My 14-year-old friend, home from a boys’ boarding school and with very posh parents who gave him things in “foreign airlines plastic bags” all the time, had the Internet before any of us did.
We had gone to visit him – I, ungainly with braces and big hair and thick spectacles, and my best friend, who was the opposite of me and already adept at the eyelash lowered demure look she used to drive boys, like my friend, to stammer eternal love. Perhaps to impress us, he took us to his dad’s computer and said, “Do you want to talk to people around the world?” And she shrugged and said, “Okay,” so I did too. Shrug. Okay. Totally not excited. He took us to a website that took an age to load, and typed in, “Anyone want to chat?” No answer. “I know a trick,” he told us, and typed again, “We are 14/f! We are hot! We are horny!” Immediately the responses began pouring in, but in that moment, I could only think of one thing: he called me hot.
That’s where my experience of being a woman on the Internet began. In order to get people used to you, you had to play the appearance card up front: look at me, I am a delicate flower, I might be on the Internet the same as you, but I can’t do stuff as well as you can. As long as I played my Delicate Flower role, I was safe on the world wide web, I hopped across Yahoo Chat with ease, picking up “Internet boyfriends” to whom (oh, days of innocence!) I gave my real home phone number – they called me from the US and Australia and I delighted in their accents, and then, novelty over, we went on our way.
We’re all familiar, as Indian women, with people wanting to be your friend. People as in boy people. People you’ve never met before. My friends and I use shorthand: “the fraandship type,” we call them, a reference to the urban legend of come-on lines, “Will you make fraandship with me?” Obviously, it’s understood that no one actually wants to be your friend: what they want is an assumed closeness, a way to be near you that might, that probably will, lead to further liberties.
Before the Internet, these men were confined to the ones on public transport who murmured to you, or the ones on the road who sang snatches of a popular Hindi song as you walked by. The roadside Romeos. We were the shrinking Juliets putting the “Eve” in eve-teasing, conforming with every raised-shoulder-shuffle-off-sideways-walk to the same role the Hindi movie heroine played until finally she was like, “Oh fine, I may as well fall madly in love with you.” Usually after the hero had followed her a long way on his bicycle and no one helped her – they were all too busy helping him harass her.
Harassment offline is so common we stop talking about it, and instead go to the ATM in pairs, wear jeans on the hottest day of the year to go down to the local market, and if someone asks you a question, even an innocent question such as, “What time is it?” you’re allowed to square your shoulders and jut out your chin, and say, tersely, “Quarter to one” and then end the conversation by walking away. This is not being rude, this is a way of not encouraging unsolicited conversation. Is the man asking you the time going to harass you? Probably not, but if he did use the time as a way of climbing into your space, then it’s your fault for encouraging him with your titillating time conversation anyway.
Why then, did I, at 22, invite this very same man into my home and life by choosing to lay bare my soul online? At the time I signed up for Blogger, a brand new blogging service, my biggest online inspirations were Belle Du Jour and Girl With A One Track Mind. If you’re not familiar with them, they are, respectively, the diary of a research scientist turned part-time call girl in London, and the diary of another lady who just really likes sex.
I had no intention of being naked on a bed and spreading my legs for the world to see, even through words, but I began to think about sex and the Indian woman then, and how I liked sex, my friends liked sex, and no one was talking about sex and how it could be fun, and emotions could be messy, and so on and so forth. I’d be lying if I said now that I didn’t want any readers, but I’ll say this: I didn’t expect readers. Google was still in its nascent stages, and there was not enough material or visible cookies online to search for “Indian woman sex blog” to lead them to my page. In those days, a URL went viral simply because people were talking about it, talking about it IRL, and I really truly do mean “in real life,” at parties, people passed around links on notebook paper. One year later, I had readers by the droves, and that brought the “fraandship” seekers.
