Casualties of the Content Wars, We Salute You

A Slate tribute to the Awl and the Hairpin, two websites we’ll miss.

An animated GIF of a robot falling down with THE AWL written over the image.
Photo illustration by Slate. Image by GIPHY.

There’s a cliché about the Velvet Underground that could be applied to the Awl and the Hairpin, two websites that were never especially widely read but that nourished great writing and made people want to be great writers. As many have pointed out since the sites announced Tuesday that they would shut down later this month, there are fewer (RIP Gawker) and fewer (RIP the Toast) places on the internet where, as the Los Angeles Times’ Matt Pearce put it, “good young/outsider writers get their start now.” We’d suggest a few lingering incubators (pitch us!), but we are here to praise, not caveat.

The Awl (motto: “Be Less Stupid”) was founded in 2009 by two former Gawker editors, Choire Sicha and Alex Balk, and for years it was for readers and writers a safe harbor in what the site would term “the content wars,” the advertising migrations and platform ascensions whose incentives and upheavals have transformed digital media. Under editors like Sicha, Balk, Carrie Frye, Matt Buchanan, John Herrman, and finally Silvia Killingsworth, the Awl could be weird or flippant or ambitious, literary or anti-literary, too cool for school or too square to care, always projecting the sense that it was immune to the compromises and poor decisions that can make the internet a drag. As our colleague Dan Kois put it, the Awl “let good writers write about what interested them, and gave them a little bit of money, and surrounded them with other good writers, and made sure someone read it.”

The Awl’s sister site, the Hairpin, came along a year later, after Edith Zimmerman had filed a few hilarious Letters to the Editors of Women’s Magazines to the mothership and Sicha and Balk presumably said to themselves, “Duh, we need to give Edith her own site stat.” Originally built around Zimmerman’s fixations (MS paint drawings, ghosts, women in stock art), the site grew into the softer, maybe even weirder, counterpart the Awl deserved, with later editors and contributors including Nicole Cliffe, Emma Carmichael, Jia Tolentino, Haley Mlotek, Jazmine Hughes, etc.—a murderesses’ row.

In a way—to borrow another cliché we’re sure the Awl’s editors would lance from this article like an unseemly boil—the sites were bloggers’ blogs, which is why so many other writers loved them and why so many editors noticed and hired their contributors. While the Slate staff has too many favorites to laud all of them (sorry, Concessionist), here are some choice reads to make the rest of your week a little less stupid. Or as the silver-eared Balk might have put it in one of his perfectly laconic song posts: Here’s music, enjoy. —Jonathan L. Fischer and Heather Schwedel

Rape Joke,” by Patricia Lockwood

“Rape Joke,” which the Awl published in July 2013, followed a year of real rape jokes performed by male comedians, which spawned think pieces about their appropriateness, which in turn prompted backlash tweets and angry comments about women not understanding comedy. Lockwood’s poem cut through this weary discourse, proving that good poetry can clarify where nothing else can. Her list of “rape jokes” invoking the specific circumstances of a particular rape—“The rape joke is that his best friend was named Peewee”; “OK, the rape joke is that he worshiped The Rock”—manages to illustrate perfectly why rape is not a joke while being unbearably funny at the same time. I’m still not sure how she did it. —Rebecca Onion

A Complete History of Gerbiling So Far,” by Jane Hu

How to Kill a Possum,” by Allison Stockman

Semi-ironic animal aggregation was always an Awl specialty (the site is registered to I Can Haz LLC), but some of its most memorable work went long and uncanny on critters. Find horror, joy, and far too many details in Jane Hu’s comprehensive piece on the history of gerbiling “so far” (yes, as in Richard Gere) and, more recently, in Allison Stockman’s account of violent marsupial death. Nothing like a little existential dread with your weird animal content. —Jeffrey Bloomer

What if a Women’s Magazine Edited a BBC News Story About Syria,” by Sarah Miller

This parody (?) of a women’s magazine editor taking a very aggressive red pen to a BBC News story about Syria is the Hairpin at its finest. —Torie Bosch

