The Challenge of Being Female on the Internet

I had a friend request from myself.

Worse than the unsettling experience of receiving a friend request from you that you hadn’t sent was the fact that it wasn’t really surprising at all. Since, for the past week or two, I’d been occasionally contacted by a Goodreads account that was an exact copy of my own.

As someone who has discovered a love for rereading books I loved in childhood, I set a goal of rereading every Sarah Dessen book in 2018. As I finished another reread of the queen of middle school literature, I logged into Goodreads to update my review.

Before I did, I checked my notifications. And saw my own profile picture. My name, with the same lowercase E I use on my profiles.

“emma started following you.”

“emma commented on your review of The Moon and More.”

I clicked the comment. My review of The Moon and More, another Sarah Dessen book, indicated my pleasant surprise at finding a condemnation of the phrase “not like other girls” in a 2009 book. For context, probably zero authors in 2018 know that that’s not a cool thing to say.

This fake me commented, “I changed my mind. I just finished rereading Along for the Ride, and Sarah Dessen is a total racist.”

In addition to the creepiness of being impersonated, and the disgust at some internet troll calling a completely innocent author racist, there was something more unsettling: I’d logged in in order to update that I’d reread Along for the Ride. I’d never marked it as currently reading: either it was a lucky guess by the impersonator, or they somehow had access to my browser history and could see the library ebook version I’d finished.

I was so anxious I felt sick to my stomach, but not panicked enough to think the latter situation was likely. I reported the account to Goodreads, deleted the comment, and moved on.

But I couldn’t stop refreshing the impersonator’s page as the account set a reading challenge identical to mine, as it friended my friends, as it operated as me. When the troll realized I’d deleted the comment, they ragefully wrote that I was actually a hacker and they were me, forced to create a new account as I continued to pretend to be, well, me. I deleted the comment again.

I posted on Instagram about it. I reported the account again, and the friend request it sent me. But days passed, and nothing happened.

Soon it became clear that the account was being run by another troll – one I’d blocked after he commented strange things on everything I posted. My roommate and I, having seen countless episodes of Catfish, reverse image searched his profile picture. Eventually, we found that he was using the photos of a Massachusetts man, who was married to a woman who had once taught a class I took last semester, though she wasn’t my professor.

Eventually, Goodreads took down the impostor, apologizing for the delay. But the original profile of the troll who ran it still exists, and I got a friend request two days ago from an account with an email address close to his username.

Ultimately, the troll didn’t do any damage to me beyond a couple weeks of increased stress and anxiety. But it was a reminder of something I hadn’t forgotten: It’s really hard to be a woman on the internet.

Since I started a public, book-related Instagram in 2015, I’ve been getting weird comments and messages, always from men, often sexually harassing in nature. The mere fact of my having the nerve to write about books on profiles with my face on them has opened me up to a series of unpleasant interactions. Yet there hadn’t been one like this.

While I appreciate Goodreads’ response in taking down the profile, and the sympathetic, righteously angry responses of the people I told about it, I’m not going to be able to forget that it happened. 

The Goodreads site is a prime example of the difficulties of being non-male on the internet. As the vast majority of the site’s users are women, it attracts a number of men for reasons other than an interest in reading. So while it may seem surprising that this would happen to me on GR, of all places, it’s really anything but. My desire to talk about things I love in the way I want to talk about them made me a target for some troll, and showing my face on public profiles has made me a target for dozens of men. To be a woman on the internet is, often, to be targeted.

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