Economics of the Internet: The Confessional Essay

I’ve been thinking about the economics of the Internet a lot lately, especially since I read Gaby Dunn’s essay about being Internet famous and broke and saw Femsplain temporarily close when they couldn’t pay their writers. The modern web is built around content – we all read and watch hours of it every day. I want to keep thinking about who is creating that content and who is making money off it.

I’m thinking in particular about the confessional essay. You see these essays everywhere, in women’s magazines, tabloids, and online media sites like Slate. The titles clearly state what the article is going to be about, click-bait without lying. I Had a Late Term Abortion. My Sister Was Murdered. My Husband Is Cheating and I Don’t Care. The essays are usually about something somewhat controversial and rely on the writer exposing a deeply personal part of their lives to an online audience. (More experienced, knowledgeable, and thoughtful online writers have already written a lot about this topic and their work really opened my eyes. For starters, check out Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke and Laura Bennett‘s articles. They talk about why these kinds of essays are so in-demand right now and the impact the publication of these essays have on their writers.)

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of these essays on Cosmopolitan through their Snapchat story (so addictive). It’s the perfect mix of celebrity gossip, make-up tips, and honest sex talk. The confessional essays on Cosmo are often related to sex, fitting with the content of the magazine as a whole. They remind me of the “real-issues” section of Seventeen magazine, where one girl’s dramatic story would be reported (I got a concussion and it ruined my cheer career, I had a baby and still graduated from high school).

Many of the essays are anonymous. (It’s very easy to scroll past the by-lines, especially with the Snapchat interface, but with these kinds of pieces I’ve started checking). I have a lot of questions after reading these articles. Did the author get paid? How much? How were they recruited for this article? The anonymous pieces are especially interesting to me because the incentives are different. When online writers publish intensely personal pieces, they receive exposure attached to their name. It’s easy to see how that could advance a writing career. But anonymously? I’m sure these writers feel a sense of release; confessing can feel really, really good. But then what? Did they get paid 50 bucks? 500? Often, now the publishing magazine or website owns those words. I don’t know enough about online copyright contracts but I wonder if what these anonymous confessors signed prevents them from later turning this intensely personal story into a blog post or even a memoir.

This week, the New York Times put out a request for personal stories about race. According to this request, the newspaper is starting a new newsletter called Race/Related and they are asking for suggestions about “themes, people, or places” that readers would want covered. (That part mostly makes sense to me; they would want to publish pieces that people are interested in, especially for a new newsletter). They go on to ask (in an non-required box) for personal “revealing” stories about experiences with race, allowing 500 words for a response. The fine print below the submit button states that the Times can “use your submission in all manner and media of the New York Times”. The moment you click that button, they own your words (and have the right to authorize third-party usage).

I found out about this New York Times submission request because the writers I follow on Twitter were talking about it. These tweets were not positive. They highlighted the fact that NYT was taking your words (500 in this box, 200 in that box…) and making profit from them. You, the writer, the person who lived that “revealing experience connected to your race” will walk away with nothing. Maybe they will quote you by name, maybe not.

Publishers love these articles. They’re quick to go viral, don’t cost much money (especially when compared to traditional reporting), and strike the perfect balance between deeply personal and universally relatable. In her article, Laura Bennet writes about how that one deeply personal article that a writer sold to Jezebel for $150 is going to affect their SEO for the rest of their career, especially if that article received a lot of views. Bennet quotes Jia Tolentino, a Jezebel editor, who says that this rise of first-person confessional pieces created “a situation in which writers feel like the best thing they have to offer is the worst thing that ever happened to them.” The more shocking, the better. At the expense of the writer for the profit of the publisher.

I am increasingly vulnerable to click-bait, especially when it leads to provocative, intensely personal and honest stories like these. There’s a large voyeuristic aspect; you get the feeling of hearing a piece of gossip magnified by a thousand. But I want to keep thinking critically about who profits from these articles, especially when the ownership of the words and the story are taken away from the person who wrote and experienced. I feel pressure to expose my deepest secrets on the Internet while simultaneously knowing that I will never profit from them (though it seems like Tumblr is struggling to profit from online diary as well). Sometimes it seems like that’s the only way to build a personal brand. But these confessional first-person writers are not defined by their horrible experience; they have other valuable words and ideas to offer. I hope that the cheap publication of the worst day of their lives doesn’t prevent those ideas from being heard and those writers from being fairly compensated.



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