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: 

Woman waving her arms at her sides and screaming with mouth wide open

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: 

Heather Armstrong herself, next to a window, smiling

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.

Danke.


Discussion

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.

Further Reference

This presentation at the re:publica site.


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