We’re Watching the End of a Digital Media Age. It All Started With Jezebel.
Ten years ago, a group of digital media companies thought the future belonged to us. New brands like Vice, Gawker, The Huffington Post, Business Insider and BuzzFeed News, which I helped start, had begun as blogs or something similar, outsider voices with audiences who were sick of the stuffy mainstream media. They’d grown steadily on the internet, and when Facebook arrived, they exploded with the social platform. They became expert in telling stories in a way people would like and share, and their links became omnipresent in readers’ newsfeeds. Their voices dominated the influential, sometimes toxic conversations on Twitter.
But they didn’t turn out to be the future. Gawker shut down in 2016, briefly revived and shut down again this February. Last month BuzzFeed News closed up shop. The other iconic brand of the era, Vice, is reportedly near bankruptcy and has laid off many journalists in recent weeks. On television, still America’s dominant medium, social media also helped boost a new kind of confrontational, hyperpolitical style, but that seems to be fading, too. Also last month the corporate owners of cable networks pushed out two of the defining voices of the confrontational Trump years, Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon.
Media commentators from CNN to The Financial Times are using the same phrase for this moment: “The end of an era.”
But when did this era in media begin? Where in the media did this remarkable new openness and uncontrollable anger start? Answers, of course, are subjective, and I don’t claim to know who the first person was to be searingly honest online or demonstratively mad on the internet. But to understand the period we all lived through, we need to give it a beginning and an end. And when I went back to find the origins of this media moment while researching a book on our recent history, the earliest, brightest sparks I saw came from a particular place.
The site was Jezebel, a blog started in 2007 by the founder of the sharp-edged media gossip site Gawker, Nick Denton. Jezebel wasn’t intended to be revolutionary. He started it in the hopes of attracting makeup advertisements. But the woman he hired to create the blog, Anna Holmes, had an agenda of her own. She had been an editor at Glamour quietly raging at the two-dimensional women Condé Nast’s magazines and their rivals portrayed, and the vapid content she churned out when the magazine’s hottest topics were “sex and angels.”
Ms. Holmes was advised against using the word “feminist” when she sought the job, but the site she made fused the personal and political. Jezebel started with a defining stunt: a $10,000 bounty for images from a fashion shoot before they’d been retouched to meet unrealistic beauty standards. A source collected the reward for images of the country musician Faith Hill, and Ms. Holmes wrote that “in a world where lying, deception and the fudging of facts has become endemic in everything, all the way up to the highest levels of government, this is yet another example of a fraud being perpetrated on the public.”
Jezebel began on an internet whose casual sexism is a little shocking to revisit today. The biggest joke in America was Britney Spears’s pain, and the signature move of the top gossip blogger, Perez Hilton, was drawing semen on female celebrities’ faces.
So the site had no shortage of targets. It called out women’s magazines for shutting out Black models. It wrote frankly about sexual desire. It inhabited the elements of women’s lives that the glossies pretended didn’t exist, in the language real young women spoke.
What makes Jezebel feel so relevant now is that it was among the first places to crystallize the powerful forces that would define social media over the next decade: politics and identity.
Jezebel was, on one hand, a powerful early demonstration of how the new online identity politics could be a force for good. Just a few months after the site debuted, one of its editors, Dodai Stewart, turned up at a panel where she found women’s magazine editors — who would never admit to reading the hostile, seething Jezebel — nonetheless citing its statistics on the lack of Black models.
But the writers also soon realized they were playing with fire. Jezebel was feeling its way in a new world, one in which digital analytics had switched on the lights in the darkened room of distribution, leaving writers and their readers suddenly seeing one another clearly. They could speak to one another directly, first in the comments section and later on social media. This offered an approximation of intimacy and made it easier to identify with a writer — or feel betrayed by her. Small media dramas played out in public. Standard, unspoken operating procedures, such as Photoshopping away Ms. Hill’s freckles and laugh lines and relying on anonymous White House sources, were open to furious challenge. The results across media were more honest, diverse, combustible.
The writers’ own self-exposure also helped make Jezebel feel so new. That apparently intimate relationship between the writer and her audience helped make Jezebel feel like a high-wire act of writing, and it would become utterly familiar to journalists when, a couple of years later, Twitter began to overtake the profession.
Jezebel’s readers were devout, picking favorites among the writers but also moving swiftly to attack any who strayed from what they saw as political or social orthodoxy. Maureen Tkacik, the site’s lead political voice, was particularly prone to straying and faced the kind of searing online mobs that would become familiar when Twitter (which had just started) grew more mature.
“It felt like we had unleashed something that was more volatile than we realized,” she told me much later.
The kind of journalism Jezebel helped create also sometimes required people to pretend to be tougher than we were and drove many people — including some of the early Jezebel stars — more or less off the internet, at least for a time. The social media era gave journalists and citizens an intrusive surveillance power “once reserved for totalitarian governments,” as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes wrote in 2021.
Indeed, the first iteration of Jezebel melted down about a year after it began. Two of its editors got drunk during the taping of an interview series and cracked tasteless jokes. An online mob assembled to denounce them, and their commenters turned on them. Ms. Holmes reined in her team. The site’s power and influence gradually faded, and the unmediated passions of social media took up where it left off.
The media is still grappling with what Jezebel’s creators helped unleash, for good and ill. The era opened opportunities for journalists and creative people who, by instinct or practice, could blend their identities with the stories they told. The new generation of millennial writers at the Gawker sites, BuzzFeed, Vice and other digital projects challenged stuffy, insular and occasionally deceitful institutions that deserved challenging, but it also lacked, in retrospect, a sense of the value of having trusted institutions at all.
And those of us who came up in the internet media may have missed the biggest story of all. We took it for granted that this was a progressive medium, populated by young people who loved Barack Obama and culminating in some way in his election in 2008. We didn’t expect the true apogee of the new media to come with the election of Donald Trump eight years later.
Still, when I went to write about Jezebel, Ms. Holmes and their generation of media, I found a lot to admire. The obituaries for the media of the 2010s are tinged with relief. Social media outrage and cable news shouting left us all exhausted. Many readers and viewers now are turning with relief to calmer voices. It’s also easy to forget how badly the media that preceded it had discredited itself.
“Magazine retouching may not be a lie on par with, you know, ‘Iraq has weapons of mass destruction,’” Ms. Holmes conceded — but that was in the air, too. The digital media era challenged those deceptions and hypocrisies, large and small. But the energies Jezebel helped unleash were also impossible to control. They often seemed to turn on their creators. Now many of the 2010s outlets are gone or diminished, and what’s left is a set of familiar publications, like this one, that have been reshaped by the challenge and talent from the likes of Jezebel.
Ben Smith (@semaforben) is the editor in chief of Semafor, was the editor in chief of BuzzFeed News and is the author of “Traffic: Genius, Rivalry and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral.”
Source photographs by Dave Hogan and Kim Kulish, via Getty.
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