Becoming Jolie - Transcript
This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled, “Becoming Jolie.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.
Listen to the episode here.
I’m Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.”
And I have a question for you:
Do you remember when you joined Instagram?
If you haven’t joined Instagram, I’m so proud of you. Or if Instagram isn’t your thing, do you remember joining Twitter, or Facebook, or Pinterest … or Reddit! Or AOL chat rooms back in the ‘90s. Do you remember, this is the real question, do you remember what it was like to find connection and identity and validation from complete strangers?
I remember setting AIM away messages designed to make me seem more enticing or mysterious to my oblivious crushes who definitely weren’t wondering if the lyrics to “Wonderwall” were about them. And how could they be? I did not know what that song was about and truly even to this day do not. Don’t know what it’s about.
I remember writing blog posts and installing a hit counter and wondering: Who were those 10 people who were reading my words? I believe it was just me. Honestly. All 10 hits were me.
I remember making real life friends out of Tumblr followers, and signing up for Instagram and posting my first photo, which I think got possibly three likes.
But I asked today’s guest, Jolie, that same question:
Nora: Do you remember joining Instagram?
Jolie: I do. It was 2012. I was a little bit late to the game, I remember, because I was late to the smartphone game, but I remember that it was 2012 because I remember that I was pregnant with my oldest. It kind of felt the way that blogging felt in the beginning, where it was like, “Hey, I'm new here!” Like, “Hey, check out this account!” Like everything was really friendly, and people were really interested in finding new people to connect with. I remember that my account was public when I first made it. And at that point I was still a teacher. I was not on Instagram with the intent of, like, let me make a public account and try to, like, get an audience. That was not on my radar. The intent was more like, this is a fun new place to, like, meet people. And it was sort of a bridge at that point in my life. I had been blogging personally for a while, and I had made connections with people all across the country through my blog — not a ton, but like, I had made some friendships. And so reconnecting with those people in a new platform was, like, fun and exciting.
Jolie’s account was called “Becoming Jolie.” She was young. She was newly married … and she was becoming whoever she was going to be.
Jolie: In February of 2013, I had just had my first child. I was married to my current husband Sean, who at the time was in residency for medicine, so he was really busy. We lived in a little townhouse near downtown Columbus, and I decided shortly after having my daughter that I was going to stay home, just for the sake of, like, sanity for our whole family, because Sean was working like, 80 hours a week. I probably made like, 40 grand a year or something. And so, like, a third of my paycheck or more was going to go to child care if I stayed in teaching. So I just decided to stay home. So I spent the majority of 2013 at home with a newborn who was a terrible sleeper. [laughs] And that was the same year that I also was like, “Oh, shit, I don't actually want to be a stay-at-home mom, but I just quit this job that was, like, the only job I'm licensed to do.” And so that's when I started doing the very beginning of Brimm Papery. And social media was really the crux of all of that. Like, that was the only avenue I really knew how to maneuver to sell something.
Jolie made calendars, mugs, cards … all created with her hand-written calligraphy. I found her through a mug that said,“Girl, you are one boss bitch,” which arrived as a gift. I followed Brim Papery, and eventually Becoming Jolie … because I figured, if I like this work, I’ll like the woman who made it.
And I was right. Jolie was witty and clever and funny and beautiful, like her work.
I never thought about if it was weird for me to follow her personal account, and it didn’t feel weird.
