Being A Woman Online Isn’t Just Surviving The Abuse, It’s Fielding The Reply Guys

No matter how much you prove you have a brain and you’re allowed to sit at the big table – a random man on the internet will always talk to you like you’re an eight-year-old, Jess Brammar writes.
HuffPost UK

Recently, a colleague of mine, Chris, tweeted an innocuous comment about one of those niggly irritants of modern life. “We need to have a national conversation about the lack of plug sockets on trains,” he wrote. He received one reply, four ‘likes’ and no one else was interested.

Chris doesn’t really feel that strongly about plug sockets on trains – or, if he does, he’s never mentioned it to me. But I’d asked him to tweet that pretty inoffensive statement as a form of social experiment, because those were the exact words I had tweeted a few weeks before on a 7am train from London to Salford. But unlike Chris, I received a flood of replies.

If you’re a woman, you’ll probably get what I’m talking about immediately. If you’re a man, you probably won’t. I’ve tried to explain this phenomenon to male colleagues and friends countless times, but, like so many things, it’s hard to see it, let alone understand it, unless it happens to you.

I’m not talking about abuse. That is sadly part of day-to-day life on Twitter and many colleagues get it regardless of gender, especially the ones who express political opinions. Abuse of women online is well-documented, not least by this extremely thorough Amnesty report that found Twitter to be a “toxic place for women”. And it’s very clear that women of colour receive levels and types of abuse that white women like me do not.

But alongside the straightforward abuse that is by now publicly acknowledged – and to the majority of the population, wholly unacceptable – there is something more complex, less offensive, but incredibly exhausting nonetheless. Sometimes it’s so subtle you barely notice it but it’s always there, always wearing, and just reserved for us women.

It is, broadly, the general sense that men have the right to weigh in on any statement made by a woman, because their opinion is as welcome, relevant and wanted as the original point, something Mashable has termed “the curse of the reply guy”. A non-stop unsolicited stream of pedantry and condescension.

No tweet is too mundane to escape this phenomenon, no response too patronising. And the fact that no matter how senior a woman becomes, or how credible she is – no matter how much you prove you have a brain and you’re allowed to sit at the big table – a random man on the internet will always feel the need to talk to you like you’re an eight-year-old.

These replies are not coming from trolls, or co-ordinated posts from Russian bots. They are from real-life men who are probably the sort of people who would be reasonably polite to you if they met you in the street, albeit slightly disdainful about the length of your skirt. It’s the verbal equivalent of the way some male drivers of a certain age direct you to cross the road with an entitled, patrician wave of the hand, even though you have the right-of-way.

It even feels odd to try and describe this phenomenon, such is the extent to which it is sewn into a woman’s interactions with the world from being a little girl. It’s something that is just part of the furniture for half of the world’s population and completely invisible to vast swathes of the other.

As for my original, innocuous tweet about plug sockets on trains? It received over 600 ‘likes’, so I’m obviously not the only person who thinks that every time I have to sit on a train for over an hour, I should automatically be able to charge all my devices to make up for it. Sixty-three people agreed strongly enough to retweet it. And 87 people replied.

The majority of those responses were from (literally) fellow travellers sharing in my plug socket angst.

And then the Reply Guys turned up.

“Perhaps a national conversation [is needed] about why people need them constantly! It’s possible to survive a few hours off line and communicate with people in the same place,” one said.

It was early, I was still filled with the optimism of the day, so I replied to point out that I was working and that taking four hours of the working day to read a book might be a bit much.

“From what I’ve seen on trains very few people are actually working. They all claim to be, but it’s Facebook/ Twitter/ instagram/ YouTube / solitaire/ angry birds etc mostly”. I mean, I was editing pieces for our website, and making some notes for my talk that afternoon, on a laptop battery that needed to last all day, but sure.

Next up was Richard, who was angry enough to write: “Since when was it the trains [sic] job to sort your admin out ?”

“Everyone has mobile batteries,” replied another man. “Why? Why not make sure you charged everything before you left for the train?” chipped in another.

“Yep that’s really important. Read a bloody book.”

“Try getting off social media for the journey......[sic] must be addicted.”

I mean, who knows, maybe these keyboard warriors are women posing as men, but they had male profile pictures, male names, and I have decades of experience of being spoken to like this by men, so I’m willing to leave this one unfactchecked.

At one point, a woman broke in to say she finds herself “constantly doing that polite British thing saying to the person next to me, ‘Do you need the plug? No you have it if you need it,’ then we keep offering it to teach other at different points in the journey!”.

Luckily there was a man on hand to make sure she learned her lesson: “Seat differently,” came the inevitable response.

One of my favourite replies was from the man who felt the need to tweet at me: “Blimey lass if you could sit down and get any heating it were a miracle in my day buy a flipping charger.”

I’m 36, and I run a national news outlet. In a previous life I was the deputy editor of a flagship BBC political news show. But if I ever feel the terrifying approach of middle age, the Twitter Reply Guys will always be there to knock off about 28 years.

Jess Brammar is executive editor of HuffPost UK

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