And it might be the most honest form of expression we have.
Last week, someone posted an ad on Craigslist for a Vitamix blender that was less of an ad and more of an It Happened To Me: I Dated A Corporate Lawyer Who Turned Out To, Wait For It, Be A Real Asshole. It had a perfect title, too: “Wanna put my tender heart in a blender — $400.” If you are now or have ever been a woman, you will immediately understand how painfully funny the anecdote is, how it’s so real it gives you a stomach ache:
But you know something has changed. Lately he seems less cute and more boring. You remember that you’re not Gal Gadot and that people are as interesting as you let them be. You say, “I’m sorry if sometimes I look at you blankly instead of listening.” He says, “Sometimes I want to leave.” How did he pass the LSATs? You tell him it’s okay to be human.
The unexpected personal essay on Craigslist is nothing new; give people a form to fill out or a field to write in and they will immediately fuck with it. They will write three-act plays in an Amazon product reviews, or post ASCII art in the comments sections of gossip blogs. Craigslist is clearly aware of the phenomenon, featuring both a “best-of” section as well as a “rants & raves” rubric. But the most notable feature of this kind of writing is that it appears in unexpected places.
It’s like a light troll, or a clever quip—I can think outside your text box! I am a creative human and I will not be limited to your flat, bureaucratic strictures. There’s also an element of the universal human yearning to be acknowledged. Deep down, each of us has a desire to testify, if not perform. (Haven’t you ever wanted to break into song or dance on the subway?) We also want to confer with each other—did you see what I saw? Do you want to talk about it? Would you look at this mole while you’re at it?
We all have strange creativity; that’s what helps us latch on to each other. The best examples are brought out in low-stakes situations: when no one else is looking (though you could make an argument that most things are usually hidden with the end goal of being found). When these bits of writing do get found, they often go viral; they resonate much more than a lot of things that are purpose-built to do so (you might call that “organic lift,” and it’s the kind of high publishers everywhere chase). They could probably technically be labeled “self-published.”
Did you see what I saw? Do you want to talk about it? Would you look at this mole while you’re at it?
These little platform-incongruent Easter eggs give us blips of pleasure; they are like the marginalia of the internet, except they’re more than just notes — they’re little standalone works of art. It’s a few notches above I WAS HERE graffiti, it’s more like “Hello friend, I was here, and I’m a person! Do you like muffins? I love them! Here’s a recipe.” It gives you more than you bargained for, but you’re not mad; it brightens your day. It’s only slightly subversive, and mostly entertaining.
These little platform-incongruent Easter eggs give us blips of pleasure; they are like the marginalia of the internet, except they’re more than just notes — they’re standalone works of art.
I’m not just talking about the accidental poetry of a comments section; this has to be intentional, and genuine—it’s the “dance like nobody’s watching” of internet writing. A dad who fills out a form in the voice of his eleven-month-old daughter, “30 Brilliant Test Answers From Smartass Kids,” or a one-liner embedded deep in Nintendo’s social network. It’s not always funny, either; sometimes it’s downright dark and confessional, like the Sad YouTube phenomenon. Or it’s whatever the comments section of the Dilbert from 9/11 has become (“Theoretically, someone might have died laughing at this strip. May they and everyone else rest in peace.”). It’s Justin Bieber song lyrics on a restaurant comment card, or a set of sequential Instagram comments from near- or complete strangers that spell out the name of the account holder’s chihuahua: P-E-N-N-Y.
Some monsters post fake ads to Craigslist in order to bait-and-switch someone into appreciating their humor writing. This does not qualify, because it still whispers, “Look at me. Feel compelled to find out who I am, and then hire me to write for your television comedy.” The Sarcastic Amazon Reviews (e.g., Three-Wolf Moon) that Miles Klee catalogued are taxonomically closer to what I’m talking about, but the very fact that they’re self aware breaks the spell somewhat. These pieces of writing are genuine, not fake; their motivations are pure: guileless expression.
But who knows, maybe the writer of the Vitamix blender ad knew exactly what she (???) was doing; maybe it’s a viral marketing stunt. I would like to believe it is not. I would like to believe that this perfect piece of text came from the same place that my dad’s emails or your office manager’s funny notes to the staff come from.