I’ve been a big fan of the internet for more almost two decades now. Ever since I can remember I’ve been absolutely blown away by the sheer volume of information it contains – even in its earliest days.
I was an early adopter of blogs, too – I had a GeoCities page back in the day, complete with sparkling jellybean background and gif overloads. Over the years I transitioned first to Blogger, then Tumblr, then WordPress, then the self-hosted site you’re reading now. I enthusiastically embraced Facebook and Twitter and Instagram as they emerged onto the scene.
Although I’m quite social and outgoing, too much social interaction drains me. I need to recharge by retreating and having a few days to myself. As I grew up and realized this about myself, online interaction became a way to continue communicating and interacting during these down times without getting that overwhelmed “too much” feeling. It also became an amazing tool for a fledgling writer who desperately craved an outlet (and an audience) for all her dramatic prose and overwrought poetry.
The poetry has gone (thank god) but the blogging has remained, and since September I’ve been fortunate enough to share my words on a larger platform via my column at The Guardian.
Before I began, my editor warned me that the comments could get a bit harsh at times, so my original plan was simply not to read them. On the day my first column was published, still at my cottage in Ontario, I had my brother read me a few of the positive comments and then closed my laptop and called it a day. Until I got an email from my editor asking me why I hadn’t responded to them yet.
-Responded to them? Oh, no, I was planning to just not read them.
-Um, Madeleine, you have to read them. Reading and responding to comments is essential to creating engagement with your readers.
I opened my laptop and dove in. That article had a fairly strong response (now at 48,000 shares) and ignited some fiery opinions. I’ll be honest, it was challenging at first. Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough that 99.99% of all of the comments I receive here have been positive. Not just positive, but, like over the top supportive and amazing and wonderful. I don’t moderate comments here, what you see is just what you guys contribute. It’s unreal.
This was different. The critical comments weren’t being cruel, they just didn’t agree. And while vocally disagreeing, they called into question my credentials, my writing ability, my lifestyle and my parenting skills. It was intense, but it was also totally fair. People are allowed to disagree! They’re also allowed to examine the viewpoint being shared and the person doing the sharing. However, commenters are self-selecting by nature, and you’re always more likely to hear from those who don’t like what you’re saying than those who do (why would you spend all that time logging in simply to comment “I feel the same way”?) so it took a little while to balance the opinions, to take the criticism and improve on it, to take a deep breath and appreciate the engagement and brush off the ones that stung.
I’ve since come to absolutely love the comment section on my column – I typically spend most of the day Tuesday diving in and responding to criticisms, engaging in debates, and having intelligent conversations with those who disagree with me. I love it. It’s fascinating. And while ugly comments do still come ( The Guardian has great moderators but I still sometimes see them before they get removed) I have a thicker skin now, so they’re are easier to let go of.
And then there was last week.
One thing I emphasized a lot in my book was that you don’t have to be perfect and that I’m not either. Perfection is impossible and I have no interest in perpetuating the idea that it is.
I advocate an 80/20 rule. If I can do something 80% of the time, I’m happy with myself. This doesn’t mean I don’t constantly push myself and try to be better and strive for 90% or 100%, but it means I don’t get sucked into the pit of self-loathing if/when I come up short. The column last week touched on the struggle of “good enough” and the compromises we have to make. I was honest about the Eco-friendly issues I still wrestle with – namely, owning a car. And whoooooo boy did this column touch a nerve!
The comments were more spirited than usual (I always know it’s going to be a good one when they address me as “Ms. Somerville”) but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. I knew I’d be getting criticized rather harshly when I wrote it, but I wanted to talk about this thing that always felt like a big elephant in the room with fellow eco-friendly people, the ways we “fail”. The parents who don’t use cloth diapers despite vowing to, because they’re overwhelmed with the massive task of keeping a tiny human alive, the animal lover who still eats meat, the innumerable compromises we make every single day as human beings and how we navigate them.
