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Lauren Duca on What It Was Like Being a Person on the Internet in 2019

In one word: complicated

(Photo: Provided by Lauren Duca/Jena Cumbo)

In 2019, journalist and feminist Lauren Duca wore *a lot* of hats: published author (with the September 2019 release of her book, How to Start a Revolution: Young People and the Future of American Politics), University professor, subject of a now viral BuzzFeed profile (or “hit piece,” as Duca calls it) by writer Scaachi Koul, political activist, white feminist and, perhaps her most notable hat of all, person on the internet. Because if you did come across Duca’s name over the past year, chances are it was online and not in a super-favourable light.

Maybe it was tied to her controversial summer class at NYU (which did not end well), maybe it was the March 2019 Jezebel article that reported on rumours surrounding Duca’s exit from HuffPost, maybe it was her comparison (and then response to said comparison) to Caroline Calloway and accusations of white feminism or maybe it was one of the many (generally favourable) reviews of her book. Regardless, it seems that there would be no Lauren Duca—or at least the now viral, quasi-celeb version of her—without the internet, which has it pros and, as 2019 proved, its cons. Since emerging into the public consciousness with her 2016 Teen Vogue article “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America” and a simultaneous appearance on FOX News in which she (TBH rightfully) told host Tucker Carlson “You’re a sexist pig,” Duca has experienced ups and downs in public perception, with the past year making her name seemingly synonymous online with anything that’s deemed bad. Like Trump’s impeachment letter:

And anything written by white men deemed “geniuses.”

Not only are criticisms like these steeped in misogyny (looking at you @bilallsack), but by belittling Duca, they also belittle her whole goal, which is to inform young people that they have the right and a duty to engage in the political conversation.

So, what was it really like to be a person on the internet in 2019? In a word: complicated.

People have a preconceived idea of her

“People have all kinds of ideas about me,” says Duca. In Koul’s 2019 article, Duca comments that it’s “weird to interact with an idea of you.” So what exactly is that idea? Well, it depends on who you talk to. “I’ll be greeted on the street by someone who thinks that I am going to save them from Trump because they watched the Tucker Carlson interview, and I’m sure that there are people out there who read about me for the first time in the form of a hit piece,” Duca tells FLARE. “So the weird part is that there’s a fully formed image of who I am that is usually just [based on] a snippet or small piece of something I’ve put out into the world or someone else’s perception of me. And basically there’s kind of this distancing and alienation where I’m interacting with people who think they already know who I am.”

Which, to be clear, isn’t something that’s unique to public-facing figures, which Duca acknowledges. Any given person is subjected to different narratives by different people; she just faces a more “grotesque” version of it, she says.

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And it’s all the chatter around just exactly *who* Lauren Duca is that gets in the way of the message she is trying to get across in her work and how people interact with it. Duca refers specifically to Koul’s article, which was about what Koul saw as a disconnect between Duca’s brand and reality. The article makes mention of several unflattering rumours about Duca, including some from her time teaching at NYU (during which students filed a complaint with the university, chastising them for hiring someone “with more interest in promoting her book than teaching a group of students eager to learn” and claiming that she unfairly bullied a student). “I think that I have much to learn about being a college professor, and it was definitely a flawed course, but it’s entirely possible that I’m a great writer and not such a great teacher, and I still poured my heart and soul into this book,” says Duca.

Most frustrating, she says, are statements people have made suggesting that she can’t advocate against harassment when there are rumours circulating about her harassing a student (something she denies, saying that she hasn’t bullied anyone beyond how a teacher would bully a student who didn’t do their homework). “From where I’m sitting, I can just see it clearly as a deliberate attempt to use something unflattering about me and just metastasize it into this ridiculous, serious crime,” she says of the article. “And the entire point is to say ‘She is too silly and stupid, don’t bother with her, don’t bother with her work.'”

On whether or not pieces like the BuzzFeed article *have* changed how audiences interact with her political work, Duca says: “I think the fact that you’re asking me about it now [is evidence]. I spent years interviewing hundreds of young people, and we’re talking about this idiotic article for already far too long.”

She understands why people put her under such scrutiny…kind of

One of the main criticisms facing Duca is that she holds people to a high standard that she herself doesn’t meet (you know, based on the whole bullying allegation). Which she can understand—to an extent. “I have a lot of influence; I hook a lot of people’s attention, and I think that I do deserve a higher level of scrutiny because people are engaged with my thoughts,” she says. But the line has to be drawn somewhere, and, says Duca, people have gone way beyond that line. “I think that I’ve been held to the level of scrutiny of a presidential candidate.” She refers to claims made in the Jezebel article about her exit from HuffPost in 2015 amid accusations that she sent cruel and harassing anonymous emails to coworkers. “I fail to see how that has anything to do with my ability to work as a journalist or why the public would need a weird rumour about my life to understand my perspective of the world, which I am sharing in transparent detail,” she says.

Which means, says Duca, that she ensures that her audience has all the info it needs to understand her perspective on the world as an opinion journalist. “And so it doesn’t mean that if I have a fight at a bar I have to put out a public statement,” she says. “It doesn’t mean that if I behave like an asshole—which, by the way, I’m 100% going to do again, probably before the end of the year—that I can’t continue to be a journalist who is working to build equitable public power and get as many young people as possible to understand their right to be a part of the [political] conversation.

