How to end on the internet

It’s impos­sible to end a piece of writing on the internet. All the conven­tions incubated in print fall flat: the neat summary, the mild prediction, the kicker quote. Especially the kicker quote.

I think it’s because the internet is boundless and we all know it, so any sugges­tion of comple­tion rings false. “Oh really? You think this is it? Time for me to sigh content­edly and reflect on what I’ve just learned? Please. I’ve got ten more tabs lined up.”

But, let’s be honest: we rarely read to the end anyway. Midway through, we get distracted. We jump around. Media on the internet doesn’t build to a crescendo followed by applause; it cross-fades, one thing into the next.

Given all these challenges, there is no set of internet endings I admire more than John Herrman’s in his series The Content Wars for the Awl. John works for the New York Times now, and while that’s obviously wonderful, it has meant that his endings now generally conform to Times style, and seeing the change has made me appre­ciate his Content Wars run even more.

Here’s what I’m talking about:

John deployed the blog-style “Anyway!” with some regularity; I’ve always loved it, even though I’ve never quite been able to artic­u­late what it does. Lower the stakes? Acknowl­edge that the reader had something else she was doing before she got sucked into this? Whatever the case, it’s one of the great rhetor­ical discov­eries of the mid-2000s.

One of his personal trade­marks was the Big Maybe — Exhibit A, Exhibit B—in which a piece, after building its case, explodes into hypotheticals: maybe, maybe, maybe, I don’t know! It reads as an unrav­eling of the thread of coherence; an admission that it was tenuous to begin with. It is, I think, a gesture of genuine humility. “I see this only barely more clearly than you.”

Then there’s the way this numbered list goes off the rails: 13, 14, 15 … 234875627839452 … 45862170348957103946872039568270. I love that sense of like, buffer overflow: of staring a powerful system in the face and coming away with a nosebleed.

Of course, this is my favorite:

In conclusion, haha, ashkjghasgauosghasugas;gashgk, who knows.

 … because it is the ending that probably every piece, in every medium, deserves. And because it would never, ever be permitted by the editors of The New York Times.

Reading all of John’s Content Wars endings (is that a weird thing to do? Because I just did it) is illuminating, because all of them, even the more conven­tional ones, share an unmiss­able sensibility, almost a decla­ra­tion of values. In quick succession, you find: humility, and a reminder of the limits of knowledge; the comic effect of a mind straining to contain its subject; and an absolute refusal to retreat into empty optimism.

All together, this is a pretty good stance for the 21st century.

April 2016