Jolie: I definitely got to a point where I noticed people following my personal account, which definitely was intertwined with my business account. I mean, I didn't hide the fact that I had a personal account. I would often share on my Brimm Papery account, like, “Hi, my name is Jolie. I own and operate this business. Here is my personal account, if you want to follow along.” But I guess, in my mind, there's a real specific imagery for me of influencer. I never ... I had very sparse partnerships with brands that were, like, exceptions for me. I think I probably did, at the most, maybe half a dozen things where, like, someone either paid me or I did a lot of like, women who own small businesses would ask to like, “Can I send you my stuff and could you share it?” And I always did that because to me that was like paying it forward. But as far as like me trying to like ... I don't know, like write a blog post that had all affiliate links or like get a brand to, like, give me a Vitamix so I could then, like, put hashtag #ad in my videos and stuff, like that was never really my goal. This is going to sound really, really ridiculous. But like, if anything, like, I enjoyed comedy, like I enjoyed making people laugh and being funny and snarky, and like this isn't to say that I was like, trying to be a standup comedian, because I don't think that highly of my own humor. But, like, that's kind of the corner, the angle I was coming at with my Instagram and my public account for a lot of the time. I did kind of go through phases, though, where, you know, there were times where people started to treat me like an influencer and then as a way to sort of handle the influx of requests of like, “Where's your shirt from? Where's your lipstick from?” I would start to do affiliate links because I would be trying to problem solve. “OK, every time I do a story or put a post up, people want to know every single thing in the picture. So maybe I should put up affiliate links if I'm going to be doing all of this labor of typing to all these comments where every single thing is from.” To me an influencer in my mind is someone who specifically is aiming to monetize their account. And for me, monetizing my account was sort of like a reactive, like, “Well, I guess if I'm going to be spending time sourcing these things for people, then sure, I'll try to get some affiliate links because I don't really want to be spending a bunch of my time writing links for like what eyebrow pencil I'm using.”
What Jolie just said there -- about monetizing her account -- let’s talk about that for a minute. There’s no inherent value in building an Instagram following, or a Twitter following, or a Facebook following. Platforms like TikTok and YouTube compensate digital creators for the amount of views and engagements their videos get. So on TikTok, by the way, I am taking off. I have made $8 — eight dollars on TikTok! So that's pretty big time.
Instagram has started to sort of offer that kind of monetization, but it’s really not at the same level of something like a YouTube, where YouTube makes money off of ads seen by viewers, but also so do creators. But it’s not a lot, and most creators don’t make anything compared to what these platforms make.
I turned on monetization on my own Instagram videos and so far have made $17. Seventeen dollars!
So aside from the fickle gases of public approval and the dopamine of likes and comments, the only way to make money is to...
Get sponsorships -- get brands who will pay to be featured on your social media.
Use affiliate links -- where you get a small percentage of the purchase for an item that you link to.
But sponsorships do need to feel authentic, and they’re an added piece of work for Jolie, who is also a stay-at-home mom running a small business.
And affiliate links are usually pennies on the dollar for a purchase, and you have to find the product someone is asking about, create the link, and then send it and HOPE they buy it through that link. Some influencers -- people with millions of followers -- can make a HUGE amount of money through both of those things. But Jolie wasn’t, and she tried to make the distinction to the people following her.
Jolie: I got in hot water so many times trying to address that with my following, because, like I said, and I'm not ... this is not me, you know, being critical of influencers inherently. Like I think that there is room for that. Honestly, I commend women that are finding a way. Like, I still don't think it's easy for women, particularly mothers, to have work and have families. I think it's really difficult. And so if there are women out there that are using the Internet while they're at home in order to get income, like, I have no room to criticize that. What I always found really interesting was that nobody seemed to delineate online a woman who had a large account and a woman who had a large account and was an influencer. For example, I was always very vulnerable about my marriage, my faith, or my leaving of my faith, parenthood, friendships. I would do, like, videos or Instagram stories talking about depression. And I would be getting DMs, like, “I know this is off topic, but your lipstick is literally perfect. Would you mind sharing where it's from?” And I would get a lot of flak for like ... showcasing that and being like, “Hey, guys, you can't walk into a stranger's place online, see that they have a large account and assume that they are here to serve you capitalistically. Like, that's not necessarily how this works. And not everything that you go to online, particularly with a woman, is inherently transactional.”
On her business account, it’s Jolie’s job to reply to comments. To answer questions about the products she has created and is selling the brand that is helping to support her family while her husband is in residency. But on her personal account, she just wants to be able to be a person … not a brand.
But that’s a boundary that’s hard for people to understand, because so much of the growth of Instagram has aligned with the growth of the “Personal Brand,” the idea that every person is also a brand, a business, and their following are their customers … even when there is no transaction to facilitate outside of time and attention.
And if you have a personal brand, then people have to also like you, personally … which also means that you have to be likeable to thousands of strangers who don’t know you personally.
