I just woke up one morning and decided not to do it anymore.
For what seems like decades, I'd been online and arguing. If someone used the the word feminazi, I'd be in there, explaining why that's not a useful term. If someone said all feminists should be killed – or indeed that I should be killed – I'd be in there having the idiotic argument. Of course I shouldn't be killed. Who would make my putative grandchildren's birthday cakes?
I'd use bad language, or even worse language.
Then I had to face-up. One, I would never be able to change anyone's mindset or behaviour through social media interaction. Two, it was using up my time. I had to recognise I could only be responsible for my own behaviour.
The first realisation frustrated me. I assumed if I bothered to write to someone, they would go away and read it. Men send things to me and I read them*. Usually. I mean usually, it's men who send me links to vast tracts: unsourced, uncritiqued, unevidenced. Still, I look. But I wasn't getting any cut-through by having a discussion based on evidence. Instead, I'd just end up in a link war.
What usually happened was that the response would be: "Yes, but." The "yes but" response seemed to cover everything from maternal mortality rates in Africa to the gender pay gap in Australian white collar industries.
The recognition that no amount of serious conversation would ever change the tenor of the conversation made me rethink the amount of time I spent attending to abusers. These people weren't really wanting to know more, instead they were behaving like parasites, sucking up my time and thinking, without ever contributing to the dialogue and by engaging, I was enabling that behaviour.
The comments used to upset me but they don't anymore. I know most of the tiny darlings who employ death threats or use other threats of violence are no more likely to actually carry out those threats than use their real names. As well, the abuse I copped made me respond in a similar way. I started using words I would never usually write or say. While I couldn't stop anyone from calling me a c--- or a f------, I could stop using those words myself.
My rule now is to engage with people whose opinions I value – which is not the same as engaging only with those with whom I agree. It's possible to express differing opinions with respect. I ignore and block those who call their bots to the yard; who call in their "multiple" supporters to engage in a pile-on.
Even after a week of my new management plan, I felt better. I didn't stop interacting online but I stopped reacting. If I recognised the beginnings of abusive behaviour, I'd use the tools provided by Facebook and Twitter to block or to mute and that was pretty much a transformation of my online experience.
The brilliant Tara Moss, author of much but most recently, Speaking Out, used her new book to write about online experiences and safety. She too says she used to engage.
"Any online discussion is likely to involve at least some percentage of comments that are graphically abusive, almost as a guarantee ... as a result, I now find myself needing to ban and block often, and in most cases a cursory glance at an abusive person's public feed will reveal that they literally abuse people in this way during all of their spare time."
That was happening to me. I got louder and more aggressive and, at the same time, more frightened. She says that level of discourse has made women turn off.
"[That] has made a lot of women back away from online spaces, which I think is a shame, and a kind of failure of democracy. We can't let the bullies win."
There are, of course, many different ways to deal with bullies and abusers. Greens NSW MP Mehreen Faruqi began "Love Letters to Mehreen" on Facebook to take control and respond with humour.
"It's important to expose it to let people know that these things are happening and that this is a lived reality for many of us which should not be ignored."
The second realisation, that I was wasting my time, had a significant impact on my life. I'd become obsessed with the battles rather than the outcomes. Ignoring the haters gave me more time to do useful work, and had a direct impact on my mental wellbeing.
Emma Jane, an academic at the University of NSW who researches gendered cyberhate, says her early findings show women who chose to block and delete, those kinds of strategies, tended to report "an improved psychological state". It's early days and she says she can only generalise at this stage.
Jane has never engaged with haters and has continued to receive the same level of hate mail and abuse over a 20-year period; but she says she can't know whether it would be different if she'd engaged and tried to talk bullies around, although one of the subjects of her research did a convincing persuasion job with an abuser.
Well done them but I don't have time – or the will – for that any more.
*Rebecca Solnit wrote a brilliant essay called Men Explain Things to Me. I recommend it.