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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?

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