And the thing about brands — as a person who worked in marketing, I know a lot of people who work in marketing are going to disagree with this — but brands are not people. Marketers spend so much time and money trying to personalize a brand to you. Trying to give a brand personality. But what a brand really is … is a bunch of rules. It is a bunch of rules and parameters for a company to operate inside of so that their customer can recognize them and hopefully form some loyalty. People are not brands. People are inherently messy and complicated. As Whitman said, “We contain multitudes.” Brands don’t.
Jolie: It frustrated me that that was just kind of the culture. And if you address that, I really don't feel like there's any way. I did it so many different ways. I would do it kindly. I would do it snarkily. No one ever liked my sarcasm or my sense of humor about it. It made me a bitch. But I mean, a lot of that also came from, you know, people walk onto my page online and it's like, “Yeah, oh, that's this thin white woman who has an attractive doctor husband and two cute kids. And she's doing this dream job,” like, people kind of just hated me from the get go.
Not everyone hated her, but it didn’t matter. The negative comments and messages from complete strangers who have never met Jolie but have opinions about her life … they add up.
Jolie: I think everyone can agree that whenever you get negative feedback, that negative feedback can be two percent of your pie of feedback, but that two percent can just, like, mushroom in your mind and your spirit. It takes up so much more of your energy and you forget about that other ninety-eight percent of. Either good or neutral feedback. I definitely got so much great feedback. It does include what you're saying, which is like random people being like, “Oh my God, I love you so much. Your kids are so cute. You're so funny.” Like just, like, random like injections of like, ego affirmation. But beyond that, I really did feel for many years that the specific group of people in my following that stuck with me and interacted with me was a really special community. When I did talk about just the humanity end of things. When I talked about having postpartum depression and having just regular old depression and generalized anxiety disorder and, you know, I've talked through fairly openly about seasons of my marriage where we were really close to divorcing. Any time I talked in depth about those things, it brought out a lot of really meaningful, heartfelt and compassionate dialog with a lot of my followers, some of it via DM, some of it via the comments section. And so for me, that did feed my soul. Mothering young children is in and of itself super isolating. Leaving your faith system that was borderline cult-like is very isolating. And so I took really isolating events for me to process them in a landscape that was really the only accessible one for me at the time with a partner that worked a lot and two little kids and was able to really make a lot of connections with other human beings and women who were like, “Oh my God, me too! And no one in my church ever talks about faith like this or no one ever talks about their marriage like this. It's so nice to hear that someone else has these kind of thoughts and is not too ashamed to just say them.” I am still, to this day, getting emails and DMs of women. This week, a woman emailed me and said that she is in the process of leaving her faith system and that it has, like, really continued to carry her to think about the things that I shared when I left my faith.
There is value in sharing, and in this kind of connection. I have felt that! And there is real depletion in opening up this app and seeing strangers insult her: insult her parenting, her marriage, her looks.
Jolie mentioned a negativity bias -- a tendency to amplify or remember the negative feedback. Like Julia Roberts’ character Vivian in “Pretty Woman” says, “The bad stuff is easier to believe. You ever notice that?”
And as easy as it is to dismiss that, to say, “Oh come on, it’s strangers on the internet! Not real people!” People on the internet ARE real people. Real people are choosing to follow her page, and not all of them are following her because they’re interested in her, or her family, or her marriage, or whatever she’s posting about that day.
We’re going to take a quick break here.
It’s 2017 or 2018, and Jolie has been on Instagram for years now. She’s a mother of two, her husband is out of residency, and her online stationery business is growing.
Instagram is sometimes annoying, but it’s also a part of her job, and it has brought her connection with other women who have left their faith, or work at home, or are raising small kids.
And here’s where things take a turn.
Jolie: Someone sent me a link to at the time it was GOMI, which is a website. It's an acronym for Get Off My Internet or Internets, one or the other, which I believe that site still exists. And it's kind of like, I think you could harken it to, like, Reddit, but for, like, exclusively for Internet gossip? Influencer gossip? I don't know. So somebody sent me a link to a thread on GOMI and it was a link dedicated to me. And it was just, you know, people just talking shit about me for a variety of things.