I wanted to shift away from narrow-minded black and white thinking and I also wanted to avoid the pedestal-standing that sometimes feel like occurs when you make your living suggesting different ways for other people to live. I don’t want to become a person who portrays perfection – it doesn’t exist. It’s not true.
So that was fine, a good debate was happening, other eco-people were emailing me to thank me for discussing it, I got to sort of interact with a longtime crush of mine and it was all very stimulating. It was the type of conversation I want to create with my writing.
And then on Friday, a comment landed on my blog facebook page.
It was quite aggressive and it ended by providing a link to an article on a global warming denial site. The article was pretty vicious, tearing apart my column and mocking both the ideas I discussed and me personally (some parts genuinely made me laugh, though, like when they referred to my book title as “laborious”, because they’re totally right. It’s like 87 words long, FFS). And then I read the comments. Almost 150 of them. And I stopped laughing.
Several of the comments zeroed in on a sentence in my column where I mentioned that for me a car was necessary to drive Olive to see her dad, who lives three hours away. And suddenly instead of arguing with my ideas or my words or the topic I was writing about, they were dissecting the end of my marriage.
How my husband must have divorced me because of how annoying and ignorant I am. How smart he was to move three hours away. How the breakdown of my marriage demonstrated that I was clearly unable to maintain even the most basic relationships with others. How it must take a lot for a man to divorce a woman he shared a three-year-old child with. How terrible it was going to be for Olive to grow up with me as a mother.
I was speechless. It stung. Rewriting these things now, they sound like playground insults, the kind that should be made irrelevant simply by the fact that they aren’t true (I’ve always had strong, long-lasting relationships. I’m the one that moved. And although Olive’s dad wasn’t always on board with my strange hippie ways, my homemade toothpaste definitely wasn’t the reason for our divorce).
It was an unbelievably surreal feeling, watching strangers dissect such a personal and painful event in my life.
In a timely turn of events, today, the Guardian published an in-depth article about internet commenting, and analyzed over 70 million comments it has received on the site since 2006. Not surprisingly, women writers and minority writers receive the brunt of the online abuse that had to be deleted or moderated, white male writers, the least. This sort of article would have interested me before, but it feels even more relevant now that I’ve had a tiny taste of it.
One Guardian writer, Jessica Valenti, says
Imagine going to work every day and walking through a gauntlet of 100 people saying “You’re stupid”, “You’re terrible”, “You suck”, “I can’t believe you get paid for this”. It’s a terrible way to go to work.
It is a terrible way to go to work. You do internalize it and it does begin to change you, even if you vow otherwise. When I write my column now it’s become commonplace to imagine the criticism it will receive – fair and otherwise. In some ways this makes me a better writer, I have to become more clear and concise, I have to develop thoughts more fully and I anticipate and address opposing viewpoints. But experiences like this last week also teach me that anything I share can become fodder for vicious and inappropriate criticism; sometimes, as a woman, simply having your picture next to your column is enough for that and your appearance becomes fair game, too.
I’ve always been personal in the way I write because I use writing to connect with people. I’ve always been ill-suited to dry journalistic reporting, I like to give context to my thoughts and a personality to my words. But as the audience becomes larger it becomes more challenging to do so. It’s a balancing act which becomes more and more tough to perform. Increasingly, I question whether I want to. I mean, these commenters were sifting through my blog archives and dredging up examples of “bad behaviour” (“Does her living room look like the living room of a hippie? She has leather chairs!” [they’re my mom’s]). It was a very, very strange feeling.
Clearly I’m a glutton for punishment, here’s another example to latch on to. It’s somewhat relevant to the issue at hand though, so I’ll share. The other day my mom booked me a ninety-minute session in a sensory deprivation tank. For an hour and a half, I floated in a tank filled with water saltier than the Dead Sea. I had earplugs in, the water was the same temperature as my skin, it looked the same in the tank whether my eyes were open or closed. My mind floated as weightless as I did. And it felt so, so good to shut off.
