Women Writers on Twitter: In Their Own Words
On Community, Misogyny, and the Importance of Connection
Literary Hub sent a series of open questions to writers, journalists, editors—women in and around the literary world with a significant social media presence—to further explore the value of Twitter, along with its many toxic side effects. There is an important conversation to continue, about the vitality—and vulnerability—of online communities, and the wildly disproportionate amount of abuse women receive from complete strangers, every day, all the time. Twitter—and platforms like it—remain wonderful opportunities for encountering diversity, creating community, and exchanging ideas, as can be seen from the conversation below.
“A perfect little poem… Or something like that.”
Anne Thériault, feminist writer: To be honest, I was pretty baffled about how to use Twitter initially. Brevity is not one of my strong suits, so the 140-character limit was tough. Plus, I just didn’t really understand what the platform was good for.
Stephanie LaCava, essayist: I was super against it initially. It sounded crass, but I saw friends I admired were taking to it and wanted to understand this. Since I was very young when I started working in media and publishing, I had learned very quickly—and the hard way—to be guarded at sharing my thoughts and work in any capacity. Twitter seemed like the perfect means to spontaneous disaster.
Dani Shapiro, novelist/memoirist/essayist: I was a lurker for quite a while. I might never have joined Twitter if it hadn’t been for my husband, Michael Maren, a journalist and screenwriter, who has always been an early adopter of all media. In 2010, my memoir Devotion was about to come out, and Michael said: You really should get on Twitter. So I signed up, but the whole thing terrified me
Ashley Ford, contributing editor, Literary Hub: I joined Twitter the first time in 2008. My account was just @SmashFizzle, and it was nuts. It was all about having fun. I was doing stand-up comedy then, so it was mostly jokes and not really reflective of the things I really cared about like writing and literature.
Dani Shapiro: As a writer, the idea that I could dash something off—a few words, a thought, an idea—and that it would be out there without my having thought deeply about it, seemed just impossible. I felt like a tweet had to be a perfect little poem… or something like that. So I never tweeted. My hands froze above the keyboard. I had Twitter Block.
Rye Silverman, comedian: At first I thought Twitter was fairly limiting because of the 140-characters thing. It took me a little while to see that as an advantage—that it made you be less precious about your wording and helped with the economy of language in structuring a joke. In a way it was the exact opposite of my stage comedy where I had started writing longer story-type material.
Joanna Robinson, writer, Vanity Fair: I joined Twitter back in 2010 at my boss’s behest. But it wasn’t a mandate, more of an invitation to learn more about the world of online writing and the community of writers that populate it. At first I was completely baffled by Twitter. I didn’t understand how @ replies worked, and I spent too much time trying to get the attention of famous people—mostly authors; ok, mostly Neil Gaiman—that I suddenly had “access” to. It wasn’t until later that I realized Twitter really was far more effective as a tool for building a fake sort of workplace environment for people like me who work alone in front of a laptop.
Ashley Ford: Around 2010 I started a second account, the @iSmashFizzle account to talk about things I cared a lot about that I thought my followers on the first account would find boring. Eventually, I deleted the first account and focused on the second as a true representation of my full-spectrum of awesomeness.
Amanda Nelson, Managing Editor, Book Riot: I initially (and mostly still do) thought Twitter was the bee’s knees and the cat’s pajamas. Back then, I was following almost exclusively book bloggers and the conversations revolved around books, blogging, and squeeing over the fact that YES YOU CAN talk to Neil Gaiman directly on Twitter. While I’m still not used to the access Twitter provides me to authors, I now accept the community-building aspect of Twitter as fact. I heard somewhere that Facebook is made up of people you know but wish you didn’t, and Twitter is made up of people you don’t know, but wish you did. That rang true then and still does.
“A mystical ability to tweet forever…”
Anne Thériault: Once I started using Twitter regularly, I encountered misogynist trolls almost immediately.
