I have never been trolled. I’ve spent 20 years as a newspaper and magazine columnist, developed a reasonable social media profile, and—most daringly of all—performed all of these risky, traditionally troll-enraging endeavours while being (gasp! Most troll-enervatingly of all) a woman…And yet I’ve never stirred up the internet’s legions of anonymous trolls, famed for their rape threats, death threats, sickening expressions of desire that their target develop cancer, AIDs, Ebola, et cetera.
There have been times when I’ve wondered what I was doing, to have got away scott-free with something so many of my colleagues were suffering. Times when I’ve wondered: ‘My God, do trolls actually like me?’
So no, I’ve never been trolled. Which is good. Except that I have been subject to something else. Something subtler, more routine, more normal and much more accepted; something more complicated, and much more easily justified. Something I myself have dished out to others in the past (though heaven knows, I wish I hadn’t); something I think, pretty much all of us are not beyond indulging in on-line, without pausing to think twice about it. I call it Casual Contempt. Everyday Cruelty. The sneering, snarking, spite and wrist-slapping that characterises so much online interaction.
It was this, that finally drove me off Twitter a couple of weeks ago. Or rather, the anticipation of more of it. I signed off Twitter in mid-January 2016, following seven years of engagement, with no preamble, no melodramatic formalities, no closing down of accounts. It was like I was sneaking out on a toxic boyfriend in the middle of the night.
I did it because my new book Hot Feminist was about to come out in mass paperback; and I was preempting a revival of the social networking induced misery its original publication prompted in May of 2015.
I always knew my book might prove controversial. It details the kind of feminism I practise: ideologically impure, politically incorrect, slap-dash and non-academic; contradictory, somewhat hypocritical, generally flawed—and no less passionate for it. A book that hopes to lighten the feminist mood a little, because as seriously as I take the issues affecting women, I don’t take myself especially seriously, and oh! I do like a laugh. A book that talks openly about my lifelong pursuit of glamour…and also my experiences of abortion, and sexual assault. I wanted those things to coexist in the book, like they coexist in my head.
I chose the title Hot Feminist as a provocation. Hands up. But the book itself is not designed to cause controversy for controversy’s sake. It is as open, honest and heartfelt a thing as I am capable of writing. I mean every word of it.
When Hot Feminist was first published, it inspired an extraordinary range of reviews. One paper damned it to hell and back, another gave it five stars; a magazine commissioned a debate on whether I was wrong to think (never mind publish!) such things; another said I was capable of making readers laugh and question themselves at the same time. And that was just for starters. This wasn’t easy—a rollercoaster of good and bad opinion, which was tough to navigate. But it was nothing compared to Twitter.
Twitter was outraged. Incensed. Twitter considered both my book and me preposterous. Twitter went for my jugular. Why? Who knows. Perhaps because I asked for it, with that title, that cover image (my own face); with the opening portion of the book which criticises Twitter’s tendency to do just this, to turn on one individual, for no reason other than everyone else seems to be doing it first. Or because some people just really didn’t like my book: my style, my themes, my jokes, my propositions. That is both inevitable—you can’t please all of the people—and it’s their right.
For whatever reason, I got it, and I got it good. All the aggression came from women, many of whom identified as feminists. They didn’t troll me; they poured scorn on me. What sort of things did they say? Oh, you know:
‘Tempted to read @pollyvernon ‘s book just to see how shit it really is.’
‘Moronic book, moronic woman @pollyvernon’
‘I just puked in my mouth a little bit @pollyvernon’
‘Who the f*** does @pollyvernon think she is? What a disgusting book’
And so on.
Then came the tweeting of links to the rudest reviews; some of which included the Twitter handles of the reviewers themselves, presumably in the hopes of provoking a fight.
Those not content with just damning my book and me as merely stupid, accused me of other crimes. Misconstructions and misrepresentations of the book’s premise and ideas abounded. ‘@pollyvernon thinks all feminists are ugly bra burners with hairy legs!’ for example. ‘WTF? What’s @pollyvernon going on about? Who thinks that any more?’
Others tweeted that they couldn’t possibly be expected to read my book, because they knew my writing to be ‘triggering’ of their eating disorders (I’ve written, in the past, about being thin; I write about my relationship with my body in Hot Feminist). The subtext: Hot Feminist wasn’t only stupid; it was dangerous. It could hurt people.
And on. And on. And on.
How did I take this? I was shocked. Surprised, confused, overwhelmed. Furious at the injustice of some of the things tweeted about me, and simultaneously, second-guessing my instincts on writing the book in the first place. Was I just—as all these people seemed to think—wrong?
I tried to reason with some of the angry tweeters, understand their perspective, explain mine, but that made them angrier still. I tried to front it out, to stand defiant, but I was increasingly shaken by the experience, I couldn’t maintain that posturing. I felt exhausted. I was promoting Hot Feminist on TV and radio and at various literary festivals, I’d have been out of my mind with the discombobulating, adrenaline-fuelled rush of it all, even without Twitter’s influence. As it was, I stopped sleeping and eating. I started twitching, blinking convulsively. Four days after publication, on my boyfriend’s instruction, I ducked off Twitter. This helped, although I was entirely aware that the Twitter storm was raging on without me.
Six weeks or so after publication, when the social media rage was long forgotten by all of those who had been involved in it; well, all of ‘em, apart from me…that was when I really started struggling. In that quietness, my newly-evolved anxiety issues blossomed. I was sleeping by then, but I was dreaming horribly. I’d wake up, already filled with a sense of dread. Every time I left my flat, I’d have to return to it immediately, so convinced was I that I’d left a scented candle burning, or the oven on full blast. I began fantasising that passers-by were poised to attack me. Everything, and everywhere, felt unsafe.
I lost a great deal of confidence. Professional—writing and publishing suddenly seemed like such risky things to do!—and physical. I became convinced there was something wrong with my face, although I couldn’t quite tell you what. It was just…off, ugly, wrong. The world felt heavy and dark, I felt leaden. I knew I was probably at least a little depressed, but couldn’t understand why. I’d written a book and everyone had talked about it! That was no reason to get depressed, surely?
Above and beyond everything else, I felt shame. Such an odd, particular, horrible feeling—so corrosive, so sort of ancient. Yet ultimately, shame was also the feeling that helped me identify what I was going through, to understand that it was almost certainly a response to the Twitter aggression I’d encountered. Several hundred voices had turned against me, suddenly and intensely; had told me I was bad, stupid, foolish, wrong! What other response was there for me, but to feel ashamed?
So now what? Now I’m OK. Time helped. Friends helped. Therapy helped. Meditation helped. Podcasts—getting lost in other people’s stories, theories, experiences—podcasts really helped. And making the ultimate break from Twitter—having crept back on for a few months after publication—that’ll help too.
You could say I’m my own worst enemy in all this, of course. You could say that over-sensitive softies like me have no business writing books like Hot Feminist. And you could be right. Except in the future, do we really only want to read books and articles written by people whose main qualification is not whether they’re any good, or have anything to say, but rather, that they can withstand any ensuing on-line aggression?
That doesn’t sound entirely OK to me.
Whatever else, I do know that a life off Twitter is a life with far fewer opportunities for Casual Contempt, for Everyday Cruelty. And that is very much a life I want to lead.
Hot Feminist is available for £8.99 from Amazon.