What I’ve Learned From Four Years of Open DMs

Some of the meanest users turn out to be vulnerable, even decent, when I engage with them.

A message icon with angry, happy, and sad emojis flying out
The Atlantic

My Twitter DMs are open, and I will respond. I’m a comedian, and I use direct messages to find freelance writing opportunities, contact sources for articles, and—as most people who have messaged me in the past year can tell you—send links to my new book. But at my core, I’m just a woman with 170,782 Twitter followers and poor time-management skills. A reasonable person would have blocked DMs from strangers once they started streaming in daily—for me, around 2019. I did not.

I haven’t kept my DMs open just for professional benefits. The real reason is that they expose me to people I wouldn’t otherwise meet—people who tend to teach me something about themselves (and who might buy my book). The unsolicited messages I receive are sometimes sweet, sometimes sexual, and sometimes truly cruel: Senders tell me they like my tweets or they hate my tweets; they want to work with me, they want to motorboat me, or they want me to know I’m worthless. But things really get interesting when I write back. Perhaps out of depraved curiosity, probably against my better judgment, I almost always do.

People love to say that Twitter is a hellscape, and recent events have understandably renewed that conviction. But in my DMs (on that site and on Instagram, too) some of the meanest users turn out to be vulnerable, even decent, when I engage with them. I’ve learned a lot about humanity this way—and against all odds, I’ve regained some faith in it.

Obviously, I enjoy responding to the nice senders; it’s easy to answer kindness with kindness. Most of their DMs are short and sweet, but some of them write detailed, personal messages about their experience with struggles that I discuss online: substance abuse, mental illness, romantic mishaps. Sometimes they say they’re too nervous to open up to friends or family. (A stranger can make the best confidant—I know because I’ve also asked for help from people I don’t know.) Many of the sweet DMers apologize for oversharing or draining my time. But they don’t realize how grateful I am; on a site that’s often full of bots and hatred, it makes my day to hear from real people who are trying their best.

The people sending sexual DMs aren’t quite as wholesome, but sometimes they make me smile too. Someone once told me he’d had a “profound” dream about me, involving a romp on a pile of gear in an REI warehouse, before suggesting that we open a motel in the Nevada desert together. When I stopped responding, he sent wishes that I “sleep well,” and eventually apologized for being a “jerk.” Another asked, “Can I flirt with you?” When I declined his offer, he said, “I hope you have a great day, I thank you for your kind response.”

Not all sexual messagers are so polite, of course. At least four times, someone has sent me many explicit messages in a row, and then blocked me after I haven’t responded for a day. (I would have gotten to it, if you’d only given me the chance!) And recently—on Instagram, where anyone can DM my public account—a man from Oklahoma City argued that we should get to know each other because I was the “right” level of hot for him. As an act of self-care, I did not look at his photos—but I did reply. Over the course of a week, I’d say a few words about why he was being rude, and he’d write back with a novel about how I should take what I was offered or I’d have a “bumpy ride” ahead of me. Despite his frustrations, he said he was sincerely grateful that I’d responded.

In fact, many of the unpleasant DMers seem surprised that I replied, or read their message at all; some even backpedal when they realize I did. Although I never extracted an apology from Oklahoma Guy, I have from plenty of others. On at least five occasions, I’ve responded with “ew” to a weird, sexual message, only to receive a reply along the lines of “Sorry, didn’t think you’d read it” or “In retrospect, I should have toned it down a bit.” I can’t say all of these are good apologies—one man emailed me a several-hundred-word apology that, if I recall correctly, included a paragraph about my weight and ended with the thought that if he were significantly younger, he’d date me. But they do demonstrate remorse.

Responding can even reveal that some sour DMs weren’t intended to be malicious at all. A man recently wrote, “Please dont push that stand up act shit if ur tired of it.” When I responded with a “what,” he said he’d noticed that I seemed stressed, and I didn’t have to keep doing stand-up if it made me miserable. Another said, “Your live videos are funny. Much funnier than your tweets.” When I asked why he wrote this, he said, “I was literally kidding with you and was being sarcastic. You’re hilarious.” I can’t say for sure whether these senders meant to upset me; it seems that they did, until they learned they had. But if I hadn’t responded, I wouldn’t have learned there was some bit of humanity to be found.

Granted, plenty of rude senders never backtrack or apologize; some DMs are truly meant to be hurtful. Those nastiest messages are usually the longest and most grammatically correct. Despite their effort, though, these senders tend to be the most shocked to receive a response. On the one hand, this makes sense: Why should I respond to a hateful DM from a stranger? As much as they detest me, maybe they still assume I make good choices for my mental health. Joke’s on them! On the other hand, why would someone compose a long, polished message, if not to hear back?

I don’t receive so many contemptible messages that I can run a statistical analysis. But I’ve noticed that many of these cruel senders, despite their surprise at my reply, keep responding back—and their messages tend to get longer and longer. Recently, a man sent me a five-paragraph essay about how unfunny I am, claiming that any success I’ve achieved is just proof of how dumb people are. I responded, and eventually he started telling me about himself. I learned that he was a teacher (horrifying) and an open-mic stand-up comedian (expected). He wanted me to know these things, and if I had to guess why, I’d say it’s because he wanted someone to know.

I hate to be the armchair therapist of these unpleasant DM-senders, but after reading their messages, I doubt they have a real one—so I will assume the role. I believe they are itching to express themselves. And instead of talking to a real person, they’d rather DM someone they don’t think will read or respond. Shouting into the void is liberating, because it absolves them of responsibility for their words. They don’t have to deal with the outcome; they can just imagine they won the argument, or made an impression, or got to yell a little without really hurting anyone. Unless, of course, the void shouts back.

At that point, they can either retreat or double down—and honestly, I have sympathy for both approaches. I, too, shout into the void: I’m not so emotionally evolved that I’ve never commented on a right-wing politician’s incendiary tweet. And how many times have I called customer service and geared up to let ’em have it, only to stop once the machine’s words ended and I heard a human voice? Senders who keep going once they realize I’m actually there might be the ones who touch me most: They want to be heard. Eventually they tend to just wind up … chatting.

Some people say I shouldn’t give online trolls the satisfaction of a response. But trolls, like any other demographic, aren’t a monolith. The ones who operate in Twitter DMs aren’t looking for a big audience, like those in posts or comments. I imagine they’re seeking something more personal—someone to talk at or to, or perhaps just the quiet of a private space.

Maybe I’m too optimistic; maybe I just have the confidence of a woman who’s compelled three of her exes into therapy and wants to see everyone as redeemable. I don’t necessarily recommend my approach. But in a world as bleak as ours, I’ll hang on to anything that provides me even a shred of hope. I haven’t closed my DMs—and I don’t plan to.