I was an early adopter of Twitter, getting an account in 2007. I quickly fell in love with the service and how it dumped a constant stream of interesting information, insightful comments and jokes into my life. I particularly enjoyed the ease with which I could tweet at someone I didn't know and, with the "mentions" feed, get feedback on my work from smart people all around the world.
All of which is why I'm saddened to realize that it's time to permanently delete my mentions feed and give up looking at anyone tweeting @AmandaMarcotte. While there are still plenty of people who tweet at me with helpful comments and thoughtful opinions, including people who disagree with me, in the past few months (years?), most of what I get is harassment from users harboring a bilious hatred of feminists. Or, sometimes, just a hatred of me, a person they do not know.
I finally hit my limit this week. I had turned off my mentions feed for the long weekend, to enjoy time with my partner and friends. On Wednesday, I flipped it back on. For a few hours, everything was quiet, just a handful of people saying things that were actually interesting. I was happy to be back.
Then I posted a simple piece on Slate about a sociological study of the obstacles mothers who want to cook for their families face. I don't shy away from posting controversial things, but I honestly didn't think it would be provocative to note that, for working moms, time is scarce and ingratitude stinks. Despite this, I got slammed on Twitter by extremely hostile conservatives, most of whom didn't seem to have read the post that riled them up so much. What was unnerving was how the reaction was just so personal.
The most common tactic was to "diagnose" me, arguing that I am crazy and unloved and therefore I hate dinner, families, and perhaps joy itself. The right wing website Twitchy sent most of it my way by calling me a "perpetual victim," even though I did not mention my own relationship to cooking and the post had nothing at all to do with me. "Is @AmandaMarcotte an oppressed victim when she feeds her cats?" read a typical tweet. "I wonder if @AmandaMarcotte is ever happy about anything," wrote another. "She's not snarky, just bitchy and miserable. And you know what they say about misery loving company and all..." wrote a self-appointed Twitter psychologist. "Perhaps finding a soulmate that can cook will help @AmandaMarcotte overcome her lack of ability to boil water," read a twofer accusing me of being both lonely and incompetent. "Marcotte is a complete and utter crackpot who seems to really hate families," said another. "Whiney much? If u hate your family leave," advised another expert on my life.
Maybe I should be used to it by now, but it's a little alarming how bent out of shape some people get just because someone else pointed out that cooking is work. Still, what is most exhausting about the reaction, and most reactions I get these days, is how false it all is. There wasn't anything personal in the post. In fact, what drew me to read the study was my curiosity about people whose lives are so different from mine. Cooking is easy for me, since I work from home and I'm blessed with a solicitous partner who always thanks me for preparing meals. I'm also not a mother. But my job is mostly to write about other people's experiences, not my own (except for this post!), so that's exactly what I did.
Why did the reaction bother me so much this time? The long weekend, spent with my boyfriend and good friends, was a reminder that my life, which is busy and social and has a lot of love in it, couldn’t be any more different than that of the lonely, bitter hag that the harassers declare I must be day in and day out. The contrast between my actual reality and what I am being told about myself all day long, every day, on Twitter stunned me. I realized it’s not enough to keep reminding myself that the harassers are speaking more about what they wish to be true than what is true. Constantly reminding yourself that you do, in fact, have it good drains the energy you have to enjoy having it so good.
Most research on online harassment is focused on adolescents targeted by people in their social circles, which finds that it leaves the targets feeling depressed, violated, victimized, and even frightened for their safety. I haven’t been able to find a study about the impact of harassment on people like me, but anecdote tells me there’s good reason to believe it can affect the target, sometimes in serious ways. Earlier this year, Melody Hensley of the Center for Inquiry came out about being diagnosed with PTSD, due to Twitter harassment. Feminist vlogger Anita Sarkeesian was recently driven out of her home by a man making threats on Twitter. Feminist blogger Jen McCreight gave up blogging in 2012, writing, “I don’t want to let them win, but I’m human. The stress is getting to me. I’ve dealt with chronic depression since elementary school, and receiving a daily flood of hatred triggers it.”
McCreight’s comment gets to the heart of it: You can know intellectually that all the hate being poured over you is nonsense and lies, but the ugly fact of the matter is it hurts you anyway. So why put up with it? This doesn’t mean I’m getting off of Twitter entirely. I'm still following hundreds of people I find interesting and will be sharing my thoughts and links with my own followers. But I’m done with mentions, at least for now.
Anyone who has been online long enough knows the life cycle of any public communications platform, from the BBS boards of old to blog comment sections to the modern social network. First, it starts off as an exciting new medium full of smart people saying smart things. Then the trolls arrive. For a time, people of good will try to defend their ground by fighting back. But eventually the bad actors overwhelm, and the good guys move on to the next new thing. "Never read the comments," most writers tell each other. For me, I think it's time to say, "never read the mentions" too. Twitter still has a lot of value as a place to share news and crack jokes, but as a conversation medium, it's falling apart. People can keep screaming at me, but, for now, I'm done listening.