Feminist, entrepreneur, Twitter phenom, troll-slayer, woman of the year: Trevor Beattie meets Holly Brockwell
As co-founder of BMB and guest editor of The Drum, Trevor Beattie continues his series of interviews with fearless and provocative individuals.
Trouble may not exactly follow Holly Brockwell around, but it certainly knows where she lives. And as she lives almost entirely on Twitter, it’s also probably one of her 20,000 followers (I know I am). Over the last few years Holly Brockwell has become a hugely influential voice for women online. But who is the real @holly? Just another attention-seeking gadget-gal-geek or yer actual troll-slaying digital Boudica? It would be rude not to ask...
Trevor Beattie (TB): Who are you?
Holly Brockwell (HB): Not her again.
TB: Why are you?
HB: Naturally-occurring napalm.
TB: What the bloody hell do you think you’re up to?
HB: Making shit happen.
TB: Let’s start with some of your ‘controversies’. You took Hyundai to task over a TV ad which depicted an attempted suicide (as a way of depicting low emissions) and won an apology. You challenged the NHS to offer you sterilisation (as you have no desire to ever give birth) and became the centre of a media firestorm. Your company Gadgette has become a fierce, female challenge to the questionably male domain of gaming and gadgetry. You publicly invited all of Twitter to your 30th birthday party. You’ve had death threats, rape threats, men posting images of ejaculation over your screen-shots and you’ve even been chastised for your ‘sexist’ use of the word ‘dude’. Safe to say, it’s been emotional. Which of these would you like to discuss first, dude?
HB: Well we haven’t got all day, so I’ll pick two.
Sexism. I am a giant sexist. I know this because men tell me every day. I’m a sexist for starting a technology publication for women (“tech has no gender or colour,” say the white men running the show). I’m a sexist for encouraging women to study subjects where there aren’t many. I’m a sexist for eventually hiring a woman after interviewing an equal number of each sex. The other day, I was a sexist because I have a crush on Christian Bale’s Batman. By this logic, everyone gay or straight is sexist, but that’s OK because I’m bisexual, so I’m an equal-opportunities sexist. Next!
Censorship. I really like censoring things. I restricted Hyundai’s free speech when I wrote an article explaining why taking the piss out of suicide isn’t very funny when you lost your dad to it (or, I don’t know, when human). Of course, I didn’t ask them to withdraw the ad, or the ASA to ban it, but censorship was definitely my aim when I wrote a tear-stained blog post about how it brought back memories of reading my dad’s suicide note aged five, and wondering if he’d still be able to come to my friend’s birthday party next week. Which is why it was completely fair and justified when hundreds of people exercised their free speech to email me about how my dad clearly didn’t love me at all, or worse, was so ashamed at having created me that his only option was to take his life.
It was also fair when someone used his right to free speech to ejaculate on a picture of my face and send me the evidence. I mean, after all, I was clearly trying to censor the app I’d written about that week, which would have allowed misogynists to trade women like playing cards. Interviewing the creator and explaining my concerns might have seemed like the same thing any journalist would do, but I’m glad Spermy McGee and all the people who sent threats could see through that to my true aim: to have an app I had nothing to do with withdrawn from the app store. Perceptive.
TB: In spite of, or even because of, all the ‘noise’, you were voted The Drum’s Woman of the Year at the SheSays Awards by a huge majority last year. Tell us what that meant to you.
HB: I didn’t actually know it was by a huge majority. That’s pretty cool. When I found out I’d won I was staggeringly drunk. I hadn’t prepared any kind of speech because I didn’t think I was actually in the running. I thought I was the donkey. I wobbled my way up there and said some words and had some photos taken, but none of it sank in until the next day. Holy moly, I actually won. You know that moment when you wake up knowing something big happened, but you haven’t yet remembered what, or whether it was good or bad? It was lovely when it dawned.
Now I’ve just got to make sure I’ve won something else by the time they crown the next Woman of the Year. I don’t want to be a one-hit wonder woman.
