Viral success on the internet is a strange phenomenon. Marketers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to create something people will share with their friends, only to be beaten time and time again by accidents and genuine ineptitude. That’s part of the fun of the web — halfway decent singers wallow in obscurity while Rebecca Black gets 20 million hits, and your meticulously edited Tweet will never be as funny as a horse avatar poorly hawking ebooks
. The content we share the most is stuff we can have conversations about, especially when the conversation goes something like, “This is weird and terrible and hilarious and I can’t look away and I think I love it.”
Most people who get that reaction weren’t looking for it and have no idea what to do with it. See, for example, Rebecca Black’s alienation of her fanbase by releasing something not hypnotically awful. But a handful of internet-savvy people have gone for that reaction on purpose. Of these, the most successful and maybe the best is Hipster Runoff, a website whose evolution after finding an audience is part success story, part cautionary tale for anyone looking for a foothold in web culture.
If you’re a fan of internet oddities, you’ve probably found yourself on Hipster Runoff at least once since its creation in 2007. Billing itself as “a blog worth blogging about” and written by the pseudonymous Carles, Hipster Runoff is ostensibly a website for analysis of indie rock and other alternative culture. But it reads more like a deconstruction of blogs, with the entertainment value coming from the strange and compelling trip it offers inside Carles’ mind. I imagine most visitors to Hipster Runoff are so turned off by its design scheme, textspeak, and open shallowness that they hit “close tab” within seconds. Those who stick around will find out pretty quickly what drives Carles: blog hits, memes, and a desire to be relevant, whatever the cost.
“Relevant,” meaning something like “valued within alternative culture,” is just one of an array of terms in Carles’s vocabulary with definitions endemic to his site. Many of them are derived from the advertising/marketing world — Carles frets about personal brands, dissects his consumer experiences, and speculates on the market appeal of bands. Other words are Carles’s own creation, or at least popularized by him: an “altbag” is a hipster whose identity is completely secure, a “blipster” is self-explanatory, and “chillwave” is the kind of music Washed Out and Neon Indian make. (The widespread use of that last term — by the Village Voice, Pitchfork, New York Magazine, and the New York Times — is probably one of Hipster Runoff’s permanent legacies, though it’s unclear whether this is cause for the site’s praise or damnation.)
It’s possible to read a Hipster Runoff article, or even several articles, without wising to the fact that Carles at least as much of an invented character as he is a real human being. In a 2009 Village Voice interview, Carles (or, maybe more accurately, the man who created Carles) described his site’s concept as as "being able to justify your alternative existence by monitoring websites that are theoretically on the bleeding edge of culture.” Put another way, Carles is a caricature of someone whose identity is constructed entirely on being in the know. He’s the guy at the party who’s already heard every song your iTunes shuffles to, the guy who rolled his eyes when everyone else started listening to Modest Mouse, the first of all your friends to declare that he was over Radiohead. And with Hipster Runoff, Carles was finally crying out for his due.
Early Hipster Runoff posts had a sort of free-form irreverence to them. Carles mostly posted mp3s of songs that he liked and occasionally riffed on a topic — like, for instance, a genre he invented out of nowhere. His pieces always seemed to remind you, just enough, of some self-serious blog post you’ve read, even as the content was nonexistent or completely absurd. (In the above linked post, Carles claims that Dave Matthews belongs to the genre of “blog house.”) Barely beneath the surface of HRO, however, was the idea that music in itself wasn’t terribly pleasurable — that it was only worthwhile if you could know the most about about it, or be the first person to share it online, or otherwise use it to win. Even from the start, the greatest compliment that Carles could pay to a song would be to call it “highly bloggable.”
Therein lied the central conceit of Hipster Runoff, and the main reason why it was so incredibly funny. Despite his worries about alternative cred, almost all of Carles’ cultural analysis was performed with the single-minded goal of brand expansion and monetization. Reading it was like pulling back the curtain on alternative culture, only to discover that the guy calling all the shots was just as cynical and profit-driven as everyone else. Constructing your identity based on your cultural knowledge, the site seemed to say, was stupid and self-defeating. But goddammit if Carles wasn’t going to try.
