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 real: we rarely get 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.

It’s been a joy to read John in the New York Times and it is without ques­tion an impor­tant step for him — a place he’ll improve in lots of ways. However, it must not pass with­out mention:

Mr. Malik of Gigaom, whose site employed 85 people at its peak, said if he were to start the busi­ness today, it would prob­a­bly be a Face­book page. There is an opportunity, clearly, to reach peo­ple there. Money? That’s another matter. “How do I monetize?” he asked. “Still not clear.”

They’ve got him doing kicker quotes.

April 2016