The internet can be a sad, scary, boring place. But for the better part of a decade, there was a sanctuary for readers who wanted to have some fun; an online space that fully embraced the silly, the obscure, and the delightfully weird—from using McRibs to explain how commodity markets work to a detailed set of instructions on how to turn a plastic doll head into a wine glass. It was The Awl, and its women-focused sister site The Hairpin. Both announced this week that they are closing shop at the end of January.
The news that the two independent publications are folding—the result of “a steady decline in direct sales,” according to The Awl’s publisher, Michael Macher—has prompted an outpouring of tributes across the internet. Many writers echo the sentiments of former Hairpin co-editor Nicole Cliffe, who said on Twitter: “it changed my whole life.”
It’s true that the sites, with their willingness to take chances on inexperienced writers, left an enormous imprint on the media landscape, with a good number of writers scoring book deals or going on to legacy publications including the New York Times, the New Yorker, and New York Magazine. Michelle Dean, the author of the forthcoming book Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, noted on Twitter, “I would not be a writer without the Awl, and know so many who would say the same. The Awl gave one a path into media that wasn’t dependent on being a Harvard alum or excessive sucking up at appalling n+1 and Paris Review parties.”
As well as the impact The Awl and The Hairpin had on the people who wrote for them, it also changed the lives of their readers—certainly my own.
When I started reading The Awl, founded in 2009, and The Hairpin, which launched a year later, I was trudging through a PhD program that I didn’t much care for. All the texts we read seemed lifeless to me; academia, I thought, took itself way too seriously. The Awl and The Hairpin were portals into an entirely different way of interacting with the world, in which humor and offbeat thinking were acts of subversion. Even when the topics of the posts were serious, the sites practically vibrated with the particular joy that accompanies rebellion against stuffiness. (New York Magazine’s tech vertical Select All has compiled a terrific best-of list here.)
The sites stood out for a number of reasons. Much has been written about the personal-essay industrial complex, but The Awl and The Hairpin specialized in a different kind of personal essay—intimate but self-aware, and never melodramatic. One classic Awl post, “Negroni Season,” written by the pseudonymous Evelyn Everlady for her “Worst Boyfriend in the World” series, tells a truly wild story about a lying, cheating alcoholic ex-boyfriend with a particular fondness for Campari-based cocktails. There were essays about what it’s like to be told that your spirit animal is a mouse, becoming a member of the barista class, learning physical courage, and coming to accept the futility of giving advice.
The personal essay aesthetic of the Awl network wasn’t about exploitation or self-indulgence. It was about sharing the kind of stories and observations you might normally think were too weird or minor to say out loud, and discovering that everyone else was incredibly grateful, because they’d secretly been thinking and doing a lot of weird stuff too.
The sites also had a knack for launching incredibly addictive series. The Hairpin had the epic Scandals of Classic Hollywood, by media studies scholar Anne Helen Petersen, and The League of Ordinary Ladies, a comic series detailing the usual twentysomething exploits (buying a juicer; discovering via Facebook that a guy you’re going on a date with has really beautiful sisters). It published a tongue-in-cheek candle review column. For a time, it was positively bursting with advice columns: Ask a Queer Chick, Ask a Swole Woman, Ask a Dude, Ask Santa, and my favorite, Ask Baba Yaga (also now a book!) in which poet Taisia Kitaiskaia adopted the persona of a creaky, mystical Slavic witch. (To a woman asking if she will ever fall in love again, Baba Yaga advises, “Wait for the, guest who carries fresh meats, & until then, eat yr fine soups by yrself, & open the windows so the birds may come in yr house & charm yr table with their beauty.”) The Awl, meanwhile, had Crop Chef, a column about how to properly prepare produce-based dishes; Surreal Estate, an ongoing investigation into the bizarre workings of New York City real estate; and a recurring series featuring existential reviews of the weather in New York City.
The best part of reading The Hairpin and The Awl was that they took real risks—not only on writers with few bylines, but on pieces that weren’t afraid to be nuts. (The attitude is neatly summarized by Jacqui Shine, who on Twitter recalled pitching then-Awl editor Choire Sicha a piece on the cultural history of the New York Times Style section—which he now edits. His response? “LOL SURE LET’S DO IT.”) Consider Sarah Miller’s satirical take on Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s white savior complex, or Maria Bustillos’s longform dive into David Foster Wallace’s self-help library, or every beautiful thing Edith Zimmerman ever did, from her wordless post featuring infinite stock photos of women laughing alone with salad (an instant classic) to a faux-trend piece declaring the comeback of chamberpots. The most moving short stories I’ve read in recent years are Mallory Ortberg’s two-part series, Text Messages from a Ghost and The Return of Ghost, which unfold via texts between a ghost living inside a phone and the human it has decided to (kindly) haunt.
As news of the sites’ impending shutdown circulated, Hairpin writer Kelly Conaboy published a brief post asking editors at other publications to follow through on their pledges to give weird posts a home. (“‘Weird pitches’ meaning blog posts with life inside of them that bring joy rather than pain,” she clarifies.) It’s remarkable how reading The Awl and The Hairpin really did have the power to make you feel better.
Now that they’re shutting down, it’s up to the rest of the web to create spaces where humane people with a skewed view of the world can gather, and make each other feel less alone.