xoJane: My Former Website’s Death Was A Blessing
As the internet says goodbye to the confessional site, an ex-staffer wonders how a good thing turned rotten.
If you’re not familiar with xoJane.com, the notorious, uneven, fascinating, often infuriating first-person essay factory that sprung up in 2011—and closes shop today—birthing essays like “My Rapist Friended Me On Facebook (And All I Got Was This Lousy Article),” “I Spent Two Weeks In A Mental Institution and Left With Better Hair” and “My Gynecologist Found a Ball of Cat Hair In My Vagina,” think of it as an episode of Black Mirror come to life.
The plot goes like this: Website monetizes oversharing. Website helps give rise to the derisive term “first-person industrial complex.” Website allows—and often even encourages—commenters to lambast, threaten and insult the writers and their associates, which they do so gleefully, along with producing the occasional false rape allegation against Conor Oberst.
And as of today, website finally collapses inward upon itself. No killer honeybees as of yet, but let’s give it time.
I worked for xoJane (and continued to do freelance work through this year as an editor-at-large for the site) since 2012. And I for one think the site’s death is a blessing.
You know—kind of like xoJane writer Amanda Lauren opined about the troubled friend she barely knew when she wrote her internationally excoriated essay on xoJane “My Former Friend’s Death Was A Blessing” in May of this year.
To that end, I’d like to apply to the death of the website a few quotes from that spectacularly offensive article—because it seems morbidly fitting here. (The site eventually took the piece down and issued an apology.)
Lauren wrote of her dead friend in the jaw-droppingly tone-deaf tribute: “How are you supposed to react when you see something you will never be able to un-see? How are you supposed to feel when you think you have seen and heard everything and then someone’s Facebook page snaps you out of a state of jadedness? More importantly, is it ever okay to admit you feel it is a blessing when someone dies young?”
Not really — but since her essay is one I’ll never unsee, let’s go with that.
After conducting more than a dozen interviews with former writers, editors and critics of the site, I came to find I’m not alone in my the-death-of-the-site-as-it-currently-stands-is-a-blessing sentiment.
Something needed to change. Something needed to die.
I texted Jane Pratt, the founder of xoJane, on the second-to-last-day of 2016 to see if I might quote her for this story about the ending of the site now that owner Time Inc. is pulling the plug today—after acquiring it a little over a year ago.
“It’s not officially the end of it (yet) but other than getting that part accurate, of course you can!” Pratt texted back a minute later. She of course meant that she’s still trying to get someone to buy the property. But let’s be real: As endless goodbye post after goodbye post on the site indicates along with the so-far-unreciprocated suitor overtures, for now and for indefinitely, it is no more.
I texted Pratt back immediately.
“Is there part of you that is glad that its current incarnation is dead?” I replied, trying to live by my own personal media ethos to never be one of those too-afraid-to-broach-the-thesis directly “hit piece” reporters. “I think that you/it will spring from the ashes (obviously, as you always do) but I feel weirdly glad to see you freed from where it was at near the end there. Does that resonate at all?”
It doesn’t surprise me, as Pratt, who provided me (and so many others) with a second act and platform when she hired me, has always been extremely savvy when it comes to dealing with media perception. She got my angle. She knew I did not have a rubber-stamp tribute in mind.
“The way the site went downhill made me somewhat embarrassed to have ever written for them,” confessed writer Melissa Petro. “I don’t regret anything I published, but I recognize now there was some element of exploitation happening there. For example, I’m pretty sure xoJane contacted the NY Post in advance of their publishing my essay about working with Penthouse, so that the Post could write their own sleazy ‘take’ on the situation, and xoJane would get more clicks. I wasn’t mad at the time, because I didn’t know better, but like, who does that? No one I’ve worked with since would have set me up like that.”
Agreed former editor Laura Barcella, “I think it needed a firmer editorial structure, both in terms of masthead (more clearly delineated roles) and in terms of editorial selection/assigning. There were too many cooks in the kitchen in some ways, and far less than enough in other ways. Grammatical errors, poor editorial judgment calls and freelancer payment issues were happening.”
Writer Ali Barthwell admitted she became afraid to list xoJane on her resume after one of her pieces went viral, and said, “The unmitigated comment section allowed for hate and vitriol to spread and left writers vulnerable. Other sites choosing to close their comments section is proving to be a valuable asset.”
She also said, “I would hope that the next iteration of xoJane or something like it would avoid publishing stories where the white writer imagines the plight and thoughts of a black woman in her yoga class and instead publish the black woman to hear her actual thoughts.”
Writer Alison Freer said, “Commodifying personal experiences from newbie writers can obviously turn very bad very quickly. I think the cracks really started to show right around the time SAY Media decided they didn’t want to be in the publishing biz anymore. Resources and manpower dwindled—and it seemed to become harder to give sensitive stories the extra editing attention they needed.”
Let’s return to a choice excerpt from Lauren’s dead friend opus again and apply it to xoJane: “While most Facebook posts, at least in my feed, are pictures of engagements, weddings, vacations, children pets and links, her page felt like the diary of a fourteen-year-old girl with an eating disorder from a Lifetime movie circa 1993….She also frequently posted about how she was mentioned on entertainment shows, talking about the status of her relationships with various celebrities.”