The first HRO post I stumbled on was one of the more obviously joking ones, and still in my opinion one of the funniest. If you’re curious about Hipster Runoff and looking for a good place to start, that article is probably as good as any. In it, Carles expresses his pleasure at finally being able to understand The Beatles, just because Pitchfork has finally reviewed them. It perfectly captures the kind of mock tunnel-vision that HRO does best: Pitchfork is the most important music website, so of course Pitchfork’s opinion on the Beatles is the most important and correct opinion. In turn, writing a blog entry about both Pitchfork and the Beatles, two things that people search on Google a lot, is a brilliant move from a search engine optimization standpoint: anyone who Googles “Pitchfork Beatles,” or even better, “Pitchfork Beatles Hipster,” could very well land on Carles’ website, increasing the value of the HRO brand.
I should note that Hipster Runoff was not the first website to mock the self-important stupidity to be found on the internet — writers at Something Awful had been doing it for years, even in character as teenage “hax0r” Jeff K or grumpy old man Cliff Yablonski. But what set HRO apart from his predecessors was the relatable humanity at the center of it — as insufferable as Carles was, the more Hipster Runoff you read, the more you sort of loved him. And it didn’t hurt that the website’s author was pretty clearly incorporating pieces of his own real life into the satire.
Carles’ Beatles post was one of a series of viral successes for the website in 2009. It started in January, with a missive on Animal Collective that somehow managed to simultaneously celebrate the band for staking out new musical territory while shaming the band’s fans for being trend-hoppers in search of a special new club to join. In the article, which is long but worth reading in full if you’re familiar with the band, the Carles voice (pretentious, removed, and vapidly analytical) is clearly present. But his observations aren’t hollow, they’re spot-on. This isn’t a slam from someone who heard “My Girls” once and was annoyed. This is a slam from someone who knows an artist’s career trajectory back to front, and may well understand the reasons for Animal Collective’s success better than Animal Collective does. It’s an intelligent opinion dressed up to look dumb. It’s also funny as hell and contains more than a few nuggets of truth. When you write so convincingly as to anger successful music critics and make them question their allegiance to a band, you’re hitting on something pretty real.
Among Hipster Runoff’s other 2009 bombs was this one, looking not at pop culture but the struggle of twenty-somethings to adapt to office life. Thousands of overeducated of Gen Y’ers — myself included — can relate to Carles in that piece even as we recognize we’re being skewered. Which is, really, the effect of the best Hipster Runoff posts: the feeling that a friend who knows you too well is making fun of you, right to your stupid hipster face.
Sometime in 2010, Hipster Runoff introduced The Alt Report, a secondary voice for the site which covered breaking news on a several-posts-per-day basis, unlike the several-per-week regimen the site had kept previously. In retrospect, it’s difficult not to see this point as the beginning of the end, despite the fact that it’s also probably when HRO became a full-time revenue earner for its author. Carles’ obsession with pageviews now extended to outrageous media-mimicking gimmicks like writing incendiary headlines when there was no real news, starting one-sided feuds with artists, and finding any excuse to post a picture of a celebrity’s nipple. It was undeniably self-aware and often very funny — the coverage of Michael Cera’s stint with Mister Heavenly made me laugh as hard anything else the site’s ever done — but it was also a sign that Carles was content with abandoning his burgeoning post as the hipster Jonathan Swift in favor of something that looked more like a hipster Perez Hilton.
To be fair, none of this was inconsistent with the Carles character, who was only ever interested in hits and fame anyway. Carles was an openly willing panderer, waiting to be filled with whatever his audience wanted the most. And if the whole joke of Hipster Runoff was that alternative culture was no less shallow or idiotic than mainstream culture, perhaps it’s appropriate that Carles slowly let his site become a semi-ironic version of a gossip rag. In 2011, when Carles introduced a third voice to the site — called The Mainstreamer and written in Comic Sans — it seemed more out of resentment toward his audience than out of a genuine desire to provide something new. Or, if it wasn’t resentment (and it probably wasn’t, because Carles can do resentment really well when he wants to) it was something lamer: another excuse to post linkbait and pictures of scantily clad attractive women.
Despite all this, the Carles take on certain bands, artists, and news events still often managed to be more penetrating than what anyone else was writing. His “exposure” of Lana Del Rey was a post that I often saw linked from other, more serious pieces about the singer, as if internet culture now trusted the investigative journalism of a gonzo satirist. Carles continued to cover Del Rey until her recent performance on SNL, when the posing and link-baiting and snark all built up until something snapped.
