'It Was Hell:' Mommy Blogger Heather Armstrong on the Shitty Side of Internet Celebrity

'It Was Hell:' Mommy Blogger Heather Armstrong on the Shitty Side of Internet Celebrity
Screenshot: (Instagram Heather B. Armstrong )

In the early 2000s, Heather Armstrong became one of the first mommy blogger internet “celebrities” with her blog, Dooce. Eighteen years later, her story encompasses the rise and fall of blogging culture as well as the toll living online can take on mental health.

Dooce chronicled Armstrong’s experiences with motherhood, her struggles with mental health, and life as an ex-Mormon. At its height, the blog had 8.5 million readers and made as much as $40k a month from banner ads, according to a recent profile of Armstrong at Vox. However, that success also came with a steady stream of hate, not just from internet MRA trolls, but more often, from other moms:

Detractors felt Armstrong commodified her depression (“I’m Depressed, brought to you in part by Meow Mix,” one GOMI member wrote) and dramatically presented her life through a lens of despair (“Heather needs to get the f**k over her childhood trauma. Like dude, you’re 43 and you’ve spent half your life in therapy. You have a f**king sweet life,” another commenter wrote on GOMI).

And as Kate Harding pointed out for Jezebel in 2009, that hatred often felt incredibly gendered:

The fact that Armstrong’s become a phenomenally influential blogger via some combination of smart moves, timing, lucky breaks, hard work, self-promotion, self-revelation, and terrific writing just doesn’t sit well with some people. Some of it is plain old jealousy, to be sure — I’m jealous as hell, and I like her. But what I’m not is threatened by successful women, even ones kicking a thousand kinds of ass in my chosen field. And I can’t help thinking that’s what’s really at the heart of the vitriol directed at Armstrong — and every other lady blogger with any kind of an audience.

Even though years of success online translated to real-world fame, including appearances on Oprah and inclusion a the Forbes list of influential women in media, success as a mommy blogger also left Armstrong open to a flood of often cruel opinions on her every move. When media outlets (including Jezebel) covered her divorce, Armstrong was beset by disappointed fans, gleeful detractors, and a heap of shitty internet opinions:

“People were just awful to me, calling me a fraud, a liar, saying how my kids were not safe to be with me,” Armstrong says. “It was all broadcast across the web and I was reading about it every day, and it was hell. It led me from one unhealthy situation to the next.”

Armstrong says all those negative, often deeply personal, comments, in conjunction with the dissolution of her marriage, contributed to depression that left her hospitalized and undergoing an experimental treatment during which she was placed in a medical coma to alleviate depression:

So in March 2017, Armstrong enrolled herself in a clinical trial at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute, where she was put in a chemically induced coma for 15 minutes at a time for 10 sessions. The treatment, which approximated brain death, was being tested to see if it could cure depression.

After a two-year hiatus, Armstrong returned to blogging and has published a new book about the experimental treatment called The Valedictorian of Being Dead.

But as Instagram influencers take the place of bloggers as internet tastemakers, Armstrong has seen her audience dwindle to 500,00 and has just 50k followers on Instagram (compared to the usually million-plus bonafide Instagram celebrities boast). Even Armstrong admits that the internet has changed and those who were the first to make profitable careers detailing their lives online don’t quite fit now:

“Being an influencer today means sharing picture-perfect moments, and that is not what I signed up for,” she says. “Mommy blogging is dead, and I think most of my colleagues would agree.”

Even as the ways women make money online move from the hyper-reality of blogger culture to the filtered perfection of Instagram, one thing that hasn’t changed since the heyday of the mommy blog is the workplace hazard of having to cope with the constant stream of bullshit feedback no matter what you post.

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