Amanda Nelson: It was quite awhile before I encountered any misogyny or trolling, mostly because my avatar was Charles Dickens and I didn’t write about gender or racial issues. Plus, when you’re only tweeting to other book bloggers (who are overwhelmingly female and all very nice), you’re in sort of a safe space. When I became a Book Riot contributor and eventually started working there, the misogyny and racism began and continues.
Madeleine Holden, writer and creator of Critque My Dick Pic: When I had fewer than 100 followers, the misogyny and trolling was minimal, but present. I remember having a conversation with my female friends about the point at which they felt it increased, and they said around the 600-follower mark. That was true, in my experience, but in general it has increased with my following.
Rye Silverman: I think I encountered trolling and misogyny or bigotry more in how my friends and people I was following were getting it more than I myself was getting it. I’ve only recently been getting more of it myself as I get more and more known as a transgender woman. But I’ve been fortunate enough in that my responses have been more positive. People have engaged me in negative ways on Facebook and Tumblr more than Twitter.
Dani Shapiro: But that’s true in any online format. I get it whenever I publish a piece online and there’s a comments section. I get it on my blog from time to time. I’ve learned to ignore it. To pay attention to it at all means the misogynists/trolls win. And that mustn’t happen. They’re just shouting anonymously from the shadows. Come on out, into the light, and talk to me. I’m happy to talk.
Amanda Nelson: I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve had to block, and I mean that literally—I now use an app called Block Together that automatically blocks users who are less than seven days old (people often create Twitter accounts just to harass me and other people), people with fewer than a certain number of followers, etc. I don’t check into the app, so I have no idea how many people I’ve blocked.
Anne Thériault: I used to respond to everyone because I was super naive and thought they were engaging me in good faith. Now I mostly ignore—whether or not I engage depends on how much energy I have, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that twitter trolls have some kind of mystical ability to tweet forever. Sometimes I’ll screen-shot the most grievous stuff and tweet it out, as a weird form of self-care—somehow sharing the stuff that’s being said to me can feel validating, as if more eyes seeing it makes it more real.
Ashley Ford: I block someone every day. Trolls and spam. Right now, I have hundreds of people blocked.
Joanna Robinson: In the last year my profile has gotten a bit higher and as I’ve written more about feminist issues or sexual assault in pop culture I’ve occasionally attracted the attention of an unsavory kind of person. I’ve received rape, assault, and death threats. I’m quick to block. I very rarely engage because, really, absolutely no good can come of it. How can you reach someone who is already so far gone they are threatening people on the Internet?
Amanda Nelson: I’ve been added to a few “SJWs [social justice warriors] Who Need To Be Taken Down a Peg”-type lists, and when that happens the harassment increases for a few days. I’ve also had a few male authors take issue with my politics and let their (several thousand) followers know about it, which itself results in a torrent of abuse and death and rape threats.
Madeleine Holden: When I reached about 10,000 followers, I turned my mentions to “only people you follow,” and I’ve kept it like that since, and only dabble in my mentions without that setting on if I’m feeling particularly bored or resilient.
Amanda Nelson: I block them all now. I block like it’s going out of style. I block like I get paid to do it.
Anne Thériault: I have formed so many relationships on Twitter. I don’t even know where to start!
Madeleine Holden: I have formed genuine, lasting IRL friendships from Twitter, and I met every single editor I’ve ever written for on Twitter, and writing is now a substantial side income for me. My Twitter also accounts for a good chunk of the attention and publicity directed towards my website.
Stephanie LaCava: I have heard writers take a stand that they are above Twitter and Instagram, superior for not participating in social media. It’s true the self-promotion feels inauthentic and tacky, but it can be brave to participate in the conversation with good intention. If I can find more followers, readers for my work, through other kinds of storytelling, then that can be an asset.
