Internet Work and Invisible Labor: An Interview With the Fug Girls
by Anne Helen Petersen
When I started writing on the internet, I found it so liberating: I could master WordPress; I could figure out how to post and promote, I was in control. Whenever even one more person happened onto my blog, I felt like the work I was doing was somehow worthwhile. When I moved from writing on my own blog to writing Scandals of Classic Hollywood (and, later, for other sites), the production changed, but so did the size of the audience. The gratification levels exploded accordingly.
But I was struck by how many readers assumed that I was just riffing on vast stores of pre-existing knowledge — like I sat down, typed for a few hours, and it naturally flowed onto the page. HAIRPINNERS, I WISH. It takes a lot of work, and it’s all “second shift” work — a term used to describe the domestic “shift” that women (and men) take on when they arrive home from their “first” shift at the workplace.
I have a full-time professor gig. I teach, I prep, I grade, and then I turn to my other job. It’s amazing and endlessly gratifying, but like the traditional “second shift” labor of cooking, cleaning, and parenting, it’s often discounted. And the more easy and nonchalant I make it seem, the more that labor effaces itself.
This interview series thus 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. It’s political, it’s progressive, it’s feminist. It’s also totally fascinating.
So read on, and please feel free to pose additional questions in the comments.
Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, also known as “The Fug Girls,” run the fashion commentary site “Go Fug Yourself,” best known for its wit, amazing intertextual references, and devotion to the Fug in all of its magnificent valences.
AHP: Can we go back a little? I want to talk just briefly about how you two started your blog, and what the dynamics were then. What kind of blogging software did you use? Did you pay for image rights? Who was your intended audience?
Jessica: Heather and I were friends who’d known each other for a long time — we’d met originally working at Television Without Pity — and we started GFY as, essentially, an in-joke between the two of us. And because we never intended for it to be a business, we didn’t really think any of that out. The only audience we expected to get was our friends, really. We were on Blogger for a while, because it was free, but we moved fairly quickly over to Typepad because it was a more reliable platform. We were using watermarked Getty Images photos for a while, out of ignorance. It was 2004, and we sincerely thought that because the watermark was on the photo, we were okay to use them. They disabused us of that notion, and we’ve paid for image rights ever since.
Heather: Our first banner was a dinky little cursive thing I did on Photoshop. If we posted once or twice a day, we felt like it was a success. Blogs hadn’t really proliferated yet. Defamer and Nick Denton’s whole media empire were just getting off the ground, so the concept of posting as often as we do now — much less as often as most blogs do now, which is a lot more than we do — wasn’t really established. We didn’t feel like a business; we felt like an after-school activity, or something. I guess you could say the audience was ourselves. So people like us, with similar senses of humor, are the people who helped it grow through word of mouth, and the resulting readership I think probably has a very similar core of what makes everyone laugh even if all of us as people are wildly different.
As your audience grew, how did it change the labor dynamics? Did you feel like you should be posting more?
Jessica: Not really. I mean, it did in the sense that we had more email to answer. But we didn’t start truly fretting about how often we posted until after we sold our first book — The Fug Awards, which Simon Spotlight published in 2008 — and we both transitioned over to working on the book and the site full-time. But a lot of this has been lost to the sands of time in my memory.
Heather: I think we would have loved to post more, but once Getty stepped in and said we couldn’t use watermarked pictures, we were lucky to post once or twice a day — at least, until we were able to get a subscription from them, in 2006. I think the bigger sea change was the tone of our posts. We were much meaner back in the early days, not because we are awful people (I hope), but just because we were new at this. We weren’t starting a blog we thought that many people would bookmark, so we were typing out all the stuff we usually just say on our couches or over the phone — the things we think but do not say, to borrow from Jerry Maguire.
But the trouble is, some of that stuff is mean, and the larger our readership got, the more we realized we weren’t interested in being anonymous mean girls on the Internet. We just sort of grew up as people and as writers, and realized that bashing someone for having a wonky eye or being crazy-looking was neither appropriate, nor the point. What can that person do about it, anyway? And who cares? Let’s just talk about her terrible taste in skirts instead. That’s more fun, more light. More of a refuge for people than a site that just constantly dumps all over people for things outside their control. We’re people, so we’re never going to get it perfect, but I’m proud of how the tone grew up and how we grew up, too. I’m proud that we developed a responsibility about what we were writing. That might sound pretentious for a blog that at the end of the day is about clothes, but the more people you reach, the more you realize that it’s not productive — nor really fun — to put up a post ragging on someone for being too skinny or whatever.
What’s a “normal” work day look like?