The Content Wars,” by John Herrman

Herrman’s series was essential—the smartest analysis then or since of what’s happened to media this decade. The column began in 2014, at the height of the social boom, and Herrman immediately became an indispensable Cassandra, pointing out the illogic of the platform era in posts full of menacing robot gifs. He was good because his thesis was right—it was risky and stupid to build a business model for journalism on the whims of tech behemoths. But he was also good because he was so smart about both the economics and the work—it’s rare to find a media critic equally astute about both. I’m grateful for his work, which I think made me smarter about mine. —Julia Turner

War Horse: An Illustrated Review,” by Lisa Hanawalt

By now you might know Lisa Hanawalt as a producer and production designer for BoJack Horseman, but six years ago, I first fell in love with her work as a writer and illustrator for the Hairpin. At the time, Hanawalt was best known for her illustrated reviews of new movies for the site, which were, and still are, among my favorite pieces of movie criticism.

All of Hanawalt’s reviews from this period were mini-masterpieces, but, as was already clear from the anthropomorphized animals she watercolored into every review (the review of Drive included a parrot, a monkey driving a car, and a gosling), War Horse was the assignment this critic was born for. The result is part memoir, part astute cinematic analysis, part hippology, and part watercolor rendering of horse poops, and reading it feels like what it’s like to actually watch a movie—at least if you’re as smart and funny as Hanawalt.

It was no surprise when, a month later, she was placing her pictorials in fancy outlets like Vanity Fair, nor was it when, within a couple of years, she was publishing the first anthology of her work, doodling jokes into the margins of her new Netflix series, and, in her greatest role yet, drawing illustrations of digestive organs for Slate. Two years after that, she’d gone from writing for online magazines to being profiled in them. She’ll succeed wherever she goes, but I’ll always think of her sensibility—sharp but not self-serious, and feminist in a way that made that sound like the most fun thing to be—as being 100 percent the Hairpin. —Forrest Wickman

Twenty-Seven,” by Adriane Quinlan

Turning 27, Quinlan wrote in this Awl piece, marked “the end of the floaty years.” I was 24 when this ran, and it pains me to say I thought 27 was old then. Now I know it’s not, and that 27 isn’t necessarily the end of the floaty years, either, but I love this piece anyway—at the end of the day, don’t we all just crave a good navel-gazy essay about youth? I read the Awl all throughout my 20s, from my dorm room to my bedroom in my parents’ house to my first apartment to my next one, and I’ll truly miss that feeling that we were all navigating our floaty years together.

Honorable mentions: the whole End of the 00s series, “Six Lesser-Known ‘Golden Ages’ of Media, 1991-2005,” Katie Heaney’s Reading Between the Texts series, Natasha Vargas Cooper and Mary H.K. Choi reviewing movies, “All Dudes Learned How to Dress and It Sucks,” “Winona Ryder’s Forever Sweater,” so many more. —Heather Schwedel

Imaginary Lines From an Imaginary 9/11 Sex and the City Episode,” by Lauren Bans

A time and place has never been summed up more succinctly than the words “Uptown, Samantha was having a few explosions of her own” capture the first decade of the 21st century in New York City. —Ben Mathis-Lilley

Seven Years as a Freelance Writer, or, How to Make Vitamin Soup,” by Richard Morgan

The John Oliver Video Sweepstakes,” by John Herrman

Among its many other services to humanity, the Awl did more than any other magazine of our time to demystify the bizarre and repulsive industrial process by which the sausage of modern journalism is made. For instance, the time Richard Morgan explained who is making all those sausages, and how little they’re being paid, and how crazy they’re being driven. Or the time that John Herrman explained that the sausage is made of chopped-up bits of John Oliver. The Awl’s links are already breaking—probably began breaking long ago, when the site that did the most to elucidate the cannibalistic nature of platforms decided to start publishing on Medium. Sausage we are and to sausage we shall return. —Gabriel Roth

Weather Reviews,” by Tom Scocca

We live our lives in vibrant details, but remember them in tepid wholes. Soon enough, we will forget the seagull’s cry, the brief breeze, the way snowflakes dust our hands as we fumble for our gloves. “Cold one out there,” we will observe when we come back inside, and our friends know that we are simply shrugging a phatic hello.