Nora: You when you clicked that link, what were the kinds of things being said?
Jolie: Um, you know, it's ... there's a few different veins of criticism that they went through. A lot of it was that I was a very self-obsessed narcissist, that I was a heartless bitch, that my husband tolerated me but they could tell that my husband hated me, that my children deserved a better mother. I think I'm beautiful but I'm really not, like, just honest. I mean, really just like whatever you can think of was probably in there somewhere. I would say the biggest veins were that I am a narcissist and out of touch and that I'm a huge bitch.
I checked the GOMI thread, and Jolie’s characterization of it is pretty accurate. A lot of it is recapping the things she posted with commentary, and the commentary is … stuff like this:
For someone who obviously thinks herself sooooo enlightened about everything, she is mostly just a whiny complainer who seems like she pretty much resents her life 95% of the time. On a more petty note, one of her front teeth is discolored, and it's all I can see.
She is the literal worst. She didn't mention anything in her Instagram stories that poked holes in her character. Just things that could be easily brushed off. Shocker. I feel bad for her husband. He is a f**king doctor and she's over here all wah poor me, my life is so hard. F**k you. You live in suburbia America and can follow your dream of being a small business owner and have two kids that you didn't even have to try that hard to conceive. You live the most comfortable life.
Nora: What does it feel like to see those things? Like what does it do to your body?
Jolie: I mean, it … it feels … it feels very traumatic in the moment, like your body goes into, like overdrive. Your heart rate goes up, my face got flushed. I was incredibly sweaty. I physically, my body would, like, tremble. Like, my hands and my arms would, like, tremble without my brain's consent. Really nauseous, sick to my stomach. A ton of physical reactions, actually. It's interesting that you ask that. Shortness of breath, like it's very it's, it's, it's, a very strange and shocking and scary feeling.
Jolie has discovered a little corner of the internet dedicated to documenting her and judging her. There are pages and pages of people recapping her every post and adding their opinions … anonymously. And Jolie doesn’t have to look, of course, but she does.
Jolie: I went through this phase where I, like, trained myself to read these forums regularly and I would, like, train myself to ground myself while I read it to the point where I could read it without feeling any physical reaction. I don't know why I did that. I think it was like a thing I wanted to challenge myself with. Like, “I don't want these people and their stupid opinions to have any power over me.” But the physical reactions were so real.
Nora: Would it affect the way you shared things online?
Jolie: One hundred percent. Yeah, I mean, I probably had anywhere between five and ten thousand followers. So at this point in time, I had completely lost the ability to know all of my followers. So at this point in time, I'm at a point where I'm sharing things constantly on social media. Now I know that there is a small swath of followers who watch me so that they can go back and dissect and discuss and criticize me later. And so there was definitely a long period of time for months where I would start to record something and then be like, “I can't do this, because I know that they're going to watch this and this is what they're going to take away from it,” which was funny because they always speculated that I was way more calculated and premeditated than I was. I am an extremely off-the-cuff person to this day online. I mean, I still have a business account for my current business and I still involve myself a bit on that account. And nothing that I do is- I've never been the type of person who sits down with like those, you can buy programs where you plan out your social media posts. That's never, ever been me. And so for me, my content was always through and through, what do I feel like talking about this second as I press record? And that's how I functioned. And I don't even mean to like, herald that as like that's the way. That was just how I functioned. And finding out that there were people that hated me so much, I was more reserved by that point. Or I would start to make content, and then I would, like, qualify that content after. Like, I would make an Instagram story. And then afterwards I would be like, “And just so you know,” and then I would like,speak to whatever criticism I thought I was about to get, which in and of itself is annoying on both of the giving and the receiving end. It wasn't a great look, but it was kind of where I was at the time. As alluded, I have both depression and anxiety. And so I was already in therapy just for the sake of trying to be a healthy person. But this topic definitely came up in my therapy sessions because. I think everybody's different, you know, but my personality, I'm an Enneagram 3, and I'm also just like a huge people pleaser and for however hard and unaffected and confident I ever came off, I was always very sensitive and very rattled to discover that people thought so poorly of me and desperately like wanted them to think better of me. But then going through these phases of like, well, that ... that's not the point either. I don't want to spend my time trying to make sure that these people that are anonymous, like, approve of me. So it does a lot. It took up a lot of mental space, both to recover from like, feeling verbally assaulted online, whether it be directly or indirectly, but also to just kind of work through mentally, like, what do I think of this? What does that mean for me? Do I react to this? Do I not react to this?