“It sort of feels to me as if a lot of the scrutiny that I’m held to is asking this question of whether or not I am a good person because the aim of my work is a higher, ethical good,” says Duca. (For the record: “I’d also argue that I definitely fucking am and my work speaks for itself.”) “And I guess I don’t know when I ever promised to be perfect,” she goes on. “In fact, I can promise you I’m not.” Which is a fair point and gets at one of the main issues with being a person on the internet: We hold public figures accountable and to a high ethical standard when they haven’t signed up for that. Or have they?

While Duca says she didn’t “remotely” expect this level of notoriety when Teen Vogue clicked “publish” on her Trump article, “When I look at it in retrospect, it feels like this otherworldly origin story to me,” she says. “My life is very much before and after.” And the “after” portion is something she has chosen to lean into. “I didn’t choose this to begin with,” she says of her notoriety, “[but] at this point I am choosing to maintain it.” And while it’s true that Duca is a journalist, it’s also true that in the age we’re in, a journalist isn’t just a journalist—they’re often a personality too. More than that, in many ways they’re influencers, something Duca herself has copped to being. In a December 2019 piece for The Nieman Lab on what 2020 will bring in journalism, Duca wrote: “Part of the job of the journalist is to make the significant interesting, and experimentation to this end will have its most exciting results through individuals who are able to establish a foundation of trust as guides to the great American dumpster fire. In 2020 and beyond, I hope to see the rise of the journalistic influencer: those who work to entertain the public with utmost allegiance to truth, motivated by the goal of establishing equitable public power.” While perhaps not an influencer in the typical sense, the point of the journalistic influencer, says Duca, is to draw in and engage the public by opening yourself up to them in a way your predecessors never did, although that then leaves you open to personal scrutiny.

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She may not be running for political office, but in many ways Duca has set herself up as the arbiter of *who* should be running, or at least who’s fit to run. So is it any surprise that, having set herself up as someone who calls out the unethical, those who look to her for insight (or those who look down on her for various, often misogynistic reasons) would do the same? In a time when the line between celebrity and journalist is becoming increasingly blurred and when celebrities are becoming the people we look to for cues when it comes to how we live our lives, the answer is no. It doesn’t mean it’s fair; it’s just the way it unfortunately (and typically for women) is.

She feels like she has reckoned with her privilege

Which brings us to another criticism that’s been levelled against the journalist and author: privilege. As of late, Duca has been criticized for subscribing to white feminism and for being able to co-opt the political climate to her advantage in a way women of colour wouldn’t be able to. The idea of privilege is something Duca touches on in chapter six of How to Start a Revolution while detailing her experience at a Harry Potter-themed leadership conference. “You don’t need to necessarily feel guilty about privilege,” one speaker said. “But think about how to undo that privilege and why we have it.”

Dismantling one’s privilege isn’t easy, but it’s something Duca feels she’s done through her work. “I have a ton of privilege, and I want to use it and I am using it,” she says. “As a white woman, whiteness is part of my identity, but I’m definitely able to even get away with surviving some of the hits in a way a woman of colour wouldn’t be. There’s all kinds of privilege that we all have and have to reckon with.”

But there’s a silver lining to the hate

All of this is not to say that Duca hasn’t found some silver lining in her online notoriety. “This experience of being so public-facing has just fundamentally changed me forever,” she says. To start, all the scrutiny has made her less concerned with what people think of her. “The experience of extreme harassment really pushed me to need to define a solid sense of self, because when you’re being told that you don’t deserve to be alive and you feel that way yourself, it’s untenable,” she says. It’s what helped her to be more open—with herself and the public—about her sexuality. “I think that, I don’t know, I might have ended up in a low-grade misery of hating myself for the entirety of a comfortably numb life spent in the closet if it weren’t for the extreme feedback that I have been exposed to,” she says. “It’s been really important for me to be able to find the quiet places inside and to learn how to love myself and to be able to do that without any outside input—and I think that skill is very lifesaving.”

And, for any woman who is similarly public-facing, Duca has some advice. “While I say it’s really important to use your voice, the consequences of using it online are difficult, so know that there are other options and ways to use your voice,” says Duca. “If [using your voice online] is too toxic for your mental health, that’s okay.” Activism can take other forms, like contacting elected officials and regularly donating to non-profits; it doesn’t necessarily have to be about putting yourself out there.

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“It’s really important to just find a way to make all of this sustainable,” adds Duca. “One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that it’s really important to take care of yourself and to have people around IRL to watch out for your brain and your heart. Checking in with them and committing to those relationships is probably the key to survival.”

For now, Duca is confident about at least one thing: “I think the thing that gives me the most sanity is that I can very safely say I refuse to be cancelled by the same society that nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and I refuse to be cancelled by the same society that fell over themselves calling Brock Turner a swimmer,” she says. “And I just think it’s kind of wild to see the things that pass as crimes when a woman you don’t like is doing them.”

So, according to Duca, what was it actually like to be a person on the internet in 2019? “Like being in middle school on steroids.”

So maybe this is the real question: Is Duca the Queen Bee or a victim of bullying? Depends on who you ask.

 

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