In the past few months, several internet giants have fallen. BuzzFeed News folded. Vice is headed for bankruptcy. It’s looking bleak for FiveThirtyEight. And with the recent publication of Ben Smith’s “Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral,” there’s been a resurgence of chatter about Gawker Media, which went kaput in 2016. (I worked at Jezebel, which was under the Gawker Media umbrella, from 2007 to 2008.)
As Smith argued in a Times Opinion guest essay that draws from his book, it does feel as if we’re at the end of an era of digital media when Gawker and BuzzFeed were ascendant and the chase for page views was everything. But I think there’s an expanse of popular media from the past two decades that risks being left out when we recount this period in online history: The publications called “mommy blogs,” an often dismissive term that many of their writers hated but used as shorthand anyway.
With the sad passing of Heather Armstrong, who started the website Dooce, was often affectionately called “Dooce” and was known for her radical candor about motherhood and mental health, it’s a moment to remember just how revolutionary this kind of confessional felt when it was new, and how influential it has been. It’s also a moment to remember that Armstrong and her peers, including Glennon Doyle of Momastery, Joanna Goddard of Cup of Jo and Ree Drummond of The Pioneer Woman, have left a lasting imprint on our culture and run successful businesses, some of which have outlasted upstarts run by men.
Assessing Armstrong’s legacy for The Times on Thursday, Lisa Belkin, who profiled her for The Times in 2011, explains that Dooce was part of “a brief but golden age of women making themselves heard on the internet, proving what is now assumed but was then brand-new: that a woman writing about her life from her kitchen could make her life into a living.” At its peak, Dooce had millions of devoted readers and Armstrong had contracts with Verizon and HGTV, and appeared on “Oprah.” (For the record, Armstrong felt the term mommy blogger was a “a digital pigeonhole.”)
“When Armstrong decided to run ads on her blog in 2004, she became one of the first to monetize a personal brand on the internet,” Taylor Lorenz wrote for The Washington Post. And for a while, she made a handsome living online: According to Belkin’s reporting, her website alone earned between $30,000 and $50,000 a month.
Being the face of the brand, mining her own experiences for her writing and facing cruel blowback from trolls ultimately proved to be deleterious to Armstrong’s mental health. In 2019, she told Chavie Lieber of Vox: “The hate was very, very scary and very, very hard to live through,” adding, “It gets inside your head and eats away at your brain.”
Armstrong hadn’t posted regularly this year. After a long struggle with depression, she died on Tuesday. Her partner said the cause was suicide.
I hope that she's remembered for her writing, which the journalist Lyz Lenz perfectly described as “sack-of-meat raw, raunchy and transcendently real.”
I also hope that Armstrong and her contemporaries aren’t left out of the story of how online media, as we know it, was built. And that we finally stop thinking about women chronicling domestic life as less than — if I had to do a shot every time someone told me that motherhood was a “niche” subject, I’d stay tipsy. So I want to be sure that these women are given the same swashbuckling credentials as Nick Denton of Gawker and Jonah Peretti of BuzzFeed.
After all, Drummond — a home-schooling mom of four who started a blog from her rural Oklahoma home in 2006 — has a multimedia empire. She has a robust website, a TV show, cookware and a glossy print magazine, at a time when those are an endangered species. A scrappy, successful news Substack run by a big personality probably has more in common, business-wise, with the “mommy blogs” of yore than it does with the venture-backed news sites that continue to run aground. Let’s acknowledge that, and stop thinking of women writing from the heart as something that’s silly and small. It’s tremendous, and it has changed so many lives.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.
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