A few years into my blog, I was hired to write content for a new website that would go on to become Ibibo.com. My brief was simple: keep it simple, keep it erotic-ish. Most days, I surfed Literotica, looking for content ideas, short stories I could turn into hits, spending my days in a miasma of sensuality, my very limbs languid with the sexy reading in front of me.
Because they had bought the blog, so to speak, I felt obliged to make my content slightly more candid, even though, by this time, people could put a face to the user handle. I wrote about vibrators and orgasms, blow jobs and oral sex. My readership didn’t increase mightily, but I realized the post that made me the shyest was the one about masturbation. It was the first time I wrote about my own sexuality, so to speak, wrote about sex as not sexy, but as an act to alleviate some kind of inner longing. The job didn’t last long – too many meetings, too much corporate Gurgaon, a serendipitous job opening in Mumbai – but the inward looking had begun.
One that caused a stir in Kerala was a post I put up about going to the gynecologist for the first time. Again, this was a little pre-Twitter and Facebook, so the only hubbub I noticed was in some Malayalam papers and people sniggering around my Malayalam writer father. I couldn’t figure it out. Masturbation had caused no such similar chaos, why was the simple act of going to a doctor getting so many hits? It was only made clear to me later: only pregnant ladies and Bad Girls went to a gynec in India, good girls had no need to. By saying I visited a lady parts doctor, I was as good as admitting that my vagina was open for business and being serviced. This was one of the first insights I had into the way my readers were thinking: all this while, I thought I was writing for PLU (people like us), and yet, here were the mails from people urging me not to put my life online, because of “the shame”.
“Are you the Compulsive Confessor?” a friend asked me, and another left a comment where I teased, “Guess who I am?” with “MRM?”
My reasons for being anonymous began less with me being ashamed about writing about sex and relationships, and more about hiding my tracks. I wrote candidly about ex-boyfriends and colleagues.
Extremely candidly: describing the way one boy kissed, to the way one colleague went from nun to sex-kitten depending on when she was drinking. It was writing about work that got me into trouble first: the original URL got circulated somehow, and blithely, I went off for a bathroom break and returned to find everyone looking daggers at me. The culprit was, of course, the one person I never wrote about. That drove me into anonymity in the way nothing else could. I suddenly realized I could get into deep professional trouble for this (my boss and his boss were both mentioned) and so I just stopped writing about work entirely, and tightened people’s pseudonyms when I did.
Several years later, at a bar in Bombay, an ex-boyfriend called to shout at me. It had been four or five years since I had last written about him, but he had apparently just discovered it. (I refrained from rolling my eyes, saying, “Where have you been?”) “I wish we had never dated at all, you stupid bitch!” he said. Ironically, it was our breakup – his and mine – that led to the blog being so widely read. People had never seen an Indian girl laying it all out there, piece by painful piece.
It didn’t always use to be like that for me and the blog. When I started, I had four readers, and I can still remember their names: April and Hina and Jay and Mint. April and Mint were mommy bloggers, Hina worked in Delhi’s corporate world, Jay was a gay man in London. We never asked each other for real names or real jobs, I trusted that what they told me was true. For my four readers, I had to log in at least twice a week, so they’d know I wasn’t dead. “Yay!” they said to me, when I said I was finally over my ex; “Awww” I said to April when her kid puked; “Details!” we begged Jay when he came back from a date. I remember clearly when April commented again, a few years later, when I had more comments, from other people, and she had been off the scene for a while, “Hi! It’s me! I’m here! Where’s Hina?” There was no Hina after that first year; Mint sent me a Facebook friend request three years later. I heard from Jay when I was in London, but I never met him. Those were my early readers, and they were the first strangers who ever read about my life. And, even though they didn’t have to, they read about it with respect and love.
I have a folder in my Gmail inbox which I created many years ago, but which I unearthed recently, doing a clean up. It’s called “Weird/Hate Mail” and it was where I was collecting things to possibly turn into a new post series, like an agony aunt column, but where people said they hated me, basically. Here are two. [All unedited for spelling and grammar.]
