Audio recording: You come off as even less likeable on television than you do through the blog. Amazing that’s even possible. You have a really shitty presence and your face is so dour. You just have this really hard‐looking face, like a bitchface, and your voice matches. You’re utterly charmless.
I only read your blog waiting for the inevitable crash and burn, that moment when your readers finally figure out what a vapid waste of time they’re financing.
I know a lot about narcissism, and you fit the bill, you self‐absorbed whiner. Do you even have a maternal bone in that flat‐ass body of yours?
You’ve got this scary lantern‐jawed papier‐mâché, giant head look going on. Like you’re dying of cancer, which I hope you do. Maybe it’s because the only person who really cared about your welfare was your ex, and look how you screwed that up.
It’s clear from your blog that you’re just a bottomless sponge of need and desperation. I hope your kids sue you for every penny you ever made, because they’ll need it for the therapy they’ll have to pay for for having you as a mother.
Yeah, get over yourself. You’re a blogger. Not a nurse, not a teacher, not a therapist. Not anyone who has devoted their life to actually helping people. You’re a self‐serving idiot who is pouring your children’s lives all over the Internet for the sake of fame and greed. You are a pitiful piece of nothingness.
Heather Armstrong: And those were just the emails from my mom. She can be a little critical.
What if I were to tell you that people who leave that kind of feedback and that kind of nastiness are more deserving of our understanding and compassion than anyone else who leaves commentary? More deserving of those who really support what we do, and who leave really encouraging comments, and really encouraging messages on your Facebook wall. Those people deserve our compassion more.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with my work, probably all of you, I’ve been blogging for fifteen years. And eleven of those years, I have been writing about my children. Meaning I am responsible for the blight that is known as mommy blogging. I have been mining my children’s childhood for content for the last eleven years, twelve years. And according to some, and I made it my Twitter bio, I have exploited my children for millions and millions of dollars, thereby obliterating their chance of having a functioning adulthood.
First there was this one. She made me a lot of money. She was great for content. And then when I realized if I expanded my family then I could make more money, I added this one. Made a lot of money on that one. It’s very viable business model, adding children.
But because mommy blogging is so controversial, I have experienced that kind of criticism that you heard, day in and day, out for the last fifteen years. It’s in all of my email. It’s in my Facebook page. It’s on my Twitter account. Everywhere I go, I have to hear that kind of feedback.
And what if I were to tell you that this feedback is a gift? It’s a gift to all of us who share online. Now, we think that the people who leave that kind of commentary look like this:
That’s my favorite animated GIF on the internet. Because…watch that all day long. We think they look like this, and that makes us feel better. But in fact, they look like this:
Now, I don’t go around leaving that type of commentary. But the people who leave those nasty comments look like me, and they look just like you.
Now, this gift of these awful comments, how on Earth could this possibly be a gift? And I begin this metaphor by comparing it to the emergency room scenario. And I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the very amazing healthcare system that we have in the States. My friend heard that I was coming to Germany, and she’s like, “Bring me back some health care.” She has no healthcare. She can’t afford it. Which means that she’s going around facing bankruptcy if she happens to get hit by a car. Which I hope that doesn’t happen.
But in the States, if you can’t make it to the clinic where your insurance pays for your doctor, and you have a broken toe, you have to go to the emergency room and you have to fill out a ton of paperwork. And you have to pay a lot of money. You have to wait. Depending on who’s working in the hospital that day, and depending on how how big your injury is, you may wait there all day long. But then they rush someone in who has a gunshot wound to the chest. And he doesn’t have to fill out the paperwork. He gets right to the doctor because his wound is greater than your broken toe. Those people who leave those comments are the ones with with the gunshot wound to the chest.
And anybody who’s ever followed me online knows that I have not always been this generous to these people…ever. I’ve had some very major public meltdowns. But I know that a lot of us experience this. Again, we experience it in our Facebook feed. We experience it on Twitter. We may have that random email from an aunt to tell us that we are a disappointment to our mother.
How do we deal with this? How do we deal with this conflict that is in this space? Because it’s never going away. You can’t cure it. You can’t put it in a corner. How is this a gift? How do we make it so that those comments don’t form a noxious cloud in our head and paralyze us? How do we move forward? People will tell you to shake it off. Because the haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate…
Now, I have given this response in many interviews because mommy blogging is very important. It’s a very important job. And people will ask me, “How do you deal with this feedback? Does it hurt you?” And my response is yes, it does. Because if it didn’t hurt me, then I think I would lose the capacity that I have to write stories that connect with people. If I become immune to the hurt and to the pain, then I can’t write something that moves someone. There’s an American author and researcher named Brené Brown. You may be familiar with her. She wrote a book called The Gifts of Imperfection. And in it she wrote the best quote that I can think about this whole metaphor.
