How Beloved Indie Blog ‘The Hairpin’ Turned Into an AI Clickbait Farm

What a heinous month for the media. Almost every day, a publication announces layoffs or shuts down. Sports Illustrated just let go almost all of its staff after weathering an embarrassing scandal about AI-generated articles. It’s unclear what the desiccated magazine’s future holds, but the sad fate of another formerly great outlet offers a preview of what may await fallen media properties.

In 2018, the indie women’s website The Hairpin stopped publishing, along with its sister site The Awl. This year, The Hairpin has been Frankensteined back into existence and stuffed with slapdash AI-generated articles designed to attract search engine traffic. (Sample headlines: “What Does It Mean When You Remember Your Dreams?” and “White Town’s ‘Your Woman’ Explained.”) Some original articles remain but have been reformatted in a strange way, and the authors’ bylines have been replaced by generic male names of people who do not appear to exist. One piece by writer Kelly Conaboy about celebrity teeth now appears under the name “James Nolen,” of whom I can’t find a single trace online.

This would be a nasty end for any independent media property. For The Hairpin, it’s especially repulsive, because the site was the antithesis of a content mill. It never courted a huge audience or chased trending topics—it was a writer-led website that found an audience by being experimental and intimate and odd. It served as a launching pad for bona fide stars like former New York Times reporter Jazmine Hughes, Bojack Horseman designer Lisa Hanawalt, and New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino precisely because it valued nurturing fresh ideas—and letting people make jokes!—not optimizing revenue per click.

In an attempt to understand the future of media, I tracked down The Hairpin’s new owner—a Serbian DJ named Nebojša Vujinović Vujo. He says the site is just the latest title in his stable of over 2,000 websites and admits that the majority of the new posts on The Hairpin are indeed AI-generated. “I buy new websites almost every day,” he says.

Vujinović Vujo was attracted to The Hairpin because of its “great reputation and excellent backlinks,” which he values because it helps with Google rankings. “It’s a common thing on the internet today.” He plans to “add all previous authors” back to the website in the future. His first priority, though, is ginning up more new algorithm-generated content.

Vujo was able to purchase The Hairpin because its original owners let its domain expire.

Choire Sicha, who now works as a journalist for New York magazine, is one of those former owners and accepts responsibility for losing control of the domain. “When an indie media company goes out of business, succession and estate planning is not traditionally handled well, and I think that was definitely true of us,” Sicha says. “We definitely weren’t as careful as we could or should have been.”

Moving forward, distressed media properties will need to prioritize estate planning, because this type of domain squatting is likely to become more commonplace. “The ease with which anyone can just spin up a site of a hundred or so AI-written blog posts based on the corpus of their choice must really be changing the game for the expired domain scavengers,” says John Mahoney, who memorably wrote about the dynamics of spammy digital media businesses for The Awl. “As usual the conversation about ‘AI revolutionizing [insert-industry-of-choice]’ is overlooking the true web pioneers—the spammers and SEO scammers.”

The Hairpin’s original human staffers are understandably disturbed when I ask them about the site’s fate. “If we have the phrase death by a thousand paper cuts then we must be missing some matching phrase for this experience,” says former editor Haley Mlotek. “Zombified by a thousand bots, maybe, though I don’t know if that has the same ring to it.”