How Rookie became the business model for a generation
The end of online teen mag, Rookie, felt like the end of the era of blogs. One writer reflects on how its closure impacts how she views monetising her own creative projects
Last November, beloved online teen magazine Rookie shut down. Tavi Gevinson, its founder and editor-in-chief of seven years, broke the news through a six-page long Editor’s Letter. It tells the story of a struggling publication, a young editor spending her time meeting venture capitalist and angel investors, and the expanding, voracious anxiety that followed her. But above all, this last Editor’s Letter is the story of Gevinson’s refusal to turn Rookie into what it is not and was never meant to be. “It has sometimes felt like there are two Rookies: There’s the publication that you read […] and then there is the company that I own and am responsible for. The former is an art project; the latter is a business,” writes Gevinson. “Art projects typically have end dates, while a business is pretty much supposed to go on for as long as possible,” she concludes. It was fitting that Rookie’s final theme was 'evolution'.
Rookie was founded in 2011, when Gevinson was only 15 years old. Aiming to offer a digital magazine for teen girls by teen girls, it quickly grew into a creative community, evolving online and offline, with fierce independence and authenticity. Recalling the early days of the digital magazine in her final Letter, Gevinson writes that in 2011, “I had a slide phone and no Instagram account. When I got home from school every day, I looked at websites on a desktop computer.”
The internet before smartphones was a vast playground to experiment at building 'your thing', an approach that would foster a brand new creative working culture that Rookie embodied: turning your hobby into your day job. From it emerged version 2.0 of the self-made (wo)man, the creative entrepreneur of the 21st century, the human embodiment of Mark Twain’s famous quote, then plastered all around Tumblr: “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” In fact, Rookie didn’t appear out of nowhere. The site owes its name to Gevinson’s own fashion blog, Style Rookie, through which she rose to internet fame at just 12 years old. In digital history, the late noughties was the age of blogs, and every weekend from 2007 to 2011, like Gevinson, I would sit at my own family’s desktop computer looking at websites.
Blogs encapsulated every aspect of my teen life so perfectly, from the music to the fashion, to the films and the art, all condensed into one URL. Blogs shaped my identity in a way very little other media did, providing a platform for all of my interests to be accessible at once. Yet reading Gevinson’s farewell letter, I realised blogs had shaped my expectation of working life too, specifically my expectation of working in a creative industry. Weekend after weekend, I saw young women posting photos of their outfits after school being catapulted to the pages of Cosmopolitan and Grazia, signing book deals, and launching fashion lines. Through years of following bloggers from micro-blogging platforms to their own sites, I learned that a side-hustle well-advertised and a personality well-curated were the keys to a creative career. And so, I studied blogs to create my own 'brand', one that would be unique enough to draw the crowds in, but marketable enough to make me a success. Quietly I learned to weave every aspect of my daily life into my digital personae, often bending my offline reality to fit my online desires.
It has been more than ten years since I first logged into my family’s desktop computer, and I have attempted many times to make my hobbies into a day job. My passion for everything digital arose from those hours spent building blogs upon blogs, in the hope that I would one day look as fulfilled and successful as 15-year-old Gevinson, holding the first copy of the Rookie Yearbook, standing in her kitchen with an exhausted but content smile. And of course, in the direct continuation of my admiration of Gevinson and the bloggers of the late 2000s, I have a side project, Tabloid Art History, that I run with friends. It was always supposed to be a hobby, yet throughout 2018 we often felt it was a day job we were not getting paid to do. Looking back, it is hard to know if I ever truly wanted it to be my day job, or if that was what I thought I should want from it.
After I finished Rookie’s final Editor’s Letter, I realised that I was done trying to turn every aspect of myself and my creative life into a consumable and marketable product. 2019 is the year I stop monetising my hobbies, making all of my personal projects into full time jobs and building my 'brand' as if I could fit my whole personality into a marketing plan.
Last year, in the midst of professionalising my art project, unsure whether this was my choice or a social pressure, I burned out. As I was confronted with the idea that this project may some day end, I started to panic. It was not the hypothetical end of the project that I feared. Instead, I became acutely aware of how much of my personality I had tied to this project and its success, and suddenly I feared there would be nothing left of me without it. Much of our identity is tied to the things we do and the things we consume, so when you are expected to bank on every aspect of your doings, there is no space left for approximation. Everything needs to be perfectly over-performed. You need to be always present, always involved in your own growth. Everything you do and enjoy is connected, every thing feeds off another; there is no time off because even your time off serves a bigger purpose.
Online everything seems eternal, immovable, permanent, existing on its own space-time continuum, and the closure of Rookie came smashing into all this. It reminded me that things end, and most importantly, that endings are necessary. “So this is also about that, and shortcomings, which are more worthwhile to read about – and write about, and experience – than success,” Gevinson writes in her letter. Hobbies are important because they remind us to fail, to end, and to quit. More than promoting a healthy “mindfulness” through taking up embroidery, cooking, or knitting, learning to let go of the need to capitalise on all of our hobbies is a way to maintain excellence in our craft. There is little space, if any, for self-exploration, failure, and pure enjoyment in the things we do to pay the rent. The possibility of ending is important for creatives, who often run side projects that are not quite hobbies, yet not quite jobs. And for those who are lucky enough to live off the thing that they enjoy creating, where do you draw a line? How do you write for pleasure when you write for a living? How do you keep drawing when you draw for a living? Through the refusal to cash in on everything creative you do, there is a sense of control to be regained – a small, precious reminder that we would continue to exist even without the things that we do.
I don’t necessarily want to stop advertising my hobbies on my social media. I am proud when I have finished a dress, made a delicious cake, or read a great book. I don’t want to stop working hard on my personal projects either; they have taken me on journeys I would never have gone onto in my own professional life. But hyper-involvement is not an ultimatum for success. Digital life and personal identity have a complicated relationship, and I don’t believe that blaming new technologies as a whole will fix any of it. There are no guidelines on how to grow up online because we are the first generation to do so. Yet somehow, Rookie’s last Editor’s Letter left me relieved, almost content with the reality of living a digital life. Accepting the end of Rookie meant going back onto my social media timelines and accepting that they are complex, fragmentary, often contradictory and complicated versions of myself, much like my offline life.