The problem is that when we don’t care at all what people think and we’re immune to hurt, we’re also ineffective at connecting. Courage is telling our story, not being immune to criticism. Staying vulnerable is a risk that we have to take if we want to experience connection.
Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
How is this a gift? This all began when my now twelve year‐old daughter, who was ten, came to me and she said, “Mom, I want to start an Instagram account and a YouTube channel.” At ten. Now, my website is called Dooce. And again, mommy blogging is a very polarizing and controversial situation. People have very strong opinions about me. And I didn’t take her seriously, and I said, “Well, what are you going to call his Instagram account?”
And she says, “I’m going to call it Dooce Junior.”
Now, when I’m in the States and I tell this story, I like to say okay, it’s basically like OJ Simpson’s son, who has no idea what people think of his father, is going to start an Instagram account called “OJ junior.” Yeah, not a good idea. But since I’m in Berlin, let’s use the metaphor Donald Trump. Let’s say Donald Trump had ten year‐old son who had no idea what the world thought about his father and started an Instagram account called Donald Trump Junior. Imagine the hell that would happen.
So when she told me that, my instant thought was to sit her down and say, “Humans are awful. Okay. People suck. Everyone is a sociopath. Okay? Okay, good. Go forward. You’re prepared.”
Except that that’s not going to prepare her for what she’s about to encounter when she goes online. And our children are going to experience this in a way that we cannot possibly comprehend. They already are. Our children will face this kind of criticism and bullying and awfulness on a scale that is just unimaginable. And so what I’m going to tell you is what I’m gonna tell her, is all the ways that I have done it wrong over the last fifteen years. All of the ways that I got defensive.
Defensiveness steals your energy and demands that you explain yourself to those who will deliberately and maliciously misinterpret you. It’s a waste of time, like screaming words into a vacuum. This all started back in the year 2000, when I first started blogging, before computers existed. And there were no comment sections. There was no Facebook. Basically, people just emailed. And all of a sudden, I’m getting email from people telling me that I suck. “No, you suck.” And then I would respond, and it would go back and forth, and it was just useless screaming at each other. It was like a Trump rally. I’m going to drop his name as much as I can. So sorry. Sorry for Donald Trump, you guys. So sorry.
So, I didn’t know how to respond to it. And it’s useless going back and forth over email. And so then as my website got more popular, what I would do is I would collect the best hate mail. I would collect them and do a post called the “Exclamation Point” edition. Because people who send this feedback can’t resist the exclamation point on the keyboard. They have to use seven, and sometimes that eighth exclamation point is going to send the point home. And so what I would do is I would collect the best ones and feature paragraphs, and then feature what I would have responded to them. Like someone said, “Stop blogging about your stupid boring life in your house all day, and eat something already. You look anorexic like you’re dying. Eat a cheeseburger, for Christ’s sake.”
And then I would respond, “Does making fun of skinny people make you feel better about being an asshole? Because apparently I can cure my metabolism with a cheeseburger. How are you going to cure your personality disorder?”
And it made me feel temporarily better. And I audience laughed about it. But it didn’t prepare me for the next onslaught of criticism. And then in 2009, during a particularly bad period of my life… I had just had my second child (meaning I had just expanded my business), I had a really bad case of shingles, and I had taken to my Twitter account where I have 1.5 million followers, and called out a multi‐billion dollar corporation for not fixing my washing machine.
And my critics came out and said that I had bullied that multi‐billion dollar corporation, Maytag. And the the hate mail that ensued was unreal. And I was in a bad place as it was, and I did not know what to do. So, I did what a friend told me to do and I collected probably a good a hundred and fifty pages of comments left on Facebook, comments left on web sites, comments on my own website, emails. And I put it in a WordPress template, and I surrounded it with ads. A hundred and fifty pages, and called it Monetizing the Hate. That made $8,000 in the span of seven days. Paid for a lot of therapy.
But still, I was hosting the hate is what I was doing. I was hosting it. I wasn’t getting over it. I wasn’t working through the emotion of what was going on. And it still came in every day. I’d add another page, I’d add another page, because the hate didn’t stop. I still wasn’t processing it.
Recently, Psychology Today, an American publication, did a study about this troll‐like behavior and found that the majority of these people are narcissists, psychopaths, and sadists. When I read this study, I was like, “Well, duh. Did you have to spend any money on this study? Couldn’t you have used that money to buy a cheeseburger? Of course they’re this.”