It’s something I need to adopt more of in my daily life, I think (perhaps as a monthly resolution? And if you are wondering where the cardio recap is, I don’t want to talk about it).
I think it’s easy to fall into the same black and white thinking when I think about internet comments and about how much I invite strangers into my life. After reading the hate-filled comments on that site I wanted to delete everything, take down my blog and remove myself from their gaze entirely. I vowed to share less, to retreat. But in the days since, I’ve realized that it’s silly to think it has to be all or nothing. It’s a good reminder to moderate, that’s all. And perhaps one that I needed.
In the past few years, I’ve learned that connection is vital for me and most of the time it’s the connection that gives my life its meaning and purpose. Relationships are why I live and thoughtful responses from readers are why I write – but sometimes you have to have some time to yourself. Sometimes you turn down invitations to go out or shut the laptop and walk away. It’s necessary and it’s good to be reminded of that.
80/20, my friends. 80/20.
Thank you for still sharing despite the horrible comments.
I think compromise/acknowledging we’re never going to be perfect is so important in breaking down the first barriers to starting any lifestyle change!!
Love your blog xxx
People make lifestyle choices and it’s certainly no business of mine to criticise those choices or to try to convince other people that my choices are better.
I’ve always loved reading what you write and I love it when you share stuff – writing for me is about feelings – if there’s no feelings and no sharing you might as well just read Wikipedia!
So pleeeaaassseee keep doing what you do and never stop because you’re fucking awesome.
That has got to be the hardest part of being a writer – not being judged on what you’ve written, but everything else, that has nothing else to do with it. I have been lucky that my “work credentials” have only been called into doubt by clients a couple times. It still sucks though.
BTW, I’ve been to the ‘float tanks’, and I couldn’t handle it. I got out early because I couldn’t relax and was getting shifty. If the gift cards were transferable, I’d totally send my other prepaid float your way!
I totally love reading all of your articles on the Guardian and also all of your more personal posts here. Hearing about how commenters began speculating on and tearing you apart for the choices you’ve made literally made me flush with anger. I think you are doing an excellent job, both at being a wonderful parent to Olive and at helping others become more eco-conscious (I got a clothes-drying rack, for Pete’s sake, and stopped using paper towels even though I LOVE paper towels) and you are a big inspiration for me.
Haters gonna hate. Let that rest with them, because negativity only really cuts down the person who has all that gross negative energy broiling around in them. You’re fantastic and they’re just jelly.
You’re a very good writer, Ms. Somerville. You shouldn’t worry too much about the detractors; in the end, you’re giving them something to talk about.
I love your column and your articles. You are making a positive contribution to this world. For starters, you completely opened my eyes to the pure evil that are depilatory creams!! Keep doing what you’re doing!
I’m an avid Guardian reader and was therefore delighted to see your name pop up as I’d been following your blog already.
Your divorce/relationship end came a few months before my own, and given that I didn’t see it coming I read your posts initially with different eyes. But after my own situation changed, I remember going back and rereading some of your posts. And not feeling that I was mad for having the days when it was just all too much, and being validated that it was okay, and good, and right to rebuild life. Your sharing really helped me, a random stranger across the pond- so thank you.
holy cow. that really sucks. i was so excited you’d gotten the Guardian gig and it never even occurred to me about that whole mess, how people get so snotty on the internet. truly sorry to hear that you have to deal with this in the process. i know that it’s not necessarily consolation to say to yourself, this person’s comments don’t matter because they’re not as well-informed as me, and so, basically, they’re just plain wrong, because it’s depressing enough realizing how many people are not aware of the state of affairs with our planet and think the hippie stuff is a huge overreaction, rather than a responsibility they’re shirking to all of our children. like, meeting anyone who thinks hillary clinton, who’s hemmed and hawed about the concept of *keeping it in the ground* is a good enough candidate for the democratic party and doesn’t see that i’m not alarmist when i say bernie is our only shot to save the world… like i’m being hyperbolic… it’s a scary world out there sometimes, and now you’re tapped into more of it. yikes. but hopefully that connection goes both ways, right? the more articles like yours are visible in mainstream places, the more people will stop thinking it’s something they can ignore? i don’t know… i can only hope.
