One lazy evening last year, I was reading an online forum devoted to snarking on beauty bloggers and YouTube gurus: know thy frenemy and all that. As someone who studies satire for a living, I have nothing against anonymous snark forums, at least in principle. Bloggers like to profess shock that such websites even exist—imagine, a place where nameless, faceless people can talk shit about other people!—as if anonymous snark hasn’t played a role in public discourse since Martin Marprelate. Granted, I might feel less charitable if I’d ever been mocked on one of these forums. But I’d like to believe that even if I were, I’d be able to distinguish between sound criticism and malicious nitpicking, rolling my eyes at the latter and taking the former to heart. As I commented on Larie’s excellent post on her resolution to “stop being a hater,” the Internet encourages both excessive niceness and excessive meanness, creating a climate in which constructive criticism is often dismissed as “trolling.” Honestly, I’m surprised there aren’t more snark forums than there already are.
I’ll admit, I don’t derive much entertainment from this particular beauty-focused forum. I never watch YouTube beauty videos and am unfamiliar with more than a few of the blogs that regularly come under fire, which means that most of the threads are meaningless to me. Plus, I don’t find the snark itself very interesting or witty: I’ve seen people lambasted for the unspeakable crimes of wearing too little mascara or failing to put eyeliner on their upper lashlines. But that particular evening, as I clicked through the various threads, one exchange about a popular blogger made me stop short. Someone dismissed her as a “dinosaur” who still wrote actual blog posts, even though “younger people go on IG and find swatches/info, they don’t wait for [her] like it’s 2009 lol.”
I’m going to ignore the voice in my head that’s shrieking HOLY SHIT 2009 WAS BARELY SIX YEARS AGO ARE YOU PEOPLE TWELVE OR AM I JUST SUPER OLD and actually respond to this, because I think it’s fascinating. The media often characterize millennials as people who “grew up with the Internet,” but the Internet has changed so much in the last ten years that that phrase has no real meaning. My boyfriend (born in 1983), Tavi Gevinson (born in 1996), and I (born in 1987) all grew up using the Internet, but we didn’t all grow up using the same Internet. I missed the glory days of AOL chatrooms, but I was in college before Facebook and Twitter took off, and I’d entered graduate school by the time Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest became popular. When I was in high school, the Internet was the place where you went to read erotic Harry Potter fanfiction, pour your heart into a LiveJournal post, or write long, pretentious book reviews on Amazon. People’s online personas were less specialized than they are now. The first big bloggers, like Dooce and Pioneer Woman, didn’t have a focus narrower than their own lives.
During my college years, from 2005 to 2009, I watched the blogosphere change with the rise of social media. (“Do you have a Facebook?” my roommate asked me early in our first semester of college. “What’s Facebook?” I replied.) Bloggers realized that they’d reach a larger audience if, paradoxically, they discussed a smaller range of subjects. Around 2007 or 2008, niche blogging seemed to overtake here’s-a-bunch-of-stuff-about-my-life blogging. Fashion bloggers began sitting in the front row at couture shows, to the disgust of established media types. Beauty blogs evolved out of makeup-focused LiveJournal communities. Indeed, the very existence of LiveJournal communities suggested that readers were looking for something more specialized, and that bloggers were looking to specialize.
Around the same time, I noticed a shift in the general tenor of Facebook posts. When I first joined, Facebook was overflowing with feelings. One of my friends proclaimed herself “heartbroken” when her asshole boyfriend broke up with her. I suspect I posted some vague (“vague”) yet damning statuses of my own when my asshole not-quite-boyfriend broke up with me, and I’m very glad I can’t remember what I said. A few years in, though, everyone seemed to become more careful and canny about what they shared publicly. Witty, trivial observations replaced introspection. I’m sure most of us can remember at least one time when something we’d carelessly posted on Facebook returned to us in an unexpected and unpleasant way. For me, the epiphany came when a professor who was not my friend on Facebook still managed to see my profile and teased me about quoting another professor’s off-color bon mot. This incident cured me forever of talking about my professors on Facebook, and it also encouraged me to clamp down on my privacy settings. I’d learned that the Internet could never be private—not even the pages that I’d customized to be mine.
