Waterbeds and the Troll In My Head: How Twitter Ruined My Brain
Sometimes I remember something the New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino tweeted in 2018: “Market feminism did a great job of teaching all the wrong millennial women that their voices are interesting & that they should never be ashamed,” the tweet read. I forget who the main character on Twitter was that day, and subsequently who that tweet was about, but it kind of doesn’t matter. The takeaway I had from reading that and from my own experiences online was clear: My voice is not interesting, and I should be ashamed.
I don’t disagree! I’ve been writing a lot less since I transitioned this year from full-time freelance writing to a normal, non-journalism day job. I don’t think my voice is one that needs to be amplified so much right now. The other person who would agree is the Twitter troll who lives in my brain. This isn’t an actual person, just a fake, faceless, nameless figure I’ve invented by accident after years of having my brain warped by the internet like a plastic Tupperware container on its eighth minute in the microwave. Before I tweet, Instagram, newsletter, or otherwise publish anything in writing, I think about this troll, who interprets anything I write in the least generous, most bad-faith way possible. Six times out of 10, I end up shelving whatever I’m working on or have written, even if it’s just a hastily composed tweet about some banal observation from my daily walk to the coffee place down the street. (“How could you even be enjoying an iced mocha at a time like this?” I imagine my Twitter troll sneering in my mentions. “You should really donate that $5 instead.”)
This person is apolitical, but they hate everything I like and think my taste sucks and that I’m stupid. (“Nobody cares that you bought a Susan Alexandra bag in 2020,” “That Ocean Vuong book was cool...when everyone else was reading it a year and a half ago,” “You bought the wrong plant and now you’re going to have to spend every waking moment of the rest of your life making sure it stays on a shelf away from your roommate’s cat who might get mildly sick if she chews on its leaves,” etc.) I've refrained from making many a stupid joke on Twitter simply because I don't want to anger the Twitter character in my head. To me, they’re a reflection of my most antagonistic critics, and they’re always right.
There’s a reason this Twitter troll moved into my brain in the first place: I’ve lived through my fair share of targeted online harassment campaigns, and often, they’re extremely stupid.
For instance, in May I tweeted, as I often do, something harmlessly silly. "water beds. now there’s a piece of furniture you don’t hear about much these days," I wrote, expecting to get about 10 pity-likes from friends. It was so innocuous, I thought, so who cares? What I had not predicted when tweeting about a piece of nouveau-riche 1990s furniture explicitly banned from many New York City apartments for liability reasons was that I would ignite the following of @3YearLetterman, a fictional character account with a huge following whose thing, for some reason, is liking waterbeds.
I woke up the next day and clocked the dozens of replies and DMs from strangers I’d received overnight. “Only the top 1% can afford water beds. Coach paid #straightCashHomie,” someone messaged me. “You could never afford a waterbed without a layaway plan, bitch,” someone else messaged me. This all might as well have been a different language to me, though I pieced it together and traced it back to @3YearLetterman, who, upon first glance, seemed indistinguishable from any run-of-the-mill Barstool Sports account. He had replied to my tweet, and inadvertently, I assume, sicced his legions of followers on me overnight for the mind-meltingly stupidest online pile-on in history. His followers clearly seem to be in on the joke, but some of them take it too far, and I just happened to be on the receiving end this time.
The DMs and the replies were a little overwhelming. Usually when I'm harassed online, the people doing it are straightforward about their intentions, which are simply that they vehemently disagree with something I’ve written or tweeted. This time, the trolling, or whatever you want to call it, had merged with a parody account, and had reached some sort of singularity that not even the Twitter troll in my brain is capable of establishing. At least when my self-doubts and self-contempt spring up from my own brain and keep me from feeling like I can publish anything, I know it’s happening in earnest. And even though I often don’t think my voice is the one people need to hear, there’s a bunch of louder and more annoying people insisting on forcing theirs on the rest of us.
People with wider audiences, deeper pockets, and worse politics than me might be quick to misidentify what I’m talking about as “cancel culture” or a vicious “online mob,” but I want to be clear: the only person cancelling me here is myself. The Twitter troll in my head is nothing more than a caricature serving as a reflection of my own self-doubts: as a writer, as someone with a sizable (“Sizable???” my fake Twitter troll is sneering at me) social media following, as someone who very literally grew up online. The right things for me to do would be to a) delete my account, throw my phone into the Gowanus Canal, and unplug forever, or b) develop a spine and spend less time worrying about what people think of me online. The former probably won’t happen, and I’m working on the latter. For now, though, that Twitter troll is in permanent residency in my brain, and the Water Bed Incident was an example of that person coming to life in the most absurd of ways.