I Got In Touch With People Who Abused Me Online To Ask Why
After writing a light-hearted post about how I didn’t get The Simpsons, I received death and rape threats. Tracking down the people who abused me turned out to be unexpectedly emotional.
Eighteen months ago, I had a really boring conversation with my boyfriend. "I've never watched The Simpsons," I said. "No way!" he replied. "Let's watch a few episodes together this weekend." "Yeah, OK," I said. "Maybe I'll write about it for BuzzFeed."
So, the following week, I did. I wrote a piece called "18 Questions I Asked Myself When I Watched The Simpsons For The First Time". This was one month into working at BuzzFeed, my first ever job. I was 23. It wasn't a groundbreaking piece of journalism. It was a list of questions. Things like, "Why is everyone yellow?" Take-it-or-leave-it kind of stuff.
Or so I thought.
Within hours of hitting publish, hundreds of people were commenting, tweeting, emailing, and Facebook messaging me.
"Your existence upsets me."
"I would literally pay your boyfriend to rape you, you fucking whore."
And so it continued. Five months after its publication, a Californian man who writes online educational material for university students messaged me saying I was the dumbest person he'd ever read anything by. After another five months, a fashion blogger from London tweeted a #TBT link saying it was the worst thing she'd ever read. Even now, 18 months later, I receive occasional rape and death threats.
The people who spoke out about my piece fall into three camps: People who score Twitter points by directing their followers to articles they didn't enjoy, people who score commenter points by writing unimaginably cruel messages, and people who score god knows what by privately messaging me. All three have made me cry.
Over the last few weeks, I individually messaged 64 of the people who sent me nasty messages, both public and private. Fifteen replied. Some of them said sorry. Some didn't. One woman who had called my article the "dumbest fucking thing I've read in a long time" got really mad.
"If you're coming back with another article and trying to play the victim now, that's really sad," she replied via Facebook message. "Why would I talk to you on the phone? The stink you are making over this article makes me think you're just desperate for attention. Let it go. Everyone's already forgotten about you. I know I had before you sent this ridiculous message."
I Facebook stalked her. She's a mum.
A lot of the comments said I was stupid, but an equal number said I didn't deserve to have a boyfriend.
"How do you have a boyfriend?"
"Hopefully your boyfriend broke up with you after this."
"Your boyfriend really took one for the team. Go be a nun or something."
"No, you're not normal. You're what we in the rest of the world call an 'idiot'. Let me in on a little secret. You ready? You don't have a boyfriend. That's a caretaker provided by the state to ensure you don't choke to death trying to swallow a doorknob. You don't have friends. You have a circle of acquaintances that laugh at you behind your back. You are not normal, because normal people have thoughts and the ability to reason."
In my messages to these people, I asked why they felt that failing to make astute observations about The Simpsons made me not deserve a boyfriend. One guy – a Leeds uni student – replied saying, "You just don't seem particularly interesting." Another – a self-employed mechanic from America – replied saying, "You gave off the impression that you were even picky about what's on the television, in general, which isn't always good for those who may not share the same interests as you."
Then there were those who seemed genuinely sorry. One London-based journalist who sparked a particularly hurtful conversation about my post on Twitter emailed me: "I have several female friends who have gone through what you've experienced, and something I didn't really appreciate at first was the distorting mass of the crowd. Huge numbers of people coming at you – even if each individual might be being relatively innocuously so! – is scary, and now I know I was a part of one of those crowds I have to say sorry."
But while it was nice to hear his apology, I wanted more. I wanted to understand why these people felt compelled to comment, tweet, or message me in the first place.
Two men agreed to speak to me via Skype phone calls. Calling them was among the scariest things I've ever done. I was super shaky. My mum was WhatsApping me throughout.
The first guy was a stand-up comedian from Chicago. He'd left a meme that said "kill yourself" in the comments section. He insisted that leaving a meme was different to typing out the words "kill yourself". "Anyone who knows the meme wouldn't take it seriously," he told me. "I just wanted to tell you to shut the fuck up."
I told him that his comment, underneath the hundreds of other abusive ones I'd received, came across as threatening. He told me I was an idiot for feeling that way. I asked him why he felt the need to comment at all. Why not just avoid reading my stuff in the future?
"You might have other really good stuff that you write about," he replied. "I just didn't want you to write about The Simpsons again. I was like, shut up."
But then something interesting happened. The following day, I spoke via Skype phone call to a man who had commented "bitch, you have never even seen cartoons, have you? holy fuck, you are dumb. just stop" under my piece. He's a webcomic writer who lives in Minnesota.
I've cut down our chat because it was pretty long:
How did you feel when I got in touch with you?
I felt really bad. Looking back, I'm appalled at myself. It was stupid. I haven't erased what I said but if you want to erase it for me, that'd be great. I don't think it should be there.
Why did you add a comment to the thread underneath my article?
I didn't understand how you couldn't get it. I was like, holy shit, this person is really dumb. Why are they asking these questions?
But there's a difference between thinking "this person is stupid" and calling me a bitch and saying "holy fuck, you are dumb" at the bottom of an already abusive comments thread.
To tell you the truth, I didn't read the whole article. I read half of it and I was like, this person is dumb. If I had read it completely I would have been like, this is for girls. I am not the demographic for this thing. It was for girlfriends, or mums.
Why did you think it was for girls?
First of all, you say "my boyfriend told me about it". When I realised this is a woman explaining what she doesn't get, I understood. I know that a lot of guys have been watching The Simpsons since they were kids.
And women haven't?
I have a lot of female friends who know about The Simpsons. I just thought it was for women because you are a woman.
You thought that because I'm a woman, I write exclusively for women?
I thought so, yes.
Note: I didn't call him out for being sexist. I figured that, in the moment, it wasn't the crux of our discussion.
To give you a bit of context, I received hundreds of messages from people telling me I was so stupid I deserved to die. It made me feel really bad.
I know, I'm really sorry. It's not like, you shouldn't write about what you want. Please do!
When you wrote that comment did you imagine me reading it?
No. I didn't think that you were going to read it. I sincerely had no idea. I thought other commenters might read it. I thought someone else might agree with me. To be honest, I didn't think that it was by just one person. I thought it was just by staffers.
It was just by one staffer, though. It was by me.
When you go online you don't think about who writes the stuff you read. But I don't leave comments like that any more.
This is a weird thing to tell you, but last year I was diagnosed with heart problems. My heart could stop and just not start again. It made me realise there's no point in getting angry over stuff that doesn't matter. Your article was for fun, it wasn't important. In a world where there's so much crap, me getting angry about this, letting my heart go fast because of something that's not important, that would be a stupid thing to do.
It makes me really happy to hear that you've realised that.
Sincerely, I feel really bad. And I'm going to make sure that I start reading your work. I'm going to start commenting on your stuff saying nice things.
It was a weirdly emotional conversation. There were lots of long silences. I cried loads. He cried a bit. I told him about writing for BuzzFeed. He told me about writing webcomics.
I guess we got on quite well.
Before I hung up, he told me he was pleased I'd got in touch. "You have no idea how happy I am that you called," he said. "You don't often get the opportunity to say, 'Dude, I'm sorry. I apologise. I made a mistake.'
"I was stupid, and I'm really sorry. I didn't know how I made you feel.
"I promise you that I will never do it again."