I didn’t start reading beauty blogs until 2010 or 2011, so I missed the early days when just a few bloggers were posting product photos and swatches. By 2011, there was a healthy variety of beauty blogs, most of them fairly personal: you got a sense of the person attached to the swatching arm and the disembodied lips. This state of affairs continued for a couple of years, but I noticed a shift around 2013, due to three factors: the popularity of Instagram, the fame and riches that a small handful of fashion and beauty bloggers had managed to achieve, and the rise of affiliate-linking programs like RewardStyle. This created an atmosphere in which some bloggers felt pressured to review hundreds of new collections per year and write shorter, more frequent posts filled with gratuitous affiliate links. New bloggers tried to break into this market for the sole purpose of becoming rich and famous, and peppered other bloggers’ comment sections with the classic “Great post!!! Check out my giveaway: [three links to the same page]!” Some of my favorite established bloggers chose to stop posting. The blogging landscape had become decidedly professionalized.
It’s hard not to lament these changes, but I don’t think the big, monetized blogs necessarily threaten the existence of the smaller, more thoughtful ones. I don’t resent people who want to make a living from a hobby in which they’ve invested a lot of time and energy. Those people tend to create blogs that I’m not interested in reading, but I get around this problem by not reading them (a strategy that the denizens of snark forums might do well to adopt). What has changed, I think, is the patience that blog readers have for longform posts. I don’t use Instagram, but I know that swatches of new collections show up there long before most bloggers have posted their reviews. If you originally started reading beauty blogs because you wanted to see a bunch of product photos and swatches, Instagram is perfect for your needs. And once you’ve grown accustomed to tracking the MAC hashtag and seeing dozens of images with only a few words of explanation, beauty blogs might well strike you as a bit retro–the uncool kind of retro, not the winged-eyeliner-and-Ruby-Woo retro so beloved of IG types.
Surely it’s no coincidence that most of my favorite beauty bloggers are my age or older: we grew up with the idea that the Internet was for self-expression (well, that and porn). Over the past decade, the Internet in general has become less about self-expression and more about self-promotion. I know that sounds very Kids These Days, but I think it’s true, and I also think it was inevitable. The professionalization of blogging has produced a culture in which some people genuinely don’t understand why a makeup junkie would read an entire blog post instead of searching for swatches on Instagram. Blogging is so 2009, you guys! I was vaguely aware of this when I started Auxiliary Beauty almost a year ago, but only recently did I come to understand how reactionary a blog like mine really is. I write long Blogspot posts; I don’t own a proper camera; I haven’t bothered to modify the template supplied by Blogger, because I don’t really give a shit how sleek my blog looks. Maybe part of this is nostalgia, a desire to maintain the kind of blog I loved reading in college. Maybe I’m inescapably 2009 myself. My conclusion, as ever, is “I guess I’ll keep doing what I’m doing until it stops being fun.” Who knows: in five or ten years, Blogspot blogs with wall-of-text posts and clunky layouts might become the cool kind of retro.
The Internet is still a great mystery, and the more we come to rely on it, the deeper the mystery grows. What is the endgame of the Internet? How will it be regulated in a decade or two? How are we supposed to behave on it? I haven’t heard the word “netiquette” in at least ten years: no great loss, to be sure, but also no surprise. At some point, we all collectively realized that there could be no universal standard of etiquette in a medium that guaranteed any degree of anonymity. Having just finished a dissertation chapter on Thomas Hobbes’s own approach to snark, I can’t help but think that the great theorist of human self-obsession would have found the blogosphere endlessly fascinating. The “signs of vainglory” in human beings, he wrote in 1640, “are imitation of others, counterfeiting affection to things they understand not, affectation of fashions…and other little stories of themselves, from their country, their names, and the like.” I have no doubt that beauty blogging will change as much in the next five years as it has in the last five; it might even disappear entirely. One impulse that will never fade, though, is our desire to tell little stories of ourselves. I suppose this one is mine.