Jessica: It depends on how much freelance stuff we have going on, if we’re working on a book (we’re writing an adult novel at the moment, The Royal We, which is very very loosely based on Kate Middleton), if it’s awards season, etc. Generally, I am at my computer by 9:30 and spend the day on IM with Heather as we do a variety of the following: work on the book, answer emails, do our social media, occasionally write some afternoon or breaking news posts for the website, moderate comments, chase payments and pay bills and the like.
If we have a column for New York due, we trade those back and forth, and one or both of us is generally also in the middle of a recap. It’s a lot of typing. In between all that, because we are lucky to be able to work from home, I generally try to stay on top of my housekeeping, laundry, cooking, and do some light errands or work out around mid-day. But at least one of us and usually both of us also works at night to make sure that the site is set for our 8 a.m.-11 a.m. posts the next morning. We don’t want to roll up to work at 9 a.m. PST to see that Miley went out last night in, like, a coconut bra and we haven’t talked about it yet. So it’s basically at least a 12-hour work day, but with any luck, we’re able to step away from our desks during those 12 hours to run to the market or carve out a little social or family time.
Heather: My hours change a lot just based on what’s happening around me. I’m often up with the kids at 7:30, so that means I’m at my computer by about 8:15, although if there’s a day when I can sleep in until 9 or 9:30 then I will do that. My day basically ping-pongs between work and the kids — I have help, but my kids don’t have the same schedules, so twice a week I’m with one of them at speech therapy in the middle of the day, or I’m scrambling to run errands and go grocery shopping before our nanny leaves and I have to pick them up from school. Then I focus on them until bedtime, because my husband works late. They usually don’t settle down until about 9, and after that, I go right back to my computer and set whatever I can for the next day. Working ahead like that means that during business hours I’m more flexible if something comes up with the boys. Or if I need to get a haircut, or go to the gym or the doctor. People think that when you work at home, you’re just messing around all day, but in fact it’s the opposite: I have to be really disciplined because I only have certain hours where I can get work done.
When did you first start thinking about “Go Fug Yourself” as a “brand”? What did that change, if anything?
Jessica: Gosh, I don’t know. I think I tend to think of it as a brand only in the sense that that sort of terminology is good to help us decide what projects make sense for our readership. Like, if we were to start collaborating on a line of dropped crotch leggings, that would be weird. Or if we starting running long-form political articles, that would be off-brand. But we’ve always written in very much our own voices — when we’re not inventing fictional versions of celebrities, of course — so it hasn’t really been a struggle, in that sense.
Heather: When Mark Lisanti ran Defamer, in the early days, he referred to us as The Fug Girls, and that stuck. Having a nickname did help us feel more like a Thing, but I don’t know if we’ve ever been slick enough to think of ourselves as a brand beyond the examples Jessica gave. We aren’t afraid to branch out here and there, but it has to feel organic to our voices and our humor. We’re not going to start running guest posts from people about the 10 best ways to avoid getting rickets, or whatever. Although I might need to know how not to get rickets.
Can we talk about collaboration? I have such a vision of you two just wildly Gchatting all day long, with jokes even racier than what you put in the posts. No? Do you fight over who gets to cover what? Do you edit each other’s stuff?
Jessica: We are in constant communication, it is true. We do sometimes make jokes to each other that we’d never actually put on the site, because they’re dirty or they’re too inappropriate, but most of our conversation is just letting the other person know what we’re up to. We definitely don’t fight over who gets to cover what — who writes up what is just first-come, first-serve, except in cases where one of us is the Appointed Chronicler of Said Celebrity, like, say, Heather and Kanye West. We don’t edit the other’s posts on GFY at all (well, if there is a typo, we do, but not for content). We obviously do edit each other’s long-form work, but not on the blog. The rest of the time we’re just chatting the way you’d chat with your best friend while you’re both at work — talking about Sleepy Hollow, complaining about bad dates (that’s me), talking about what the kids are up to (that’s Heather), normal stuff.
Heather: Sometimes there are outfits that are SO bad, I secretly hope Jess will get to them first because oh, the pressure. Or, I’ll be like, “Jess, I can’t write about Celebrity X because I can’t deal with his/her face.” You know how there are some people you CANNOT be impartial about because they just bother you on a cellular level? Our IM is where you would find out who those celebrities are. I don’t care now nice a person you are; everyone has those thoughts here and there, and we have to exorcise them somewhere. And of course we also have really important discussions about sandwiches and things. We were best friends before we were business partners, so the flow of conversation between us often veers to 80 percent personal and 20 percent business. And sometimes it’s intermingled.
Alright. Social Media. You’ve been on Twitter for as long as I can remember. Do you find it as much of a fiercely enjoyable time suck as I do?
