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Tuesday
May202014

Moms, Trolls, Blog Comments and Rebecca Eckler's "Mommy Mob"

When I first heard that Rebecca Eckler was going to be writing a book about the "Mommy Mob", I asked worriedly if she "names names". Then I went off and Googled to see if I'd ever written anything about Rebecca Eckler or if I'd ever commented on any of her blog posts. I knew of Rebecca and I knew I'd read some of her articles, but I didn't have a particular opinion of her or her writing before I learned that she was writing this book.

Image Credit: Eirik Solheim on Flickr

The Nasty Trolls of the Mommy Mob

It turns out other people, however, have some awfully strong opinions about Rebecca's writing and her book, The Mommy Mob, is all about exposing the nastiness. 

"Wow. Basically she just confessed to being a manipulative cow." -- On a blog post explaining how she hadn't changed a diaper for two months.

"You're pathetic. Of course you have to pay. The bottle was defective? Come on. I know your type. I can tell by the way you blog. You think you're something special because you're a single mom. You're not. Nothing unique here. ...Get over yourself." -- On a blog post about whether she should have to pay after her toddler dropped and broke a bottle of apple juice in a store.

"This is why the government needs to start testing people prior to approving them for reproduction. Otherwise people like Rebecca Eckler will continue to reproduce, creating more Rebecca Ecklers. Dumb breeds dumb." -- On a post about how the sight of a baby penis freaked her out.

Some of those are harsh. Some of the others are even harsher. While it didn't surprise me that people had strong opinions about some of the topics that Rebecca writes about (like leaving her 10 week old to go on vacation), I was shocked that other seemingly benign topics (like signing a kid up for lessons to learn to ride a bike) attracted the same type of nastiness.

I was shocked, but not particularly surprised. After all, there forums out there that serve no purpose other than picking apart every single status update, blog post, or real life sighting of bloggers that the forum's members don't like. There is paparazzi style stalking of some bloggers, there are people who have Child Protective Services sent to bloggers homes, and there are people who have called bloggers' employers. I'm not immune to the appeal of a little gossip here and there (no one is perfect), but some of this stuff is unbelievable, pathetic and even dangerous.

After reading The Mommy Mob, I asked Rebecca whether there was something in particular that motivated her to write the book. Was it a particular blog post or situation? She replied:

No, it was more a culmination of seeing all the horrid comments that made me think, 'Something is going on in this world, with social media, unmoderated comment boards, and the Internet where people can say whatever they damn well please, even if it's a complete lie, that made me think of etiquette not only with parenting choices but how we now judge each other behind our computer screens, as opposed to the good old days when women used to bitch over coffee. Now it's out there for the world to see. In my gut, I thought it was a great idea. Just so many people on the internet, commenting, starting their own blogs, 'branding' themselves...I could not tell you when I started working on it, because I still have baby brain from ten years ago It wasn't one post - it was being beaten down (verbally) for three years that made me think, "What the heck is wrong with some people? Don't agree? Fine. But there MUST be a nice way of conversing without adult/mothers turning on each other like children...

Some of the comments on Rebecca's blog posts were harsh, for sure. Enough to fill at least half a book. But there were also other comments featured in The Mommy Mob that didn't seem nearly as nasty. Ones that did seem like a civil (if not nice) way of conversing; part of a conversation on the topic at hand. The sample comments on the "I Hate Parent-Teacher Interviews" chapter, for example, generally seemed like a normal response to Rebecca's blog post. Some people agreed with her. Others disagreed with her and stated why. But for the most part, they weren't nasty or mean. They were just expressing a differing opinion and backing it up.

Can We Cultivate Civil Online Communities?

As I read some of those less harsh comments, it made me think about the ways we bloggers give our readers cues about the type of conversation we're hoping for. On my blog, I almost always ask a question at the end. In my interactions online, if I'm not looking for advice, I make that clear as well. Sometimes all you want is a high-five or a "hell yeah" or an empathetic ear, whereas other times we may be looking for insight into a situation and may want to hear other perspectives.There are many corners of the Internet where you simply should not read the comments and perhaps Mommyish (where Rebecca writes) is one of those places. But in curated, cultivated communities, setting the tone for what is appropriate and inappropriate can help keep the trolls at bay. Most of the nasty comments listed in Rebecca's book would have been immediately deleted from my blog.