And when she posts about it on her page, what it feels like to see these things, that makes it worse. The posts become things like:
You hope we're never in the situation we're putting you in? YOU ARE PUTTING YOURSELF IN THIS SITUATION. You share these videos of yourself voluntarily.
Which … she does make these posts voluntarily, yes. AND …
Jolie: I did also get feedback via DM. I would get nasty comments, most of the time from anonymous usernames. But to me, the entire arc of logic of like, well, if you exist publicly online, then you ask for any feedback that you get, and if you can't handle it, like if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen … to me, like, that is like one step away from like, “Well, sweet pea, if you don't want to get raped, then don't walk outside in that skirt.” Like, I don't understand how these women can't equate or at least liken the logic of, “If you don't want to be verbally assaulted or attacked or fill in the blank, then don't say or do anything when anyone can see you.” Like to me, it's such an obvious internalization of patriarchy. It's maddening to me.
We are not, as people, expected or required to like everyone. You’re not even required to be nice to everyone! It’s well within your rights to spend your time just talking crap about other people, and it’s also, by the way, part of our human nature. And this group of people who love to hate Jolie are about to hate her a whole lot more.
It starts with an article that was written in 2019. And this article is really niche internet, if ya know you know, and I don’t want to get into the details because it opens up several other cans of worms. But it centers around a young woman who was accused of falsifying her experiences and other things. And this article was a big deal in some internet circles, and Jolie and her friends are texting back and forth about the article … and about the author of the article.
Jolie: In this text conversation, I certainly was not living out my highest self. We were bashing the author of this article. I just thought that the author ... it didn't have- hold a lot of respect for her, or how she went about her article, or what her aim was, and et cetera, et cetera. And so a bit of this conversation was screenshot and shared.
Jolie’s name had been taken off the screenshot, and she’d told her friend that it was fine to share it. And it was fine … for a little while.
Jolie: I think it was either the same evening or the next day that we’d had the conversation on our phones. And I started to get DMs of people I didn't know. I got DMs being like, “I know this is you in this text conversation. And I'm so disgusted that you blame women for their sexual assault.” I probably got like, three or four messages like that. And, you know, immediately that same visceral physical reaction.
Heart pounding. Mind racing. The cortisol pumping.
Jolie and her friends had been discussing sexual assault (something the author discussed in the article) on their group text … but they were NOT talking about that in the part of the text thread that was shared online. In the portion that was shared, they were discussing another, separate part of the article.
Jolie: Where that came up from is that she did recall, in the same article, in a different spot, she had, like, gone on a date or something and had some kind of sexual assault with a guy. My angle here, which should be obvious, but I'll spell it out: I never, ever think that a woman is responsible or any human being is responsible for being in an uncomfortable position, whether that's physically or sexually or whatever. When I say that she needed to take accountability for what happened, I definitively mean that she needed to take accountability for being OK with her friends leaving her alone in a bar in Amsterdam in the middle of the night and then having a bad night. Like, I don't at all mean that she's responsible for being catcalled or having advances made on her.
The texts are shitty. They are! At least parts of them. And they’re out of context. They’re the private chattings of two friends … the words then sort of put on display for thousands of people, all of whom are strangers.
And some of these strangers think, “Wow, these women are assholes,” and they react in a way that is … truly just how people react to things they don’t like: by saying online, “This is a shitty thing to say!”
Others take their opinions off social media and start going after Jolie’s real, offline life.
Jolie: So this brand that I was supposed to be the keynote speaker for started getting influxed with comments about me and saying, “Do you know that your keynote speaker doesn't support women? She blames women for their sexual assault,” and tagging me. I, my friend Jenny, who owns Jenny's Ice Cream here in Columbus, was also scheduled to speak at an event at my storefront. And she started to get tags and emails and things sent to her to try to dissuade her from doing a speaking gig with me. So that was the point, within a few days of time, where I was like, “I really don't think it matters what I say or do. [laughs feebly] This is just the direction that this is going to go.”
