I’m currently writing a novel based on a true story and the story ends where Autostraddle begins. As in; the narrative occupies the two years prior to Autostraddle’s founding, recounting a (fictionalized) series of events that ultimately lead the protagonist to start her own website for LGBTQ women. Thus I’ve been immersed in 2007-2009 blog posts, emails, chats, diary entries, letters and videos — and within that immersion I’ve been identifying all those tiny steps, imperceptible at the time, that became the big leap that became this place, a place we’ve only recently felt capable of defining as a location rather than a wild experiment.
We talk about that history a lot — the tangible parts, at least. The idea itself, the meetings, the layout sketches, the eager interns, the late nights on g-chat. It wasn’t until I got into the messy core of this novel that I started thinking a little deeper, though; about the spirit in which Autostraddle was born, about our roots. And that spirit is what we used to call “blogging”: voice, heart, personality, connection, writers in active conversation with readers.
The internet has changed a lot since 2006, which’s when I started my personal blog, This Girl Called Automatic Win and, eventually, its sister blog for L Word recaps, The Road Best Straddled. Back then, thousands of individual writers were divulging secrets and weaving compelling personal narratives to rapt, intimate audiences on Blogspot or Typepad or WordPress. We were earning readers through links on other blogs, or a prized inclusion in Gawker’s daily blog round-up. We were keeping up with our favorite blogs on RSS readers. Bloggers did not have robust presences on social media, because social media was not yet being used as a promotional or brand-building tool. We were not obligated, if we desired an audience, to broadcast our work in a public square where our friends, family, exes, enemies and high school geometry teachers regularly checked in. We were free to write solely for our specific audience, not for everybody you’d ever known and strangers clicking around social media for something to hate. You could build your own little world if you wanted to, and boi did we ever.
Ultimately, microblogging failed as a financial enterprise, but in the days of the early web, multi-author blogs with seemingly successful business models popped up all over, defying expectations around what kind of content was monetizable. These blogs were defined by their uncompromising commitment to personality and, often, a priority of personality over a clearly-defined subject matter: Gawker, Jezebel, The Awl, The Hairpin, The Toast, xoJane, Rookie. Sites with active comment sections and communities that formed around them, sites that solicited anecdotes and photos from readers and rewarded their comments, sites you visited not just for the stories they told but for who was telling them. There was surely a time in which I could’ve named every current Jezebel writer or editor. The type of personal writing published by these sites was not limited to polished personal essays. Personality was everywhere: in intros to link roundups, in movie reviews, in event recaps, in breathless g-chats about celebrity gossip, in headlines. “The classic blog was a writer’s medium,” writes The New Republic in What Were Blogs? “It was all about voice.”
Most self-described feminist blogs have been forced to pack up after years of effort in a media environment that favors big names and big money: “It was unclear how we could have such a ferocious audience and not be onto something,” Feministing’s former Executive Editor told The New York Times in “A Farewell to Feministing and the Heydey Of Feminist Blogging.” On Feministing itself, it was lamented “we ultimately couldn’t build a long-term funding model in today’s media environment that would allow us to compensate our team fairly for their valuable work.” (I still don’t think we’ve achieved that here, to be honest — our rates and salaries remain too far below market for my comfort.) That same article notes that feminist blogging is also a victim of its own success: having proven feminism’s popularity, larger and more monied establishment publications snatched away not just readers, but writers and editors and other staffers. You can swap in “LGBTQ” for “feminist” there, too.
The blogs that remain have largely shifted from personality-driven models to models that better suit the modern publishing landscape: posts that attract search traffic and social media shares, posts anybody could walk into without knowing a damn thing about the publication, let alone the person who wrote it, or if anybody behind the curtain had ever even talked to each other. As Ezra Klein wrote in a Vox piece about the future of blogging: “The incentives of the social web make it a threat to the conversational web… I think we’re getting better at serving a huge audience even as we’re getting worse at serving a loyal one.”
Now, writers build personal brands through newsletters, or on social media. It’s a safer place to do so, after all. As Max Read wrote in “Did I Kill Gawker”: “Twitter and Reddit and a dozen other social networks and hosting platforms have out-Gawkered Gawker in their low thresholds for publishing and disregard for traditional standards, and, even more important, they distribute liability: There are no bylines, no editors, no institution taking moral responsibility for their content.”