Anne Thériault: Probably the best example is Jarrah Hodge (@jarrahpenguin)—we followed each other for a while and interacted a bunch. Then, when I was invited to speak at a conference in Vancouver she was helping organize, she offered to let me stay at her place. It was like a dream vacation—we ate sushi and stayed up late watching Star Trek and went hiking and all kinds of stuff. It blows my mind to think that Twitter led to all of that.
Amanda Nelson: I got my job because of Twitter. Book Riot’s co-founder Jeff O’Neal began book blogging at the same time I did, and we found each other and became friends on Twitter. Twitter is how I found Rebecca Schinsky, at that time an established book blogger and my current supervisor. When Jeff started Book Riot, it was that relationship and the exposure to each other’s writing through it that made him invite me to be a contributor, and now I run the daily operations of the site. And that pattern continues—some of my closest relationships are with people I met (“met”?) on Twitter.
Joanna Robinson: I believe Twitter is directly responsible for every single professional success I’ve had.
Madeleine Holden: This is one of the reasons trolling and misogyny on Twitter is so damaging: you’re not just isolating women from a forum to make friends and chat, you’re potentially isolating them from income and professional contacts, and that’s devastating. I know women with crucial voices, much more crucial than mine, who quit Twitter or went private because it was taking too much of a toll to face that kind of harassment daily. That’s a travesty, honestly, when you think of how much that loss is multiplied.
Ashley Ford: I can remember working up the nerve to tweet at [Roxane Gay] back in 2010, because I was just so enamored of her writing. It lit me up inside, burned in my chest, and left the most beautiful scars. It’s where we started talking to each other, and honestly, because of the kind of people we are, I think it was the only way for a friendship to begin between she and I. Since those first tweets, she’s published my work, we’ve spent more and more time together in person, we’re even co-editing an anthology together. She’s my mentor, my friend, and another mom. Twitter kind of gave us that.
Dani Shapiro: The one that comes immediately to mind is the relationship I formed with Lisa Bonchek Adams, which would never have happened without Twitter. As many know, Lisa was a wife, mom, and breast cancer survivor from Connecticut who took to Twitter while she was in remission, and very actively sought out and befriended writers. There are a lot of people who try to use Twitter to advance themselves professionally, but that wasn’t what Lisa was doing. She was just reaching out, in a lovely, warm, intelligent, engaging way. So lots of writers responded to her—myself included—and she became a friend, and eventually, also a student of mine. When her cancer returned and she was given a terminal diagnosis, she used Twitter to educate people about cancer, about health advocacy in general, and reminded us all to find beauty in the world wherever and whenever we can. She was a beautiful spirit who touched the lives of many thousands of people because of Twitter. After she died this past spring, I wrote about her for The New Yorker, and since then, I can’t tell you how many people have told me, with tears in their eyes, that they miss Lisa. These are people who, for the most part, never met her. But they met her on Twitter—which says something about the beautiful strange power of Twitter. In its own unique way, it has the power to change lives.
“What they deal with is mind-boggling.”
Anne Thériault: Earlier this year a bunch of jerks on Twitter decided that a good way to get at me would be by threatening my kid. And, of course, they were right. I was so freaked out about it that I didn’t even report the tweets immediately.
Amanda Nelson: Men troll me several times a week, if not daily. It usually depends on how sassy I’ve been that day, or if we’ve published a post about race or gender. My response tends to be mock, block, and roll: I’ll tell the person to fuck off and then move on with my day. I have trouble letting it stand unmentioned because it feels like an injustice, like someone needs to tell this person that what they’re doing is pathetic and unacceptable. Perhaps that’s the mother in me.
Madeleine Holden: I’ve had friends who have been doxxed, personally targeted and harassed, and who’ve had their personal information widely disseminated; as well as disgusting alterations to their online photos, that kind of thing.
Ashley Ford: Whenever something significant to women or people of color happens in the news, I can be assured that tweeting about it will mean some dude will pop into my mentions with ignorance. I usually just block it like it’s hot and keep moving. I engage back sometimes, but almost never earnestly. I’m targeted a few times a month, but that’s nothing compared to the other opinionated women I know who write online.