We’re going to take another quick break.
Things are going from bad to worse. Jolie is pulled from the conference she was going to keynote. People who follow Jolie or associate with her get messages telling them not to associate with her. Jolie’s store in Columbus starts getting bad reviews on Google — reviews that have nothing to do with her store and everything to do with her. Who she is. Or who she’s perceived to be. The forums fill up with commentary about her being a victim blamer, about how the apology she ends up issuing is self-serving, or insincere, or monstrous.
Here’s an example:
Jolie is a privileged white woman who sits up in her ivory tower, spewing down hate and horse shit. And when the shit gets thrown back up at her, she shuts up the tower- just like she shuts down her IG. She is a performative feminist. She is not an advocate for *ANYONE.* She is an advocate for herself. She is a toxic person walking around pretending like she gives a sh*t for praise and internet points to feed her fragile ego. Jolie is one of the worst kinds of people.
Comments in this same vein also make it into her direct messages.
Jolie: It was, it was probably about 70 percent, what we would call throwaway accounts, meaning like, profiles that have no profile picture, or their name is just gibberish, there's no followers, no following, no posts. So these are accounts that are created specifically to just use anonymously.
There’s no way to truly speak to the intentions of another person, but what’s happening to Jolie -- a trial by public opinion, a shaming -- is so common there are books written about it. Actually, Monica Lewinsky just came out with a documentary about it on HBO Max that is amazing. For books, I recommend So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson, which was published waaaaay back in 2015.
Jennifer Jacquet, the author of Is Shame Necessary? wrote that, “When shame works without destroying anyone’s life, when it leads to reform and reintegration … or, even better, when it acts as a deterrent against bad behavior, shaming is performing optimally.”
But how do we know it’s performing optimally?
Jolie’s aware of the mistake — that she spoke unkindly and publicly and anonymously about another person. that she engaged in the kind of behavior that hurt her when other people did it.
And after the apology, the messages didn’t stop. The forums didn’t stop. The comments didn’t stop. Because there’s no solid measure to what equates to accountability when you’re talking about strangers to strangers.
Jolie: For like, four straight weeks, any time I got a DM or my phone buzzed, it was like, I would get hives because I was like, “Is this another email?” Is this- I had local businesses that I had never had contact with reach out to me and say, “Hey, I got this email sent to me by this, like, strange email address. It has this screenshot of a text conversation and they're saying that it's you and that you blame women for their rape.” Like, I was having to explain the situation to professionals in my city that I didn't even know, because these people were like, making it their full-time job to, like, go around and evangelize against me, essentially. And so every time my email would open or my phone would buzz or I would get a DM, it would be like this huge surge of cortisol and stress of like, what is this going to be this time?
Law Professor Danielle Keats Citron, a privacy and free speech expert, estimated that 30-40 percent of us would experience digital shame in our lifetimes. That’s a lot of us, a lot of us teetering on the edge of drinking from a firehouse of online shame that has real-life consequences. Because if you Google Jolie … you’ll find those forums on the FIRST page of her results.
And it’s not just Jolie. While making this episode, Chrissy Teigen, a supermodel/cookbook author/TV host/internet personality quit Twitter. She was back three weeks later, but still. Then she quit Instagram. Then she was back. A lot has happened!
While making this episode, a popular YouTuber died by suicide. She had been struggling with depression and her father cited incessant hate comments as having a big effect on her. No duh.
What’s missing from interactions like this is that both/and. A person can SAY something shitty or even DO something shitty or even BE shitty … and still have a right to live their life. To have productive employment and relationships with their friends and family.
There are lots of people for whom their Worst Moment or their Dumbest Moment is THE defining moment for them online and therefore off. And if we know that we’re not our worst or best moments, if all of us exist somewhere on a plane, a constant sliding scale between our best and worst selves, good and bad behavior, why is it so hard for us to put that into practice with each other?