Tom Scocca’s daily weather reviews—single paragraphs, accompanied by mysterious star ratings—demonstrated a wholly different way of being in the world. Where meteorology is normally predictive, these vignettes were reflective, shimmering and sharp as sunbeams bouncing off a frozen pond. In his column, Scocca did not push back against the mundane so much as he passed through it, finding poetry in the particular. This was not information you could use; you could only luxuriate in it.

Weather, a climatologist will tell you, is what is happening now. By writing about the weather, Scocca showed us what it was like to be then. —Jacob Brogan

Ways in Which the Movie ‘Cloud Atlas’ Has Changed My Life,” by Liam Callanan

In 2004, an epic time-hopping fantasy/historical novel called The Cloud Atlas was released.
Also in 2004, an epic time-hopping fantasy/historical novel called Cloud Atlas was released. One of those, by David Mitchell, became a best-seller and was later adapted into a movie by the Wachowskis. The other one, by Liam Callanan, got some decent reviews but was mostly ignored. Callanan’s Awl piece on how the release of the 2012 film affected his Cloud Atlas is a wonderful reflection on life at the bottom of the Amazon rankings. —Josh Keating

Yakkin’ About Football,” by Jeff Johnson and David Roth

There are a lot of very funny satirists at work in our eminently satirizable times, but few—none?—operate on the level of Johnson and Roth, whose Awl riffs on football news transcended the mere form of parody and became something more like hilarious literary dispatches from a universe that, however surreal, was nonetheless more representative of reality than actual reality. “I feel like polling the parking lot at a Jets game on current events or political issues would be the most depressing experience in the world,” Roth once wrote. “22% for women’s suffrage, 76% against, 4% vomit instead of answering the question.” He’s right! —Ben Mathis-Lilley

Showtime, Synergy,” by Matt Siegel

The single best thing I ever read in the Awl was “Showtime, Synergy,” Siegel’s hysterical and brutally relatable essay on finding his inner masc-4-masc to hook up with a man who “looked like the type of guy who banged bitches in a tent.” I first read it in a compulsive spiral of choking laughter and shame. Enjoy! —Jeffrey Bloomer

A Complete Taxonomy of Internet Chum,” John Mahoney

Mahoney’s piece offered a scathing indictment of just exactly what those bizarre and uniquely clickable boxes of content at the bottom of many familiar webpages actually were. In deconstructing the types of chum (“Deeply Psychological Body Thing” and “Disgusting Invertebrate or Globular Mass Presented as Weird Food” being two of the best classifications), Mahoney offers a delightful read that is itself chumlike in how intensely satiating it is—only you also come away from this piece with a greater understanding of the internet, the online content business, and the human psyche. It is worth revisiting this piece now, as we think about what content on the internet can be, from chum boxes to the Awl. —Susan Matthews

What It’s Really Like to Be a Copy Editor,” by Lori Fradkin

I’ve always wanted to be a copy editor. I wanted it when I was the only copy editor on my high school newspaper, when I was one of the only “yes, I want to be a copy editor and not a magazine feature writer” students at my college, and when I was working as a beat reporter/copy editor for my hometown newspaper. But until Fradkin wrote “What It’s Really Like to Be a Copy Editor” for the Awl in 2010, I didn’t really have any resources to explain to other people what my ~goal career~ would look like. I love this piece. In a behind-the-scenes profession like copy editing, it feels as though there are very few instances when one can pull back the curtain and say this is what I do. And Fradkin’s piece is so true! Even now, people are not tweeting about how a piece was so beautifully copy edited—or its em-dash placement. Instead, I get to see all the jokes about how publication X should hire more copy editors (which might be true, please hire my peers) because clearly nobody read story Y (probably less true, also rude). It’s an outwardly thankless job, and the overlooked mistakes can feel like physical jabs amplified by the internet. Copy editing is also constantly evolving the same way language is. (Regrettably, the dictionary now says it is douchebag. And it’s Panic! at the Disco again.) But I love it, I’m going to keep doing it, and I’m going to keep a printout of this story on my desk because it’s always going to be true. —Dawnthea Price

The Vast Bay Leaf Conspiracy,” by Kelly Conaboy

Bay leaves are bullshit. Deep down anyone who cooks but isn’t a “professional” “chef” knows it. Finally, a journalist investigated. —Seth Maxon