I have been thinking afresh recently about envy, which is a thing I think about quite often. There are conversations being had online about trolling and trolls and I, personally, think a lot of it is tied in with envy and… I don’t know… I just think it’s an interesting subject.
For a start, the definition of the word “troll” is evolving. Once upon a time there were actual internet trolls, who sent very scary messages. But now a “troll” can be anyone who says anything even vaguely contradictory. Liv, who posts on Instagram as @ultimategirlgang is very firm on this. “Negative opinions are not trolling,” she says. “If someone calls you a ‘fat, ugly bitch’, that’s trolling” but, she goes on, just saying they think you’re ridiculous or they don’t like the way you do your hair – that’s not.
But now all “trolls”, with this new and elastic term often being defined by the person on the receiving end, are generally dismissed as just really, really dark, evil, bad, sub-humans rotting in their dank bedrooms with their sad little lives and grimy whatnots and probably beat their dogs and starve their kids and [cont.] – when in fact I don’t think they are.
A roomful of … not quite “trolls” but people whose attitude is somewhere in between slavish admiration and actual death threats … would probably be quite normal people. Probably good-looking, reasonably successful. Maybe very successful.
In many, many cases online negativity is motivated by envy. I mean, it’s not always envy, but quite a lot of low-level online negging is, I bet. (Which is why, by the way, I get almost none – at least not directly to me. What’s to envy?)
And it is this sort of “trolling” that I find really interesting – as I marvel at how envy can make a monster of anyone. I think that what living a life partly or almost wholly online has done is bring to the surface of our minds and whole being, is the poisonous feeling of envy.
Listen, I don’t have time to list here all the people I envy and why. Sometimes it’s for stupid little things – they have nicer hands than me (I hate my hands), or they have a wonderful tennis swing (I can’t really play tennis) or they can do a nice dive into a swimming pool (ha!) or they are able to get a nice tan. I envy even distribution of melanin! It’s tragic.
Sometimes I envy people for bigger things. They are richer. They are funnier, they are more successful. They have managed to get a big glossy piece into the Sunday Times Magazine while mine languishes on the stack. Their houses smell like washing powder – (how have they done that?? Mine used to smell of dead mice now it smells of cat food).
And envy, I’m talking real, proper envy that strikes you right in the solar plexus, that starts to fizzle at and dissolve your core like a powerful acid, that makes you feel small and mean and ugly and unsuccessful and defensive and panicky about all your life choices, takes you to a dark place. It’s why it’s a sin. It’s not the feeling itself that’s bad, it’s what it can make you do.
I must admit, I do occasionally troll people… in my head. As I’m sure we all do. We all have those thoughts, even if only briefly; and having the thought is not bad, it’s acting on it that is. I’m sure we all do our best not to let those dark thoughts metabolise into actual hate. The only difference between just being a normal, flawed person and a troll, (however you define the word), is the writing-down of it in a public space.
I see envy all around me, all the time. And I am fascinated by how niche envy can be – how someone I have no problem with at all can be someone else’s utter fixated idol of envy that keeps them awake at night. Similarly when I confess the people who drive me potty with envy others look at me like: Huh?
Once you start seeing it everywhere and what it does to people it is a relief to see that most people have a daily struggle to contain it. I know a screenwriter who is having a reasonably serious nervous breakdown because she cannot deal with the success of Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I have a friend who is a writer who has had to mute the Instagram account of a close friend because she (the friend) has written a book and my friend can’t really deal with it. (It’s not even a very good book! It hasn’t really sold any copies!) I have muted a few Instagram accounts of people I know and like, who nevertheless spark an unreasonably envy in me that I can’t really deal with.
And I feel, these days, like envy is a greater power than the human mind can reasonably be expected to cope with. The only recourse is to understand what it can do to you and then avoid the things you know make you feel it.
A story that has really stuck with me – about when a friend of mine stumbled on a friend of hers, (sorry, but I can’t be arsed with fake names), posting a really vile and strange comment underneath an Instagram posting from Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift!! I mean… anyway – my friend was shocked to see this comment from someone she regarded as measured and basically kind.
She used it to illustrate the fact that envy combined with the internet is an explosive and terrible combination. It can lead even reasonable people astray.
I also now recall about five years ago being directed by yet another friend (all these friends!) to one of those websites that specialises in take-downs of online celebrities – it was American and the thread in particular was about Cupcakes and Cashmere. My friend thought it was hilarious and incredibly satisfying to read; Emily whatsit of Cupcakes and Cashmere was clearly her person, her idol of envy. I read a bit of the thread and then just felt slightly like I was intruding on something and left and didn’t go back.
I’m not saying excuse or feel sorry for the trolls – for any trolls of any definition, I’m not saying it’s okay, (and I must add that the not writing-down of mean comments in a public space really is a crucial thing, I have never done it, I would never recommend it or encourage it), but I am saying that it’s in all of us. Sorry I don’t have a cleverer point to make than that. It’s just been on my mind.
How about you? Who is your idol of envy? You can always email me if you want to get it off your chest privately.