Joanna Robinson: Someone’s abuse was so targeted and aggressive that every time I blocked them, they created a new account in order to harass me some more. I lost track of how many accounts this person created. Twitter has some good tools to help you manage low-level, lazy harassment. If one click of the block or mute button will fix things, you are in good shape. But when it comes to persistent, creative harassment, Twitter fails to protect its users.
Amanda Nelson: If I get a death or rape threat, threats of violence, or someone is trying to impersonate me, I’ll go further and report the account, but that only happens every month or two. It’s nowhere near as bad for me as it is for, say, Lindy West or Anita Sarkeesian or Ijeoma Oluo, women talking about these issues 24/7 and who have huge platforms. What they deal with is mind-boggling. For me, it’s still pretty much just an annoyance.
Madeleine Holden: But for me, the problem with sexism on Twitter is subtler: it’s the men who constantly chime in with unhelpful and dim-witted @ replies to everything I say, that slowly grinds you down in a micro-aggressive way, rather than straight-up aggression.
Anne Thériault: I was just basically paralyzed by the idea that my writing might have put my kid in danger. But when I did talk about it, I had so, so, so much support. There was so much love from people on Twitter in the wake of those awful threats. It was amazing.
Amanda Nelson: I once had some sad dude create a Twitter account impersonating me (not the first one, either) and it took two days to get the account suspended, and that was after I had my several thousand followers report the account AND sent Twitter a scanned upload of my driver’s license to prove I am who I say I am.
Joanna Robinson: There are report forms you can fill out, but there is never any sense that those forms actually do anything to stop harassment and there is certainly no personal feedback from Twitter to help their users feel safer.
Ashley Ford: The best thing you can do is support people when you see them getting trolled. Send a tweet their way, just to them, don’t even acknowledge the troll. DM them. Share more of their work. Start talking about why they’re so awesome at what they do.
Anne Thériault: I think one of the first steps would be men acknowledging that they don’t receive harassment on the same level that women do. Recently comedian Brent Butt tweeted about how in all of his years as a comic, he’s never been sexually harassed or threatened with rape, but women comedians get that kind of shit from day one. It was really powerful to see him admit that.
Madeleine Holden: Twitter could be made a safer space if Twitter simplified the abuse reporting procedures and made them more effective, but ultimately when you have a site that men are allowed access to (and as far as I know that’s most of them), they’re going to shit up the place.
Amanda Nelson: It took two days for the last account to send me a rape threat to get suspended—that should have been taken down within minutes. I know verified accounts have a lot more options regarding the tweets they select to see—those options should be available to everyone.
“What’s the opposite of gas-lighting?”
Rye Silverman: I think the presence of Twitter and social media was super valuable for me in regards to the process of coming out. It not only helped me to be able to express myself and kind of find my voice about myself, but also to see the journeys of other people that were going through similar things as me. Even seeing people on different paths has been helpful because it makes me see that we’re all kind of doing our own thing and approaching this as individuals but still dealing with very real things that we share which is still pretty cool.
Madeleine Holden: Twitter is an extremely valuable community for women, because it links us to other women, all sorts of other women, and it truly does advance your feminism if you’re inclined to let it. I’m white, I’m a white feminist, and I’ve benefited enormously from following women of color (particularly black feminist women) on Twitter, in the sense that my feminism is much more humble, realistic and effective now. It’s the exact same thing for other marginalized groups that I’m not part of, like trans women: I owe so many women on Twitter a lot for holding me accountable and putting my fight into perspective.
Stephanie LaCava: I take heart in some of the girls who have contacted me to tell me how my first book provided comfort during a difficult time.
Anne Thériault: I think I’ve learned more about social justice and feminism from the people I follow on Twitter than I have anywhere else. The quick share-ability of tweets means that folks who might otherwise be voiceless can have an enormous reach. It’s just amazing to watch.