It seems as though people can't accept that Rebecca is just telling a story, not writing a universal motherhood manifesto. Each parent's experience is different. Each parent's environment is different. Each parent's frame of reference is different. The fact that she wants a Prada purse for Mother's Day isn't less valid as a story just because someone else can't even be with their child for Mother's Day. But that openess to other people's stories and realities has to go both ways. Rebecca objected (rightfully so) to commenters calling her "the most selfish woman I've ever met", but at the same time wrote in her blog post that mothers who don't care about Mother's Day are either "saints or liars". Commenters (rightfully) objected to that. For some people Prada purses on Mother's Day are important, for other people spending time with their kids is important, for others being left alone to go to the spa is important, and for others a Hallmark holiday simply isn't a better reason to get a Prada purse or a macaroni picture frame than any other day of the year. But when did we lose the ability to have a sane conversation about these things? Is it really worth getting worked up over someone else's Mother's Day plans or desires?

Sometimes I wonder if it makes someone a better writer or a worse writer if they are able to look outside of their own situation and consider how the stories they're about to tell might look to others? Will people relate or will they see immense privilege? Will people nod in agreement or will their mouth gape open? Will people emphathize or will they think you're pathetic? Being able to predict how people will react to a story may make that writer less prone to criticism, but it could also take something away from the act of story telling itself.

In my case, being able to predict how people may react also makes me significantly less likely to share anything more than the absolutely mundane or lightly comical about my personal life. Being bullied as a child, I learned quickly that the best way to avoid the wrath of the bullies is to not give them anything to talk about. Blend in with the wallpaper if you can. They say "don't feed the trolls" and for the most part, I've tried my best to starve them to death. Other bloggers, however, whether they purposely lay out the buffet or inadvertently leave candy lying around, seem to be magnets for the trolls' large appetites.

The Book

Back to The Mommy Mob. As I read through the chapters, I realized that there are many, many ways that Rebecca and I do not see eye to eye when it comes to parenting and that's fine. As a blogger, the book and its exposé of trolls and overly concerned judgmental people, was hilarious. For those outside of this strange world, it may be shocking and eye opening. If nothing else, it is a jaw dropper and offers some good laughts.

My one criticism of the book is possibly the same thing that many people criticize about Rebecca's parenting articles. It was all about her blog, her readers and her trolls. We all know that blog trolls, judgmental parents, and Internet assholes are not unique to Rebecca's blog. They exist in just about every corner of the Internet and of the so-called "mommy blogosphere". I'd love to see a book looking at the wider issue one day. But again, perhaps that isn't Rebecca's style and wasn't the intent of her book.

----

In the interest of transparency...

In my Google search to see whether I'd written anything nasty about or on Rebecca's blog posts (i.e. am I one of the Mob Mommies), here's what I found.

In my blog post called The Mommy Wars Made Me a Better Parent, I wrote:

There is a lot to be said for the "I do what is right for my family and you do what is right for your family" philosophy. I have to admit (somewhat sheepishly), however, that I don't think those types of conversations would ever have caught my eye. So when I look at all the heated and sometimes hurtful discussions that happen on the Internet, I do think it is too bad that we can't all get along, but I also hope that they at least serve the purpose of making us think.

Recently, when Rebecca Eckler wrote about leaving her 10 week old baby to go on vacation and the Internet reacted viciously, my thought was: meh, maybe it forced someone to think about it in a way they hadn't considered. In this instance (unlike some of the "mommy wars"), I do think Eckler probably knew what she was getting into when she decided to write about it and she did it anyway. I'm not sure if she was thinking about other moms when she decided to write it, but I do think the conversation that it sparked probably forced a lot of new parents to consider whether they would ever leave a 10 week old baby to go away and also to consider what their own criteria might be for deciding when the right time is to take a vacation without their kids.

There is so much that is awful and hurtful about people pointing a finger at a woman and saying that she is a bad parent. But is it awful for me to say that my parenting has benefited tremendously from those flame wars?

On Rebecca's post called Why I Chose to Have an Elective C-Section, I commented:

I think it is possible to distinguish between speaking about the risks of elective c-sections and judging women who do opt for an elective c-section. Same goes for breastfeeding versus formula feeding. There are risks to going to c-sections just as there are risks to formula. That doesn't mean that they are never the right option for any mother.

I think that in some cases those who promote natural birth and breastfeeding do go too far and end up criticizing mothers who could not or chose not to go that route. However, in other cases, moms who chose to have an elective c-section or who chose to formula feed also perceive judgment in any discussion of the risks of that practice.

I think if everyone (both those judging and being judged) took it a little less personally, maybe the discussions about these things could be more productive instead of turning into "mommy wars".

What do you think? Are Internet trolls an unavoidable occupational hazard when you're a personal blogger? Or is there a way to tell stories without becoming a target?

