Online Community Case Study: Rookie

“To read Rookie was to be seen and to find a place where perhaps the most affirming comment section on the Internet empathized with conflicting feelings. Through personal stories, illustrations, photo essays, interviews, and experimental media, young people’s formative insights into identity and growing up were treated with validity and care instead of condescension and preachiness. Rookie cultivated a rare space where readers could examine what it means to be a person in their own small worlds and in the wider world around them.” [1]

Rookie was an online magazine for and by teenagers (you can check out the archive here!). It was founded by Tavi Gevinson in 2011, and thousands of articles, essays, poems, advice columns, stories, diary entries, interviews, photos, illustrations, comics, collages, playlists, and videos were published in 87 digital issues until 2018. I don’t remember exactly how I discovered it, but I definitely luckily stumbled upon it through the Internet. I do know that it felt like a distinctive, concrete place that I wanted to be a part of, even if only by reading. Rookie was shut down in 2018 ultimately not because of a lack of community or readers, but because Rookie’s model (which I will argue, helped make it a healthy community) was not financially sustainable. Digital media publications are in a difficult situation now in 2020 – some may ask what the point of maintaining an online media publication is when posts can be shared and community can be created through social media? Rookie had a conflict between growth and money & creative control and community. However, the publication was good at maintenance and stewardship [which unfortunately is usually not valued in a capitalist industry]. Social media has not quite replaced what Rookie did so well. It’s easy to see how big of an impact Rookie had on its community by reading the comments on the final editors’ letter or odes in various other publications and posts on social media about “the end of Rookie”. As we are all quarantined, people are returning to Rookie’s archives and Rookie’s final Instagram post to comment that they miss it and wish it existed right now. Rookie was a place free from marketing and self-promotion and commercialized wokeness, where (any teenager, but mostly those who did not identify as male) could fully explore and be themselves and ask weird questions to other humans, rather than to Google. It was not perfect, but it did not expect its readers or writers to be perfect either. I am going to explain how Rookie managed to do this, which in turn is what made Rookie a healthy online community:

Content – “the perfect mix of funny/loving/dark/angry/kind/sincere/visually pleasing” [2] 

Rookie’s content was created by and for the community. Content topics ranged from an interview with Lizzo (before she was popular in the mainstream) to the importance of being awkward, to dealing with grief, to fashion hacks, to growing up. Rookie did not talk down to its audience – it did not tell young people to wait their turn, did not belittle the experiences of young people, and did not not tell young people to idolize anyone or feed the cult of celebrity to them. Adults who contributed content did not talk down at all to the mostly teenage audience. Everyone was met on their level, as a person. People (mostly teenagers and young adults) were open and honest about their experiences. There were few interviews with celebrities (look at the main pages of Seventeen and Teen Vogue and you will see the difference immediately). “Normal” people’s stories had exactly the same weight as those of people who are more heralded on other platforms.

There was smart, intellectual content and vulnerable pieces and tons of q & a’s and guides to fashion and makeup, and none of those categories were mutually exclusive from each other. The site definitely had more of an exploratory rather than expert vibe, and reading each piece felt like receiving advice from a friend. I was able to read about other people’s lives, but in a “peering through a window into what makes a person who they are” way rather than in a self promotional, “please look at what I am doing” way. The content was a way to approachably learn from people who may have been a bit ahead of you in life, but were not leaps and bounds away. If someone not from the intended audience was on the site, I think that they felt like they had to respect boundaries and learn.

Importantly, Rookie also was not the news. Articles leaned more toward digested or detailing experiences in-process rather than immediate reactions to something. Since people would share mistakes they had made or learned from, and would validate others’ experiences, no matter how small, the website felt like a safe place where it was ok to be vulnerable. Tavi shared this quote in her final editor’s letter which reflects this: “I get a visceral reminder of how it felt to be in middle school, when I wondered if other people shared my fears, insecurities, ambitions, weird habits, enthusiasms. If I would ever meet them. The fact that this is no longer a question in my mind makes me feel utterly spoiled. That is thanks to you, and it means more than I can say.“ [2] 

Site layout in February 2014

Content for people, not consumers 

Rookie was created in direct opposition to how other teenage magazines marketed to young people, which made them feel “seen as a consumer rather than a reader or person”[2]. There was minimal advertising through banner ads at the top of the page and the side of the page that did not intrude upon the reading experience. The advertisements were selectively curated and did not seem to rely on user tracking – for example, I remember seeing numerous ads of book titles. Unlike other magazines owned by media conglomerates, Rookie had no airbrushing of models (and no models at all) and no pages of (expensive) products that readers should buy. Beauty and style were covered on the site, but not to make the site money through commissions through clicked links or purchases or make a reader feel like they needed to be something or meet a certain ideal.

