Known for creating viral, culturally on-point articles (you’ve probably read her story on millennial burnout, for one), BuzzFeed News senior culture writer Anne Helen Petersen is something of an expert at keeping her finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. We caught up with her recently and touched on everything from the way she uses Twitter for story ideas to the indulgent feeling of taking 30 minutes to read.
You’re the senior culture writer / western correspondent for BuzzFeed News by way of academia. How did you break into writing about culture? And how did you make your way from teaching to BuzzFeed?
I started writing about culture on my blog, “Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style,” when I was still in grad school. I wanted an outlet to connect what I was reading as I prepped for exams with more contemporary subjects and stars. (My PhD was in media studies, and I wrote my dissertation on the industrial history of celebrity gossip.)
After I turned in my dissertation, I was hungry to write in a non-academic way, so I wrote a piece on the scandals of classic Hollywood for The Hairpin. I ended up writing a whole series of articles on various classic stars and began writing pieces on the intersection of celebrity, feminism, and contemporary media for other places as well—all while working as a full-time academic.
The academic job market is rough—and when the visiting professorship I had ended, I couldn’t find another job. But I had been subconsciously building a “life raft” of sorts away from academia for years with my writing. I might not have been paid much for it, but it meant that I had options.
An editor at BuzzFeed asked me to write a piece for them, and the result, “Jennifer Lawrence and the History of Cool Girls,” was one of the first longform BuzzFeed pieces to go viral. That piece essentially became my job description: come to BuzzFeed and “do what you do,” which, at the time, could probably be described as “write about celebrity with a lot of context, both historical and industrial” (aka, use the tools of academia but none of the jargon).
Since coming to BuzzFeed in May 2014, I’ve been able to follow my interests while still writing about celebrity whenever I want.
How do you decide what topics to write about?
A good story focuses on a person, a place, a cultural object, or a phenomenon that might seem simple or straightforward, but is actually really complicated—you just need to take the time to think about the history and place it within a larger trajectory, talk to a whole lot of people and really listen to what they are and are not saying, and more than anything, take it seriously.
This applies to anything from Zac Efron to the massive bachelorette culture in Nashville, Tennessee. I have a running list of things that entice me in that way, and things just kinda fall into place to make a piece happen when it does.
Earlier this year, you wrote a viral article, “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” examining why a generation of young people feel overwhelmed by basic, everyday life tasks—because they’re so burned out from trying to endlessly work and fulfill their larger goals.
What inspired you to write about the topic? And what surprised you about the response?
I was burnt out! Actually, though, I was burnt out and didn’t realize it, or refused to realize it—I was trying to figure out why I had “errand paralysis,” a dorky term that I use in the piece to describe the inability to complete simple tasks that hover at the bottom of your to-do list for weeks on end. But the more I read to try and figure out the reasoning for that paralysis, the more all signs pointed to burnout—which led me to unpack how I got there in the first place.
The response was like getting run over by a car—in a good way? I was completely unprepared for it. I thought it might do well in the way some personal essays do well, but not explode quite the way it did.
How has that burnout affected readers’ attention spans? Have you had to alter your writing because of it?
I wish I could show you the number of emails I received where the author told me it took them weeks to finish my article—that’s how burnt out they were.
But everyone, no matter where they are and what they do, should have 30 minutes in their life to devote to something they want to read, listen to, or think about. For centuries people of all classes have had that sort of time, even if they devoted it exclusively to the bible or church.
I do think that most people do have that time—it’s just whittled away by other distractions (our phones, checking email, especially) that we turn to for quick relief from the overwhelming stresses from the other corners of our lives. Taking 30 minutes to read feels indulgent. It shouldn’t.
You openly invite people to pitch you story ideas on Twitter. What are some of the most memorable responses or stories that have emerged from that approach?
Usually it’s someone trying to send me their mixtape. But several stories have come from people just telling me about their lives, or something adjacent to their lives—including my story on the faith-based groups that have made Dallas one of the most refugee-friendly cities in the United States, or this one on how this Seattle Elks Club got … cool again?
You describe Pocket as central to your “digital reading hygiene.” How do you use Pocket in your work and your life? How does it help you stay on top of what you want to read?
WHAT WOULD I DO WITHOUT POCKET. In grad school, I had friends who used services like Evernote and Zotero, but they were all too complicated for what I wanted: a place to save and store things that 1) I didn’t have time to read at the time, but didn’t want to keep open for a billion years in my browser, slowing down my whole computer until I have to restart and lose it anyway or 2) Things that I had read and wanted to keep handy and searchable for later use.
Some people use tags to sort in Pocket, but the search function means that I can find all that I’ve pocketed under a certain topic. I save recipes to Pocket; I save PDFs; I save campsites and restaurant reviews and travel recommendations. I’ve saved photos that I’ve found through Google Image searches.
But most of all I save articles—long and short—sometimes for a project I’m working on, but also just stuff that I want to read for personal edification.
At this point I have more than seven years of Pocket that I can search for various topics. The most embarrassing thing is when you start pocketing articles for a piece, go back and search a keyword, and realize that you pocketed the EXACT SAME ARTICLE two years ago—just never read it.
What do you do in your free time outside of reading, writing, and Pocketing?
I live in Missoula, Montana, so I spend a lot of time outdoors. I walk my dog on the leashless trails outside my house. I travel a lot for work and for fun, and Pocket is very, very helpful for providing reading material on those flights where I don’t want to work or I’m offline.
Do you have a Pocket ritual?
I read a lot on my Pocket (on my phone or iPad) while at the gym. I realize how ridiculous that sounds. But I always “load up” before heading there, especially if I’m doing a long cycle. You can do around two New Yorker articles in a 70 minute cycle, which, again, is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever typed.
I don’t think of it as “optimizing” so much as “distracting myself from indoor cycling” and not having to stare at the wall.
Imagine the contents of your Pocket came to life as a party. What’s the vibe? Who would meet each other? What’s going on?
It’s like a junior high party in that there’s cliques in all the corners. If this was my junior high, it’d be the geeks who watch Star Trek: The Next Generation, the brains who wear math puns, the confident jocks, the ditzy girls who are actually smart, the gossips who follow everything that’s going on with EVERYONE (in the real world, that’s the political reporters).
What have you been saving and reading recently in Pocket?
“The People Who Eat the Same Meal Every Day,” from The Atlantic
“The Modern Trap of Turning Hobbies Into Hustles,” from Manrepeller
“Who Killed Tulum?”, from The Cut
“Silence at Baylor,” from Texas Monthly
“Why Did the Food Media Ignore the Best-Selling Cookbook of 2018?” from The Washington Post
If you could sneak a peek into someone’s Pocket, whose would it be?
Neko Cases’s. Or Jamelle Bouie’s, one of my favorite writers and a voracious reader, both on and off the internet.