Escaping Dilbert Syndrome: or, No Freelancing Woman Is an Island

Office humor is a genre in itself — closely related to Dad Jokes, but a little more routine. We see it in Office SpaceThe Office (both British and American), Dilbert, and in about 50% of cartoons from The New Yorker. It’s what many people who were consuming popular culture could relate to. This sense of camaraderie pervades every bad watercooler joke you’ve ever heard: after all, if you didn’t know who you worked with, who would you drunkenly make out with at the Christmas party?

Richard Florida speaks to workplace community in his book The Rise of the Creative Class. He discusses location and community in theory and practice in a section of the book, noting comments of his research subjects, that they “continually recounted their desire and need to live in places that offer stimulating, creative environments.” (75). In this same breath, Florida says that he believes people wrongly argue that “globalization and technology are rendering community and location obsolete and irrelevant.” (75)

Enter: freelance based journalism. I read a lot online. A large portion of that is falling into Wikipedia k-holes (which, come to think of it, is another really interesting freelance/volunteer community), but I am totally that person who is constantly sending articles to my friends. In a surprise to no one, I read a lot of women writers, who tend to work together on similar websites. My two favorites are The Hairpin and The ToastThe Hairpin is a subject of The Awl group, and is edited by Haley Mlotek and Alexandra Molotkow. They describe the site as being “a low-key cocktail party among select female friends.” The Toast is edited by Nicole Cliffe (formerly of The Hairpin) and Mallory Ortberg, and they describe it as being “a daily blog that publishes features on everything from literary characters that never were to female pickpockets of Gold Rush-era San Francisco.”

(L-R): Nicole Cliffe, Nicole Cliffe's child, Mallory Ortberg

(L-R): Nicole Cliffe; Nicole Cliffe’s child; Mallory Ortberg

Here are popular articles to illustrate a point: from The Hairpin, an entry from their advice column Ask a Queer Chick. From The Toast, “Things Women in Literature Have Died From” (favorite: “strolling congestion”).

Both are esoteric, funny, and largely successful women’s journalism. They cater to a demographic of young women that is increasingly finding each other online. These women aren’t moving closer to each other to work on these sites. At The Hairpin, Mlotek lives in New York, while Moloktow lives in Toronto. The Toast’s Cliffe lives in suburban Utah, while Ortberg lives in Northern California. I believe that people will make communities regardless of where they are, and I think community means something a lot different to many residents of the Internet than it does to Florida.

These women freelance, and writing is a lonely job, especially when you’re living in different time zones or even countries than your collaborators. From what I read on these sites, however, they never feel too alone. There are two pieces of this.

First, there is communication online. The Toast has an extremely active comments section, and there is a sense of talking back in many of the pieces that are posted. Writers and readers alike interact with each other on different platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter. And I imagine that writers and editors working together communicate personally, via text, phone, or FaceTime. No one is reading alone; no one is writing alone. Ever.

Second, people share. Florida talks about the epochal shift that came with the Creative Economy, saying that industry provided identities for workers. “You were a company man, identifying with the company and often moving largely in the circles created or dictated by it.” (88) These are not company women. Their bylines are staggering. However, they tend not to be held back by who they write for the most; they are defined and welcomed by what they share. In something that sums it up better than I could, “On Being a Public Person: How a Freelance Writer Makes a Living” by Nicole Dieker (of The Billfold and The Toast):

When you have a public voice, what you say becomes crucial. You have to figure out what you are going to do with that voice: which positions you are going to take, which people you are going to invite to the table, who your audience is going to be, and how you hope your audience is going to connect with your writing.

I want to be a safe space. I want to be positive in spirit and generous in thought and word. I only want to use the word “stupid,” for example, when it is in a very specific context (most recently, when a third party accused another person of being stupid). I want to make sure my language is as inclusive as possible. I want to be an intersectional feminist humanist philanthropist genius. I want to make you snort coffee out of your nose, but only in a way that won’t ruin your laptop.

Nicole Cliffe recently published a piece in a series The Toast is doing on people who convert religions. “How I Pray” details her “come to Jesus moment,” literally. She was an atheist for her entire adult life, and then found an informed Christian faith. The piece is tender, and the commenters and Nicole have a conversation breaking things down and talking through their own issues with faith. Is this watercooler chat? No. Is this a working (and living) community? Yes. There is community; here is where they sit.

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