“I was a teenager living on a tiny island, and reading your articles and finding out that there were people out there who thought like me, who thought about so much more than me, really shaped who I became. I never made friends through Rookie; I never had any submissions posted; I never drew from it to launch my own artistic brand. But Rookie encouraged me to think more, to be more creative and introspective, and to consider things that were so much bigger than myself.” (comment on [2]) 

Being its own site

I think this is actually a really powerful decision design wise, because it serves as an explicit reminder of the norms of the community. On Twitter and other social media platforms, different subcommunities may have different norms, but there is no guarantee that people will not behave in different ways since the community is not contained and anyone can enter the community at any time without a clear boundary. Also, the norms of the broader platform can supercede community norms. Many new “publications” are now hosted on blogs like Medium. However, Medium explicitly encourages content to be seen by as many eyeballs as possible. Rookie’s content was not really intended to be shared on social media or be promoted somewhere else or to receive 1000000 views or result in fame or etc. It was written for the community that knew where to find it and would be excited to receive it. Rookie writers contributed pieces to help contribute to a whole, rather than pieces that would exist individually across the Internet.  

Amount of content and theme of site

Only 6 articles were uploaded per day, and each month had a different theme. Tavi would write an editor’s letter for each theme, and prompts to spark ideas of what to write about were provided on the submit page. The recommendations for content to read was inherently all of the content that was published by design.  The editorial staff shaped the vibes of the site, not a ranking system through user engagement with algorithms.

The 6 final issue themes


The submit page

The structure of the website

Rookie truly felt like a place to go to, unlike the bottomless pits of social media platforms. Although the site only had a comment section and no other avenues of direct communication, it still felt like a community. The website was content-driven rather than user-driven — the intent of the website was not to meet other people (although people did venture outside of the bounds of the website and become friends, especially if they became writers), but to share and process life together. No followers, likes, or other metrics existed on the readers’ UI. The content was not showcased by what was popular right now, but by what was released each day. 

Each piece had a series of tags at the bottom – you could click on a tag and see other content filtered by the same tag

Empowerment by showcasing teenagers’ work 

A lot of writers have said that Rookie was the first place where their work was published. They felt validated as writers, artists, and creators. Rookie paid writers if their work was published, but because everyone should be paid fairly for their work regardless of their age. Money was not the main incentive to publish. People wrote because they related to the content and wanted to share their own art and experiences with other people too. Rookie gave teenagers a platform that did not exist otherwise. From an ID article: “As editor, Tavi showed young women that not only their voices and opinions were valued, but there was a place for them to thrive and create. She opened up worlds that had previously existed behind closed doors, accessible by the very few. Many women now in their 20s witnessed Gevinson’s rise during their own teens and thought, ‘maybe I could do that too’. During its seven year tenure, the site launched and nurtured countless creative careers, and inspired many more.”[3] 

Some caveats

Rookie felt non-exclusive as a reader, but was kind of exclusive in terms of publishing content due to the constraint of only uploading a certain number of pieces each day. Rookie had a fairly defined aesthetic, which contributed to the uniqueness of the site, but could be viewed as an ideal standard that had to be met by submissions. It became increasingly inclusive and intersectional over time, but it may not have been that way in its beginning stages. I was too intimidated to contribute despite being inspired by the community. Some of the features that helped establish the community were a result of the gate-keeping roles.