 

There is a lot to be said for the "I do what is right for my family and you do what is right for your family" philosophy. I have to admit (somewhat sheepishly), however, that I don't think those types of conversations would ever have caught my eye. So when I look at all the heated and sometimes hurtful discussions that happen on the Internet, I do think it is too bad that we can't all get along, but I also hope that they at least serve the purpose of making us think.

Recently, when Rebecca Eckler wrote about leaving her 10 week old baby to go on vacation and the Internet reacted viciously, my thought was: meh, maybe it forced someone to think about it in a way they hadn't considered. In this instance (unlike some of the "mommy wars"), I do think Eckler probably knew what she was getting into when she d ecided to write about it and she did it anyway. I'm not sure if she was thinking about other moms when she decided to write it, but I do think the conversation that it sparked probably forced a lot of new parents to consider whether they would ever leave a 10 week old baby to go away and also to consider what their own criteria might be for deciding when the right time is to take a vacation without their kids.

There is so much that is awful and hurtful about people pointing a finger at a woman and saying that she is a bad parent. But is it awful for me to say that my parenting has benefited tremendously from those flame wars?
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Reader Comments (21)

I'm looking for that big picture book, too. I'm concerned about the unmoderated or badly governed parts of the Internet allow trolls cyberbullies do harm others.

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJodine Chase

I think, in general, we can't cultivate a community of civility online because there really is no accountability for our comments. There's nobody standing in front of us, nobody to have a proper conversation with. It's easier to drop a comment and run away. I haven't read Rebecca's latest book, but I know her writing style, and I think there's a definite provocative angle to it, but I don't think that's a negative thing. She's entertaining, that's her motive. She provokes discussion, I assume that's also a motive.

But in a broader sense, I think people really love their opinions to feel like facts. For instance, I posted about my negative experience with midwives, and some of the comments were absolutely hideous. I removed them (for my sake, frankly), but I truly can't believe the awful things some people say to defend something that is just so subjective.

Anyhow. I totally rambled here, but the point is that expressing an opinion online is a big risk we have to understand. I would absolutely love to have some cruel commenters look me in the face though.

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

There is a book called Smarter Thank You Think by Clive Thompson that talks about how to cultivate civility in online groups. It is pretty interesting.

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterlaura

I read a great article recently on online social communities and trolling behaviors. It's called "Curbing Online Abuse Isn’t Impossible. Here’s Where We Start" and is written by Laura Hudson.

The main point to the article is that it's up to us to curb online abuse instead of just letting it sit there as if it's an expected part of participating in online discussion. If we expect more from people, then we can get better discussion and less trolling (similar to how we expect more from people in face-to-face interactions). So, for example, setting up particular commenting policies, and finding a moderation style that works for you can help to create the community that you want.

Granted, a lot of us probably go into this with very little understanding of what might happen without policies in place. I think there's always time to introduce commenting and community policy, though.

There's also the issue of abuse vs. disagreement which is often confused and probably another topic on its own. There's a lot to work out before we get it right, but creating policy is a step in the right direction.

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHeather Tovey

I don't love the subtle accusation that anyone who's a target of the psycho trolls is asking for it or brought it on themselves. Total victim blaming. It's not your fault you were bullied in school. Some people just look for features in others to exploit because they are cruel by nature. I got bullied for having red hair. My fault? Something I "gave" the bullies so they'd torment me? No. And it's not my fault there are so many psychos after me now, calling the cops on me for no reason, reporting me to the health department for no reason, saying I performed sex acts on my professors to get my perfect grades. Maybe I "give" them something by being out here doing my job, but if you're gonna go there, why not blame the rape victim for being out late at night?

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTheFeministBreeder

I think the mommy wars/troll battles have made me a more uncertain parent, because I now assume that people are judging whatever I do. For example, my 3-year-old is a runner. He bolts without warning. So while on vacation, I put him in a harness/on a leash because I didn't think I could keep him from darting into traffic and safely handle his baby sister, too. I felt super defensive the entire time about what people must be thinking of me for having my kid on a leash because I have spent too much time reading parenting boards where parents who do this are called horrible things.

I suppose if I had a thicker skin, this wouldn't matter, but the fact is that I don't, really. I'm still new to parenting and I'm not always sure what I'm doing is the right thing. I make what I think are the right decisions for my family, but sometimes I wish I was ignorant of the fact that there are a whole lot of people out there who think I'm a horrible mother for working/breastfeeding past one year/putting my kid on a leash occasionally/etc.

