The classic mantra of reading, writing and merely existing on the Internet is “Don’t read the comments.” Internet comments, and Facebook comments in particular, are widely discredited as a cesspool of nastiness and trolling. If the writer or subject of a given article is anyone other than a straight, white man, the comments are even worse. God forbid a post explicitly be about any sort of social justice topic—the comments on a post about bigotry inevitably prove its point.
I actually love Facebook comments. A big part of my job in social media is reading feedback on articles and talks in comment threads, and they can be insightful and even heartwarming. Whenever a publication shares a post by or about me on their Facebook page, I make sure to jump into the comments and introduce myself so that interested readers can find my official page more easily. Yes, sexist trolls and conservative assholes pop up to talk about what a gross slut I am. But I often find, regardless of what the publication is or how positively (and occasionally negatively) they wrote about me, strangers will defend me from these attacks. They share better information about how herpes works, answer the questions of others, offer their own stories, and thank me profusely for the work I am doing.
Because herpes impacts everyone, and I mean everyone, it creates a bond between otherwise unrelated groups of people: married conservative grandparents, sexual assault survivors, health professionals, unlucky virgins, radical college students, and the everyday unidentified lurker. I see a huge culture of upstanding—people leaving nice comments to balance out the negative ones, defending each other, and making conversations more human. To learn more about how to be an upstander in online communities, I recommend watching Monica Lewinsky’s powerful TED Talk about public shaming.
That being said, every once in awhile a comment thread will spiral out of control. It is easiest for this happen on Facebook, where anyone can comment without making a commitment (registering for a separate account, having their remarks held for moderation, etc). The “liking” system pulls popular comments to the top of the thread, which can be a blessing or a curse. On Facebook, people frequently if not mostly comment without actually clicking through to the article in question. It is also impossible to turn off comments on Facbook, unlike commenting platforms on most websites and notably on YouTube. Facebook’s design makes it very challenging to promote healthy conversations.
When BuzzFeed shared its article about me on its primary Facebook page, I knew that thread would not be a good place. BuzzFeed has over 5 million Facebook likes and generally is not known for the intellectual engagement of its audience. The post went up around midnight on Friday night (when the page’s moderators were no doubt offline, if they moderate their comment threads at all), and the war over who could be the most clever, obnoxious, and entertaining began. There were a lot of memes, some of which made me laugh but most of which made no sense (the “Why the fuck you lyin’?” guy made an appearance, despite me very clearly not lying about being herpes+). Much of the thread was full of people calling me a reckless slut in response to the quote chosen to tease the article.
Much of the thread was also amazing; hundreds of people chimed in to defend me and correct misinformation. I also suspect there was a moderation sweep done between the time I first read the thread and now, when I went back to screen-cap comments. Yay for moderation!
I want to make this very clear: comments on a Facebook post are not proof that going public about having herpes is a mistake. I do not regret anything I have done, and this thread did not upset me. At this point I’m Teflon. It is also worth noting that not one person has reached out to me directly, either through my Facebook page, Twitter, or email contact form on my website, to say anything nasty to me as a result of the BuzzFeed article. The only nastiness has been in comments, which people assume I do not read.
The reason I am writing this post and sharing these awful comments is to show what herpes stigma is. People who are herpes negative might have a sense of herpes stigma, remembering a Judd Apatow joke here or a flippant insult there. But these comment threads are hard evidence of the gleeful, malicious way we talk about herpes as blood sport. If you are herpes negative, please read these comments.
If you have herpes, none of this is news to you, and you might want to stop here.
Trigger warning: Stigmatizing language, sexism, generally horrible human beings.
The most liked, most popular comment was actually great. I want to be Cody’s friend. I also love that 756 people recognized that this comment was excellent.
The second most popular comment, supposedly from a medical professional, derailed things. The poster’s dubious credentials made him seem like a trustworthy source and made a lot of horrible replies seem less horrible.
The third most popular comment was positive, but was replied to by a lot of terrible people. The commenter was personally attacked.
Other commenters wanted to tell my family that I had herpes (as if they don’t already know?).
Many argued that I was a reckless, slutty idiot.
Others told me my diagnosis was wrong and spread a ton of misinformation.
And then there were the memes.
This is what herpes stigma looks like. It’s slut-shaming. It’s sexism. It’s misinformation. It’s causal humor. It’s that comment we post that we don’t think twice about. It’s not one insult but thousands. It’s not one remark but a lifetime of ignorance and hatred. It is getting diagnosed, feeling terrible and alone, seeing a glimmer of hope in a Facebook post that comes across your newsfeed, and then scrolling down to see this.
If you want to help me fighting STI stigma, here’s what you can do: Read the Facebook comments. Participate. Like the comments worth reading and do not reward the ones that are awful. Correct misinformation, share your story, and refuse to let the Internet be a troll-infested mess.
The Internet belongs to all of us: It lets me spread this message, but I can’t do it alone.