This quote is nice and describes how the Rookie readers themselves helped create the community simply by being themselves: “Besides, that next iteration of what Rookie stands for—the Rookie spirit, if you will—is already living on in you. You’ve made friends with each other. You’ve made your own zines, blogs, clubs, collectives, bands. … You didn’t need Rookie or me to do any of that, but maybe we gave you an extra nod of encouragement. You felt bad one night and read an article on here and then you felt better.” [2]


  1. Mejía, Paula. Rookie Brought the Inclusive Spirit of Zines to the Internet Era. The New Yorker. 3 December 2018.
  2. Gevinson, Tavi. Editor’s Letter. Rookie. 30 November 2018.
  3. Gamble, Ione. What ‘Rookie’ Meant to a Generation of Young Female Writers. i-D. 8 December 2018.

Fixing Comment Sections

By Jess Eng and Rachel Auslander

The comment section needs a makeover. Readers today often comment on news articles or videos without thinking twice about what they write, or considering whether their comments will stifle productive conversations. Comment sections often have no filter, which leads to an abundance of trolls and angry commentators. In an open comment space without direction for what the user should think about when commenting, the potential for context collapse is huge. Users approach the comment section from an infinite array of angles, from posting questions to paragraphs of personal anecdotes to debates with other users. The wealth and diversity of content in the comment section generally leads to confusion among readers, rather than increased understanding of an article or point of view of the commenter.

The typical user who flocks to the comment section most likely comes from a specific demographic. The Engaging News Project at the University of Texas at Austin found that frequent users of the comment section are 64% more likely to be men and 53% less likely to have a high school education than those who rarely engage with the comment section [1]. How can we diversify who participates in the comment section and contextualize comment sections to promote helpful discourse? Through this project, we want to explore why other users are not engaging in the comment section, through interviews, prototype testing and other methods.

News outlets have widely recognized that unfiltered comment sections can result in toxicity and trolls. NPR found that only 1% of its readership participated in its comment section, so it removed the comment section from its website. Vice News and USA Today also eliminated their comment sections. In a letter to their readers in 2016, Vice News said the following: “Unfortunately, website comments sections are rarely at their best. Without moderators or fancy algorithms, they are prone to anarchy.” News outlets that still use comment sections have to relentlessly moderate the comment section, which is no easy task and difficult to scale. 

Existing comment plug-ins such as Disqus and IntenseDebate are popular on many smaller media and news outlets, but they are optimized for the volume of discussion rather than the health of a discussion. These plug-ins prompt users with “Join the discussion” and “Leave a comment…”.  These open prompts do not ensure that users are on the same page about what a helpful response would be, or inform users how to communicate why they may hold a certain perspective. Designing a user friendly, mindful comment plug-in is no easy task. One comment plug-in startup, Civil, shuttered after a few years in production. The most successful comment assistant to date, Coral by Vox Media, is oriented around moderating discussions and uplifting journalists’ voices in a conversation, rather than promoting healthy discourse from the start of the commenting process. 

To solve this problem, we wonder: How might we turn the once dreaded comment section into a forum for civil discussion and healthy online dialogue? How might we create a positive user experience when reading an article, contextualize discussions in a single space to reduce context collapse, and increase the diversity of comment section users? 

Ultimately, our goal for this project is to design, prototype, and build a comment plug-in that stimulates mindful discussion through curated prompts and suggestions.


Assignment 2: Media Diary Visualization

I decided to visualize how I was introduced to content and what kind of content I interacted with over the course of a week. The data was mostly visualized chronologically over the course of each day. I collected data for 9 days, but only chose to visualize 7 in my graphic (I worked on a take-home midterm all day on Sunday so my data was not that interesting). My visualization was inspired by Dear Data, a year-long analog data project between two friends. I did not include messages, email, or numerous instances of engaging with an academic website like Piazza or Canvas in my collected data. I did include academic readings online such as an online textbook. I included links that I clicked on through google searches but not the searches themselves. My visualization is not totally comprehensive as it does not indicate how long I interacted with content. I spent much more time on academic readings than on Twitter, but I have many more instances of Twitter content. I focused more on how I discovered the content than how many Tweets or TikToks (for instance) I interacted with – if I interacted with numerous Tweets in the same way, I simply drew one shape with an arrow drawn over it. It was funny to see my habit of going to check a specific account whose information I enjoy reading when I need to fill a gap of time or want to distract myself, and then scrolling through that account and going down an Internet rabbit hole visualized. I indicated if I chose to find or interact with content, but I did not describe why – to fill time, to answer a question, to distract, etc.