But then I also thought I am willing to bet that the majority of these people are hurting. That they’re in pain. Something is wrong. And you might have heard from a friend or a family member that when someone says something to you or does something awful to you, it has nothing to do with you. It has everything to do with them, and that’s completely correct. It’s very very good advice.
But I would take that a step further. Because if [there] is something going on in their life, they’re in a lot of pain, and they don’t know how to process it in a healthy way except to take it out on you, and on me, through a screen. That’s how they’re processing their pain, and how sad is that? How sad is it that they do not see us as human? How sad is it that their “opinion” and their “right to free speech” is more important than our humanity?
I once read a tweet by a comedian on Twitter who said “TMZ. Because they’re celebrities, not humans.” TMZ is a tabloid in the States. The thing is, though, that it’s not just celebrities anymore. It’s anybody who has a Facebook page, and anybody who has a Twitter feed, and anybody who has an email account, is now getting this type of feedback and experiencing this type of bullying.
So how is this a gift? How do we process this? And so going forward from the day that I decided okay, one day my daughter is going to get on Instagram. She’s not going to call it “Dooce Junior” for sure. What am I going to tell her? How is she going to process this?
It’s a three‐pronged approach. And the first is don’t seek it out. Don’t Google your name. Don’t Google “who hates me?” If you’re reading a comment and you see it going badly, delete it. Delete with impunity. Block. Walk away. There’s no need to read or interact with that kind of feedback. None.
The second is honor your “pisstivity,” which is…you’re gonna get pissed. And that’s okay. You’re going to be angry, and that’s okay. You’re going to be hurt, and that’s okay. It’s because we’re online to connect. And that ability to connects means that we’re vulnerable. It’s okay to feel that way if you find that information online. I have very very well‐meaning friends who are like, “Did you hear what they said?” It’s like, thanks. Thanks for sending that my way.
But the third approach to this, and the most important, is extend your hand across the table, at least metaphorically. and imagine that you are sitting there across the table from the person who has left that awful comment telling you that they wish you were dead. Extend your hand across the table, imagine that you can see their eyes. Imagine that you can see the outline of their face. Imagine that you can see what they’re wearing. Imagine that you can smell the shampoo in their hair. See them as a human being, and say, “Where is your pain? Why are you hurting, and how can I help? If leaving that comment makes you feel better, even temporarily, let me give that to you. If I am that pint of ice cream at the end of the day that you want to eat because you need to eat away your feelings, let me give that to you.”
And what that does for us as those who are online to share and connect, that expands our ability to reach out to others. It gives us an inside picture as to how much hurt there is that still needs to be worked through, even in our own pain. It allows us to connect as human beings. And then it’s not a matter of shaking it off. It’s not a matter of being defensive. It’s a matter finding the humanity and offering that person their humanity. Because if we want to be seen as human, we have to offer the same to them.
Audience 1: Hi, there. Thanks for the great talk. I run a music blog, so I face these types of comments all the time. And regarding your first call to action, your first point, how do you separate someone who is a professional troll, like a sadist like you said, and someone who is maybe momentarily conflicted, momentarily aggressive, but there's something there. Do you not feel that you lose a chance for discussion if you just delete them outright or block them?
Heather Armstrong: Usually what I do is…I say block. You can tell pretty much in the first sentence whether this person is a sadist. You can tell pretty much in the first three or four words. Those who are being momentarily, I will engage them. And I'll say, "I'm so sorry that you feel this way. I don't know what's going on in your life, but whatever it is I wish you the best." And I can tell you 100% of the time they have commented back and said, "You're completely correct. I am so sorry I left this comment." That's what I usually do, even on Instagram, on Facebook, on all my platforms.
Audience 2: Do you see any changes in your behavior or how people interact with you since you've found the new focus?
Armstrong: Yes. I do now block like, immediately. I used to think if I'm blocking them then they know that they affected me. I don't care anymore. I don't need to see that, at all. I don't need to see the bad and let it infect me. But also again, I have engaged a lot of people who have left "constructive" criticism a lot more than I used to, and I've grown up. I feel like a grown-up now. Because I'm not screaming at them.
Audience 3: Hi. Thanks for your talk. I have a guy with one hundred exclamation marks. And my question is what do you do with the mentally ill?
Armstrong: With the mentally ill, I refer them to several organizations in the States, including a suicide prevention line. There's several organizations where I will be, "Something is clearly wrong. Check out this web site, this web site, and here's a hotline that you can call." Generally those people will delete their own comment.
This presentation at the re:publica site.