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Earlier this year, Ben Smith, the former editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News and a onetime New York Times columnist, published a book, titled “Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral.” It explores the creation of, and the competition between, well-funded news-and-culture Web sites—BuzzFeed News and the Huffington Post among them—that began in the early two-thousands, just as the professional blogosphere was getting going. One day after the book’s May 2nd release, the Times published a Smith-authored guest essay, titled “We’re Watching the End of a Digital Media Age. It All Started with Jezebel.”
Jezebel is an influential feminist Web site that I created in 2007. Smith had devoted an entire chapter of “Traffic” to the story of the site’s creation, stumbles, and successes. He was complimentary, calling it “a new kind of cultural politics,” one that built “a community that rejected the old structures of gender and power, and tried to shape new ones.”
One could be forgiven for discerning a slight difference in tone between “Traffic” and the essay that appeared in the Times. Smith’s book took a deep look at the impact of a number of Web sites, but his Times essay seemed to make the argument that Jezebel in particular reflected a “remarkable new openness” and “uncontrollable anger” on the Internet. As he put it, “What makes Jezebel feel so relevant now is that it was among the first places to crystallize the powerful forces that would define social media over the next decade: politics and identity.”
I agreed that Jezebel embodied a “remarkable new openness,” and I was flattered by Smith’s acknowledgment of the site’s continued influence. But some of what he wrote gave me pause. His essay positioned the site as the start of an era that would culminate in the 2016 election of Donald Trump. I wanted nothing to do with it. As for “uncontrollable anger”? The phrase felt sexist and paternalistic.
I live in Los Angeles, so I wasn’t immediately aware of the conversation about the essay. People started texting me around 7 A.M. P.S.T. In the darkness of my cozy bedroom, I took a quick glance at the piece on my phone, admired the accompanying photo of me (it was a good photo, and I can be vain), rolled my eyes at a few of the conclusions, and then went back to bed.
About half an hour later, I was awoken again, this time by a phone call from a friend. It appeared that a small backlash to the piece was brewing online—namely, on Twitter. Some readers felt that, by focussing his attention on Jezebel, Smith was blaming women for outrage culture. I read this with interest—after all, women get blamed for a lot of things and aren’t credited enough for other things—but I also didn’t have the energy to respond to it. I placed my phone on my bedside table and pulled the covers back over my head.
I felt ambivalent. The essay had stirred up something from the past that I hadn’t been able to work out: what part, if any, I might have played in the evolution of derisive online discourse. Smith wasn’t purporting to answer this question—some of his language, perhaps deliberately, was a bit vague. But he did make a connection between Jezebel’s often combative commenters and the eventual users of social-media platforms like Twitter, accusing the site of unleashing “searing online mobs.” Jezebel had been created years before the wide-scale adoption of social media, back when people were still going to blogs and then refreshing them to see what new posts had appeared. According to Smith, “The unmediated passions of social media took up where it left off.”
Anger can be explosive. It can ignite social movements and chip away at calcified ideas about sex, gender, class, and race. It’s also fair to say that when women express it—or are accused of expressing it—they’re easily, sometimes viciously, mocked and derided. This is perhaps doubly true for women of color, who have to contend not only with sexist tropes but also with racial stereotypes and fearmongering around anger and tone. (Both my deputy editor at Jezebel, Dodai Stewart, and I are Black. The widely held assumption that the site was staffed only by white women possibly did us some sort of favor.)
But here’s the thing about tone: in many cases, it does matter. And though I was often politically and personally in agreement with our commenters, their over-the-top rhetoric could be alienating to me. I worried that this sort of rhetoric might offend new readers, and that it would be harmful to the new dialogue around gender politics that we were trying to influence and bring into the mainstream. Was there such a thing as “too much” anger? If so, who was I to determine what “too much” is? I felt torn, so I kept these questions mostly to myself.
When Jezebel launched, I was thirty-three, about to turn thirty-four. The events that led to the site’s creation have been written about many times before. So here’s the short version: disillusioned by the state of American women’s media, I was given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create and oversee a women’s-media entity—in this case, a Web site. I imagined it as one with a lot of personality, with humor, with edge. I wanted it to combine wit, smarts, and anger, providing women—many of whom had been taught to believe that “feminism” was a bad word or one to be avoided—with a model of critical thinking around gender and race which felt accessible and entertaining. As one of my colleagues, Moe Tkacik, wrote, in an early post, “Jezebel is a blog for women that will attempt to take all the essentially meaningless but sweet stuff directed our way and give it a little more meaning, while taking [the more] serious stuff and making it more fun, or more personal, or at the very least the subject of our highly sophisticated brand of sex joke. Basically, we wanted to make the sort of women’s magazine we’d want to read.”
