For a publication that encouraged readers to “Be Less Stupid”, recently defunct US website The Awl published a lot of stupid pieces. Yet it was the combination of sometimes weird, sometimes culturally acute writing that fostered a cult following in a publishing environment unfriendly to non-marketable styles of writing.
Launched in 2009, The Awl, followed by sister publication The Hairpin in 2010, found a niche in its overlap of cultural commentary and absurdist writing. Pieces ranged from art criticism to how the moon is a useless space rock deemed unworthy of the attention we devote to it. Many alumni of the websites moved on to more prestigious publications like The New Yorker and The New York Times.
But as celebrated as it was in some circles, it couldn’t live on in a changing internet landscape. Talking to The Verge, editor Silvia Killingsworth said that by the end of 2017 the publications were found to be no longer viable after refusing to scale up and meet the criteria of securing advertising deals.
It has become difficult to market products to a generation who grew up creating their own online content and consuming free content created by their peers. In Australia, the millennial sense of humour has become distinguished by a sense of absurdity, evident in a flourishing, home-made meme culture and affinity for satire. Young political hacks showcase their talents on pages such as “ALP Spicy Meme Stash” and Twitter users like @pixelatedboat have attracted nearly 200,000 followers with content ranging from anti-humour comics, altered news headlines and memes that end up in the dictionary.
This fleeting content is shared on social media with no push for monetary gain behind it. The effect is that there’s no longer a need to establish a separate website — even if there were a financial incentive to do so — to house weird material when it can run its course as an ephemeral meme in a news feed. The medium is well and truly the message in this case, and both are meaningless.
But at the same time, if The Awl’s brand of intrinsically weird satire was so in-line with millennial humour sensibilities, why has a local counterpart never sprung up to be consumed by an Australian audience? Is there no longer any hope in making niche ventures like this work?
James Colley, former head writer for satire site The Backburner, which ceased publishing in June 2017, believes Australians would still grant room to an Awl down under, but any publication comes with risk.
“It’s always going to be difficult to launch any kind of profitable media organisation, particularly when you’re producing comedy, but I believe there is an audience for it,” he says.
“Our (particularly youth-focused) news organisations already have a fun, larrikin tone and Australians have always had a special fondness for satirists since we consider ourselves a nation of bullshit detectors.”
This informal news tone is evident in Australian pop culture publications like Junkee and Pedestrian. Recently, Junkee’s founding editor Steph Harmon lamented the closure of The Awl, saying it internalised a lot of what she wanted for Junkee but couldn’t afford.
“We had a column made of Tweets … occasional pieces of pure satire, and very strange blogs that more mainstream sites might not get away with,” says Harmon. “But the majority of what we published was more mainstream, because in order to pay the writers we had to get the traffic — and a poetic ode to Mr Squiggle isn’t going to go viral, no matter how brilliant it is.”
While Australians have historically shown a great deal of love for the satire of The Chaser and the more recent Betoota Advocate, the trademark content of weirder spaces like The Awl and The Hairpin did not facilitate the kind of headline-as-punchline content that garner likes and shares on Facebook and require little effort to engage with.
“The main reason there aren’t any well-known publications in Australia that can sustain that weirdness — and that run as businesses and pay their writers — is the limited market size here, I think,” says Harmon. “It makes it more difficult to take risks, and to get the traffic you need to sell ads.”
In a piece for The Hairpin in its final editorial days, staff writer Kelly Conaboy gave a plea for similar online publications to take on the responsibility of accepting “weird pitches”. When announcing the news on Twitter, many editors stuck up their hands for the pitches that would otherwise be sent to The Awl, but Conaboy remains sceptical of whether they’ll follow through.
If you publish something dumb who is going to even look at it, 1,000 people? Not even uniques? It doesn’t matter. Give somebody money and let them write something really stupid, unless it’s bad. Make sure it’s at least a little good.
Conaboy’s request for publications willing to showcase the weird-but-adored remains to be seen. The Awl and The Hairpin’s closure may solidify the weird blog as a relic suited to a more carefree and less commodified media space. We may be losing a genre of writing that could only occupy a unique nook of the web, swallowed up by a demand for mass-market, ad-friendly digital publishing, with limited hope of resurrection.