I was looking at the Internet the other day, and I thought, “Wow, there are so many personal essays out here! I should write an essay about how writers are increasingly making themselves part of the story, and what this says about the Internet.”
The above is, of course, a hyperbolic example of what I’m talking about: The recent resurgence and seeming ubiquity of gonzo journalism. Writers today insert themselves into their articles. Editors (including our own) solicit personal essays on a variety of topics. Sites like Medium combine incisive reporting with first-person narrative.
Some sites seem entirely built around the first person: Vice’s reporters film themselves as they drink wine made from poop in South Korea. XoJane cuts right to the chase with a section called "It happened to me." Every other link in my Twitter feed that’s prefaced with a “THIS” or “WOW” invariably points to a tome recounting a personal tragedy or triumph.
There are a lot of reasons personal stories spew forth these days, as though half of America is applying for college all over again. Some of it has to do with the economics of news. Some of it has to do with an innate human love of stories. Some of it is bad. But some of it is very good. I'd argue that on the whole, Internet culture is better for it.
When it comes to first-person anecdotes, one driving factor is that many web journalists have both intense traffic pressures and steep competition. That means stories not only need to be written more quickly than before, they also have to be more interesting than their rivals’. Just as in the olden days, a story with a snappy lead is more likely to take off among readers. And yet, there’s rarely enough time to call people to ask them about their run-of-the-mill experiences for every single post.
To see the difference, I looked up a few news stories about weight loss from the 1980s, and the results are jam-packed with yarns like these:
Three years ago, Barbara, who is in her early thirties and 5-foot-2, weighed 187 pounds. Now, she weighs 127. She said she woke up one morning and decided she was serious about losing weight. "I was unhappy," she said, "I figured out what was making me unhappy, and I began eating less food and walking up and down the street at night."
Ewing says he hasn't been able to incorporate a walk around Lido Island, where he lives, into his busy daily routine. Instead of six or seven times a week, he has been walking only about three times a week.
He intends to walk more often but says he has trouble executing his plans. "Like the other night, there was a boat parade party, so I couldn't go then. So I got up and did my walk in the morning, but that's a problem because then I get to work later and I'm behind all day."
Ewing and Barbara's stories are quaint and kind of interesting, but they’re also time-consuming to gather. Today, we still take the time to seek out sources who have unusual or specific experiences. We also go out of our way to give voice to people who aren’t likely to jot down a personal narrative. But if we need a good example of something mundane, like being sad in the summertime, say, or fearing ghosts, sometimes we literally write what we know: our own lives.
This tendency, combined with the proliferation of the confessional first-person essay, has generated pushback—some of it deserved. The author Eve Fairbanks wrote that reporters should seek out people who might not have access to a laptop and a How to Pitch Atlantic Editors textbook, and to interview many sources for a richer narrative. (Ironically, she wrote this in Post Everything, the Washington Post blog that runs personal essays.) And in a world where most journalists at major publications come from monolithically well-off backgrounds, their personal anecdotes can only reflect a tiny part of the world. There's a danger of the navel-gazing eating away at diversity.
There can also be some weird blame-shifting by publishers when personal essays spark controversy. Thought Catalog has gotten heat for posting virtually unedited diatribes—including those that seem racist or sexist. By publishing opinionated takes, some sites find it easier in the aftermath to throw up their hands and yell, “They said it, not us!”
But there are serious upsides to the first person, too. In recent days the personal essay has been vindicated somewhat, in two very different instances.
Even though rape allegations about Bill Cosby have been swirling for decades, as Paul Farhi notes, it was only after the actress Barbara Bowman wrote a first-person account about her own assault for The Washington Post that the moral outrage of the Internet was piqued and Cosby’s longtime TV allies abandoned him. And in The New Republic, Rebecca Traister wrote one of the most poignant Cosby pieces by delving into her personal history to show why it took so long for white Americans to awaken to the comedian's alleged crimes.
The second example had lower stakes, but was telling nonetheless: After The New York Times food section shafted Minnesota by giving it a bizarre “grape salad” dish in the paper’s 50-state exploration of Thanksgiving cuisine, a hilarious, first-person takedown by NPR reporter Linda Holmes was cited by the Times’ own public editor as one of the most on-point critiques. Could Holmes have called a dozen Minnesotans and gathered similarly withering reactions? Undoubtedly. Could she have still completed a pitch-perfect article within hours of the Times series hitting the web? Maybe not.
In a way, this is a natural extension of the decades-old sprawling network of personal blogs. The difference is that now mainstream publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post are embracing personal essays alongside features and news.
There are other ways the Internet makes it easier for first-hand reports to find their way into the news. I’ve trawled social media sites to identify people whose experiences relate to stories I’m writing. What would 20 years ago have been a virtually unseen personal account can now inform and inspire a feature story.
As anyone who has ever lost an afternoon to the magnetic pull of Reddit AMA knows, it’s a gift to have a trove of personal stories at one’s fingertips. Sifting out the true and worthwhile, meanwhile, is a huge responsibility.
Sometimes, though (not all the time, or even often), a directly relayed personal tale—mine or yours or a freelancer’s—is the truest example.
Unless, of course, you are the sole Minnesotan who has ever eaten grape salad.