Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


September 8, 2009

Leader of the Jezzies

When Anna Holmes started Jezebel it was a small blog with an intimate community. Now, as one of Gawker Media's marquee names, the Jezzie-in-chief discusses the benefits and problems of expansion.

David Goldenberg

Over the past couple of years, as Gawker Media has jettisoned underperforming sites and laid off staff from its most popular ones, it has found promise in one of its newest arrivals, Started in 2007, the site has surprisingly carved out a niche in the well-trodden grounds of celebrity gossip and women’s magazines by focusing on the fact that most of it is, well, bullshit. It’s bullshit that’s fun to talk about and ruminate on, but bullshit nonetheless.

It’s a tricky thing to cater to readers who both enjoy consuming popular culture versions of women’s media and making fun of it, but Jezebel editor Anna Holmes has walked that tightrope ably since the beginning. Some of that is because she spent years working for the very women’s magazines she now critiques, but it’s also because she’s willing to believe that her readers are flexible enough to handle jokes about Michelle Obama’s well-chiseled arms and serious discussions about the misogyny inherent to the Caster Semenya controversy.

Photo courtesy of Anna Holmes.
"Women who do not fit certain molds or step outside the bounds of what is considered acceptable female behavior get torn down. It's really as simple—and as sinister—as that."

Photo courtesy of Anna Holmes.

In the following email interview, Holmes, 36, talks about how Jezebel’s expansion has changed the site, speculates on the divide between readers who comment and those who don’t, and chastises Gelf for the use of the word “oversharer.”

Gelf Magazine: You guys have been talking about the Chris Brown/Rihanna story for a while. What about it resonates with your readers?

Anna Holmes: I'm not sure that we've been talking about it any more than any other media outlet, specifically any media outlet geared towards women. As for how it resonates with women, or rather, our readers, I think it's safe to say that most women of a certain age have experienced—either directly or indirectly—physical, sexual or emotional abuse within a romantic relationship. Maybe they were the targets of such abuse; perhaps a family member or friend was. But the fact of the matter is that domestic violence, whether physical or emotional, is something that the majority of women have some experience with yet continue to find a difficult and extremely personal topic of discussion. Thing is, our readers do not shy away from the difficult and the personal, which is just one of many reasons that we value them and the community they've helped create.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think any story about celebrity-on-celebrity domestic violence would have resonated this much, or is there something particularly captivating about Rihanna's situation?

Anna Holmes: This particular story had two things that perhaps made it resonate more than another celebrity-on-celebrity domestic violence case: the awful, graphic leaked police photo of Rihanna's bruised/beaten face, which, for many, brought home the extent of the abuse she suffered, and the fact that Rihanna is considered to be a peer by many. I think for the younger generation, who has grown up believing that fame/fortune is the end all, be all, that seeing this talented successful young woman in such a situation brought home the fact that these sorts of crimes, can and do, happen to anyone—regardless of economic class.

Gelf Magazine: For a long time, successful women bloggers were often oversharers (like Julia Allison and, well, [Former Jezebel editor] Moe). I’ve noticed that trend decreasing recently. Why is that?

Anna Holmes: I'm not sure that the trend is decreasing—can you give me more specifics on how/where exactly you've noticed this?—and I'm also loath to call it a "trend". I think that personal revelations, or oversharing, as you call it, are an expression of a particular writer's personality; they are not always calculated attempts to garner attention or reflections of something larger in the blogging culture. Some writers enjoy revealing more than others. It's that simple, at least in my experience. I will say, however, that writers, particularly female writers, who inject themselves into their work—blog posts or otherwise—are more likely to be on the receiving end of nasty attacks and responses and not necessarily taken as seriously as their male counterparts. But that's been the case for a long time, and its not specific to blogging, except for the fact that the speed/reach of the internet makes such responses/attacks much more numerous and quick to materialize.

Gelf Magazine: Maybe the reason I think that blogging female oversharers are a trend (besides the fact that there are more than 3 of them!) is because of the overwhelmingly negative reaction to them. Is it too simple to just think that with lots of readers come lots of hate mail? Or is there something more sinister about the reaction to women who blog about "personal revelations"?

