Going viral is the new American Dream.
This new, digitally fostered American Dream is especially attractive to creatives who are finding more commercial success online than off. This, in particular, birthed a new generation of writers who set the precedent for how to navigate the intersection of the written word and the internet. After all, if Virginia Woolf were alive today, her writing probably wouldn't translate to Instagram the same as it does in print.
So, what does this mean for the future of writing? Are we cheapening our art to make it work online or has the internet allowed everyone an equal chance to find success?
Bittersweet Democracy 
With the rise of social media, becoming a capital A Artist was accessible like never before. To quote Patti Smith, "Technology has democratized self-expression." 
But with the proliferation of creative success via social media, did the starving artist really exist anymore? Does sacrifice and struggle in the pursuit of your art form affect its validity? Smith herself is famously known for sacrificing comfort and stability for her art and still, she’s of the opinion that lowering barriers to entry would be beneficial to the art form overall.
An artist’s life has always been a conflicting one, split between wanting to make a living and wanting to make art uninhibited. So it's not surprising that the internet has become not only an extremely popular outlet for causal self-expression but at its most potent–– a career-making one.
As someone who uses social media as an artistic outlet for writing and has a 9-5 job, her stance was comforting.  Maybe I didn't have to choose one or the other. Maybe I could have both. 
Still, though, gaining a following online didn't lend itself to being taken seriously in artistic circles offline. For example, writers like Rupi Kaur and Colleen Hoover who achieved mainstream success online are simultaneously villainized by literary critics and purists.
With social media becoming a more serious way to gain commercial success, many artists adapted their work to the new medium. After all, the internet is effectively a canvas, and you wouldn’t use oil paint on notebook paper.
Who’s Afraid of Instapoets?
The article How Instagram Saved Poetry, states, “Art is simply adapting to the changing world and the ways we now consume art.” And no one exemplifies this phenomenon more than Rupi Kaur whose debut collection surpassed the Odyssey for the best-selling poetry book of all time. (!!)
She skyrocketed to success with her bite-sized, confessional poetry. She rose to fame on the internet, a place where people nurture an 8-second attention span and where instant gratification and relatability are rewarded, so it makes sense why a simplified format is the most successful one. Her work helped popularize the term “Instapoetry” which has grown into its own genre online and off.
Not many people want to study the poetry of Keats or Shakespeare on Instagram––it’s not conducive to the mainstream user experience. Even I, who annotates and analyzes books for fun, can agree that traditional poetry does not blend seamlessly on social media, at least not in the way Instapoetry does.  
So, how do scholars define real poetry as opposed to Instapoetry? According to Kazim Ali, the defining element is craft. Timothy Yu elaborates on Ali’s point, “To highlight craft is to assert that poetry is not any old kind of speech or self-expression, but is the product of self-conscious work on the part of the poet, and of a kind of training that can last a lifetime.”
If traditional poetry is classical music, Kaur’s work is pop hot 100s. While technically poetry, Ali says, it’s not surprising or working particularly hard––it’s superficial. 
However, Kaur serves an important purpose. She influenced a culture of people who might have otherwise not participated in or felt a connection to poetry. Moreover, she receives immense hate, for what? For reaching a predominately young, female audience? This is often the case with the “controversial” people in this essay, but I digress. 
It boils down to this: You don't have to read and re-read her poems or do any critical thinking to understand them. Her work is widely accessible and accommodates our decreasing attention spans. And her work does have merit: it’s vulnerable, it often explores trauma and feminist values, and most importantly she gives a voice to women who can relate to abuse and heartache. In short, It's not her fault her work is more conducive to a digital environment than Chaucer’s. 
It's true, she isn’t doing anything critically groundbreaking in her poetry. She isn't the first poet to use a deafening amount of line breaks, a lack of punctuation, and a low word count to express themselves, but she is the most popular and controversial.
Personally, I’m of the opinion that she has done something objectively good: helped make poetry more accessible to people. This is a net positive. 
As Ethan Hawke says in one of my favorite interviews
“Most people don't spend a lot of time thinking about poetry, right? They have a life to live and they’re not really that concerned with Allen Ginsberg’s poems or anybody’s poems until their father dies, they go to a funeral, you lose a child, somebody breaks your heart, they don’t love you anymore, and all of a sudden, you’re desperate for making sense out of this life. And has anybody ever felt this bad before? How did they come out of this cloud? Or the inverse. Something great. You meet somebody and your heart explodes, you love them so much you can't even see straight. Did anybody ever feel like this before? What is happening to me? And that is when art is not a luxury, it’s sustenance. We need it.” 
We all need poetry in some way. If Rupi Kaur or other Instapoets can provide sustenance or fulfill a need, how can that possibly be bad? Literary critique is necessary but it shouldn't be a tool for shaming people OUT of reading. 
Since the publication of milk & honey, the poetry genre has become one of the fastest-growing categories in book publishing. With Instapoet Atticus deeming Instagram a “gateway drug for literature.” Rupi Kaur’s watery prose has probably done more for exposing people to literature and poetry they can actually relate to than the literary canon ever did. 
Her poetry has a place. Even if that place is online. 
The Reading Renaissance 
As someone who grew up with her nose perpetually in a book, I was pleasantly surprised to experience the renaissance reading has had in the past few years. People purchased over 825 million print books in the US in 2021, more than in any year since records began in 2004.
So, reading is cool now.
With the rise of BookTok, an extension of Bookstagram, reading has become a sort of virtue signal, an aesthetic that has mutated into an identity. Basically, what you read and post online (your #shelfie) says something about you. It’s all very performative, and yet I’m not absolved of contributing to it. 