One day without my phone

I didn’t think that the 24 hour challenge would be that difficult since I would be able to (and was planning on) using my laptop during the challenge. I am a sophomore in college with few responsibilities. I could check my texts, view my calendar, and do pretty much anything that I would conceivably do on my phone on my laptop. This ultimately did feel like cheating, but I tried to restrain myself from texting on my laptop throughout the day to simulate a day without instantaneous communication as much as possible. However, I was relegated to communicate at a more specific time and place than I would have if I had access to my phone. If I had not used my laptop, I would have had to make many accommodations to get through the day.

I decided to not use my phone on Monday. The only commitment I had during the day was a small group meeting for a class, and I had not made any lunch or dinner plans with friends. I honestly did not really need to be as aware of the time as I would have been with more commitments. I only told my mom and one friend that I was doing the challenge, since I would still be able to answer texts via iMessage if necessary.

I started the challenge twice. I originally planned to not use my phone from when I got into bed and turned off the lights on Sunday night until the same time on Monday evening. However, I had forgotten to a.) charge my physical alarm clock and b.) had set an alarm on my phone to wake up at 7am out of habit. I started the challenge at 7am on Monday as a result, after I turned off the (many) alarms set on my phone.

I go down rabbit holes on the Internet at two key times: when procrastinating and when I can’t fall asleep. I sometimes have very bad insomnia. When I feel too tired to fully engage with content but not tired enough to fall asleep, I will essentially “scroll myself to sleep” rather than reading a book since it feels like less mental effort. I couldn’t reach across my desk to grab my phone when I couldn’t fall asleep on Monday, but did actually fall asleep after lying in the dark for a while. What a concept!

The type of device definitely influences my level of procrastination – functionality wise, my phone is a smaller, more accessible, more addictive version of my laptop with even more features. I definitely procrastinate more with my phone than with my iPad or computer. It feels like a whirlpool that I am sucked into – I lose most awareness of the outside world when I hold the small device up to my face. I only use my iPad to read class readings or take notes. I do sometimes procrastinate on my computer, but I am more conscious when I am doing it.

I don’t have any social media apps installed on my phone besides messaging platforms. However, I do have a (bad) habit of looking at different news sites and public TikToks and Tweets as my main form of procrastination. I open Safari, look at a currently open tab or search something that pops into my head (like a TikTok account or tag that I was looking at earlier), and hop from link to link to link to link mindlessly reading things that are interesting to me until too much time has passed and a wave of anxiety has washed over me. I actually don’t check on my own social media accounts that often because when I am logged into a platform, I feel more compelled to check it and engage (I haven’t logged into Instagram or Facebook since November). I check social media accounts related to people I know consciously, but I check TikToks and public tweets with reckless abandon – these platforms admittedly do act as some of my most relied upon news sources.

When I felt like I needed a break while working on Monday, I actually read one of the books that I checked out from the library a few weeks ago to provide myself with a better option than going down an Internet rabbit hole as a break. I felt very refreshed after reading some of Jia Tolentino’s essays in Trick Mirror on actual, physical paper instead of on the screen of my phone on The New Yorker website.

I admittedly felt frustrated during the 15 minute walk to and from my class meeting. I had thought of a song that I was excited to listen to right before leaving and suddenly realized that I could not listen to music while walking. I don’t call many people unless I am texting them and the conversation becomes more involved and time-sensitive, but I do call my mom too often. I missed being able to call her.

The three things I missed most about having my phone easily accessible can be met by using other devices or analog items:
• Music and podcasts (iPod, except I love Spotify and the ability to stream music)
• The ability to check the time/have notifications from my calendar (watch + physical planner)
• The ability to call (a flip phone would do)

Since I try to use my phone consciously (except when I am procrastinating), the challenge did not feel super different from any other day in terms of working and communicating with people. However, I did not go anywhere where I would have felt more comfortable knowing that my phone was on me and did not need to use my phone to navigate anywhere. Not being able to use my phone can prohibit me from immediately doing things that I need or “need” to do, as well as things that I actually enjoy and miss.