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Its so toxic: why were addicted to mean online gossip about women

I used to spend a lot of time reading snarky online comments about other womens lives until I decided to put an end to it for my sanity

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Its 3am and Im on Reddit. Im reading a thread of comments that number in the thousands, scrolling through missive after missive, unpopular opinions, all. Im reading about the women on this season for The Bachelor. Some commenters rip apart their fashion choices, others discuss the contestants faces, debating endlessly about whether this woman had fillers, that woman had Botox. Im breastfeeding my baby (its the only reason Im up this late) and while she eats, Im feeding myself a steady stream of second-hand bile, anger and jealousy.

For months, this is how I entertained myself. In the dark, by the light of my phone, I watched as mobs of anonymous users picked at various women, dissecting their choices and their appearances, all under the guise of enlightened snark. They tended to alight on certain types of women, people who were outwardly successful and rather privileged. Affluent, white, blond female writers or influencers, such as Caroline Calloway, Kathleen Hale or (once, way back when) Emily Gould. Writers who were a little snarky themselves, unapologetically critical, sometimes cruel.

Sometimes these anonymous snarkers could be very funny. Sometimes they made interesting points about the expectations that are placed upon women living in 21st-century America. But more often, they were just mean. And I found it all so compelling.

Until one day I didnt. I realized that I was hiking my shoulders up around my neck and clenching the muscles in my back for extended periods of time, forming anxiety-born knots under the skin. I realized that the strange slightly ill feeling in my stomach corresponded with how much time I was spending lurking online. I realized that I had been sharpening my internal claws, thinking meaner and meaner thoughts about the people on my screens and in my life. So just like that, I stopped.

But even after I stopped looking, I kept wondering: why did I like this? What made me want to know so much about notorious Instagram influencer Caroline Calloway in the first place? Why was I so invested in how Bachelor contestant Victoria Fuller conducted her sex life? What was it about these dramas that made me want to watch, and what was it about these women that inspired so much gleeful pleasure?

We dont yet have a word that describes this particular online action. According to a glossary developed by Pen America, there are words for the people who interact with public figures just to be mean (trolls) and words for people who read something just because they dislike the author (hate-reads) and words for the groups that form with the purpose of harassing a single person (dogpiling).

But there isnt a good word for these snark-based communities that spring up around a particular figure or the strange bonds that form between people based on mutual distaste. The Redditors on SmolBeanSnark (a subreddit devoted to hating Calloway) meet up in real life, create crafts inspired by their snarking hobby and, most importantly, spend hours upon hours updating each other on every aspect of Calloways life. There is a podcast devoted to Calloway, and so many Twitter accounts. She responds to their comments often on her Instagram account, which is her primary mode of art-making. In a way, her art has become all about her haters. Theyre existing in this symbiotic, toxic cycle, similar to the cycle of attention that propels US politics. In the age of the internet, almost anything can be entertainment, if you chose to consume it that way.

In the 18th century, there was an activity called brler les chats, or cat-burning. People would enclose live animals in a net or a barrel and throw the whole writhing, screaming container onto a bonfire. They would feel joy at witnessing animals pain. Sometimes, they would just burn one cat, and sometimes they would burn dozens. The practice was most common in Belgium and France, but it happened elsewhere, too. According to the Scottish anthropologist James Frazer, Louis XIV even participated in one ceremony. Crowned with a wreath of roses and carrying a bunch of roses in his hand, the stylish ruler strode up to the pile of sticks, lit it aflame, and danced at it and partook of the banquet afterwards. Everyone had a grand time, Frazer seems to suggest, save for the poor cats. (A town in Belgium still hosts an annual Kattenstoet, or Festival of the Cats, and while they no longer throw live cats from the town tower, they do have a neutered version where they defenestrate stuffed cats.)

Back then, there was a single word for the many elated states that result from pain-watching and horror-witnessing. They called it schadenfreude. According to historian Tiffany Watt Smith, author of Schadenfreude: The Joy of Anothers Misfortunate, this word has no corollary in English (possibly because we dont want to admit how often we feel it), but it can be most closely translated as either damaged joy or harm-joy. In a 2018 interview with Science Friday, Watt Smith explains that this word originally covered all sorts of pleasure gained from witnessing misfortune. What happens in the 19th century is that this new term sadism comes in and schadenfreude gets all the fun silly stuff and sadism gets the most serious brutal delight, says Watt Smith. She argues that were living in an age of schadenfreude, thanks in part to the increased role the internet plays in all our lives.

For Watt Smith, this isnt necessarily a negative thing. Emotions all tumble together in a big mess, so were capable of feeling both a little happy about someones pain, and genuine empathy at once. Its not an either/or equation. According to this telling, schadenfreude is a relatively harmless, totally human emotion. Its the dark corollary to the joy you feel from a like on your photo, a positive comment on your account. While these bits of online affirmation are addicting, so too are the online takedowns, the clapbacks, the snark.

At first, I believed my interest in observing the niche drama of online figures had to do with schadenfreude. I enjoyed watching the mess because it wasnt happening to me, and because these women seemed, frankly, kind of mean themselves. They were willing to admit to their own unkind actions, which seemed to bring out the unkindness in others. It wasnt harmful, I thought, to watch this cycle. I wasnt being mean to anyone! It was even beneficial, from an evolutionary standpoint. I was learning what not to do. I wouldnt be problematic; Id never get canceled. And didnt they sort of deserve to feel bad for being mean girls?

But I think thats letting myself off the hook. If Im honest with myself, I think the phenomenon is closer to sadism than schadenfreude. People werent just enjoying watching Calloway or Hale flounder; they were enjoying actively participating in their pain, and I was along for the ride. Commenters have reported Calloway to the Matisse Estate for making her Matisse-inspired cut-paper art, and Hale received so much hate mail and death threats that she ended up in the hospital.

Redditors even began harassing the journalist Taylor Lorenz for her assumed association with Calloway. Its so toxic, Lorenz says. The people who have bonded over hate, they form strong bonds. It reminds me of the right wingwacko people I had to deal with when I covered politics.

These anonymous communities feel like a modern brler les chats. Theyre full of fury and glee in equal measure. While I never commented or even created an account on Reddit, I did participate. I came out into the streets to watch them burn. I found it enthralling, to see how high the flames jumped, how long the threads grew.

Psychologists consider schadenfreude and sadism cognitive emotions. Theyre emotions were capable of thinking about and calibrating, unlike the more primal responses of fear or disgust. We have an element of power over our schadenfreude, our envy, our vanity. Were not helpless in the face of these online pains and joys. We can control them, if we think about it hard enough. We can channel that energy into other outlets. We can log off and not look. We can even temper our contempt with empathy, and maybe replace it with compassion.

In related news, Ive started painting again, for the first time since high school. It feels nice to dip a brush in ink and swirl it across a page. I feel lighter. They can keep burning cats, but I dont have to watch.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/mar/09/online-gossip-drama-women-influencer-addiction-why

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