Trolling And The Confessional Essay

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Alyssa Rosenberg looks at the implications of Jezebel’s troll crisis:

The Jezebel staffers’ complaint [that their parent company isn’t blocking porn-bearing trolls] raises a broader issue. As publications have struggled to figure out what will reliably draw in both readers and advertisers on the Internet, feminist posts have emerged as a clear success story, one that provokes a unique response, both positive and negative. Feminist political commentary, feminist cultural criticism and women’s first-person narratives and personal essays have all done well in this challenging new ecosystem, even as they have inspired a particularly ferocious backlash. Many online publications have been willing to profit from these positive responses, but they have been slow to protect the writers and editors who must deal with ugly responses.

Rosenberg expands on the economics of women-oriented journalism:

One of the attractions of feminist writing is that it can be inexpensive to produce. XOJane, a women’s site that specializes in personal essays and first-person narratives pays $50 for such pieces. Bustle, a women’s site from Bleacher Report founder Bryan Goldberg, garnered derision last year when, on its launch, it advertised a part-time job that would pay the person who landed it $100 a day, at least three days a week, to produce between four and six posts each day.

I’d expand this further still, moving away from the persistent but seemingly blanket spamming Jezebel is evidently facing, and focusing instead on the sort Jessica Valenti and other female writers contend with: Personal insults, often of a deeply personal nature.

It’s not just that, as the Jezebel case indicates, female women’s-topics-type writers aren’t receiving proper support when it comes to the responses their work ends up eliciting. We also need to consider the sort of pieces women are encouraged to write in the first place: The more personal, the better. It’s not simply, here is woman journalist, here is woman’s issue – which is its own concern, but a separate one. The post or article often has to be about the woman. It needs to be about her contraceptive choices, her feelings about her cellulite and oh, perhaps a visual of that cellulite to go with?

Rosenberg’s article hints at the relationship between mandatory overshare and the industry but assumes that the writers who share are doing so readily:

Unfortunately, it sometimes seems like burnout is part of the business model. If one staffer is exhausted by a tidal wave of sexist e-mail and comments, another one will be eager to take her place, confident in her own imperviousness. If a writer becomes uncomfortable with using her own life for material – or, like Hannah Horvath on “Girls,” runs out of life experiences to turn into stories – there will be someone else out there who is invigorated by the possibilities of the personal essay.

We shouldn’t look at this as women simply liking to overshare. This is what gets page-views, and what’s the easiest for the most writers to produce. The desire here is about getting published, not (in most cases) about sharing something personal with the world. Personal sells, but it’s also what attracts the most painful sort of trolling.

The thing is, it’s not so difficult to accept divergent viewpoints from readers, even if the occasional UR WRONG can sting. But a contrarian take on, say, your IUD, your self-image in that bathing suit, is different from the same on birth control or body-image generally.

It’s not any more acceptable for a personal-essay writer to be subject to abuse than for any other sort of writer. The point here isn’t to blame the victim, but rather to question how we’ve even arrived at this hyperpersonal form of women-oriented journalism. It’s been sold to female writers as a sort of liberation. Speak your truth! And it can be just that, but only if the writer is sophisticated enough to handle whichever backlash, and established enough to be adding the personal details intentionally (as I’d assume was the case when Valenti shared the story of her first period), and not trying to trade the story for a professional contact or $50.