If you visit Hipster Runoff right now, its name has been changed to the Lana Del Report, and the site spent a day or two covering nothing but her. Carles’ wrote an explanatory piece, which is sort of about Del Rey, but more about blogs, the role of Carles, and what his website has become. And it proves that while watching Hipster Runoff write about a manufactured “indie” celebrity may be entertaining, watching Hipster Runoff write about Hipster Runoff is full-on fascinating. It’s one of the deepest and funniest things ever posted on a site that’s a treasure trove of deep and funny. In some ways, it’s the site’s creator owning up to the fictional nature of Carles. In other ways, it just makes the author more unknowable. In every way, it’s hilarious and vital for anyone who wonders how the internet is affecting our discourse. I’ll let Carles speak for himself:
I have a blog called HIPSTER RUNOFF. Every day, I wake up, open my laptop, and type words that are stored in the internet as ‘content.’ My goal is to ‘get as many hits’ as possible because I metaphorically ‘have mouths to feed.’ I realize that at this point, it doesn’t matter if my content is ‘premium’, pseudo-brilliantly written web_prose or just ‘link-bait-wave,’ I was fortunate enough to not have gotten lost in the ‘long tail’ of indie music + Gen-Y-opinion-driven coverage blogs. Every day, I prey upon different buzz topics, exploiting my voice, but more importantly, my position as a ‘recognized outlet 4 buzz’ to try to trick people into thinking I am ‘relevant’, which basically just means that I am trying to make ppl talk abt my blog and get them addicted to my web brand even if they hate it because even when they are like ‘OMG THAT’S TOTAL BULLSHIT’ it is just some sort of post-grassroots-h8-wave-warketing.
My goal as a website is to ‘be the ass hole who pointlessly interjects himself into the conversation’ without being as overtly annoying as ‘the ass hole who always pointless interjects himself into the conversation.’
Even the most ‘talented’ people who ‘write things on the internet that are actually worth reading’ and/or are reduced to farm fodder. Every character of a writer, blog, or content farm’s 140 character or less tweet is cringe-worthy, 100% worth resenting. Part of me feels ‘confused’ as to why any one would even want to ‘be a music writer’, or write about bands/humans/music on the internet. It takes a warped personality to believe that any one ‘gives a damn about what you and ur crappy website’ thinks, unless you are being paid handsomely for it, then you can sort of approach it like a desk job. It will dehumanize you every day, but at least it pays the bills.
Who is ‘actually passionate’ about ‘how they feel about Lana Del Rey’? It doesn’t matter if you are writing an ‘IN DEFENSE OF LANA DEL REY’ or if you are writing a hilarious and/or insightful web culture + societal takedown piece that accurately deconstructs #LDRgate with an original angle. We all have the same motive. Can 1 voice really shift an entire conversation? What the eff do u think ur gonna tastemake? Do u think u can really make another LDR? Those days are gone, child. We’ve peaked. It’s over. The machine’s broken. Somebody call the Geek Squad.
In the post-LDR blogging era, I feel free to openly admit that I don’t care about honoring ‘bands that sound good’. The opinions that I have on bands are not actually my own, and my goal is not to preserve a relationship with readers or bands/artists based on editorial pandering. All I can do is ‘go down in flames’ with my sweet, Princess LanaBB. My demented online personality that motivates me to type these words in order to accumulate hits, empathy, praise, and controversy does not have much time left.
Wag the Blog.
Cultural criticism on the internet is dying because we finally realized that the voices behind blogs, twitter feeds, and authentic writing outlets are as fat, bored, uninspired, and jealous as the fat, bored, uninspired, and jealous voices that we thought we had escaped from.
This is the way a meme evolves. Carles has summarized better than I can how he grew from a shareable curiosity to a machine fanatically exploiting Lana Del Rey for maximum pageviews. It seems weird to say that something that started as self-parody has “descended into self-parody,” and yet that’s exactly what happened. If Carles does ever end his blog, as he has repeatedly threatened to do, the internet will lose a unique voice. Until then, let him and his own self-analysis serve as an example: an ironic race to the bottom is still a race to the bottom.
Rob Trump lives in Los Angeles and contributes to The Onion News Network. He is on Twitter here.