Addicts talk about hitting “rock bottom” with their vice, and given that I am definitely addicted to the internet, I know exactly when I reached mine. It wasn’t the multiple times I Googled the 1990 Bacardi advert five minutes before a deadline, purely to relive that glorious moment from my youth when alcohol advertised itself by promising it would make you so drunk you would fancy your Aunt Beryl. Nor was it the times my children tried to get my attention but I was otherwise engaged in the deeply important task of seeing how many likes a photo of them got on Instagram. (I should call social services on myself but I’m looking something up on my phone, so I can’t actually use it to make a call. Sorry, kids!) No, it came three years ago in a hotel room in Los Angeles.
Now, I love Los Angeles, but instead of enjoying the palm trees and the hipsters on this trip, I spent it inside my hotel staring at my laptop. Someone back in Britain had taken deep offence at a throwaway line I’d written about – and I swear I’m not making this up – the salaries of footballers and, as is the way with such things, marshalled their online troops so that hundreds of people were screaming at me on Twitter. For two days, I tried to engage with these furious warriors, because having all these angry voices coming out of my computer made me feel like the most loathed person in the world and I was determined to fix this. On the third day, my boyfriend called and ordered me to go out, leave my phone behind and take a break. So I did. And as I sat on Santa Monica beach, I realised my relationship with the internet had to change.
It’s easy to hate the web for turning us all into narcissists with ADD, and probably easier for me than most. My life is now spent in this weird tug-of-war of alternately relying on the web and fighting with it. I have no idea how I’d do my job without it, and when I watch movies about journalists set before its advent it is, for me, like watching movies about people who lived without indoor plumbing or modern medicine. How did they function?
On the other hand, I do genuinely believe Shakespeare, Jane Austen and anyone else who wanted to do stuff before the internet had it easy. OK, they didn’t have the aforementioned indoor plumbing, but any muppet can write The Tempest if there’s nothing else to do but catch smallpox. But writing an 800-word column while resisting the siren call of online gossip? That’s a literary triumph.
When I started working in 2000, the only contact I had with readers came in the form of the very, very occasional letter. Now people tell me, at all times of day – by email, by Twitter, in comments beneath articles – exactly what they think of my work. As my rock bottom moment in LA suggested, that can be unnerving, especially if you try to engage with people, as I do. I can easily spend five times as long dealing with the reactions to my articles as I do writing them.
But I don’t hate the web. Aside from all its obvious benefits – I can go shopping without the inconvenience of getting off my butt, I can keep in touch with friends abroad – it has brought some more unexpected joys. So, yes, strangers can yell at me – but they can also be lovely to me. One of my favourite things about the web is the other female journalists I have met online, who now offer one another advice, support and many, many jokes. And that’s nice, isn’t it?
Second, sure, some readers get angry about footballers’ salaries, but others teach me loads – including things I wouldn’t necessarily learn in my own tiny, real world. Once, some readers got cross at me for objecting to Beyoncé featuring in a sexy photoshoot, photographed by the creepy Terry Richardson. Young, mainly black women tweeted me, pointing out I hadn’t acknowledged sufficiently how important it was to have a black woman celebrated as sexy. And guess what? I hadn’t. So while I maintain my objections to Richardson were definitely right, my criticisms of Beyoncé probably weren’t.
But most of all, the web has taught me – an inveterate people-pleaser – that I can never please all the people. So I need to stop trying and instead write what I truly believe, and then get on with my day. It took the web to teach me to stop looking to others for validation, and as benefits go, that might even beat access to old Bacardi adverts.