Anna Holmes: Women who do not fit certain molds or step outside the bounds of what is considered acceptable female behavior get torn down. It's really as simple—and as sinister—as that.

Gelf Magazine: Speaking of oversharing, last time you were scheduled to come talk at a Gelf event, you had to cancel because of a bedbug infestation. How’s that going?

Anna Holmes: It's going fine if only because I moved out of the apartment and into another (bigger and cleaner) apartment down the street. Now the problem seems to be mosquitoes, not bedbugs, but I can live with that. They're seasonal, after all.

Gelf Magazine: When you spoke to Gelf last year, you said that you hoped that within a year you’d have the right staff in place to fill the holes in coverage that you were frustrated by. Do you?

Anna Holmes: Pretty much! We just had our politics blogger, Megan Carpentier, move over to Air America so that's another hole I have to fill, but I'm still deciding whether or not I want to hire a full-timer or a series of part-timers to take on the topics she covered. I'll probably make a decision about that later in September, after the insanity of Fashion Week is over.

Gelf Magazine: Do you have a good sense of whether a post will get a lot of traffic before it goes up?

Anna Holmes: At this point, I can usually predict with about 80% accuracy whether a post will get a lot of traffic. That said, there are some posts we put up that I know will not garner tons of traffic, but I put them anyway because we and/or our readers are interested in the subjects they touch on. Once in a while—about once every week or so—we put up a post that I believe will get lots of traffic ("lots" = over 8,000 pageviews) but doesn't. Sometimes, in retrospect, I can see why, but sometimes I'm at a complete loss. That said, it's never good to be complacent or too confident in our abilities/our traffic because we need to constantly be kept on our toes.

Gelf Magazine: Have your readers changed since you started the site? For example, are there still bodysnark issues?

Anna Holmes: Well, they've changed insofar as we're a lot bigger than when we started, so the site can often feel less intimate, just because of the sheer volume of readers/commenters; I don't get as much of a sense from the commenters that they believe they are in some sort of exclusive group the way I used to. There are in-jokes, to be sure, but not as many. As for bodysnarking, it hasn't been that much of a problem lately, to be honest. (Knock on wood.)

Gelf Magazine: Is the site being less intimate and exclusive a good thing? How has it changed your commenters?

Anna Holmes: It's neither a good nor bad thing; it just is, meaning: it's the natural result of the site growing larger and attracting a larger number of readers. As for how it's changed the commenters, I'm not sure I'm the best person to ask: Reading comments/dealing with commenters is not something I have really have the time to do—our moderator, Hortense, would be a better person to query. What I have noticed, from time to time, is that some of our more veteran commenters find the newer ones frustrating and annoying, but again, I'm not sure how widespread or deep a complaint this is. It's important to remember that our commenters are a small percentage of our entire readership; many people are not moved to or comfortable with commenting, even anonymously.

Gelf Magazine: You've mentioned the disconnect between people you hear from (commenters, emailing complainers, etc.) and the bulk of your readership (who seem to be the strong silent types). What do they tend to differ about, and how do you keep both sides happy?

Anna Holmes: That's an interesting question. It's hard to say what they differ on since I only really hear from one segment — but I do think that there is a tension between those who feel comfortable and empowered to comment and those who do not. For example, as an April Fool's Day joke we turned off the comments for half a day, alleging that they were being turned off for good. Obviously, we got tons of angry emails. But we were also surprised at the number of emails we got from readers who welcomed the "demise" of the comments; most of them spoke about the tensions within comments as being something destructive … and I'm happy to say that I think we have one of the more inviting, non-destructive commenter communities on the web!
As for keeping both sides happy: That's impossible, and it we would quickly be paralyzed if we felt we had to cater to every want/need/expectation of the readers. We try to do what we want to, what we believe in, and hope that the readers are willing to continue on the journey with us. Blogging is so crazy and demands so much time/energy that we have to focus on doing what makes us happy—and when we don't, it's obvious.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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