“With Gawker gone,” wrote Jeet Heer in The New Republic, “we have to face the prospect of the end of blogging and of the utopian enthusiasms of our youth.”
For writers like me — non-existent social skills, inability to small talk, zero effusiveness, social anxiety and the attendant coping mechanism, “clinging hard to people I already know,” that comes off as pretentiousness — blogging (and its sister arts of podcasts and vlogs) was a revelation. I’d never mastered any method of interpersonal communication in my life, including traditional journalism and “talking out loud to other humans,” until I found blogging. All I ever wanted to do with my life was make people feel less alone, and when it turned out my blog was doing just that, I was shocked and delighted and wanted to do it forever. I was so grateful for these readers, who likely gave my life more meaning than mine did theirs, and I built relationships with them, responding to every single comment on my blog for the entirety of its run and doing my best to keep up on their blogs, too. So when I started Autostraddle, we too responded to every comment. Before we had tens of thousands of readers, we had each other, commenting on everything like it was our job, in hopes it would one day be our job.
The Era of Commenting — when all over the web, active comment sections were seen as essential elements of online media conversations — is over, having fallen so far out of favor since we began that many of the new feminist sites of the ’10s, like Broadly, The Establishment, Them.us and Salty, launched without comment sections at all. We no longer basically require our writers to engage in the comments — an honestly unhinged ask, in retrospect — but we still maintain a section for readers to leave them, we still engage with them, we still always wish there were more, especially on pieces by underrepresented voices. I cannot fathom ever not reading them. Because we may be long past the days where I spent multiple Christmases hanging out on open threads that averaged between 300 – 600 comments each, but we do still see ourselves as in conversation with our readers, just as blogs have always aimed to be.
We keep that conversation going because it is vital that queer people have access to that community somewhere, even if over the years so many more of you have found it in your own lives. It is vital that newly out-to-themselves people can see that community exists amongst real people, not just TV characters and social media influencers. It is integral to our mission as a queer business that we remain in community with you and each other.
That’s why we’re fundraising. Because we believe this space is vital.
We are still a place where thirsty writers test dating apps together, where three brilliant political minds discuss and present the week’s news; where 80s/90s sitcom characters are ranked in the giant groupchat known as Slack; where the self-aware voice of our Vapid Fluff keeps us both entertained and realistic; where writers walk you through their relationships and one-night stands and heartbreaks and marriages and divorces with carefully curated playlists; where every Sunday morning this year a writer has brought you into her actual room with custom imagery as beautiful as the words surrounding it.
We are still, at heart, a blog.
We’re often citing the diminishment of queer/lesbian spaces as a reason to preserve ours, but that’s not the only nearly-extinct type of publication we are. We’re also one of the last publications still devoted to building community through voice-driven writer-first blog-style website content. Doing that under the umbrella of our current mission — to make space for all LGBTQ+ women and trans people — is an expensive and time-consuming adventure, especially because we’ve been a remote workplace that, by definition, prevents us from being in actual community with each other.
Well, we haven’t always been a remote workplace. When we started out in 2009, most of our founding team lived in New York, and we were in the same room, our co-working enabled by our COO being the former employee of an obscenely wealthy straight cis man who never stayed in his Midtown penthouse, thus enabling us to essentially move in and build together for those first many months. When our COO left town and the man ended his lease, a lot of our group work was done on my actual bed, in my living room, or at a nearby park when all the interns were in town. Without that initial in-person experience, we wouldn’t exist today. We did, back then, anticipate getting investors, opening an office, and moving our handful of remote workers out to wherever we landed as soon as we could. Like so many dreams of being a “real” newsroom, that dream was never realized. At this point it has been abandoned: we will never be able to afford such a thing.
As so many workers all over the world have learned over the past year, it’s a lot harder to build relationships and create collaboratively virtually. Creative work specifically thrives far more readily with people who know each other and can work together in real life. But for us, it’s another way we keep it cheap: not just for money saved on office space, but because workers in cities like L.A. and NYC have higher costs of living.
We began as a site that was, as much as we wanted it to be otherwise, the exact definition of a personality cult — something Laneia and Rachel and I pulled out of the only thin air we knew how to breathe, day after day, often repelling potential readers who did not like or relate to our personalities. Our writers tended to be our friends who had enough fun working here to want do it for free, and more often than not, had personal blogs or tumblrs of their own prior to joining the team. Our ability to attract writers outside of our own personal networks was mostly a reflection of the fact that there weren’t very many other places to publish queer content, let alone for money.