This is really the first time (at least in my lifetime) that I’m seeing books function as an accessory to one’s character. A-list celebrities, with no previously shared interest in literature, are snapping photos of open books on their Instagram accounts and creating book clubs in their name.
The #BookTok hashtag has over 77 billion views globally and is one of the most popular hashtags in TikTok history. People who haven't picked up a book since high school are suddenly devouring books in record numbers thanks in part to the platform.
Let’s talk about BookTok darling, Colleen Hoover, who has garnered significant criticism and controversy. This year alone, her romance and young adult fiction books have outsold the Bible. The Bible! She’s effectively created a religion with her pen. 
Hoover self-published her first novel. She didn’t have an agent or any other traditional support to help market her work. What she did have was passionate readers on the internet pushing her book. Seven months later, these fans made her a best-selling author. 
She received similar criticism to Kaur in that her work is lacking depth and craft, but abundant in cliche quotes for your IG story. As Laura Miller explains in her article for Slate,
“The blandness of Hoover’s characters makes them easy for anyone to identify with, and the smooth, featureless quality of her prose makes her novels easy to breeze through in a day or two. They are built of clichés, which is not necessarily a drawback in romance fiction, where the deployment of familiar devices feels comforting. This also appeals to people who view themselves as nonreaders because they lack the patience for or interest in literary prose.”
There’s simply no denying her influence as a giant in the publishing industry, no matter how you feel about her books. I read one (1) of her books and our relationship will likely remain there. However, in the discourse online, I’ve often felt as though criticism of Hoover is a covert mutation of the “I'm not like other girls” narrative. Except, in this case, it’s “I’m an intellectual.” 
You can be two things at once. You can enjoy Nicholas Sparks and not have to throw away your copies of Kafka. 
Hoover represents something larger than the genre itself–she exemplifies the power of what your art can become when the internet is involved. She is an example of Patti Smith’s democracy and the new American dream at work.
In Defense of Being Pretentious
So why are scholars and intellectuals upset at the Kaurs and Hoovers of the world if they are helping to revitalize the industry and drive sales? Well, I think it’s in part a concern for cheapening the art form. Everyone should be able to explore writing as an outlet for self-expression but that doesn't make you a Writer in the traditional sense. Popular writers online aren't always good writers.
Respected literature and poetry require a certain level of effort to understand and analyze. This is why audiences want to #GaslightGatekeepGirlboss their favorite things. People don’t often gate keep mainstream media, they do so for more niche and specialist topics with smaller amounts of fans. The nature of the form requires knowledge and time and critical thinking, so it makes sense why people would want to guard it.
As Barry Pierce posters in his article for i-D, “Gatekeeping is how we keep culture alive.” Mostly these people just want to protect their art form, not exclude people from it.
Pretentious. This is the insult used to diminish any attempt to protect the integrity of the genre. How is it pretentious to want to preserve the essence of makes poetry, poetry? Arguably, the complexities of human emotion are reduced when adapting to a digital landscape that values short-form content and mass marketability.
According to The Guardian, “Pretentiousness keeps life interesting. Without the permissions it gives – the licence to try new experiences, to experiment with ideas, to see if you want to live your life another way – people from all kinds of backgrounds will not be exposed to difference, to new ideas or the histories of their chosen field.” 
In short, “Being pretentious is rarely harmful to anyone. Accusing others of it is.”
These gatekeepers are simply protecting the original art form. In the face of its rapid and uncontrollable evolution, we need these “pretentious” people to guard the sanctity of the genre. But it doesn’t mean there isn’t a place in the world for both sonnets and Instapoetry as well as the great American novel and trope-filled romances. I like shitty romance novels and also have a degree in writing.
We Contain Multitudes
I do believe the internet has a way of diluting things, including art, to a format that suits the algorithm, and suits our ADHD-like attention spans. However, it doesn't always follow that this art is ruining or deteriorating its original form, it’s just a response to the way many people consume content now. 
If we need Rupi Kaur to make poetry accessible or Colleen Hoover to electrify a supposedly dying industry then so be it. I’m just grateful to have this many people to talk to about books and poetry. If anything, their influence has encouraged people to hopefully participate more actively in writing, reading, and sharing the written word. 
I understand and empathize with the hesitation to translate a beloved genre like poetry into an online format. It’s more likely to be diluted of the complexity and care expected from traditional poetry. Regardless of literary value, these writers have helped sustain “dying” genres like poetry and print.
We should engage in literary criticism and challenge ourselves to read a wide breadth of perspectives and experiences, but it’s also true that the internet has done something lovely here. People who didn't have access to resources otherwise, now have an easily accessible outlet to express creativity as it should be done––freely and abundantly. 
The reading renaissance is bigger than any two people. No one is going to replace Kaur for Poe or Hoover for Shelley in the canon. But the internet has allowed for a more equitable and democratic backdrop to engage with one’s art form.  
In his book, Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke says, “A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity.” With the prioritization of short-form content on the internet, there was a necessity for how we consume art to shift in order to stay relevant in the mainstream. 
To Rilke’s point, this was the necessity. To re-introduce people to a love of literature and poetry, even if it’s Kaur instead of Keats. Whether or not the work is critically good is not the most important piece of this argument. What matters most is not necessarily what people are reading but that they are reading. As long as the words have done what they are supposed to do–make you feel something–they have done something incredibly valuable.

**cover photo by Samantha Galang
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