men hiding behind a tree


The Case of the Very, Very Friendly Man Online

Ben Stiller and Chris Elliott in There's Something About Mary (Photo: Alamy)

When it comes to dealing with this low-level creepy phenomenon, Caroline O’Donoghue is sick of biting her lip – and she’s not the only one

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

“Looking good!”

“Seems like fun!”

“I’ve been meaning to read that for ages, will pick it up.”

“I watched it last night, too! Kinda disappointed.”

“I think I saw you on my bus?”

This is what most people’s social-media comments look like, right? A few banal pleasantries, some vague support, a soothing confirmation that you look nice in your new profile photo. It’s all normal, it’s all fine, until you eventually realise that it all comes from the same guy – and it’s every day.

You start to feel uncomfortable, but you’re not exactly sure why. Isn’t this what social media is for, after all? Aren’t we all just humans, desperately trying to connect across the vast empty plain of existence?

Another notification. It’s the same guy, except now he’s in your messages. “You never reply to my comments. Have I pissed you off?”

You don’t reply because you’re not sure how to begin. “No, not at all!” you type, but then delete it, because you are kind of pissed off, you hate these messages and you hate feeling like this man you don’t know is watching you, waiting for you to share something so he can throw some weirdly phrased banal comment at you.

You see him at a networking event. You forgot you worked in the same industry. Shit – and you never replied to his message. “Your holiday looked lovely,” he says, all smiles. “I’m always on your Instagram. You must think I’m a total stalker!”

Look, I’ll level with you: I’ve been writing for the internet for eight years, and in the grand scope of female experiences online, I’ve been very blessed. I’ve never had a rape or a death threat, I’ve never had a thousand people dog pile on me for saying the wrong thing, I’ve never had to lock my Twitter account. According to a 2017 Amnesty survey, a quarter of UK women have experienced abuse online, and I can categorically say that I am not one of them. I do not experience abuse online, but I do experience this kind of weird, humdrum sort of flirting from a very particular class of Man Who Spends Time Online. Sometimes he is an acquaintance but, more commonly, he is a man who I have either never met or met once. He is usually at least 12 years older than me, follows most of my friends, and will dutifully “like” all our responses to one another as if he were gawking at two girls kissing in a nightclub.

If this were a film, the next scene would be him standing in a rain jacket outside my house, but this is not a film and it will never escalate beyond this grade of low-level creepy

He is supportive. He shares my writing with his followers. He throws in some money when my band releases something. I feel my heart sink when I see that he has supported me financially and therefore I must show him gratitude, fully aware that this is why he did it in the first place. He is not interested in what I’m doing but the fact that he can help me do it. He is always, always helping me. He has advice, recommendations, anecdotes. He has connected with me on LinkedIn. He is there, always, blithely supportive and intensely generous with his attention. If this were a film, the next scene would be him standing in a rain jacket outside my house, but this is not a film and it will never escalate beyond this grade of low-level creepy. Sometimes I wish it would, just so I would be justified in detesting his presence as much as I do.

If he is you, and you’re reading this with the suspicion that it might be, please do not comment or message me asking if it is you. If you think it is, it probably is.

It feels petty to complain about this kind of thing, especially when you consider what other women have to contend with. After all, I’m a writer who shares her work online – isn’t the whole point to amass a few people who are interested in your work and, by extension, you? Isn’t it my job to be nice to people in the hope they’ll support me?

Here’s the thing, though: after tweeting about this very phenomenon, the response was overwhelming.

Hundreds of women responded. Some were other artists or journalists who actively tout their work online, but the majority were women with ordinary jobs who still suffered from the same thing. Everyone is putting up with Some Fucking Guy online, and everyone is biting their lip, feeling guilty for hating him so much. That’s when I realised that the “Isn’t it my job to be nice to people?” instinct doesn’t come from the fact that I’m a writer, it comes from being a woman. 

Women are born with few survival tools, but one of them is smiling, bland and detached, while men talk at us (about us!) completely oblivious to our lack of interest. It’s a social instinct that is hundreds of years in the making. Which is why, I suppose, some men are so furious when we tell them we don’t like it. It’s part and parcel with manspreading, mansplaining and all the other ways women are attempting to name their discomfort in the 21st century. It all comes down, really, to entitlement – thinking that you’re entitled to female attention, entitled to more space, entitled to believe that your voice – and yours alone! – is the steady chime of wisdom in all conversations. And why wouldn’t you think that? You have hundreds of years of social history telling you that’s how things are. 

Maybe it’s not as serious as the online abuse women receive every day, and maybe it’s not something that will change overnight. Internet etiquette is a strange and slippery thing and we can’t expect everyone to get it. But if you’re wondering whether it’s time to block That Guy, I’m telling you: do it.


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Ben Stiller and Chris Elliott in There's Something About Mary (Photo: Alamy)
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