So many favourite bloggers I’ve read over the years have shut down because of the awful comments they are constantly subjected to.
It’s always such a loss as a reader to see that happen but of course the writer must look after themselves first.
I’m so grateful to be able to read your work but if you ever have to disappear please know that you would be very much missed and that you are very much appreciated.
In the meantime thanks again for sharing!
Dear Ms. Somerville, People suck. I’m glad you write for us to read because your writing and your subject matter are both awesome. Sincerely, Ms. List
I think you need to seek out a support group for women writers, like yourself. If one doesn’t exist, create it. If you can’t meet and share in person, do it on-line.
I’m a big fan of Margaret Wente, of the Globe and Mail. I don’t always agree with her but I enjoy reading her columns. Some of the “Comments” on her columns are quite shocking and they are vetted before going on the Globe website. You can only imagine the “Comments” that are rejected That is why
a number of newspapers have cancelled their on-line comments sections.
Reach out to writers like her. She has been dealing with this kind of crap for years.
Your point about how much less likely someone is to take time to comment when they agree with you was an interesting one. I’ve been reading your blog for a long time and have never commented because it’s not really my style to put myself out there on the Internet. I just want to say thanks for taking the time to tell your funny stories and for being brave enough to share on the Internet! I absolutely love your content. Keep up the great work!!
I wait in great anticipation for my email to alert me to your blog updates. I love your style of writing and I have endless inspiration from you. I love your book and bought one for all my family. I am one of those people who are usually afraid of commenting, but the thought of you not writing for me to read was awful, so hang in there Madeleine and know you have a huge following here in Australia.
I often read the comments on Guardian articles. I dislike some of the aggressive commenting, but the moderators are pretty active at shutting that sort of thing down, which is great. Lively debate, on the other hand, is good. I agree, it’s interesting when people disagree and it definitely sharpens one’s writing! I’m on a FB group of international writers and have had some interesting discussions on that and my own page, which have opened my mind to different perspectives. Respect is the key, though. Banter is one thing, abuse another.
Don’t ever feel obliged to follow links to secondary hateful sites that promote disrespectful commentary. They’re just troll’s nests that add nothing to real debate.
I totally agree about lively debate in the comment section. I love it. And fantasyic advice re:hateful sites. It’s strangely hard not to look!
I found your website a few months ago (looking for I don’t remember what anymore, but probably some hippie style stuff I’m also into) and I really and immediately fell in love with you. So there is someone like me in the world! I’m from Rome (Italy), I’m doing a PhD in biology and having a B&B in the spare room in my house. I’m also trying to survive in my way, having both good and not-so-good times, and I really enjoy reading your blog because it makes me feel a little bit less crazy (and alone). I did never leave a comment to say how much I appreciated you, but after this post have I have to do it. You are a good person, a good mum and I good writer and you have to know you have an Italian supporter! Please, keep doing what you are doing! A big hug from Rome (if you ever will come here you can be sure you will have a place where you and Olive can stay),
Anything that makes you feel less crazy is a fantastic thing, in my book 😉
The Guardian has hands down some of the worst commenters I’ve ever seen and I always vowed that if I were to write for them (in my dream world) I would never read the comments. I had no idea that THEY MAKE YOU DO IT. I’m sorry you had to deal with those cretins dissecting your marriage and divorce, that shouldn’t really be a part of the job description.
LOL, I had no idea either! But I do think it’s made me a better writer. Every single week it gets better.