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

I think the word "troll", along with the word "bully" has been misappropriated by many bloggers. It really isn't trolling when someone disagrees with you, especially when you are deliberately posting provocative stuff to get clicks, as so many mom bloggers seem to do. It's fine to delete comments and ban people (a la The Feminist Breeder up there) when people are name calling or sabotaging the conversation, but what I've seen is many bloggers who delete and ban at the slightest hint of dissent. I guess that's their right, but it only makes them look rather foolish and lacking the courage of their convictions.
And just as a btw, Feminist Breeder, comparing yourself to rape victims is pretty disgusting.

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

TheFeministBreeder:

I wasn't making a subtle accusation that anyone who is a target of trolls brought it on themselves. You're right that it wasn't my fault that I was bullied in school and it also isn't your fault that you've been a target of trolls.

I think it is unfortunate that my reaction to that bullying was to try to blend in with the wallpaper as much as possible. It is also unfortunate that I simply do not feel comfortable sharing personal stories on the Internet and that some of my advocacy work gets watered down because I'm fearful of the trolls. Being fearful of trolls isn't the same as victim blaming.

I've certainly noticed that once someone becomes a target, they seem to forever remain a target. That has been the case with Rebecca Eckler and with many other bloggers and is also the case with many bullying victims. That is inexcusable.

May 21, 2014 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

Alex:

I don't delete things when people disagree, but I do delete things that are name calling. If people can't find a way to disagree and be civil about it, they don't belong on my blog.

May 21, 2014 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

I don't often read the comments on most blogs I read because either they are saccharine sweet, gushing over the blogger (OMG, I would never have thought of putting peanut butter and jelly on toast, what would I do without you to shape my life?) or they have way too much vitriol.

Many commenters also jump on other posters who dare disagree with the ever popular "haters gotta hate". I'm not a hater just because I don't bow down before the blogger, I'm not jealous, I'm not bitter. I find it unfortunate because I love debating and being challenged to look outside my world. @Alex - you are so correct in that disagreeing does not make someone a troll, yet certain bloggers treat dissenters as such.

Obviously many commenters (and bloggers) cross the line and start personal attacks but if all a blogger wants is rainbows and sunshine and affirmations of their brilliance, they need to make their blogs private or turn off comments.

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRae

I hope that readers who are really interested in thoughtful scholarship on the world of Mommy Blogs might check out May Friedman's book instead. http://49thshelf.com/Books/M/Mommyblogs-and-the-Changing-Face-of-Motherhood2

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKerry

I think it's so interesting that you say your parenting has benefited from the flame wars. I think that we all benefit from listening to dissenting voices in a conversation. In fact, I think that's how we best learn new ideas--and by that I don't just mean ideas that are new to us, but ideas that are new to the world. Conflict is part of invention. We create meaning not through smiling and nodding with one another, but by finding the edge s where our own experiences meet someone else's. Those differences and complexities make us better people, and we often can't find those edges without a little discomfort.

That said, I think the lack of civil discourse online is reflective of a larger cultural inability to handle conflict very productively. We tend to fall into either antagonistic or collaborative forms of discourse in our culture, and there's little room for other ways (like agonistic rhetoric) to handle tension without anger. We tend to see any disagreement as a fight rather than a contest. It's magnified all the more by the anonymity and distance that makes us less accountable for what we say to one another.

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBalancing Jane

Just posting as a neutral party, I don't find that there is a "Mommy Mob" out there in Rebecca's case. I went back to read some of her older articles and comments and it just seems that the posters are calling her out on her hypocrisy and self-entitled behaviour.

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

I think that there will always be trolling no matter what. I know when I was pregnant with my first I was very young and the only thing I seen online was MySpace for social media and I had no smart phone. I looked up info from my doctor or read a book. Then 6 years later when I was pregnant with my daughter I was on forums from pregnancy apps where there was so much hostility and then reading babycenter articles comments and blogs, I was shocked by all the mean bickering going on between women that has never meant, oh and some men too. And with Facebook pages the list goes on and on. It really is a warzone, the internet, that is. And with competition running rampant in the parenting world, so many people get defensive on their choices or about others. It's a shame really.

May 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCala

Sarah:

I've written many blog posts that would be considered calling people out, so it is something I have some experience in. I don't think it is necessary to use personal attacks to identify where someone has gone off track or done something inappropriate. In fact, I think throwing insults around significantly lessens the impact and validity of what is being said.

