Every so often, someone (always a man) sends me a casual tweet asking why he can’t retweet me. Of course, the obvious answer is that my account is locked—a tiny optional blessing of Twitter’s functionality that means I’m not searchable to the world outside. The more complex answer relates to why my account is locked in the first place, why I would choose to keep people from reading my brilliant musings on ’90s’ teen movies, Rihanna’s latest video, or the myriad virtues of Magic Mike XXL. There are easy, palatable answers I have given to those that ask; I value my privacy, or I like to keep my circle small and manageable, or I prefer to keep the personal aspects of my life away from my employers and ex-boyfriends.
But the most important (and truest) answer is this: I am afraid of men on the Internet.
There’s good reason for this fear, and it’s likely one you’ll empathize with if you’re a woman who has ever dared to have an opinion in the techno-public realm. In fact, women have never once asked me why my account is locked—and unlike some of my male editors, they’ve never recommended opening it up. They understand that the online world has become a horror show, and that men largely drive that horror. Men are usually the ones who post nude pictures of their exes, release the home addresses of the women they dislike, and run the vileness that is Gamergate. (I’m even reluctant to type the word Gamergate, as if doing so conjures the hoards like some kind of Internet Candyman.) Of course, Not All Men, but unless a new Twitter follower has “I hate women” or some variation thereof in his bio, there’s no good way to predict which one will decide to take offence at you merely existing. And there’s no way to know whether that person who is offended will be the one to threaten to end your life.
Online technology has allowed a stranger to tell me he’d like to penetrate me with a broken light bulb because I’d “probably like it.” It has let a commenter inform me that women shouldn’t act the “way they do” if they don’t want men to commit crimes against them. I’ve been the subject of mockery and derision on men’s-rights-activist websites and right-wing blogs. On a good day, the Internet helps people let me know I’m stupid, and on a bad one it helps them threaten me with bodily harm. It’s facilitated me being called a man hater, a feminazi, a libtard, a hack, an attention whore, or just a plain old whore. It’s brought me patronizing questions, profanity-laden emails, and abuse masquerading as “criticism.”
It has also been a great way for people to tell me that I should ignore all this, that I should get a thicker skin, and if I don’t like it maybe I should get offline altogether.
I’ve had my Twitter account locked tight from the first day I signed up in 2008. It was a decision that was obvious for a clinically anxious person like myself, someone who never signed up for Facebook because the idea of people “finding me” there was entirely off-putting. I’m the kind of fragile human that experiences undue, irrational neurosis at the very idea of people looking at me, and the prospect of showcasing myself in an exposed forum was a nightmare. Right off the bat, Twitter felt like a safer way to wade into the social waters, a place where I didn’t have to give too much of myself away while still connecting with readers and friends alike.
Yes, I realize that writing is not the best profession to get into if you worry about being talked about—success is defined by being a topic of literary discussion—but ever since I started publishing on the web I’ve been forced to reconcile a desire for success with a fear of being not only seen, but attacked. I know this fear has affected my writing—I feel it in the final read before I file something, imagining all of the horrible things that will bubble up from the digital cesspool as soon as an editor presses publish. Preparing myself for an onslaught is not irrational—even in writing about something as innocuous as television, I’ve seen insults that range from patronizing to rude to downright disturbing.
But in those early halcyon days on Twitter I actually felt safe. There weren’t many of us there, and we bantered blithely about books, and sports, and the latest Lady Gaga video. My locked account made my social media of choice feel more like an intimate party than throwing myself to the sharks with a gaping wound. I let each guest in politely through the front door, and because they were guests they treated my house accordingly—they weren’t belligerent towards the host, nor did they threaten her with a bludgeoning or decapitation. Instead there was banter, compliments, and comradery.
That didn’t mean there wasn’t aggression outside of the festivities, it just meant that with a single click in my preferences I could keep all of those threats of rape and violence at a reasonable distance. Having a locked account also gave me more freedom (and less anxiety) in terms of what I put out into the world. Yes there were 200, 500, and then 1,000 strangers and friends who got a glimpse at my thoughts, but at least my dad would never know that I had a really bad hangover or sexual feelings about Channing Tatum.
As time went on, though, the party got more raucous than I had originally anticipated. As my followers grew, Twitter started to feel more like a high school kegger with out-of-town parents than a civilized dinner party defined by intelligent discussion. Some poet invited his poet friends, and some jock invited his jock friends, and then all of a sudden people were breaking vases, spilling drinks, and being generally belligerent. You’re kind enough to let people in, and then someone tries to set fire to your couch. What used to be a nice affair that people could attend as long as they knocked was now a space where I was forced to hurl people out once they started spewing misogyny. In effect, the party was ruined.
And this is precisely what online abuse and threats do—they ruin the party for everyone. It’s not just that the messages hurt the user in the moment they’re hurled, it’s that they sully a fundamental form of communication and promotional tool for women. More and more women I know are abandoning their big accounts for smaller, manageable locked spaces, with a small group of known friends unlikely to cause psychic harm. Others are going off the platform altogether, opting instead to go through their days without being mansplained to or told to “shut up, bitch.” At a certain point, the near-constant danger and dressing down is simply not worth it, and in an age where literary success is dependent on online promotion, we’re actually watching jerks destroy women’s ability to share and distribute their work.
While we so often talk about online abuse in terms of its emotional ramifications, we neglect to tackle the economic ones. Having a small locked account (or no account at all) means you’re at a disadvantage when it comes to promoting yourself, and therefore feeding yourself via your work. Sustained, hateful campaigns not only silence women, they starve their audiences, and when the only people who can walk the digital road at night without fear are men, what does that do to our literary conversations? How does that change what we’re hearing about, and therefore who we’re reading?
Though my account has become unwieldy over the years, it’s still locked tight, and every time I write a piece and put it into the world I think about my self-imposed limiting of my audience, feeling like I may be shutting myself away from potential success. I’ve often idly wondered how much further my career could have gone if I’d opened things up, endured the inevitable abuse in the name of disseminating the writing. But why is that a decision we’re forcing women to make? Why can’t success and safety be compatible for female writers in the online world?
Part of the reason the “why can’t I retweet you” question comes primarily from men, is because they often take for granted that promoting themselves and appearing in the world is not an open invitation for invective or violation. It’s unlikely someone is going to call a man a “stupid slut” merely because he had some ideas, or that he’s going to see his home address published because someone disagreed with those ideas. Being a woman on the Internet is like being given this incredible tool, and then being pelted with rocks while you try to use it—and then having your rock-free colleagues ask why you’re shielding yourself.
So when people express frustration in not being able to retweet me, or when they ask me if I wouldn’t be better served by opening things up, I have taken to sending them the same stock reply every time—Blame men.
Adapted from Tech-ology, a “nonfiction anthology about our digital lives” forthcoming from Little Fiction | Big Truths.