“No hi's and hellos let me come straight to the point. Before coming to what i wanted to tell let me tell you, 'i hate you'. No, wait don't go away this isn't a hate mail. Just wanted to make you know i am not an admirer of yours plainly because i love reading better stuffs.”
“Hi eM ,
1. I like your name , Meenakshi . Very cute indeed . I am using your name in my next story.
2.I had been a regular visitor of your blog for a long time .I have a blog which no one reads. But still i write there as i cannot live without writing .
3.I feel you have lost your charm in writing somewhere last year . Did all the fame affect your writing ? Your book was not that good either.
4.Im a big fan of your father . Convey my regards to him.”
I recently did a search for “trolls” on my blog, and when several pages of hits came up, I chose a few to share here.
In response to a post about being up for a blog award somewhere in 2008:
“You REALLY think people will vote for a slut like you, especially when you look at what you are up against?”
More abuse followed, which I decided to delete all those years ago, which sparked off this comment from possibly the same person:
“You can delete all you want eM.... everyone here knows the truth: Shallow and Superficial - you and the people around you. Go on then, show us those boobies! In case you haven't realised thats what all your pussy-boy readers really want.”
In response to a post on breaking up with a man I thought I loved:
“Sorry things didn't work out. I read all the comments on your blog and while I appreciate the sympathy behind them, no one is really telling you what you need to know. Which is, "No one will buy the cow if the milk is free". Sorry if that sounds harsh, but its true. Next time (and there will be a next time) a little more restraint and self control might help.”
And so on and so forth.
My trolls were people who decided I wasn’t meant to be on the Internet writing about my life or trying to be happy. I don’t know why it upset them so much, the fact of me, the fact that I was, but it bothered them on a deep, almost visceral level, and they took every opportunity to try and bring me down.
It never got as far as rape threats, as in the widely read Pacific Standard article, but you could tell these were people online, anonymously, who hated me. It was weird. When I was younger, I wanted to confront them personally, say, “But you don’t even know me!” The emails were slightly more moderate than the comments, possibly because it takes a bit more effort to anonymize an email address. But the sentiment came through: I don’t like you.
You have to understand, at this point, I had been practically conditioned to being liked. My early days of being a Delicate Flower on the Internet, winning people over with my winsome, ladylike ways, had left a deeper mark than I thought. Not being liked is nowhere close to people threatening to hurt you, but it cuts deep nevertheless.
I don’t like you has dogged me from the second year of my blog to this day. My particular form of online harassment was the “Indians” (scare quotes) to mark them as separate from me – I don’t like you because you give Indian girls a bad name was a common one.
“I am an Indian girl!” I’d say over and over again, but they never seemed to believe me. Or maybe, it was never the same one. I felt almost pushed to give them credentials: I grew up in New Delhi. I never studied abroad. I have an Indian passport. One thing I apologized for over the years, over and over again, was the fact that I only wrote in English. Again, my readers from Kerala took it almost personally, “Why don’t you write in Malayalam?” they ask me, to this day. Would writing in Malayalam make me more Indian? Probably. Even though a majority of us city kids speak English as a first language, it’s still considered a foreign thing, an urban elite thing, putting yourself over other people by refusing to converse in a common tongue.
I am of the generation of confused Indians, rich-ish and privileged-ish, who only have that one way to communicate. Bollywood never appealed to me, and neither did cricket. I was already marked to be set apart, and the sad truth is, I realized this before my readers did. Therefore, the constant apology.
For Halloween last year, I dressed up as an Internet Troll Doll, and attached a note card with “You are a disgrace to Indian women!” to my clothing. Of course, I wrote about it with great glee on my blog the next week, and the comments it got were almost exactly like the costume itself.