May 22, 2014 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

I've been reading this blog & Mommyish both for over a year now. While the commenting moderation at Mommyish is not stringent, most articles have comments that are within the realm of social norms outside of the internet. Their commenting community is pretty good at taking down the trolls, and keeping a sense of humour about things.
Eckler's articles do attract a lot of attention - many, many people disagree with her writing style, myself included. None of the other bloggers at Mommyish attract the same level of attention, trolling or vitriol.
I find her to be deliberately provocative in her articles, and find she often portrays herself as self-concerned with a side bonus of hypocrisy.
Do I think that people should call her names like a 6 year old child would? No.
Do I think Ms. Eckler should expect to have a lot of disagreement in the comments due to her writing style? Yes.
Do I think it is self serving of Ms. Eckler to write a book about internet trolls when, to my perception, many of her articles seem written to deliberately provoke those sort of responses? Yes.

May 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTB

Most of the time (not always) when someone says "disagreement is not the same thing as trolling," I automatically assume they're a troll. These people don't understand the difference. They understand there IS one, but they don't know where the bright line is. You can tell because as we saw from one of the commenters here who expressed that opinion, they often go on to imply that the only two other options are accepting only worshipful comments or shutting down blog comments. Again, there is a lack of understanding that there are other options besides tearing someone down, worshiping them, or not speaking at all.

I never had a problem differentiating between disagreement and trolling when I had troll issues. But every time, like clockwork, they'd try to gaslight me by saying they were "only" disagreeing. Nope. Nope nope nope nope nope. Begone with you, troll. Buh-bye.

All I ever really wanted was some discussion of whatever I was writing about at the time--to have people to talk to, since I've spent so much of my adult life socially isolated. (It wasn't even that I spent a lot of time online--see? anticipating the trolls--but that certain events in my life left me less than able to pursue a normal social life most of the time. Online was my consolation prize.) I didn't need people making it about my personal shortcomings, any more than I would want them to do that if we were talking in person. It's actually considered abusive to constantly pick apart someone's shortcomings in person. Well, guess what, people: it's no different online.

But you can't tell them anything. They are not the ones putting themselves out there and taking the risk. They're all comfortably anonymous behind their computer screens and they get to think they're right no matter what horrible things they say. Kind of like armchair-general politicians who send everyone else's sons and daughters into war but find loopholes to keep theirs home. I feel an equal degree of contempt and disgust for both.

I have a copy of Dr. Suzette Hadin Elgin's The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense and probably ought to study it in more depth. I mention it here because what I've already read of it helped me to clarify in my own mind why some of these types of comments have historically bothered me so much. Also because hopefully others will be inspired to seek out the book as well. She was a linguist in her working years and I love her insights.

June 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDana

This is the first time I read your blog, the blog is wonderful, the commets are wonderful, too. I will focus on your blog. Fighting for a colorful tomorrow!

June 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne G

Quote: "Sometimes I wonder if it makes someone a better writer or a worse writer if they are able to look outside of their own situation and consider how the stories they're about to tell might look to others…Will people nod in agreement or will their mouth gape open? Will people emphathize…? (predicting how people will react to a story)....could take something away from the act of story telling itself." ---- I think this quote sums up every attempt at telling any story. Whether it's on our personal Facebook, on our blog, an online article written for a news site, or a book. The simple truth is, no matter how well I think I know someone, I cannot predict how someone will react to something I write. I've been surprised by family or friends who react badly to something I wrote with the best intent in my heart.
As storytellers, we bring forth what is inside us. We try to do so with authenticity, put it out to the world and let go. People may love it or hate it. Some of the greatest writers in history wrote things that the "haters" jumped on (with their stories pubbed posthumously after society caught up with their bold way of thinking).
To the question, can we cultivate civil online communities? ...my answer is, it depends. Some people are incapable of civility on certain matters.

I believe most people have the capacity to be civil; however, anonymity lends itself to bullying/name calling. Also, when we're online (emailing, texting, commenting), the written word loses something in translation with regard to hot topics. If I'm face-to-face with someone, voice inflection and body language is incorporated into the conversation. Sometimes, without it, all people see is a computer screen and forget that someone is reading the words...and possibly feeling pain.

August 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMelanie Holmes

This blog sets out to give you readers some helpful tips to opening conversations and giving your child the best possible start in their educational journey through language and learning. It’s what I taught myself to do when Eddison was born and the bond we now have is unimaginable. Hopefully the information will allow you to go away and practice ‘how to talk to your baby daddy’. Have a wee read on…..

I wish it were easier to find "civil parents" but in this online world it can be difficult. Its okay to have an opinion by why must people feel that others can't have an opinion too (meaning a different opinion)! Whenever I see groups like the one mentioned...I run in the other direction! Share the love...we need a sisterhood not attackers.

October 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLindsay

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