If you write for the internet, the internet furies, those buzzing, stinging, flesh-eating swarms, will eventually devour you. It’s OK! That’s not always a death sentence. Like a fairy-tale character, you can pass through the darkness of a thousand gullets and be miraculously reconstituted upon egress. Then you are back, a little damper, sticking your fingers inside many open jaws, or (as it’s known in the industry) blogging.
It helps that a lot of internet criticism feels baseless or stupid, easy to dismiss. (The state bird of the web is the troll.) Many writers talk about the social media response to their work with a kind of war-story bravado, a pride predicated on the axiom that negative attention trumps indifference. I doubt they’d feel this way if they had more respect for their audience.
“Goodbye to my mentions,” they’ll joke. “I’m going to post this and go live in a cave.”
Meanwhile, readers perceive a hot sludge of takes and clickbait sloshing perpetually over their feeds; they want to call out sloppiness, laziness, and ignorance when they see it. Or they simply want to engage, enticed by the flattening of print’s traditional hierarchies. Good! That’s what makes online discourse so prismatic, so alive to suggestion and to the moment.
But be they trolls or crusaders for a better web, readers (who are sometimes also writers) will eventually have writers (who are hopefully also readers) in their crosshairs.
Slate founder Michael Kinsley devised one strategy for dealing with the target on his back. “I am perfectly willing to believe, on almost any subject, that I’m right and a majority of other people are wrong,” he reveals in his new book. “That’s more or less been the basis of my career in journalism.” How apt that write and right are homonyms, that wrong has no sound-alike verb meaning to dump out your personal beliefs and ideas in full glorious view of the opinionated world.
But confidence can’t inoculate you from error: As the Dunning-Kruger effect attests, it more often induces error. I should say here that I have been Wrong on the Internet. (You should really see me be wrong off the internet, though.) I’ve filed voluminous corrections—worse, I’ve crafted silly comparisons, advanced dubious claims, and selected clumsy phrases. For instance, I once declared Jessica Chastain’s character in The Martian “a man in a woman suit.” I was trying to argue that nothing about her challenged the movie’s vision of heroism as essentially male, but it didn’t come out that way.
Being brazenly, incandescently wrong in public isn’t easy for me (probably a good thing). Yet being perceived as wrong, when I think I’m right—that no longer stings like it used to. You may not find this revelation stunning, that a #content creator for an online magazine can weather social media condemnation, but I’m a pretty sensitive person. I seek approval. I’m still surprised when opprobrium that would have crushed me a few years ago, or might crush me in a noninternet context, rolls off my back.
Blame the perils of ladyblogging: When I first started as an XX Factor staffer at Slate, I saw endless speculation about my daddy issues, my misandry (guilty, thanks to you commenters!), and my physical hideousness. I heard that I was a sheltered idiot-child without the faintest idea what she was talking about. Now that I cover the language-and-literature beat, folks might disagree with my interpretation of a Rudyard Kipling novel, or suggest I’ve supplied an incomplete etymology, but they seem less interested in laying waste to my soul.
But it’s more than that: Even the harsher invective doesn’t land with the force it once did. A recent post of mine against the overuse of the hand-clapping emoji on Twitter angered a vocal swath of digerati. Jezebel accused me of the “unnecessary intellectualization of another culture” (because thinking about how a trope functions automatically means condescending to it). Worse, by taking issue with the claps, I was specifically insulting black people, who invented emphasis clapping in meatspace. (My problem was with how the gesture translates online, where it’s used by blacks and whites alike, and where it plays into a culture of ideological goose-stepping and browbeating the opposition.) I was inundated with profanity and personal attacks, tweets about how the claps were not “for me,” invitations to eat dicks and kill myself.
My editor messaged me sympathetically and told me to keep my spirits up. And I realized that, while I was annoyed by the lame Jezebel article (Who refutes an argument just by block-quoting it and typing “No” underneath?!), and while I was sad that anyone might think I was racist, and hoped my post (which I’d honestly regarded as kind of a playful nothingburger) hadn’t hurt anyone, I was not devastated. I did not want to quit Slate and become a hermit. A part of me thought maybe I shouldn’t have tried to analyze a trend with roots in a community I didn’t belong to. But a bigger part of me argued that the trend had transcended those roots, and that writing about expressive tics on the internet is my job.
You sound defensive, Katy. Sure I do, and that’s progress! My default reaction to criticism used to be existential crisis, not indignation. Against all odds, being “dragged for filth” on Twitter has shored up my psychic defenses.
I’ve got a few theories about why this might be. For one thing, internet furies are stretched exceedingly thin by all the noxious and subpar content circulating through their home. They have short attention spans and shorter memories. And so the blowback (in my experience) from writing a polarizing post feels huge, for a brief time, but soon the scuffle fades harmlessly into the past. What’s more, anonymity (or unfamiliarity, in the case of strangers who use their names) is a double-edged sword, dehumanizing and undercutting critics even as it protects them.
Writers hear the internet furies in our heads constantly. Those belittling, sarcastic voices annotate every sentence we type. Just as naming fears can soften them, externalizing self-criticism can lessen its power. Maybe, paradoxically, the furies help us go easier on ourselves.