Madeleine Holden: Twitter elevates and inspires me constantly, mostly because of the quality of discourse and people it exposes me to.
Dani Shapiro: It’s a democracy in the truest sense of the word. To go back to Lisa Bonchek Adams: when two powerful old media journalists—Emma Gilby Keller of The Guardian and her husband Bill Keller of The New York Times—attacked Lisa for “dying out loud,” and mused about the unseemliness of her writing about her disease, Twitter went completely nuts on them, and forced them to back down.
Rye Silverman: I think it’s especially important because we need to push through with our voices. Hopefully the more obvious and visible that crap gets, the more other people will look at it and be aware how much more progress we need to make.
Amanda Nelson: Women can support each other and share our stories. My DM inbox is full of “oh, don’t talk to him, he grabbed me at a party once,” or “hey, this site has changed its comment policy, avoid, avoid!” Even if you can’t see it looking in, Twitter has allowed women a new level of connection. It’s given us Binders Full of Women, a network of female writers and editors signal-boosting the best of each other’s work. It’s given us We Need Diverse Books. Twitter’s problems pale in comparison to what it can do.
Ashley Ford: My best girls are all online, and for someone as introverted as I am, I need to be able to reach them that way. I need to be able to tweet about and support their work, their feelings, the validation of their existence. That community buoys me. It reminds me—and many other women—that we’re not alone.
Joanna Robinson: Oh every day. That’s what keeps people coming back to Twitter. If it were just nastiness, we would all quit.
Rye Silverman: The moments where Twitter has lifted me up and inspired me to press on are the moments where people contact me to talk about how following me or reading what I’ve said has helped them to handle their own coming out processes or those of their loved ones. It matters to me to know I’ve helped make someone else’s journey even a bit easier to manage.
Madeleine Holden: I did receive a compliment once that was so touching I’ve never forgotten it, and it went like this: “What’s the opposite of gas-lighting? Because that’s what @moscaddie does.” It’s difficult to overstate how uplifting it is when someone explains an experience you relate to and says, “You know what? This is fucked up, and this is why. You shouldn’t tolerate it, and you don’t have to.” I talk a lot about the value of women, about what they deserve, and what they should refuse to tolerate. I remember every single woman who ever did that for me, and it’s a genuine privilege to be able to do it for other women, especially young women and girls.
Ashley Ford (@iSmashFizzle) is a writer, editor, and speaker. She is a contributing editor for Literary Hub, and her work has appeared in The Guardian, Elle, BuzzFeed, Talking Points Memo (The Slice), The Butter, TueNight, and various other web and print publications.
Madeleine Holden (@moscaddie) is a lawyer and writer from New Zealand who is currently based in London. She is the creator and curator of Critique My Dick Pic.
Stephanie LaCava (@stephanielacava) is an author and essayist living in New York City. She is also the features director for the London-based Violet Book biannual. Her writing has appeared in magazines and online for publications such as Vogue, The New Yorker, Interview, The Believer and The Paris Review.
Amanda Nelson (@imamandanelson) is the managing editor at Book Riot. She lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband and twin boys.
Joanna Robinson (@jowrotethis) is a writer for Vanity Fair.
Dani Shapiro (@danijshapiro) is the bestselling author of the memoirs Devotion and Slow Motion, and five novels including Black & White and Family History. Her latest book is Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, One Story, Elle, The New York Times Book Review, the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and has been broadcast on “This American Life.”
Rye Silverman (@ryesilverman) is a comedian, a fashionista, and a Doctor Who fanatic.
Anne Thériault (@anne_theriault) is a Toronto-based writer, activist and social agitator. Her work can be found in such varied publications as The Washington Post, Vice, Jezebel, The Toast and others. Her comments on feminism, social justice and mental health have been featured on TVO’s The Agenda, CBC, CTV, Global and E-talk Daily.
Responses compiled by Literary Hub staff writer, Jonathan Russell Clark.