‘Women Laughing Alone With Salad’ and the Undead Era of Internet Culture

'The Hairpin' lives again thanks to A.I. Sort of.

An internet classic descends into chaos.

Women Laughing Alone With Salads” was a minor internet classic. I mean, it’s not like it was meant as some great, huge, important artistic statement. But for a goofy meme, it had a lot of clout. People liked it, wrote blogs about it, riffed on it. It inspired a play.

It arrived on the scene via writer Edith Zimmerman’s indefatigably offbeat ladyblog, the Hairpin. In its original form back in 2011, “Women Laughing Alone With Salad” was just an aggregation of stock photos featuring women, alone, seeming to have way too much fun as they ate a salad.

That was all it was. But it defined a certain style of internet humor (I think Julia Halperin and I had it in the back of our minds when we did our “Women Standing Next to Art for Scale” post). It flushed to the surface a certain kind of latent surrealism. Without having to say anything at all, it immediately had a kind of feminist charge. The repetition of the “woman with salad” motif said so much…

But the Hairpin passed on into the infinite in 2018, marking the end of the “eccentric blog” era of the web. The fate that awaited it was worse than death. Alien worms got into its corpse. And now “Women Laughing Alone With Salad” lives again as a body-snatched version of itself.

As I discovered from a great recent Wired story, “Confessions of an A.I. Clickbait Kingpin,” the Hairpin registration was allowed to lapse—after which it was acquired by Serbian entrepreneur Nebojša Vujinović Vujo. He specializes in finding formerly popular websites that have been shuttered, acquiring their domains, and reanimating them as A.I. content farms, making money off of those spammy ads you see everywhere and Amazon affiliate links.

Imagine you are a budding internet historian or child of millennials looking to research what your parents found so funny back in the “salad” days of the early 2010s. Today, visiting KnowYourMeme to research “Women Laughing Alone With Salad” would yield something of a puzzle. The link on KnowYourMeme’s entry to the source instead takes you to the new Hairpin, and to a new post published January 22, 2024.

It’s the same ribbon of stock photos from Zimmerman’s original. But now the byline is “James Nolan,” and the photos are appended with A.I.-generated text, gormlessly explaining the joke.

Screenshot of the new A.I.-generated reference for 'Women Laughing Alone with Salad.'

Screenshot of the new A.I.-generated reference for ‘Women Laughing Alone with Salad.’

As with explaining any joke, this kind of destroys it. In fact, it seems to suggest that even having someone think about the original post long enough to know you didn’t have to post any text at all was too much of an investment of labor, compared to randomly pasting something from ChatGPT.

“Bleak,” Zimmerman told Wired, when asked about the zombie Hairpin.

And it’s not even the worst crime against media history on the site! That would be the recent post “Talking With an Actual Tiny-House Future Resident.” I clicked on it, thinking, “Surely this A.I. website isn’t really interviewing a tiny-house resident… right?”

And of course it is not. It is just harvesting quotes to assemble a strange, melted clone of Zimmerman’s 2011 blogpost of the same name for the original site (preserved on Medium), to capture clicks from anyone still investigating the tiny house lifestyle.

The comely couple at the top of the new post? Definitely not the “actual future tiny house residents,” Margaret and Zach.

Screenshot of "Talking With an Actual Tiny House Future Resident" on the new The Hairpin

Screenshot of “Talking With an Actual Tiny House Future Resident” on the new Hairpin.

“Stay tuned to their blog, Charleston Tiny House, for more updates on their tiny house adventure,” the new Hairpin post concludes, with robotic chirpiness. The Charleston Tiny House blog hasn’t been updated in over a decade.

Vujo has taken over many other sites, including the Frisky, telling Wired that the latter was a particularly good find because he could place lucrative sex toy ads on it. Now, the once-popular women’s website is home to a strange roster of A.I. articles ranging from “Top Blonde Models You Can Find on OnlyFans” to “Why Engaging a Manchester Escort Might Revolutionise Your Lifestyle,” but also including “African Design Trends: What’s Hot in 2024” and “Embracing the Legends of the Wild West: Gunslingers, Outlaws, and Timeless Revolvers.

That last actually begins—in what almost reads as a moment of winking self-awareness—with the line, “Howdy, fellow enthusiasts of the Old West!”

This stuff is flooding the tributaries of the internet like slime. I only just read another article in Vice about an A.I.-written film magazine unintentionally contaminating the web with fake celebrity photos—and churning out inept robo-gossip articles and freakish robo-film criticism.

Screenshot of a story from Motion Pictures Magazine

Screenshot of a story from Motion Pictures Magazine.

But it’s the new “Women Laughing Alone With Salad” that is still haunting me.

It feels like a portal to a new kind of internet hell opening up. It seems to suggest a future in which anyone who gets a little bit of attention and a few links to their name, and then loses control over their web presence, will be infected by some A.I. daemon looking to feed off the stray scraps of affection left in the fading memory…

People have been saying culture is dead forever, but this is more like culture becoming undead, forever.

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