There’s a great book called Shame Nation by Sue Scheff, which I’ve read a few times. In it, she references a study by Yale researchers that suggests that actions like this — shaming a person publicly — “can boost our own reputation and signal to the larger group that we are not selfish ourselves.” It’s how we signal to other people what kind of people we are, by identifying what we believe to be wrong.
The internet and social media are a huge way for us to be seen. We share our lives, our photos, our stories, not just “for other people” but because it gives us something. It gives us attention and connection. It gives us dopamine and oxytocin.
We all need attention. Plants need attention! Animals need attention! But how much attention do we really need? And what kinds?
I’m eagerly awaiting the longitudinal studies on the effects of so much attention on all of us, what it does to us psychologically to each be living in our own version of “The Truman Show,” a reality TV programmed by, starring and produced by us for an audience of mostly strangers.
The leaked documents from Facebook showed that internal researchers knew that young users could trace their eating disorders, poor self-image and worsened mental health -- including suicidal ideation -- back to Instagram.
And I’m not a teenager. Jolie’s not a teenager. But the effects are clear. She feels shaky and unsafe, and the time and energy she could be spending on her young children is being sucked into the torture device that is her telephone, where she feels like no matter what she says about herself or her intentions, there will be a stranger telling her why she is wrong … and working to convince other people of the same.
Jolie: The mechanism fully clicked for me that the people coming for me had no interest in truly understanding if I was the person I said I was or if I intended to do better by myself or by other people. That was never what they wanted. And so it didn't matter. It truly didn't matter if I tried to make anything right.
There’s a difference between accountability and punishment. And like most people, I'm not sure where that line is. And to even engage with this topic using an example like Jolie does feel risky, and probably is risky, like poking a righteous bear. But if we want people to behave better, to learn … is shaming and punishing the best way to do it?
Jolie: I remember sitting in my car and I just, like, started crying. I made the story and was like, “I can't do this anymore.” Like, for as many amazing interactions that I've had here, for as much good as I have either received or given on this platform, this is now to a point where it is severely harming my mental health. I cannot in good conscience like, stay here. It's a disservice to my family. It's a disservice to my friend. and to myself. So I made that story and I was like crying while I made it. And then I sat in my car for like, 45 minutes and just manually started deleting people from my following.
It takes days, but she removes 13,000 of her followers, one by one.
Jolie: On Reddit, they were like, making fun of or like, questioning why I deleted everyone by hand instead of just starting a new account like they were like, “Man, she's such a narcissist, like she can't even she can't even fully delete her account, like she doesn't want to delete the famous people that are following her.” [laughs] But really, it was like, “No, I want ownership of this space that is mine. I'm not going to delete the last five years of content that I made simply so that, like, I can say I deleted it that way.” Like, that's not what I want. What I want is for the strangers to be out of this space. And so I did it that way.
Nora: Also, your name is “Becoming Jolie.” Who did you become when you got to delete all these strangers?
Jolie: It was really strange. I know you have some idea because you did follow me before and after. But I think people really had this idea that, like, what I was on my public account was this, like, grand performance of like, she's just doing this because she loves to be watched, but like, I personally feel like I've been the same person the entire time I've had an account, from when it was public to when I deleted everyone. I feel like I do the same shenanigans that I've always done or talk about, the same stuff I've talked about. It just felt funny in a good way, you know, it felt funny and strange. But it also just felt like a real relief. And truly, to this day, I still feel a real sense of relief. I think that people thought that I really relied on all of the feedback and applause and back pats and attention that I got. And I think, you know, I definitely think, of course, that felt great and was fun and was a lot of dopamine. But certainly, like, there's no real replacement for, like, actual peace. [laughs] I would much rather feel the peace that I have now than, like, getting to have six strangers a day tell me they like my hair, you know, so it's been great. And it hurt so much in the beginning. But now I feel a lot of gratitude for where it took me and what it taught me. I miss the community that I do think is possible, despite all of the snarky ness we have around the faux community in the influencer world. I really did feel like I had a strong community that was poisoned by about probably less than one hundred people, and it just poisoned the experience to the point where I couldn't keep it going and that really bums me out.
Nora: You mentioned that you learned a lot from this. What did you learn?
