Internet Work and Invisible Labor: An Interview With Danielle Henderson

by Anne Helen Petersen

This interview series aims to make the “invisible labor” of web production visible. Over the next few months, I’ll be talking with a wide variety of content producers, exploring the dynamics of their own form of web production, how they mix that production with their “real” lives, and the various forms of gratification they receive from the work that they do. In short: how do you do what you do, and why do you do it? Talking about the realities of labor isn’t narcissistic, per se. It’s political, it’s progressive, it’s feminist. It’s also totally fascinating.

Danielle Henderson is perhaps best known as the mastermind behind Feminist Ryan Gosling, but she contains multitudes. She writes for Vulture, she just recently stepped down as an editor at Rookie, AND SHE’S A PH.D. STUDENT. Girl is on it. (Read her website here and follow her on Twitter).

We’ve got to start with the basics. How did you think of putting feminist theorists ideas in Ryan Gosling’s mouth, and how did you put it into action? How much initial labor was involved?

There were about three hours between my having the idea and creating the Tumblr. I really hated graduate school when I first started — as an intensely practical person, high theory is not my thing, and I felt very alienated from my own education. I went to see Drive to de-stress a little, and for the first time I really noticed Ryan Gosling (I had only ever seen him in Lars and the Real Girl, which I loved). My classmates showed me the Hey Girl meme at lunch, and when I was doing my homework the next day I just thought how funny it would be to hear this theory stuff coming out of Ryan Gosling’s face. From the day I started the blog to the day I finished, each post took me less than five minutes to create.

When the blog first went viral (which was immediately) a.) how did you react and b.) how did it change the way you conceived of the project?

I reacted with criminal levels of nonchalance, which, looking back, bothers me, because I’ve never really allowed myself to get excited about how huge it got. I wish I could have had more fun with it, but I don’t enjoy getting a lot of attention, and it got a massive amount of attention literally overnight. In the beginning I was constantly worried that Ryan Gosling would sue me for using his image or something, so I felt very nervous all the time, like, “Guys, please CHILL.” I posted the blog on a Friday night, went out drinking with some friends, and I found out it was on Jezebel while I was on the bus coming home from the farmer’s market Saturday afternoon. It didn’t change my approach to the project at all, since every single post was based on my homework or something I was personally interested in with regards to feminism. A LOT of people would write to me and say “You should be talking about This Thing or That Thing!” but I couldn’t, because the entire blog was always about getting through my master’s degree, and very personal to me.

How did you go about finding content for the blog? (I’m imagining you reading something for your seminar and then just popping it onto an image, but I’m guessing I’m way off)

The content was literally my homework, or part of the research I was doing for my thesis, so you’re not far off at all! I would read something that sounded awesome or absurd, and in an effort to remember it, I’d turn it into an FRG post. It sounds so lame and unimaginative, but that’s the sad truth.

I’ve written elsewhere about how I thought the meme exhausted itself once it left the feminist sphere. How did you feel about all the offshoots?

I definitely don’t claim ownership to the Hey Girl idea, but yeah, some of the offshoots were garbage. It just isn’t a model that fits every topic or joke, and some of them felt very forced. I thought that the feminist angle made it special, particularly in light of the incredibly myopic people who think feminists and feminism can’t be funny, so to see it co-opted in gravely unfunny ways didn’t feel good. I never felt personally offended by the offshoots, but I also thought most of them just weren’t funny, so I didn’t read them. That model is still out there, though, the (Blank) Person’s Name, like Biologist Doctor Who or something, and it makes me think I should have put more effort into the title.

Now let’s talk about your workday. What did life look like when you were an MA student and running the blog, and what does it look like now that you’re a PhD student, the blog is retired, but you’re doing all of this other work?

I’ve been working at least two jobs since I was a teenager, so I’m totally used to having a full schedule, but looking back, I cannot believe I didn’t drop dead of exhaustion at some point over the last two years. When I was an M.A. student, I was attending my own classes, teaching, grading, and doing class prep for my TA position, freelance writing (one or two articles a week), recapping two TV shows for Vulture each week, posting at Feminist Ryan Gosling, writing academic articles, preparing for and presenting at conferences, flying to different states to give talks at different colleges, applying for Ph.D. programs, and writing my thesis.

I researched and wrote the Feminist Ryan Gosling book (which is mostly new material) in about 4 weeks, during my winter break. I also have a husband I love spending time with, friends I wanted to hang out with, and things I wanted to do on my own. I made a planner for myself using graph paper because I had to compartmentalize to an extreme degree, often managing my time down to the hour. I set aside an hour or two at the same time every day to answer email, and I allowed myself one hour to fart around on the Internet. I’m not even going to front — it was really fucking difficult and not very healthy, and in the end I felt like hell. I barely slept, and if my husband wasn’t cooking for me I would have died of scurvy. After I finished the book, I spent a couple of days in bed with the covers pulled over my head, watching The Mighty Boosh on my laptop. Like, I was physically hiding from the world. I was so exhausted, and I just needed to completely zone out.