“I am sorry but Indians having Halloween parties in India is so pretentious and ridiculous that I laughed for like five minutes straight. It is the absolute height of wannabe-ness. What's next? Will you be hosting a Thanksgiving dinner too?”
It seems like I can never win. This is the bit where I’d normally add a self-deprecatory smiley face to soften the blow, to add some humor to what I just said, but let’s just say it straight up: there will always be people who disagree with you.
But the cool thing about being ten years older is that I now know that that’s okay.
My online harassers are the same sort who lurk in Rediff’s comments section or get really angry about a word in Outlook magazine. They’re on the Internet to rage, and the Internet allows them to.
Maybe that’s why I took it so personally? Instinct told me to ignore them, ignore even when popular NRI blog Sepia Mutiny had someone in their comments section who pulled up my Orkut page and everyone commented on how unattractive I was. I could no longer hide behind the “I am hot!” of my typing. I wasn’t able to respond to a man at a dinner party who said, “Oh are you that blogger? You’re not as sexy as I thought you would be.” I was woefully unprepared for this, unprepared for boy bloggers creating pages dedicated to my (and other female bloggers) downfall. I was unprepared for how much it would hurt, this being pulled down for your life, and yes, I know I put it out there, but you never expect to be disliked so vocally, do you? Unless that is your goal in the first place.
There have been providential lucky things that came with being one of the first Indian women bloggers as well: a book deal, travelling, many friends. These are all fantastic things, and should also be taken as part of my journey. But even now, I get comments asking, beseeching almost, why I am so pretentious. Why am I so shallow? All we want to do is help you, is the general tone, but you make it so hard. This phenomenon has a term that I learnt during the recent Tarun Tejpal outcry: “concern trolling.” People who don’t really have your best interests at heart but want to give you some unsolicited advice anyway. My own particular Concern Trolls want me to be extremely aware that the life I live, and the things I write about are not really serious issues. I shouldn’t be wasting everyone’s valuable time with them. My Concern Trolls want everyone in the comments section to know that while they (the other readers) may be buying the stories of my life and are on my side, they aren’t for one second. I suck. I should be banished off the Internet. I don’t deserve attention.
Now there is Google, and there is Twitter, and that means almost the instant someone says they don’t like you, you can see it. You know that if you type, “So and so is such an ugly bitch” and send it as a tweet, there’s quite a high chance that So and So (that ugly bitch) is going to see it. Even though etiquette demands that you don’t respond to something unless it’s @you, sometimes I just watch all these people typing “I don’t like you” in some form or the other.
In these days of viral sharing being money however, people solicit the “I don’t like you” just enough to get a buzz around them. People are used to tossing off opinions on the Internet, and it’s cherished and encouraged. Every brand wants you to tell them what you think. Every celebrity wants you to buy whatever they’re selling. Engagement is power. Trolls are actually getting famous for being trolls.
It was soon after I wrote that last sentence a few days ago that I came across a Jimmy Kimmel sketch on YouTube. Celebrities were encouraged to read aloud mean tweets about them, which ranged from the incoherent abuse (“f*** you b****”) to the more well-thought-out (“I want to pee in [your] face.”) It was a way of trolling the trolls, but I couldn’t help thinking, why would anyone want to troll anyone else but celebrities, seeing as how your handle could be on national TV?
And so, after ten years of blogging, all my trolls have abandoned me for internet fame and fortune. Every now and then, one will pop up to remind me that they don’t like me, but for the most part, my readers now are like my gang of four: engaged and respectful. On Twitter, I talk to everyone, and so everyone is polite-ish, apart from the one odd user who sends hate tweets to everyone in the hope that he’ll get retweeted. My “fraandship” seekers are relegated to the “other” box on Facebook, one that I barely ever check.
My Internet, my very own personal Internet, has become my own again.
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of You Are Here, The Life & Times of Layla the Ordinary and Cold Feet. She also runs the successful blog Compulsive Confessions. She is currently dodging deadlines in New Delhi and Mumbai.