If you were hanging around the blogosphere Thursday when the New York Times posted its Sunday magazine's cover story a few days early, you probably witnessed the riot. "Exposed," was the nearly 8,000-word confessional essay by former Gawker.com gossip blogger Emily Gould, in which she describes her compulsion to blog everything, whether it's personal, professional or -- for the really serious Web traffic -- the slippery place where the two intersect.
Hundreds of mostly negative reader comments flooded in immediately, so many that the NYT's comment moderators were overwhelmed and temporarily locked the discussion while they caught up.
"How can it be that such vapid foolishness be accorded the importance of a cover piece in the Times Magazine," wrote a commenter who identified himself as Leo Dymkoski from Toronto. "Extraordinary."
"Please stop embarrassing our generation with mindless prattle," wrote L.M. from New York. "The world already thinks we are a bunch of spoiled brats, and we need intelligent and talented people (which you obviously are) to put their abilities to good use."
The ire of average readers unaccustomed to seeing such personal musings in the paper of record's magazine was one thing. But even more explosive was the eruption of shrieking blog reactions from commentators around the Web. What she'd exposed in her essay, it appeared, was more than just the vagaries of Internet microcelebrity. Gould had tapped into a vein of media-world animus that no one quite realized was there.
The media's disapprobation was evident on the usually even-keeled NPR. During an interview on "Day to Day," host Madeleine Brand focused on what the piece revealed about Gould as a person, pointedly asking Gould if she worried that she came across as "very narcissistic." Brand added that the magazine's photos of Gould splayed across her bed, laptop at her side, "make the point that it is all about you."
And then there was Rachel Sklar, the Huffington Post's media critic who is rarely in attack mode but who led the blogospheric harrumph with her scathing, comprehensively linked tear-down of Gould's piece, and of Gould. Sklar questioned the essay's basic journalistic value ("Good God, NYT. The cover? Really? For this?"), suggested its author's intentions were suspect (saying it was a "chance for Gould to settle the score" with her ex-boyfriend), pointed to multiple bungled facts, and in the process betrayed that she, Sklar, was in fact one of the world's leading experts on "the saga of Emily Gould," a phrase that she used three times.
It seems worth noting that at one point, Sklar links to a set of party photos to make a point about Gould's social opportunism but neglects to mention that she, Sklar, was at the same party and in the same photos. That Sklar and Gould are also Facebook friends seems to confirm that even if they're not real-life BFFs, they're not people who have the journalistic luxury of vast interpersonal remove.
Gould, of course, did not fail to notice the scrutiny her piece received from professional bloggers. "They want me to be punished for having left that world, and for having criticized it," Gould wrote to me in an e-mail. "It's important to them that it be understood that my article, which on the surface might seem like an accomplishment, is actually a fluke, a mistake on the Times' part, attributable to pretty much anything besides relevance or skill."
That may sound a little defensive (and even a touch paranoid?), but it's not far off to say that the demographic that cared about this story most was the New York new media crowd, especially those with a foot in the Web world. That group's open access to megaphones and soapboxes belies its exceedingly small and unrepresentative nature -- so much so that with a collective eye blink it can light up the blogosphere with vituperative chatter about what's, after all, just a story about the by now unsurprising pitfalls of playing with the Web's peephole-filled boundaries between public and private.
New York Times Magazine editor Gerry Marzorati told Media Bistro (where Gould is now a contributor) that "putting Emily's story on the cover was not a tough call . . .
"One of the things we are most interested in at the magazine are those lifestyle issues -- what we call the Way We Live Now issues -- that blend personal narratives with larger political or ethical or philosophical concerns."
Reading through the blogosphere's fast-cash critiques of Gould's piece, you come across dismissive yet vague adjectives ("boring," "long," "self-absorbed"), and things like a tally of the number of times Gould used the word "I" (363, but please, try writing a first-person essay without referring to yourself). I've read the piece several times now, and it doesn't rock my world, but there wasn't much about it that seemed to merit such a knife storm. To someone not steeped in the blogosphere, my guess is it would be a lucid introduction to its temptations and rewards.
So let's go back to first principles. This is the story of a young woman who has gotten where she is (read: the cover of the NYT magazine) by unapologetically pursuing a kind of reportage that features her as the main character in every story and the people around her as supporting actors. (And not just lately -- this goes back to the comics she wrote about that she drew in high school, where SuperEmily beats up all the mean girls.)
And yes, thanks to the Internet, this kind of performance journalism, where the writer is her own subject, is gaining ground. When digital video and photos became ubiquitous, it opened a door for certain writers to cultivate online images and personalities -- an approach that Gould discovered had a strong appeal to her readers. And this is happening across the Web: in the tech blogosphere, Veronica Belmont, Robert Scoble and Michael Arrington have become journalistic brands; in politics, it's been Markos "Daily Kos" Moulitsas; in celebrity gossip, Perez Hilton; in dating, Julia Allison (a Gould role-model) -- in every case, online writers and commentators who skipped slow-lane paths through traditional journalism and who liberally project their image and personality onto their subjects.
For these brand-name bloggers, it's no longer about whom they write for, or in some cases even the importance of what they're saying, but about a kind of fame-building, where the more reader-fans they've got coming to them every day, the stronger they become.
And by being featured on the cover of a major magazine, SuperEmily just got a lot stronger.
It remains to be seen if she will use her powers for quote-unquote good. In her piece, Gould stops short of swearing off tell-all blogging, leaving the door open to more of the stuff she freely admits has hurt her.
I asked Marzorati about how Gould's piece seemed to be missing a conclusion -- some kind of reckoning with the basic ethics of her anything-goes approach.
That complaint, Marzorati thought, was "from people who wanted her to renounce herself -- to abandon her blog-post ways and beg the culture's forgiveness. What I found most interesting was her ambivalence and complication, but that seems to have driven people crazy."