Thanks to y’all, we finally have the ability to offer better salaries and rates to attract an even wider variety of writers and staff to the site. We’ve still got a long ways to go — not just in the diversity of what we publish, but in building an audience who will turn up for those published pieces. We are able to take the time to do that because when accepting work from our in-slack freelancer team and their wider freelancer network, the likelihood of that work to garner traffic is not our only concern. “It has taken three years to build out a new vision for Bitch,” wrote Bitch’s first Black Editor-in-Chief, Evette Dionne, last June, before revealing that their most recent annual survey finally reflects a shift in the demographics of their readership. “Audience cultivation is a long game. Media companies are too impatient.”
What’s interesting is that our freelance budget is actually pretty huge compared to other sites of our size, most of whom publish 3-4x as many posts a day as we do. But the editors still struggle every month to not exceed it. That’s because Autostraddle is not the same six staff writers pumping out 5 posts a day each on whichever topic lands on their desk. Some of our full-timers barely write 5 posts a month, because instead they’re focusing on organizing, managing and editing the huge array of voices we need to ensure we can tell the widest variety of stories possible. We do not have one (1) TV critic who weighs in on every new show; we have a team of editors who foster relationships with a team of writers while also seeking out external freelancers to cover shows that speak to specific demographics or experiences — an asexual writer on coming out in a world without representation and Sex Education’s watershed moment, a Black queer DC comics fan on finally getting a Batwoman that looked like her, a range of trans writers on the legacy of The L Word’s Lisa the Male Lesbian. We can have conflicting opinions, even, like the variety of voices and perspectives that contributed to our L Word: Generation Q content, audio and written. A site so defined by the personalities of its writers requires a huge array of personalities available to write and edit.
I am never happier than a day when an essay connects with a whole new group of readers, or when I hear about Straddlers bonding over similar interests or passions. My number one joy in life is connecting people with similar experiences and struggles to each other — whether it be friends with similar trauma, campers I placed in the same cabin, or a commenter responding to a personal essay on this website. And I feel hopeful for a future of those moments under our new editorial leadership.
We do lose something when dedicated queer spaces like Into, Girlfriends and SheWired shutter or AfterEllen goes full TERF, but we also lose something when The Awl, The Hairpin and The (also queer-owned!) Toast do. These were places where writers were free to experiment, to be weird, to make writer-first work that isn’t easily monetizable. Nobody ever googled “Texts From Jane Eyre” or “Straight People Watch” until Daniel created the former and Erin the latter — and I can’t imagine many existing publications that’d make space for those brilliant columns to exist without a trending topic to inspire their creation. Autostraddle still makes space for weird pitches like How To Simulate Sex By Just Listening To Janet Jackson, we still present EXCLUSIVE WEDDING PICTURES from people who simply work here.
At launch in 2010, The Awl’s editors announced their site would be “an interesting experiment to see if good content can win.” In 2018, NPR lamented The Awl and The Hairpin’s closure, noting that they “stayed true to their writing-first organizing principle, but the Internet changed around them.”
The decline of sites like those occurred in tandem with the rise of even the most allegedly respectable publications giving themselves over entirely to clickbait and SEO-driven content.
Every month when I scour the internet for news on upcoming streaming programs to construct your monthly streaming guide for you, I will search something like “new on Netflix February 2021” and what comes up are dozens of websites — link farms but also basically every publication in existence (e.g., Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Vulture, Indiewire) — who have published identical posts jostling for Google’s top spot. The posts are, essentially, a list of dates and shows. No links, no descriptions, nothing. Just a list of words. If you recognize a name on the list, you might get stoked to see that V for Vendetta will be on Hulu in February, but otherwise there is no useful information here, just a post that google, for some reason, has determined is indeed the most useful information of all. No disrespect to the probably very nice writer who was assigned this post, but Buzzfeed yesterday published “Netflix Just Released Its March Titles and There’s So Much Good Stuff” and it’s just like, a header naming a show and then a picture of that show. After that happening six times, we get to — once again! — the rote list of titles, sans context, sans links. It doesn’t even explain why the good stuff is good stuff!
This is the internet, now. And honestly, I think it sucks! I haven’t even gotten into the fact that half of those websites are impossible to read ’cause I can’t open them without disabling my ad blocker, and their ads cover half the screen and involve videos that follow me around like my dog does except not cute.
