I was trying to imagine what I would say to explain the extremely 2020 story of how a 25-year-old Los Angeles writer named Meg Zukin raised money for those affected by the coronavirus crisis to a time traveler … or an alien … or my dad … and this is the simplest description I was able to come up with: Zukin put out a call on Twitter for strangers to send her stories about the relationship dramas they were experiencing in quarantine, she collected those stories in a Google doc, and then she had still more strangers pay her $1 each on Venmo for access to the dish. As far as modern-day charity hustles go, she’s up there with the sex workers who sold nudes to donate the proceeds to victims of the Australian wildfires earlier this year.
Zukin’s stories have since become a free website. I called her to talk about how this all started, the best stories she got, and the enduring power of drama. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Heather Schwedel: How did you come up with this brilliant scheme?
Meg Zukin: I started working from home voluntarily about a week ago. I live with my boyfriend. I hadn’t really gotten into any specific fights with him. We’re actually doing pretty well, all things considered—even without all things considered, we’re doing great. We’re doing amazing, sweetie. But I had never really spent this much time with him during the day. We obviously spend a lot of time together, we live together, and we’ve taken vacations. But this is like, life. We were both on conference calls. He was in a Zoom class—he’s in grad school—and I was on a conference call for work, and I was just thinking, “Damn, this is probably going to last a while.” And we’re going to have to figure out how to navigate close quarters and our workflow living together.
I see journalists on Twitter all the time write stuff like, “I’m writing a story about X, Y, Z. If this applies to you, email me.” So I tweeted, as a joke, “Well, I don’t want to write a story about it, but I also think that would just be a funny tweet about journalists always asking for stuff.” And then I started getting emails, and this one woman emailed me a seven-page essay. Like, “Thank you so much for talking about this. No one’s acknowledging these dynamics. This is a relief. This drama is not fun. I’m going to strangle my husband.”
Once the emails started rolling in, I was like, “Oh, maybe I should do something with this.” I emailed all the people who had sent me stories and asked them if they would be OK with me posting them anonymously. And they were like, “Yeah, that sounds great.” So I did, and I tweeted about it. And again, I didn’t think I was going to make that much. And then I just started getting more stories, more people interested, more attention for it.
How much money have you collected?
I think I’ve raised just under $6,000. I really thought that max I would maybe get maybe $1,000, if I also sent it to people I actually knew in real life. The majority of the donations I’ve received have been $1. I’m like, “I don’t need a super PAC, I can raise thousands of dollars via micro donors.”
Have you always had this interest in drama of this kind?
I love reality TV. I love drama. I love gossip. I think I was inspired by like half Humans of New York, half PostSecret, Tumblr, and even Formspring culture. I’m really interested in how the internet intersects with anonymity, and honestly, drama and entertainment. I remember when FML and sites like that were really popular in like 2008-ish. And I feel like those websites were so successful with this sect of people who were nosy enough to be poring over these people’s little squabbles.
It does feel like a lot of the initial stories about self-isolation were very oriented toward the science and the safety and the politics, but I think you were smart to identify that there is a lot of interesting interpersonal stuff happening too.
Exactly. Like I had a trip planned this week to visit my brother who is in college in New Orleans. My boyfriend and I were going to go together. It was his spring break in grad school, and we obviously canceled it. We made all these reservations, all these tours, whatever. And as I’m going through those canceling everything, I started crying, and then I felt like, “People are dying.” I was like, “This is such a stupid thing to be crying over. It’s just a vacation. I’m already so lucky to be able to go on a vacation in the first place. This is hardly that bad.” And then I was like, “Honestly, it can still suck though,” and I can still cry for 20 minutes about it before pivoting back to, “OK, here are the actual problems of the world.”
You might have a fight with your boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife right now, or even roommate, and no, you guys aren’t dying. But it’s still very traumatizing in the sense that this is going to have long-term effects and we’re literally stuck inside with people. Like the petty fights are also very important on a different scale.
What have been your favorite stories that you’ve gotten?
I am fully obsessed with a new story I recently got that its author described as “a tale filled with literally the deepest irony of all time and a ballad of dyke drama as old as time.” I loved the short one about the girl squeezing limes and her boyfriend getting mad at her, because I thought that was fully relatable—sometimes the biggest fights are over the smallest things. It’s not really about the limes. It’s about the fact that there is a global pandemic, and we all have to stay at home and we are taking out our anxieties via rationing fruit. Or just like when you get so annoyed with someone, you can’t stand the way they breathe. It’s not really about the fight, it’s just like, “I’m losing my mind.”
There was one where a woman’s husband moved out of her place—she was an elementary school principal, and her husband moved out of their home and moved into his mother’s house. And she said, “I feel like we’re on the Titanic and he’s in a boat, but I’m alone drowning in steerage. Like that whole old couple in bed, LOL. Oh well, got to get back to work tomorrow.” It’s so real, you know? I loved imagining different people all over the globe complaining about things that in the grand scheme aren’t as big of a deal as people getting ill and global shortages of supplies, but on a personal level, major issues that are affecting your relationship and your life.
What do you think you’ve learned about what makes for a good type of story in this vein? What are the ingredients?
I think you could go one of two ways. Something so out of this world and crazy that people just compulsively need to keep reading to find out what happens next, or I think something so minimal and relatable, like not enjoying your mother-in-law, being stuck with your partner’s family because you were taking a trip and then now you can’t leave. The fight over the limes. I think specifics are good instead of just saying, “My boyfriend was rude to me at breakfast.” Who gives a shit? I think you need to really lay out all the cards on the table in your story for it to be successful. And also I think that people’s voices are really shining through. The more drama the better.
Are you going to keep taking submissions? Are people still sending stories?
I’m getting still a few trickling into my email, but now there’s a submission tab on the website I made. This is a funny time, because I obviously have nothing but time. Maybe once a day at the end of the day I’ll go through it, and then add some of the submitted stories to the site. And I’m still taking donations, even though the site is now accessible and free. I feel like this is hardly saving the world, but it is really cool that people were able to come together for the sake of gossip and drama.