I started at Jezebel as a weekend blogger, which meant there were no editors or friends or co-workers to bounce headlines or blog topics off of. Just me, my dumb ideas, and the commenters who popped in to correct my spelling and tell me when my ideas were particularly dumb. It’s a weird feeling, relying on digital applause or jeers to parse whether or not one is doing a good job, but those weekends did have the added bonus of making me incredibly insensitive to namecalling and death threats, which would pop up no matter what I wrote. Eventually, I’d heard it all so many times, I became numb to it.
For most people, it’s common knowledge that the anonymity of the internet allows people to be the worst possible versions of themselves. So it seems odd that Billie Eilish, who has been Instagram-famous for much of her life (and is a teen), is just now dealing with trolls. Vanity Fair has recorded Eilish naming her number of followers on the same day every year for the past three years. That number has gone from large (over 200,000) to unfathomable (40 million). Until very recently, she seems to have been using comments from those followers the same way I did as a weekend blogger—for feedback and a sense of community. But the more famous she gets, the greater the volume of negative feedback, and according to Eilish, she’s not listening anymore:
“I stopped reading comments fully,” Eilish said in an interview with BBC Breakfast. “It was ruining my life. Like, the cooler the things you get to do are, the more people hate you. It’s crazy.”
In the interview, Eilish also acknowledges that she should have stopped reading the comments awhile back but enjoyed staying “in touch with the fans,” which sounds like code for “reading nice things about myself online.” Now, Eilish seems to have fallen victim to a very internet-specific fear that she’s going to get canceled by a faceless mob for some transgression:
“I don’t know, dude. It’s crazy,” Eilish said. “Cancel culture is insane. I mean, that’s not what has been happening. It’s just been, like, just the internet is a bunch of trolls, you know? And it’s, like, the problem is a lot of it is really funny. I think that’s the issue—that’s why nobody really stops because it’s funny.”
Of course, being popular on Instagram was an integral part of her path to fame, a CV bullet point that is becoming increasingly important for entry into many professions. Just about every industry even tangentially related to entertainment, whether it’s music, modeling, even writing, seemingly requires a certain number of followers for admission. I’ve commiserated with novelists who say their books have been rejected by big five publishing houses partially because they don’t have enough Twitter followers and talked to others who feel pretty sure they’ve been turned away from media jobs for similar reasons. I know professors who dread potential Google searches by employers because of negative and sometimes untrue Rate My Professor reviews. It seems healthy to turn off the comments or ignore social media, but for a lot of people, that’s impossible. Walking away from the internet has become a luxury that’s out of reach for a great many people, although for all of our mental well-being, it really shouldn’t be.