You will hate this article

Yahoo’s Virginia Heffernan confronts her commenters: "No matter what I write, you will think I'm an idiot"

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her book, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet,” is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.
by Virginia Heffernan

Hey y’all, the comments on this piece are going to be vicious.

They’re gonna say I’m an idiot, that I have brain damage, that this article is drivel and pap. No matter what I write! You’ll wonder, if you read the commentary, how I can even take such razor-sharp insults. At the same time, you might be amused: someone might opine that my writing is to good writing as McRibs are to barbecue.

Then maybe someone else will gallantly jump to my defense and say he’d be willing to rape me anyway, even though I’m an idiot.

Poor me. It won’t matter what I write about or what insight I bring to it -- I’ll always be, alas, an idiot, and often not even a rapeable one. Instead, I’m someone who got the job because she must be married to the boss, someone who can’t write her way out of a paper bag.

The paradox of working hard to be a writer—I spent 12 years on an English Ph.D. and have worked 15 years writing columns, while also learning formal proofreading, fact-checking and the grammar and spelling of American English—is that, in the usual way, you get degrees and jobs because you’re smart, only to be told, once you’re doing the job you’re trained for, that you need to go back to remedial school. Or the hospital. Or the morgue. Because you’re such an idiot.

Because I don’t write often about gender, I am not monotonously called a slut or a whore, though you never know when that old chestnut will enter the commentary on an article (which could be about Syria or shoes or beta carotene). As long as an article is written by a woman, then the slut-shaming is just on—as it has been for the novelist Deborah Copaken Kogan, who this week recounted her game, bemused and sometimes exasperated path through the slings and arrows of you-ignorant-slut-land in a tour de force called “My So-Called Post-Feminist Life in Arts & Letters.”

When the piece went live, Kogan was deluged with tales of sexism, mild and not mild, from the front. Among other things, women writers told of the comical lengths that publishers and marketers of their work go to to sell the authors as pinups. Leaving out anything political from this conversation: Aren’t you, wherever you are, and in whatever line, glad that your face, body and hair aren’t up for bruising debate every time you diagnose a patient or mount some drywall or file a brief? Aren’t you pleased that your job doesn’t entail a chorus of “You’re an idiot!” every time you clock in?

Mostly I don’t mind it, getting jumped by commenters day after day. Often I think it’s good for me, like growing up in a tough neighborhood. Sometimes I’m even surprised at how thin-skinned new writers are, or writers who aren’t used to the rough-and-tumble world of online commentary. “I can’t take it,” a prize-winning, top-selling poet told me recently. “I’d rather write for my mom only than get knocked around by the bullies who comment online.”

I try to tell these sensitive writers that online commentary is its own form, with its own conceits, tight as a sonnet. Above the line we reporters and columnists write —Mitch McConnell this, Microsoft that—and below the line commenters boo us. They tell us we’re the end of journalism; they tell us we’ve sold out; they throw tomatoes. That’s their job, like writing columns or articles or poetry is our job.

And in gaps in the vitriol, there are often flashes of extraordinary insight. I would say there are always those flashes. Amid the slung mud of the you’re-an-idiot haters on a piece of mine earlier this week, there were dozens of great questions about why I’d review an app that’s only available for Apple, and whether the rave I’d written constituted an ad for the app. These are questions I’d genuinely love to address with readers, maybe in some shared space between the column and the comments. But the truth is, I get a little scared to go down there to comment-land. It’s a rough scene, like a punk club, and I might—I will—get hurt.

Is there a way to comment without trolling, bullying or gaslighting? Does the threat of rough commenters scare you away from writing? Does the sight of cruel comments at the end of the piece color your impression of the piece?

What do you think? Yes, I know you think I’m an idiot. But what else?

  • A firefighter’s plan to save lives and employ brothers
    A firefighter’s plan to save lives and employ brothers

    Being named Ohio’s “entrepreneur of the year” in April was enough to confirm for Zach Green that quitting his job as an Eli Lilly brand manager to start his own business was the right move. But seeing the announcement of his award in the paper alongside the news that his former employer would lay off 30 percent of its sales force “was the ultimate validation,” he says.

  • Apple expands buybacks by $30 billion, OKs seven-for-one stock split
    Apple expands buybacks by $30 billion, OKs seven-for-one stock split

    By Edwin Chan SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Apple Inc has approved another $30 billion in share buybacks till the end of 2015 and authorized a rarely seen seven-for-one stock split, addressing calls to share more of its cash hoard while broadening the stock's appeal to individual investors. Activist investor Carl Icahn, who had famously called on the iPhone maker to boost its buyback program, tweeted his approval of the move on Wednesday. On Wednesday, Apple reported sales of 43.7 million iPhones in the quarter ended March, far outpacing the roughly 38 million that Wall Street had predicted. But whether Apple can again produce a revolutionary new product remains the central question in investors' and Silicon Valley executives' minds.