Madeleine, I just wanted to write and say how much I appreciate and enjoy your blog and your Guardian column. As someone who strives at 80:20 and would be grateful to get close to that, I am regularly inspired, moved and amused by your writing and look forward to each post (I’ve also changed a lot of stuff in my house as a consequence). It takes bravery to put thoughts out into the mainstream, especially with the barrage of negative feedback that you have to navigate and on topics where most have strong views. I just want to let you know there are many thousands out there who may not give you feedback, but who love and appreciate what you share and are inspired by your words. Thanks for all that you do! Jen
The Guardian post where you talk about buying a new car is the first one of yours I’d read, but I immediately read a bunch more, and now I also subscribe to your blog and follow you on Twitter. You seem like an amazing person, and I’ve very much enjoyed exploring your writing and getting a glimpse into your life.
Like you said, most Guardian commenters aren’t going to bother saying anything unless they disagree with you (I know I never comment on news websites, even if I love the article), so I think the comments on your personal blog are a much better representation of the people who very much enjoy and respect what you have to say.
I’m a teacher and we get parent and student evaluations (always anonymous) a couple times a year in response to questions like, “This teacher makes my child/me feel valued” or “This teacher communicates well” and every year I have at least one parent who’s NEVER stepped into my classroom or come to student conferences who berates me about something I supposedly did or didn’t do. I’ve had parents yell at me to my face, call me incompetent and in so many words threaten me. Several have made me cry (but I’m a sensitive soul any way…). It’s people like that who make me question why I became a teacher and it’s people like that I believe make so many other teachers leave the profession. I have to remind myself of this all the time: know that behind those nasty people are 10 more people who absolutely LOVE what you do-in this case-who cherish the words you write, who relate to you, laugh with you, feel like you “get them” and who overall would feel jipped (sp??) if you stopped writing. Please don’t stop writing-you are fantastic at it. Reading your posts I’ve laughed out loud, cried, nodded enthusiastically, and cringed, even, for your situation. Getting feedback is always hard. ALWAYS. I can’t imagine having to get it so frequently like you do, but please continue to write in as many ways as you can.
Dear Madeleine, pls dont give up ur writing and never change your ways. U’re a great writer, an amazing mother and person in general. Only an idiot could not see and feel this…and I believe those nasty comentators u refer to, are just very miserable and bitter, and they want to make others feel the same, in the hope of feeling better themselves. Just try to pitty them and move on. They dont deserve any more consideration, even though I can imagine how hard it is to ignore them. And know that you are VERY much appreciated. You may not always see/feel ur positive inpact on ur readers, but it’s there. I personally changed a LOT in my life because of your writing and your book. You inspired me to be better, and try harder. I believe I am living a healthier life now, and guiding others to do so as well, as much as I can. And all this started with u! So thank you!!….Sending lots of love and sunshine towards you, all the way from Cyprus, Inna. xx
I love your blog! I think you have such a wonderful way of connecting with your audience. It’s inspiring that you speak so candidly about your personal experiences and relationships, in fact, that’s what I enjoy most about your work. So… Thank you!
You are a beautiful soul, those who judge are just that – people who are judging. Their words are more about their own relationship to themselves than anything to do with you. Love for you, your daughter is so lucky to have you as her mom.
I agree 100%
Read: The Four Agreements
It’s officially on my list!
Congratulations! You are officially a major succes! You are amongst the most brilliant, real, and knowledgeable writers I know! Love reading your writing and love your courage to be so raw and open with your readers. I admire you. You inspire me. There will always be negativity. Please, never change.
Haha, I don’t know about that. But thank you. Genuinely.
I love your blog, I love your column and I loved your book (to the point where I often find myself saying to my husband- “Madeleine says…”) and that you can admit that you’re not perfect is probably what I love the most. Being preached at by eco perfectionists only discourages me; you make change feel possible! Thank you so much for being you and for being brave enough to put yourself out there to inspire people like me! And congrats about Matthew Good- that’s amazing!
I laughed so hard at this! Your husband legit hates me, guaranteed! Send an apology and a beer his way for me 😉
I started to read your blog, when I googled you after I read your first column. I think that you and anyone else who can go out on the Internet with their soul under their name is very brave. I love to read your staff. I wish you many pleasant discussions where we can all learn something new.
Thank you so much, Barbora. I really appreciate you taking the time to say so.