we like. That’s almost correct: In the ’90s, what really defined us was what we didn’t like: tiny backpacks; sexual repression; the “tank top girls of Jewett” (sorry, tank top girls of Jewett).

When you found someone who hated everything you hated, that was the ultimate harbinger of true love. This was the case with people, but it was also the case with those rough-around-the-edges publications whose voices and personalities were so acute they seemed alive on the screen. These writings were not by our friends — the writing itself was our friend. In the growing din of a cyberspace rager, the webzines pulled us aside in the corner of the room, and whispered a really mean, really great joke, only to us.


Previously:
You’ve Reached the Winter of Our Discontent
It’s Like This and Like That and Like What?
When the Real World Gave Up on Reality
Bridget Jones’s Staggeringly Outdated Diary

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Rebecca Schuman is a St. Louis-based writer and translator, and author of ’90s memoir Schadenfreude, A Love Story.

Editor: Ben Huberman