When I first started writing on the internet (for the now defunct xoJane) my comments sections and Twitter mentions were mostly filled with wonderful, supportive women and non-binary people. There would be the occasional angry man in my inbox, but writing about food for a woman-focused website meant I didn’t deal with men on the internet on a grand scale, as they weren’t reading what I wrote.
Things are different now. My audience has shifted towards the the cis-, hetero-male side of the spectrum, which isn’t inherently bad, but there has been a noticeable difference in my overall social media experience. Most noticeable is the presence of the reply guy.
In Chloe Bryan’s Mashable article, “The Curse of the Twitter Reply Guy,” Bryan describes reply guys as “overly familiar” men who reply to women’s tweets like it’s their job, adding their own little take, no matter the subject. (One odd type of reply guy I get is one that routinely brings my work to the attention of another, more influential man, publicly asking him for his blessing and/or critique.) If you are a woman with a Twitter account, you probably have at least one reply guy committed to giving feedback on every tweet you put out into the world, and you probably have a few feelings about it. Bryan goes on to explain the different types of reply guys—there are nine!—and spends some time discussing how to deal with them. She settles on muting or blocking but—in my experience—that can quickly turn into a game of shitty whack-a-mole.
Since this is a problem with the men, the onus should be on the men to stop this quasi-benevolent sexist nonsense. (Of course people who are not men are capable of being shitty on the internet, but even my most interactive female and non-binary followers have never replied with the consistency and constancy of a reply guy.) Reply guys are not necessarily ill-intentioned, nor are they outright trolls, so it’s reasonable to assume that they would like to interact with women in a way that isn’t annoying, threatening, or downright scary.
How do you know if you’re a reply guy? A quick and easy test is to check in with yourself and see how you’re feeling in this moment. Do you feel sympathetic towards the women of the internet and the “feedback” they get on a daily basis? Great, you’re probably not a reply guy. Do you feel hurt, embarrassed, or mildly attacked? You might be a reply guy, but one who probably doesn’t wish to be. Do you feel angry at me, believe this is all part of the job, and have a strong urge to blow up my mentions? Maybe talk it out with an IRL friend (or therapist) and think about why it’s so important to constantly comment, add to, or critique the work women put out into the world, and why you think someone you do not know personally owes you a response.
It’s not about you, dude
A reply guy, in his simplest form, is a man who replies in the hopes of getting attention, usually making the conversation about himself. Rather than consume, appreciate, and (maybe) retweet content, they have to relate it to their life, experiences, and worldview—they have to make little edits, even though they are not part of the editing process.
On a small scale, replying is not bad, and as a Leo and “internet personality,” I too struggle with the impulse to make everything about me, to add my two cents, and to contribute to a conversation no one asked me to be part of. The internet is a great place to share ideas and start discussions, but if you are doing this over and over to one particular, non-male person, know that you are draining them. Like death by a metric fuckton of paper cuts, these tiny micro-criticisms and demands for attention annoy (at best) and intimidate (at worst). (You shouldn’t do this to anyone, no matter the gender, but the inherent power dynamics of a capitalist, patriarchal society make it much easier for men to dismiss, block, or otherwise deal with other men on the internet without fear of retribution.)
Criticisms may be constructive, helpful, and sent with the best intentions, but they are rarely wanted. If you are critiquing due to some paternalistic desire to “help them improve and succeed,” realize that you are communicating that you think the original work is flawed or subpar in some way. If that’s how you really feel, maybe you should seek out other creators you consider to be more skilled or proficient, or create something yourself. (Also, if you feel you are “doing them a favor” by reading and/or sharing their content, pause and consider just how patronizing that sounds.)
Why am I even on Twitter?
That’s a great question. Why are any of us on that terrible website? Though I am not contractually obligated to tweet, I do consider it to be a good networking tool, an easy way to keep up on food trends (which I write about), and an important part of organizing online media (which I am passionate about).
Some of you may feel that women who are annoyed, fatigued, or vaguely threatened by reply guys are just too sensitive, but sensitivity is good, and steely emotional resistance is not and should not be a requirement for producing content for the internet, which is where most content lives now. Also, I think we should quit pretending that non-men rank the highest when it comes to being sensitive on the internet. (One word: Gillette.)
Things can get tricky because while some people work on the internet, some people use it solely for entertainment, which can create a really weird work environment for the former. Women, like anyone, deserve to use every resource available to promote their work, and the least you can do for the online women whose work you enjoy is make that weird work environment a little less weird.
I didn’t really want to write this
As I near the end of this article, a knot of anxiety is starting to form in my belly. I’m worried about the state of my inbox for the next couple of days, my Twitter mentions, and hurting the feelings of my (mostly great) male followers. Though I like men (a lot!) many unpleasant experiences make me wary, and sometimes downright afraid, of interacting with them, both online and in my real life. (This is not unique to me, obviously, and it’s the fact that it’s not unique that makes it, as the kids used to say “a thing.”)
Women shouldn’t have to make their worlds smaller so they don’t hurt men’s feelings, and being online is not an invitation to use a woman as a source of emotional labor. Could I mute or block my reply guys, as suggested by Bryan? Yes, but that can get tricky, both inside my brain and out. Even though it is my timeline, and I am free to curate it to my suit my mood, I—like most women—was brought up to be “nice,” and feel guilty about blocking people who haven’t done anything to “deserve it” (like threaten my life or call me a “dumb bitch”). Plus, there’s always the fear that a man scorned will turn vindictive.
Luckily, it’s easy to not be a reply guy—all you have to do is not compulsively reply to one person on Twitter, demand attention, or make someone else’s work all about you. If you find yourself replying to one person multiple times a day, and you do not know them personally, consider dialing it back. If you find yourself typing “not to be that guy…” stop what you are doing, and don’t be that guy. If you feel neglected or hurt by the fact an internet person hasn’t responded to your compliment, question, or criticism, keep in mind that no one is paying them to tweet, it is not part of their job, they may not have even seen your tweet, and tiny demands for tiny bits of emotional labor are still demands for labor. Supporting the work of someone you like online is nice, and a simple tweet or re-tweet of an article, piece of art, or link to a project—without expecting praise for doing so or putting your spin on it—is the best kind of support.