Jolie: I think I learned a lot about myself. it kind of forced me to reevaluate social media and reevaluate vulnerability and publicity and any of the space in between. I lived in kind of this instinctively exposed frame of mind all the time. It was like I had just accepted this title for myself of, “I'm a capital V vulnerable person online and I share it all.” And to so abruptly shut that door and say, “Nope, now I'm a private person and none of you get access to me and I don't have to talk into my phone and I'm not going to share whatever outfit I'm wearing today.” Like, I do feel like that took me into a different headspace. And again, I want to be careful because I think there's room for all of that. And I, I don't mean to act like I've crossed over from, like immaturity to maturity. I think that mature people can exist on both sides of these lines. I think there was an element of me that really enjoyed the attention. And so getting to a space now where not only do I not need that attention, but I don't really even want it at that level, has been a really interesting shift for me. I've thought endlessly about cancel culture and how much I used to work so hard to be palatable and acceptable to everyone in the sense of, like, being PC and just coming to a place of acceptance where I understand that so many people online that are roaming around looking to police and catch others have no interest in true community, connection, reconciliation, recourse. Certainly, I don't think that I don't mean to say like, “Oh, we can never criticize anyone for anything.” I certainly have been the type of person who's like been on Twitter like, “Oooohhhh, hashtag problematic. Never, never following that person again online or like, never shopping at fill-in-the-blank again.”
I have been on both sides of the Internet Rage Machine. I’ve stoked its fires, and I’ve felt the burn. My friend Laura McKowen -- you heard from her in the episode “9 Things” -- recently wrote about her own decision to leave social media. In her blog post -- which I’ll link it -- she wrote of Instagram:
“It alters my perception of reality such that I can no longer distinguish between what’s real and what’s not. It makes the circle of concern—the people to whom I am accountable, and can provide feedback on my life—so large that I become paranoid and cannot function properly.”
And that happens even after Jolie deletes all those followers, when she winnows it down to people she knows. Someone is still taking screenshots and posting them to these forums. It’s disorienting and frightening for her, wondering who in her life is a person who really just hates her.
Laura McKowan called social media a bouncy house, and I’m quoting her again:
“As we all know, even the far corner of the bouncy house isn’t really safe. If some shithead wants to propel you towards the middle with the force of a really big bounce, they can. Even if you curl yourself into the fetal position in the corner, you can still feel the motion ripples from everyone else bombing around. The only way to feel like you have any control in a bouncy house is to jump bigger and deeper than anyone else, but you can only do that for so long before you’re gassed. Ultimately, no matter what strategy you take, if you spend too long in the bouncy house, you’re going to take a knee to the eye socket, toss your cookies, or both."
So Jolie is out of the bouncy house, and back on solid ground.
Jolie: What's been interesting for me is that I have thought about in the last year different ways that I might be able to, like, slowly dip my foot or my toe back into that water. And I always within an hour, I'm always like, “Nope, I'm good.”
This has been “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” I’m Nora McInerny. Our production team is Marcel Malekebu, Jordan Turgeon, Jeyca Maldonad-Medina and, sometimes, Megan Palmer. We love Megan Palmer. I recorded this in my closet in Phoenix, AZ.
I’ve got a lot of … I dunno, I feel, I have a lot of deep feelings about the internet. The internet giveth and the internet taketh away. Social media is wonderful, it’s how I connect with so many of you, and it’s also sometimes extremely depleting and frightening to watch the ways in which we dehumanize each other.
And if you have reactions to this episode, I would love for you to email them to me: firstname.lastname@example.org and I will … I think there’s more to say, and I’ll do it on TTFA Premium … which somebody noted is not a few bucks, not a couple of bucks a month, because a couple is two. Well where I come from a couple can literally mean any number at all. Any number at all could be a couple. Okay?
And where do I come from? Hell. Thank you for asking. All right.
What else? I think that’s it? I appreciate all of you. And yeah. And if you can’t relate to this episode, I’m so glad. I’m so glad. So glad.
“Terrible, Thanks for Asking” is a production of APM Studios at American Public Media. Executive producer and editor Beth Pearlman. Executives in charge Lily Kim, Alex Shaffert, Joanne Griffith.