And all of those posts are guaranteed to garner 100x more traffic than the one I write for you, which takes about a week to put together. I read articles and reviews, I look up and sit through trailer after trailer, I download sides and check casting calls, I grill the TV Team, I scour and update our own database, I analyze the press releases we’re sent from networks that basically become a Where’s Waldo of lesbian content since they’ve yet to master the art of Just Sending Us the Gay Stuff.
Our expertise is irrelevant to google.
Right now, the top google result for “Lesbian Movies” is a list of 20 Best Lesbian Movies to Watch Right Now by GOOD HOUSEKEEPING. That ranks four spots above Drew’s painstakingly curated 200 Best Lesbian Queer & Bisexual Movies of All Time, for which she watched HUNDREDS of films over a period of two years to make a post as high-quality as possible. If you search for “lesbian film,” Good Housekeeping is first and Drew’s post doesn’t show up at all, ever. Nor do any of the other hundred or so lists of queer films we’ve constructed over the years.
Both of these examples — my streaming guides, Drew’s movie list — are what they are because we are obsessively detail-oriented humans who care deeply about the subjects we focus on and about the audience we are garnering information for. And we would rather get it right than actually get a full night of sleep or be financially stable. So that’s a whole other psychological can of worms we can open another time.
But, if I may make this into a more important point: carefully curated work by experts who care deeply about the subjects they focus on is not favored by search engines. Search engines favor sites who write for search engines, not for people. Every year this disparity gets worse, and every year we lose more and more legacy traffic and potential readers on account of it. The proverbial lonely queer teen in the midwest could google “lesbian sex” and “lesbian dating” and not find a single Autostraddle post anywhere in their search results. #1 for Lesbian Dating, btw? GOOD HOUSEKEEPING. Google also seems to think that Forbes.com and Medical News Today know more about lesbian sex than we do. So this is what we’re up against, friends.
Last week I published a list of the straight actors who played gay the most and within hours found myself deeply embedded in the comments, working with readers to improve the list’s accuracy and breadth. It reminded me of the dead lesbians list of 2015 that became part of a movement that changed LGBT representation on film and TV forever. I’d forgotten how much I love projects like these and wish I could spend less time on the phone with banks and more time in the minds and hearts of our readers. I love learning from y’all. I love that nobody expects us to follow the typical publishing rules, that y’all know there is room for a document to remain alive. Crowd-sourced journalism is a thing for sure, but I’m not sure communities like this, where a writer keeps working on their post for weeks post-publication in concert with readers without an incentive for increased pay or traffic is almost an expected norm. I know twitter is where it happens now — where writers talk, build, research, but I’ve never really gotten the hang of that app. My home is here. And maybe yours is too, or maybe it was.
Autostraddle’s earliest iteration was an idea Carly and I had in the summer of 2007, during which time we ate a lot of peanut-butter crackers and drank a lot of vodka, called “All Our Powers Combined,” which would essentially be all the queer bloggers in our universe gathered on one central website. Maybe if we combined all of our readerships, we’d have enough traffic to make enough money to do it as a job. And in many ways, that is what we did, except for the part where we made money.
We’re sticking with this strategy: with being writer-first, with blog-style conversations, with a focus on building community and letting you into real lives. Because we are queer. We are weird. The work we do here is genuinely heartfelt, and that’s hard to find these days.
We could go back, of course. Autostraddle could end — it still might, after all. We could separate all of our powers. We could all get better-paying jobs at bigger publications or freelance for same. When we wanted to say something nobody wanted to publish, we could start a newsletter, or write a twitter thread or, if we were very lucky; get a book deal. You could subscribe to our Patreons. But I think it’s better this way.
And so we are asking for your help to keep it this way. We’ve gotten a long way in increments of $10 and $25. We are now facing our highest fundraising goal ever, and crossing our fingers that ad revenue will bounce back so we won’t have to ask for this much again. We’re asking you to give to this fundraiser, to join A+, to prove that there is still life in voice-driven, reader-first publications. I don’t think we’re better than any of the blogs that didn’t make it this far — objectively speaking, we definitely were and are not. We can surrender to the corporate interests that think Good Housekeeping knows more about gay movies and queer dating than we do, or we can keep this last little weirdo place around. We’ve gotten this far with everyone just chipping in what they can. Every person really does make a difference, contributes to the whole. Will you help keep us here? Will you help keep us queer and weird?