Jessica: Twitter is great and such an evil procrastination tool for me. Such a time suck! I love it, though, and I can’t believe we resisted it for so long. It is truly such a great way to get to chat with our readers and with other writers and with people in general. I think Twitter is hugely convenient, honestly. We get so much less reader email now that people can just ping us and say, “Hey, did you see Britney’s outfit last night?” or “You should look at this crazy magazine cover.”
Heather: It’s amazing — I feel like we know our readers so much better now. We’ve met people at book events and had them mention their Twitter handle and we’ve immediately been able to be like, “Oh, yeah, we were just talking about stuffing recipes.”
You know, so many people I know have told me how much pleasure they get from receiving personal replies from one of you. How do you conceive of “talking back” as part of your job?
Jessica: I try to tweet as many people as we can. For one thing, which I covered a little in the previous question, it’s just convenient for everyone in terms of short questions or comments. For another, I really enjoy Twitter and I really, really like talking to our readers on Twitter. I think it’s good for the site to have a robust community, and Twitter is part of that, but I also just think it’s fun.
Heather: We’re big believers in not just using Twitter to pimp out our content that’s on GFY; it’s also for people to get to know us, warts and all, and for us to chew on things and share things and learn about stuff from our readers. I look at it as very much a conversation — the essential benefits of Twitter, for me, are when it’s two-sided and not just me shooting out bon mots. I mean, when my Dad died, people counseled me through it on Twitter. We ask for book recommendations on Twitter. We talk to people about TV shows they love and hate, or outfits they bought. You’d be surprised how much you can glean about a person from just 140 characters, day in and day out.
How do you deal with the assumption that your job is easy or silly?
Jessica: Luckily, I don’t think anyone who actually knows me thinks my job is easy, per se, in the sense that I think they all know that it requires a lot of hours of work. But when it comes right down to it, compared to so many other people, my job does not truly require that much heavy lifting. We get emails sometimes from readers who are like, “I’m in Afghanistan and your website helps me not to feel too homesick,” or oncologists who read us on their lunch break to cheer themselves up, and we always say that our job is to create procrastination material for those people — the people with actually hard jobs. I think that’s important, and I’m proud of what we do, but I can’t get too worked up about it if people decide to be dismissive about it. No pun intended.
Heather: I tend to get a little prickly if I’m being treated like I don’t have a real job. Like I am sitting around on my couch twiddling my thumbs all day, with endless time at my disposal, just because I don’t go to an office. We are a two-person show, so blog-plus-book-plus-columns for New York magazine’s web site… that’s a lot, and then you add my kids’ needs, and it’s not simple to juggle. I certainly do not complain about the fact that those are my jobs — I love them all — but when people give me a look like, “Seriously, you can’t go out day-drinking,” or “REALLY, you don’t just go to the movies all week?” — yeah, I get a little crusty about it. But I agree that we definitely can’t get defensive about the importance of what we do. I mean, we’re not saving lives; we’re blogging about dresses.
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?
Jessica: Because I fear having to return to a world where I have to decide on my outfit for the day before 1 p.m. I joke — mostly. But Heather and I own 100 percent of Go Fug Yourself. We’re the bosses, and that leads to a lot of work but it also gives us some measure of flexibility in our lives that is really valuable to us. She can go pick the kids up from school without it being a thing. As much as being your own boss can be incredibly draining and stressful, the ability to time-shift your work to make room for your other life priorities is really a good thing. Additionally, obviously, I value being able to work with my best friend (thank god we get along!) and we’ve been really, really fortunate that running GFY has opened up doors for us to do some truly wonderful things, like cover Fashion Week for New York, and writing our books. We’ve met some amazing people thanks to the site. And ultimately, we both really love to write.
Heather: Yeah, when it comes down to it, I have a plum situation for all those reasons. I work with my best friend, and I get paid to write. We’ve done neat stuff we may never have been able to do another way; we’ve met awesome people; we’ve opened doors I didn’t realize I would or could ever open. I’m incredibly proud that we’ve been able to support ourselves from this site that accidentally became a business. I was able to go through IVF to have my twins because I am self-employed, and work from home, and could go in for blood work at whatever hour was necessary and could take the necessary two weeks off my feet. And with kids, even though I need a nanny eight hours a day in order to get the work done that pays the bills, I’ve been able to be present in the house for my kids if they need me, and I can drop everything if one of them is sick or hurt or sad or just needs ten minutes of hugs. I’m not sure how that would’ve been if I’d been commuting every day to the job I was doing before, which often involved 12-hour days, because my husband works one of those also (sometimes even longer). So I’m just terribly proud that our hard work has taken us to a place where my life is able to be the way it is. I am blessed, and I’m not blind to how much. I do what I do because I love it, but the reasons I love it are almost too many to count.
Top photo via government_press_office/flickr.