I’m a little bit better about managing my time now, because my work schedule during my M.A. was fucking traumatic and I tried to learn from that. I still strictly regulate my email/Internet time because I’d rather spend my free time doing other things, like writing and knitting and walking around this dope city I just moved to. I just started doing yoga, so I start my day with two hours of phone-free, computer-free time where I can just be out of my head a bit, which sets a nice tone for the day. I’m able to balance school, work, and personal time much more now that I’m not editing full-time. I rent an office, so I’m able to parse out work life from my home life and define those boundaries a little better. I’m writing a book (memoir-ish essays) and forcing myself to take my time with it, but I really don’t know what that’s even like.

Real talk: what’s book promotion like, labor-wise?

Either I’m really awful at it or I’m not as misanthropic as I’ve always thought, because it was kind of awesome and mostly a breeze. To be fair, it’s not like I wrote War and Peace — my book has 120 pictures of Ryan Gosling in it, so it’s not really a hard thing to sell. I had a release party at HousingWorks in NYC, but only because I’m from New York and was going to be there visiting my grandma when the book came out, and then I did a lot of phone and email interviews. I started adding a link to the book at the bottom of the posts on FRG, but I never did, like, a Twitter blast or a full-on assault on any of the social media I use. I lived in Madison, Wisc., when this was all happening, so I think that took a lot of pressure off of me to be part of the marketing machine, because I was sort of inaccessible. My publishers were also amazing. I’d been approached by a few different people before I decided to turn the blog into a book, and one of the reasons I went with them is that they have a ton of built-in support for marketing and promotion. They were really fantastic at organizing everything, and checking in with me to make sure promo stuff would fit into my schedule.

What’s your relationship with social media? How has it changed since you’ve finished the promotion cycle for the book?

It doesn’t seem to terrorize me the way it does other people. I feel like I’ve been using social media for a loooooong time, and at this point I’m content to not spread myself too thin. I had a blog for a decade that I just completely erased a few years ago, and I’m not on Facebook (well, I have a fake one that I use for work and work only). I mostly use Twitter, because I can fire off some thoughts on the bus on my way to school, but I don’t actively scroll back to see what I missed during the day or anything. If you send me a text, I might get back to you by the end of the day when I pick up my phone to play Jewel Mania. I guess I use social media in a way that is very immediate, and still tailored towards keeping up with my friends. Like, how can people follow 10,000 people on Twitter without it turning into a part-time job? That doesn’t even make sense to me. Social media is not my social life, so I keep it real tiny.

You speak so eloquently and incisively about the logistics and realities of labor on your blog. What do you want people to know about grad student labor, internet labor, etc?

Grad student labor is basically indentured servitude, and thinking about the work-to-pay ratio makes me want to take to the streets, turn over cars, and start an absolute riot. It’s difficult to complain about because I used to scrub shit out of coffee shop toilets for a living, so being a grad student is really easy, comparatively. But all of our work is behind the scenes, and we make less than minimum wage while working close to 50 hours a week; it’s not brain-bendingly difficult, but it’s stressful in a different way.

Grad school is not just go-to-school-and-do-homework anymore; you’re being groomed for a professional career, so you’re expected to work on developing relationships with people in your field, work your way up a very specific ladder, and constantly on the lookout for fellowships, grants, and anything that can make you stand out. It’s weird and exhausting and I don’t entirely buy into it yet. I think I’m going to keep doing what interests me and stand out by being a great instructor who is completely radical and fun to be around.

People think Internet-based work is easier than other types of work; thanks to the halcyon days of start-ups with ping pong tables and vending machines stocked with blowjobs, I think there’s an overarching idea that working from home for a website is not a serious undertaking. You have to be extremely disciplined to be successful at it, though — you have to be self-reliant and self-motivating, communicate well and succinctly, and know when to stop working. That’s something that’s largely misunderstood — when you work from home, it’s entirely possible to always be at work.

Sometimes people are confused by the sheer amount of things I do. If someone asks what I do, I say, “I’m a student. And a writer. But I’m also an editor.” And they’re like, “PICK ONE, you greedy bitch!” But if I’m good at all of these things, and I’m able to do all of these things, why not do all of these things? It makes me a better student to have an outlet in non-academic writing, and a better editor to be able to turn off my critical brain and go to school. I don’t think you have to choose, and I don’t think being multi-faceted makes you less serious about the task at hand.

How do you deal with the assumption that you’re just a bored and under-employed graduate student making fun memes on the internet?

That’s not entirely untrue so it’s not overly offensive, but that’s also the tiniest fraction of who I am and what I do. I’m confident and focused, and I don’t define myself by how people think of me. What people think of me is none of my business.

Apart from monetary compensation, what makes all the internetting and behind-the-scenes labor worthwhile? Why, in other words, do you do what you do?

I’m good at a lot of things because I’m willing to try a lot of things, so I like that the work I do pays off in small and immediate ways. I’m still a pauper for all intents and purposes, but I get to work with dynamic and hilarious people, teach wonderful and engaging students, and really pull together so many things I love into one or two totally cool gigs. I’ve worked twice as hard to get half as much for most of my life, so it’s nice to finally have a chump-free, super fun existence. The payoff isn’t monetary — the payoff is the low-key life I’ve crafted and am able to enjoy, and all of the incredible people I get to know as a result of the work I do.

Previously: The Fug Girls, Linda Holmes

Top photo via government_press_office/flickr.

Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here, and you can read the Scandals of Classic Hollywood series here.