Of course, feminist Web sites and blogs were already exploring a new kind of politics among young American women. But, unlike Jezebel, they rarely incorporated robust and sustained pop-culture analysis, and they existed on the periphery of the Internet. (They also didn’t have the funding and other resources that my staff and I enjoyed.) These sites, independently owned, with names like Feministing, Feministe, Racialicious, and AngryBlackBitch, had cultivated devoted readerships, but their audiences were small, and their language was often academic.
Our audience, on the other hand, started off big and quickly got bigger, reaching more than ten million page views a month in the first year. (We had the benefit of being part of a larger blog network, anchored by Gawker, which we would overtake in traffic in less than three years.) I was delighted, if a little taken aback, by our readers’ immediate passion and loyalty. Within two months of the site’s launch, some readers were, unprompted, referring to themselves as “Jezebelles” or “Jezzies” in the comments sections of the site. Familiar screen names and avatars began to appear as regular readers populated the threads, talking with one another and, occasionally, with the site’s writers.
The majority of our commenters were very good. Smart, observant, well-read, vibrant, and dizzyingly funny, they added context and nuance to the stories we published and pressed us to do better. Within a year of Jezebel’s launch, they even attracted the attention of the New York Times, which described them as meeting for drinks and renting vacation houses together. But sometimes they were bad: sarcastic, mean, intellectually dishonest, and bullying toward one another. And sometimes they were horrible, behaving like a twisted Greek chorus trying to upstage the main performers. (Years later, as comments on Web sites began to migrate to social media, I would come to realize that they were the main performers.) “That’s sort of the nature of having a commenting community,” Erin Ryan, an early commenter who became a writer for the site, told me. “People start feeling like they should have a say in what happens there. And really that’s not how a publication works.” At one point, in 2009, I toyed with the idea of handing the site over to the commenters for a day, just to watch them fail.
At times we were accused of “tone-policing” our readers. And it’s true: we did tone-police, especially those commenters who were nasty or uncivil. We would take to the comments threads to warn readers about crossing some sort of line. When they derailed a thread, we’d ask them to move the discussion into the comments of a daily anything-goes post that I pointedly named “Groupthink.” (Most of the commenters didn’t seem to get the joke.) I could have, maybe should have, been tougher on them. My managing editor at the time counselled me to think of Jezebel as a virtual dinner party my writers and I were throwing. “You wouldn’t allow someone to be that rude to other guests or hosts. You’d kick them out,” he said. “Do the same thing in the comments.” But we rarely banned anyone outright. No one wanted to punish readers for being impassioned.
I like to think that, though the moderation was irritating to many commenters, it was also empowering. Readers knew that we were watching and that we cared about what they had to say. Someone once told me that the Jezebel commenters were so devoted, if often critical, because the community was made up of bright, ambitious young women who were underutilized and underappreciated at their day jobs. I thought that this was a fascinating, if depressing, observation.
I wondered, sometimes, whether my concerns about the comments were themselves sexist. Was I holding women to a standard of comportment? Complicating matters further was the fact that I’d started Jezebel and shepherded it to success on the back of my own anger. Though that anger, as I’ve explained, was legitimate and warranted—American women had been sold a bill of goods about who they were and what they wanted, or what they should want—it was starting to define the site, for both readers and casual observers.
I remember one blogger, a woman named Susannah Breslin, who, sometime after the site’s launch, accused its writers of “caterwauling about the patriarchy.” This made us laugh. Breslin’s accusation that writers on Jezebel yelled a lot—er, caterwauled—made sense. We were not without mischievousness (our parent company encouraged a certain amount of snark), but we also leaned into our anger—about sexism, about racism, about the erosion of women’s reproductive rights.
Other critics accused us of intentionally stoking readers’ outrage. In mid-2009, Slate’s women’s Web site, DoubleX, published, as one of its first posts, an article which claimed that Jezebel “is hurting women.” “It’s staffed by bloggers who are expected to produce around 10 high-traffic posts a day,” the feminist scholar Linda Hirshman (who passed away this week) wrote. “It didn’t take the bloggers long to realize that one way to attract a lot of traffic was to offer up outrageous behavior to the clicking public.” She recalled an evening in 2008 when two Jezebel writers got drunk during an onstage interview for the talk show “Thinking and Drinking” and made glib remarks about sexual assault. (These comments were then posted on the Huffington Post for all to see.)