  • U.S., euro zone activity up; China decline slows
    U.S., euro zone activity up; China decline slows

    By Rodrigo Campos and Jonathan Cable NEW YORK/LONDON (Reuters) - The U.S. manufacturing sector expanded in April and the euro zone private sector started the second quarter on its strongest footing since 2011, while the pace of decline in Chinese factory activity slowed, surveys showed on Wednesday. Financial data firm Markit said its preliminary or "flash" U.S. Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index dipped to 55.4 in April from 55.5 in March. Economists polled by Reuters expected a reading of 56.0. Earlier on Wednesday, data showed China's HSBC/Markit flash PMI for April rose to 48.3 from March's final reading of 48.0, but was still below the 50 line separating expansion from contraction.

  • Visa says revenue growth to slow, Russia sanctions hurting volumes

    Visa Inc , the world's largest credit and debit card company, said U.S. sanctions on Russia were hurting its card transaction volumes and that revenue growth would slow further this quarter, sending its shares down 5 percent after the bell. Visa's quarterly revenue growth slid to a single digit in percentage terms for the first time in more than four years, due to a strong U.S. dollar. The company and rival MasterCard Inc stopped providing services to two Russian banks after U.S. President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on Russia in March after a standoff over Ukraine. "We are caught between the politics of the United States and the politics of Russia," Chief Financial Officer Byron Pollitt said on a post-earnings conference call on Thursday.

  • Buffett says abstained from voting on Coca-Cola's compensation plan: CNBC
    Buffett says abstained from voting on Coca-Cola's compensation plan: CNBC

    (Reuters) - Warren Buffett, chairman of conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway , said on Wednesday he thinks Coca-Cola's controversial equity compensation plan was excessive, but that Berkshire Hathaway abstained in the shareholders vote. Earlier on Wednesday, Coca-Cola said 83 percent of shareholders approved the plan. Critics, most notably activist investor David Winters, said the plan would dilute the holdings of current shareholders too much. As of December 31, Berkshire owned 400 million shares of the company, just over 9 percent of the shares outstanding.

  • Ahead of earnings, Caterpillar dealer data paints mixed picture
    Ahead of earnings, Caterpillar dealer data paints mixed picture

    (Reuters) - Caterpillar Inc released unaudited dealer sales data on Wednesday that showed a deepening deterioration in global demand for its mining equipment but a continued, albeit modest, rebound in sales of construction equipment as well as reciprocating and turbine engines. The world's largest maker of construction and mining equipment said global dealer sales of its yellow earth-moving machines fell 12 percent year-over-year in March, after falling 8 percent in both January and February. Equipment demand from mining customers was especially weak, Caterpillar said, with global dealer sales of those high-margin products tumbling 46 percent in March after falling 37 percent in both January and February. The downturn in demand for mining equipment was especially dramatic in the Asia-Pacific region, where dealer sales slumped 65 percent in March after falling 55 percent in February and 53 percent in January.

  • Buffett: moving oil by rail safely major industry concern
    Buffett: moving oil by rail safely major industry concern

    By Luciana Lopez NEW YORK (Reuters) - Warren Buffett, chairman of conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, said on Wednesday that safety is a major priority for the rail industry, after a recent spate of accidents raised concerns about how to transport oil safely. He added that the delay in the construction of the Keystone pipeline was unlikely to prompt additional purchases of tank cars at Berkshire railroad unit BNSF. COCA-COLA COMPENSATION PLAN Buffett also said, in an interview with CNBC the same day, that he thinks Coca-Cola's equity compensation plan was excessive, but that Berkshire Hathaway abstained in a shareholders vote. Earlier on Wednesday, Coca-Cola said 83 percent of shareholders approved the plan.

  • Valeant CEO 'disappointed' in Allergan poison pill: CNBC
    Valeant CEO 'disappointed' in Allergan poison pill: CNBC

    (Reuters) - The chief executive officer of Valeant Pharmaceuticals, which made a $47 billion unsolicited offer for competitor Allergan Inc on Tuesday, said during an interview on CNBC that he was "disappointed" with Allergan's so-called poison pill. Allergan on Tuesday night said its board of directors had adopted a one-year stockholder rights plan to give it more time to consider takeover proposals. The Valeant offer was made with Pershing Square Capital Management hedge fund, which built up a stake in the company. ...

Follow Yahoo! News