The parallels are eerie, no?
Indeed, former top editor Lesley Kinzel who tried to steer the site when resources were slashed dramatically after Time’s takeover, said, “Mostly I am just sad. It’s hard to put so much of yourself into something only to see it turn into a place you don’t recognize.”
Alana Massey, one of the site’s early breakout star writers, said, “If I recall correctly xoJane’s initial tagline was ‘Where women go when they are being selfish, and where their selfishness is applauded.’ That’s just a fundamentally bad premise. It concedes to the toxic belief that a woman telling her own story is being selfish. But the permissiveness about selfishness is what gave rise to stories like ‘My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing.’ Selfishness is not virtuous or even especially interesting.”
The harshest critic of the site might just be Alice Wright, who is webmistress of Get Off My Internets, which documents regularly complaints about xoJane and other blogs’ content. Wright told me, “I think a succession of ill-advised posts probably turned audience feelings sour after a while. Readers started wondering how someone with 20+ years in publishing and several editors with years of experience in journalism and media could keep making such poor decisions.”
I am very much included in that assessment, in case you were wondering.
She noted, “It will be interesting to see where the commenter community winds up. The xoJane diaspora may be the most interesting part of this whole situation.”
Former xoJane intern—and current Cosmo sex and relationships editor—Julia Pugachevsky noted, “Over the years, my feelings for XO changed, and I felt like I was seeing more sensationalistic headlines like, ‘Your Pit Bull Belongs In a Zoo’ or ‘I Don’t Feel Guilty For Not Tipping You.’ Both of those pieces seem to exist purely to show ‘Look! I have a unique opinion!’ and lack the bravery and depth that made so many other It Happened To Me’s so memorable and important.”
Writer Britni de la Cretaz said when she heard about Time’s decision, “I think it’s a good thing. I believe the site has run its course and the content it’s publishing now is not what it once was. Combined with the vitriolic commenters, I think it was a toxic environment.”
Anabelle Bernard Fournier, who wrote a fascinating piece on her own website about her negative experience with xoJane said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about this first-person industry, and how it’s commodifying our stories (pretty much women’s stories) for commercial gain. It’s not about the quality of the writing or connecting personal experiences with the human condition anymore. They’re not essays: they’re anecdotes.”
Of course, a source close to xoJane remains optimistic: “Time was probably not the right place for the brand inevitably. A lot changed at the company in the year Time owned the brand and it sort of got ignored. The staff was ready to go and building the traffic steadily in the beginning but it was never getting the support it needed. I think they’ll look back at letting it go as a mistake.”
The source continued, “All the staffers and a lot of the community seem sad about it but hopeful for a new xoJane future either at another publisher or a totally new site.”
If that is the case, Barcella is a voice for many when she says, “In my fantasy dream-world I’d like to see Jane return to print, her original home! I realize this probably won’t happen, but my Sassy-obsessed younger self would be thrilled if it did. This would also eliminate at least some of the rabid-commenter issues that plagued the site. Most disturbing to me was the fact that it wasn’t misogynistic troll dudes bashing the writers and editors there—it was, usually, women bashing other women, and appearing to take great joy in doing this.”
To quote Lauren’s most awful and prescient piece again, “I felt like…death was inevitable. Every box for being a danger to yourself or someone else was checked.”
A second source close to xoJane admitted that it wasn’t just the commenters, it was staffers —including me—who were constantly at each other’s throats. I’ll cop to that. I often called the workplace a “kind of lovable snakepit.”
This source went on: “The whole place was filled with mind games. The experience was so traumatic. It was all this supposed radical transparency but in the office everything was secrets and a lack of authenticity. xoJane had this facade of being above it all, and we weren’t. In a way, it was like the best media training I ever got because now I know everything is fake. The big thing for me was that the nurturing loving and compassionate mission of the site was not reflected in how the site was actually run. Every week it was, ‘Who’s going to be pissed off and dial it in or be a bitch to literally everybody.’”
When it was at its absolute worst, certain staffers were reminded that they were “stars”—or told they simply were not. So much for the nurturing facade.
Of course, let’s be real, until the day I die (and at which time, my death is hopefully celebrated as a “blessing” by some frenemy who read a few Facebook posts of mine), Pratt will remain my publishing idol. I will also always be incredibly proud of work I did there. Most importantly, I have no doubt that whatever Pratt’s next move is will be yet another breathtaking, breakout and highly commercial media endeavor.
Because that’s what Jane Pratt does. She is a star.
But my former website—the one Pratt created and that employed me—is dead. And the sarcasm and snark which we were strictly prohibited from using when writing for the site (meanwhile, the often unchecked commenteriat used it like a tear gas grenade in a movie theater) I believe is more than warranted for this bitter goodbye.
To quote one last time Amanda Lauren’s brilliantly horrific essay celebrating her friend’s death: “It’s hard to share my thoughts…and not judge myself on some level for exploiting an awful situation. But the person she became wasn’t really her.”