By KATIE O’BRIEN
When browsing through my favorite online publications, I often end up reading stories told in the first person. The Internet is a hotbed for first person writing, be it on social media or through personal essays. This type of writing is often confessional in nature, discussing traumatic experiences or social taboos. I didn’t think much about the implications of this phenomenon, until a Slate article about confessional writing recently went viral, starting a discussion among publications and on social media about whether the nature of confessional writing on the Internet is a positive thing, and about the effect of making these confessions can have on the confessor.
In the article, entitled “The First Person Industrial Complex,” Laura Bennett argues that in a digital media landscape where a claim to originality is hard to come by, “first person essays have become the easiest way for editors to stake out some small corner of a news story and assert and on-the-ground primacy … and [they] have also become the easiest way to jolt an increasingly jaded Internet to attention, as the bar for provocation has risen higher and higher.” So while confessional writing has become an important part of Internet culture, Bennett argues that their publication is often reckless and self-serving.
Our appetite for confessional writing dates way back before the Internet. True Story, founded in 1919, was the first magazine dedicated entirely to confessions. Its subtitle was “Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction,” and it published letters submitted (mainly by women) confessing to something that was considered scandalous in a Jazz-age America.
The popular magazine brought attention to the issues that women faced, but were too taboo to speak of. The 1950s brought about a wave of poets who wrote about taboo subjects, helping to debunk the stigma around issues like mental illness and homosexuality. Sylvia Plath has been among the most enduring of these voices, and her enduring popularity today fits right in with the Internet culture of confession.
Today, the majority of confession pieces are still written by women, because it is still, so often, women’s thoughts, feelings, desires, bodies and sexualities that society is so scandalized by. Women writing about their experiences with taboo issues like sex work, abortion, domestic abuse, oppressive domesticity and workplace sexism has helped bring these experiences into social consciousness and conversation — and in this way, confessional writing has been, and continued to be a feminist act.
More broadly, online confessional writing is the one of the few public spaces that privileges the voices and experiences of marginalized people. The ability to open up Facebook and read about people’s experience with gender, sexuality, racism, mental illness, sexual assault and other issues that still carry social stigma, is invaluable in communicating to people that they are not alone, as well as bringing awareness to these issues. And the Internet’s penchant for confession means that more and more cultural and news outlets are publishing the stories of those whose voices have been the most invisible.
However, there is a difference between stories that bring light to the experiences of marginalized groups, and stories published merely to shock and scandalize. Bennett used the example of Jezebel’s “On Falling In and Out of Love With My Dad” — a viral story full of pure, sharable shock value that comes at the expense of the writer. In a digital media landscape where success is measured by clicks and shares, you can see how it is monetarily advantageous for publications to run stories such as these. Bennett argues that the public sharing of such harrowing stories can be exploitative; both because writers are often not adequately prepared for the consequences of going public, and because, when the same writers submit a piece that is not shocking, their submissions are ignored.
So, I think that the ability for people to tell their stories and reach a wide audience thanks to the Internet is a net positive — and until we are a more equal and accepting society, much needed. But with the rampant cyberbullying and harassment that plagues the web, telling a story that still carries great social stigma can be dangerous. Editors need to be careful not to take advantage of people who have been through traumatic experiences, and adequately prepare their writer for what going public with their story could mean. Editors and readers alike should exercise some judgment as to whether sharing a story genuinely furthers social good, or just serves our own voyeuristic pleasure.
Katie O’Brien is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Midnight Radio appears alternate Mondays this semester. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.