I understood such hesitations—we had a big platform, and we were young and provocative and perhaps not ready for prime time—at the same time that I rejected them. In that instance, the outrageous behavior was not engineered, nor was the traffic welcomed. The entire staff was humiliated, and I was livid about it for months. Less of an embarrassment was Tkacik’s post titled “Ten Days in the Life of a Tampon.” (The headline about sums it up.) We were well aware that this sort of gross-out story might generate page views, but it was written not to attract outsized attention but to engage in a bit of truthtelling—in this case, about how women’s bodies actually work. I didn’t like it when feminists policed other feminists, though it had been happening for generations. And I wanted to think that we knew a little something about how to politicize a generation of young women—not by enforcement of doctrine but by example.
Still, a story about Jezebel was emerging: that we were deliberately provoking our readers. In July, 2010, the writer Emily Gould published a piece titled “Outrage World,” also at DoubleX, in which she accused Jezebel and other feminist blogs of cynically causing “firestorms” in order to boost page views. Gould went on to attack the site for exploiting “women’s worst tendencies” by pushing readers “to feel what the writers claim is righteously indignant rage but which is actually just petty jealousy, cleverly marketed as feminism.”
When I look back at the piece, one thing is obvious to me: some of the firestorms that began on the site accompanied legitimately infuriating reporting. The main example of a provocative post was a June, 2010, story that Irin Carmon, who would go on to do groundbreaking work on sexual harassment and abortion rights, reported about sexism at “The Daily Show.” Carmon spoke to writers, staffers, and a former executive on the show, who painted a picture of a beloved, seemingly progressive media organization that was, in fact, a boys’ club. (In 2017, Jon Stewart admitted, during an interview with Howard Stern, that she was right.)
The other thing I noticed was that Gould, like many of Jezebel’s critics, saw the writers as responsible for the commenters: if Carmon’s post provoked readers, then that was part of some master plan; if the commenters were enraged or cruel, this, too, was engineered by the site’s staff. During my time editing the site, I found these assumptions intensely frustrating. In reality, every day was a negotiation between trying to be fair to our commenters and insuring group civility. (Gould declined to comment for this piece.)
When writing this, I remembered a 2015 Jezebel piece by Jia Tolentino called “No Offense.” In it, Tolentino, who at the time was the deputy editor of the site (and now is a New Yorker staff writer), tries to tackle multiple things at once, including how anger works on the feminist Internet and the ways in which digital media blurs the distinctions between readers and writers, creators and consumers. “There’s a large gap between ‘this is bad’ and ‘you should be offended’ that seems to vanish on the internet, and the harder we try to widen it on this website, the more we are constrained by that lingering expectation: that Jezebel exists, as some have always imagined it to, for the infantilizing purpose of telling women when they should get mad,” she wrote. Later, she added, “In theory, people still expect a feminist site to tell people what to be offended at; but what people seek from a feminist site is that the site itself will cause offense.”
I’m not sure that what people seek from a feminist site is that it will cause offense. I think they look for community. But communities can be difficult—chaotic, contentious, cacophonous. I recently came across a two-hundred-plus-page dissertation, published in 2019, called “Architecture and the Record: Negotiating Feminism in the Jezebel Comments.” It was . . . a lot. The author, Melissa Forbes, accused the site (again!) of choosing to “cater to outraged feminists.” I thought that she wasn’t giving the staffers, or our readers, much credit. But I was intrigued by Forbes’s observation that the comments provided a corrective to the feminism of the site’s writers. When the writers themselves were glib or cruel, she wrote, the commenters offered “a different kind of feminism from that practiced on the top half of the page.” I take issue with the idea that there are “different kinds” of feminism, though there are different “waves” of it. But I do believe that the commenters’ close reading of everything we did was how they forged community. They learned from one another, developed relationships, and discovered their own voices—and that was true even when they were (rightly or wrongly) angry with the editors and writers. As one commenter quoted by Forbes put it, “I have learned a lot from the kinds of articles you publish on this website, and even more from your regular commenters.”
That leaves the question of what, exactly, the Jezebel commenters had to do with the anger that exploded on social media. A few weeks ago, I spoke to the author and technologist Tobias Rose-Stockwell about his new book, “Outrage Machine: How Tech Amplifies Discontent, Disrupts Democracy—and What We Can Do About It,” which looks at the ways that enmity on the Internet is rewarded by social-media platforms, advertisers, and individuals. I told him about Smith’s piece, and my ambivalence toward it. I explained that, though I detested accusations that we had used anger to manipulate readers, I wondered whether the outrage culture on social media had its roots in comments sections.
