Over at Twitter, author Adrienne Martini asks me if I get the sort of jackassed comments and e-mails that Shawna James Ahern, a female food blogger, talks about in a recent post, and wonders if it’s a gender-related thing.
The short answer: No I don’t get those, and yes, I think it’s substantially gender-related.
The longer answer: I do of course get hate mail and obnoxious comments. The hate mail gave me a title for a book, after all, and the obnoxious comments on the site are just part of doing business as a Public Internet Figure™. This is why I have a robust commenting policy and am not afraid to follow up on it. Whenever jackholes pop up, I mallet them down, and that’s the way it should be.
What I don’t have, however, is the sort of chronic and habitual stream of abuse this blogger describes. There are constantly people annoyed with me (go search “Scalzi” on Twitter today and you’ll see some fellows mewling plaintively about me, for example; it’s darling), but it doesn’t appear anyone makes a hobby out of it. It’s all situational, in that I’ll write something that annoys someone, they’ll be annoyed and write about it, and then it all goes away. There are additionally and quite naturally people who seem to have a default dislike of me. So perhaps they are more inclined to be annoyed with me and they’ll become so quicker than the average person might, and thus be publicly annoyed with me at a higher frequency.
But again, they don’t do it all the time; they’re not making it their mission in life to ride me. And to be clear, people are annoyed with me, or may mock me, or may even call me names. But these people are not fundamentally (or, generally speaking, not even slightly) hateful or hurtful people and it would be wrong to characterize them as such. What I don’t receive, other than exceptionally rarely, is what I consider to be actual abusive commenting, where the intent is to hurt me, from people who are genuinely hateful.
What follows is my own anecdotal experience, but it’s also the anecdotal experience of someone blogging for 13 years and having been engaged in the online world for almost 20, i.e., decently knowledgeable. In my experience, talking to women bloggers and writers, they are quite likely to get abusive comments and e-mail, and receive more of it not only than what I get personally (which isn’t difficult) but more than what men bloggers and writers typically get. I think bloggers who focus on certain subjects (politics, sexuality, etc) will get more abusive responses than ones who write primarily on other topics, but even in those fields, women seem more of a target for abusive people than the men are. And even women writing on non-controversial topics get smacked with this crap. I know knitting bloggers who have some amazingly hateful comments directed at them. They’re blogging about knitting, for Christ’s sake.
Why do women bloggers get more abuse than male bloggers? Oh, I think for all the stereotypical reasons, up to and including the fact that for a certain sort of passive-aggressive internet jackass, it’s just psychologically easier to erupt at a woman than a man because even online, there’s the cultural subtext that a guy will be confrontational and in your face, while a woman will just take it (and if she doesn’t, why, then she’s just a bitch and deserves even more abuse). Cowards pick what they consider soft targets and use anonymity and/or the distancing effect of the Internet to avoid the actual and humiliating judgment of real live humans that they’d have to receive out in the world.
There’s also the fact that culturally speaking, women are burdened with a larger number of things they are made to feel bad about, things that men don’t have to bother with. Notes Ms. Ahern, about a recent trip to New Orleans:
From those brief 25 hours, I received emails that said, “Don’t you know that processed food is killing Americans? How could you have posted a photo with Velveeta cheese?” or “What kind of a mother are you, leaving your child for another trip? Selfish bitch.” or “Sausage? Andouille sausage? You don’t think you’re fat enough already, you have to stuff more sausage in your mouth?” There were complaints about where I ate, how much I ate, how happy I was to be with the people I sat with, that I was bragging by listing the people with whom I had dinner. There were comments about my weight, comments about my parenting, comments about the way I spend money, comments about the farce of gluten-free, comments about my photographic skills, and comments about how often I posted on Twitter (for some, that answer was: too much). Nothing goes undiscussed as being disgusted in my online world.
I can contrast this with how people approach me on similar topics. When I post photos of processed cheese, I don’t get abused about how bad it is and how bad I am for posting about it. People don’t abuse me over my weight, even when I talk explicitly about it. I go away from my family for weeks at a time and never get crap about what a bad father that makes me, even though I have always been the stay-at-home parent. Now, it’s true in every case that if I did get crap, I would deal with it harshly, either by going after the commenter or by simply malleting their jackassery into oblivion. But the point is I don’t have to. I’m a man and I largely get a pass on weight, on parenting and (apparently) on exhibition and ingestion of processed cheese products. Or at the very least if someone thinks I’m a bad person for any of these, they keep it to themselves. They do the same for any number of other topics they might feel free to lecture or abuse women over.
It’s this sort of thing that reminds me that the Internet is not the same experience for me as it is for some of my women friends, and why I’ve spent a substantial amount of time drilling into Athena’s head that the Internet is full of assholes who like to void themselves all over the women they find. I’m sad this is still the case. But being sad about it isn’t going to keep me from trying to build those defenses into her, so that when inevitably she runs up against these people, she can deal with them properly, with a sound that approximates that of a flushing toilet.
That this will outrage them and make them more inclined to rail at her doesn’t negate the necessity. It makes it more of a necessity, alas.
(Update: Useful follow-up post is useful, and you should visit it.)