Rose-Stockwell was not particularly familiar with Jezebel. (In his defense, he was not part of its target audience.) But he echoed Smith’s assertions, calling the early two-thousands comments sections of Web sites “proto-social media.” Sites like Jezebel, he said, were showing that it was “possible to bring people from passive consumers of news to engaged participants in the editorial process—something that was new for a media site.”
In 2007, when we launched Jezebel, Rose-Stockwell explained, reader remarks could not be easily boosted or reposted. Outrage or offense still occurred within the confines of communities. By 2009, however, social media—what he called “an opinion-serving machine”—was changing everything. That year, he said, “three key features: algorithmic feeds, social metrics, and one-click sharing fundamentally upgraded the speed at which we spread knowledge, propelling us into the modern viral era.”
In his book, Rose-Stockwell points out that virality did not emerge by accident. Social-media technologists prioritize posts using emotional language. These posts, in turn, can start “trigger chains”—in which social-media users are encouraged to react to inflammatory comments and “pick sides on topics about which we would otherwise have few opinions”—and cause “emotional contagion,” in which a person expressing an emotion leads to the “reflexive production of the same emotion by others in the same proximity.”
After I read this, I felt some measure of relief. The stories and topics we wrote about on Jezebel weren’t being “served,” in some premeditated performance or attempt at manipulation. They were organic. They were the point. And we were not abstract algorithms or “conflict entrepreneurs” (another useful phrase from Rose-Stockwell’s book, describing people who create or stoke chaos online in order to boost their own profiles). We were young women with agency and points of view. We were also, I should add, pretty funny. “I think that people didn’t give us credit for having a sense of humor,” Dodai Stewart, the former deputy editor, told me. “I don’t want to discount some of the more serious things, but, from my perspective, our meetings weren’t us sitting around with everyone red in the face, full of outrage and upset. We were having fun, mostly.” Erin Ryan, the former writer and commenter, took this a step further. “I don’t want to rag on anger,” she told me. “I think anger can be great. It’s the basis of a lot of great comedians and writers and opinion writers. I’d say Jezebel was a passionate Web site. But the passion wasn’t necessarily just outrage for the sake of outrage.”
In our conversation, Rose-Stockwell explained that he’s not trying to condemn outrage so much as look at it from a more systemic perspective. Outrage, online or off, allows us to understand the things that are wrong with society, and to work together to begin to fix them. It can unite people, he said, and help society to cohere around certain norms. In this sense, a lot of the outrage on Jezebel was, indeed, productive, contributing to a larger political and cultural project. I think that one can draw a straight line from the feminist Web sites of the early two-thousands to a growing mainstream discourse around gender politics and race and patriarchy, from Beyoncé performing in front of a sign that read “Feminist” at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards to the Women’s March in 2017 and the explosion of #MeToo that same year to the recent juggernaut that is the Barbie movie. (Yes, the Barbie movie. One of my former colleagues jokingly described the film as making her feel “like I was trapped in the Jezebel comments.”)
A few weeks ago, I reached out to Smith and told him that I’d been trying to sort out the discomfort I’d been feeling in the wake of his piece. I explained that I needed him to clarify what he meant when he said that Jezebel was the start of a particular digital-media age. What age was that?
“Social media,” he said. “That’s how I think about it.”
I pressed him. Was he saying that Jezebel influenced the tone on social media, the conversation, or both? Did the site augur something that was brand new, or reflect something that was already in process?
He replied that this was a question he’d struggled with while writing his book. “I feel like when I was writing, the thing that I was always running up against was, Did X cause Y, or are X and Y being carried along in the same stream?” he said.
I also wanted Smith to respond to my frustrations about that phrase “uncontrollable anger,” and the apparent ease with which he, knowingly or not, placed blame for the current political climate on outraged or opinionated women.
He conceded that his phrasing might have been problematic or inartful. “I’m not trying to invalidate women’s anger at all, but it does seem like that was part of the mix, and powerful,” he told me.
“I think that anger was part of it, yes, but I don’t think it was uncontrollable,” I replied. “I’d say it was very controlled, actually, because that was the way women learned they should express it.”
I see Jezebel not as the beginning of the end of the digital-media era but as a moment—a spark—within an ongoing discussion about gender politics. That conversation has led to new realities around sexual assault and harassment, pay inequity, and cultural depictions of women. It also makes some people uncomfortable—in part because it involves women expressing their anger in public and sustained ways. “Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger,” Audre Lorde wrote in 1981, which can act as a “powerful source of energy serving progress and change.”
If that’s part of Jezebel’s legacy, I’ll take it. It’s about everything I could have hoped for. ♦