@holly winning the Woman of the Year award
TB: What’s the difference between @holly and Holly Brockwell?
HB: There’s a much bigger difference than people realise. There’s this strange thing with social media where total strangers come to feel connected to you, like they know you. Which is how you suddenly get furious messages from someone you were heretofore unaware of, because they felt like you were great friends but you didn’t reply to their last two tweets.
People who’ve followed for a while think they know everything about me, and it can be genuinely unsettling to have someone approach you and say ‘Hi Holly, how’s it going with your nan, is she any better?’ while you’re frantically searching your brain for who they are and when you told them about your grandma’s illness. Then it turns out they just know you from Twitter and you’ve never actually spoken, even online. I bring it on myself, of course, but it’s still strange.
TB: Do you have an ‘off’ switch?
HB: I have two switches: ‘off’ and ‘turbo’.
They’re not labelled.
TB: Your Twitter following grows ever larger by the day. You project a very strong image of a woman fully in control of her own destiny and unwilling to take any incoming crap. Are you aware of being a role model or influencer? Especially for girls hoping to succeed in business and life in general?
HB: People say that sometimes and it gives me the willies. I can only deal with tweeting, writing and generally expressing myself if I imagine the audience as an amorphous blob of personhood, rather than individuals. Once, someone I really respect followed me and I didn’t tweet for a week.
If people think I’m doing good things, that’s great. There are a lot of people who think I’m the apocalypse incarnate, so perhaps they balance out. But I’d always rather be divisive than mediocre.
TB: Red Dwarf or Muse?
HB: Why would you do this to me?!
OK, if it’s Red Dwarf series six or seven, then Muse. Otherwise, Dwarf. I’ve been to a lot of Muse gigs, and they feel like I imagine going to church must be for people of faith. Absolutely euphoric – Matt Bellamy is my deity. But being on the set of Red Dwarf the other day was strangely like coming home, and yet another thing I have to thank Twitter for. My voice was so squeaky, even the Cat couldn’t understand me. Side note: don’t ever ask me to choose between Christian Bale and Matt Bellamy. It’d be like taking my helmet off in deep space.
TB: Smeg or SuperMassive Black Hole?
HB: I can think of very few either/or questions where I would willingly choose Smeg.
TB: Holly or Cat?
HB: Original Holly. Norman Lovett is a friend of mine and a truly brilliant person. I’m in the uniquely awesome position of saying Holly from Red Dwarf has waded into Twitter arguments to defend me from trolls. He’s also responsible for my constant use of ‘dudes’ and I don’t regret that at all.
TB: They say ‘don’t feed the trolls’. You unhesitatingly offer them a knuckle sandwich. Is that wise? Does it work?
HB: No, it categorically doesn’t work. Most of the people close to me are 100 per cent convinced I’ll be murdered by someone from Twitter, and it’s a bit scary how often it crosses my mind when reading my timeline. But what’s the alternative? Come off Twitter, a platform I love that’s responsible for all the best things in my life? Let them silence me? Give them the last word? Never gonna happen. If I go down, I’ll go down fighting.
Besides, ignoring them doesn’t work either. Nothing works, because trolls are fundamentally unhappy (or occasionally sociopathic) human beings, and you can no more cure that with silence than you can a witty comeback or indeed a cheese sandwich. Trolling is a societal problem, and no one knows how to fix it – especially the people giving unsolicited advice. Shush. However the victim wants to handle it is the right way, and your opinions on that are not required.
TB: Who would you most like to influence for the better?
HB: The people making new social apps and platforms. While it did kind of suck to receive a picture of my face with a stranger’s sperm all over it, that happened because I wrote a damning and ultimately correct article about the problems with an app that allowed you to buy and sell people like baseball cards. The creators of that app were none too pleased with me, but to their credit they listened and implemented my suggestions. Though they were still banned from the App Store, ha ha.
@holly was sent this photo by an app on Twitter after writing about it
One of the side effects of the total lack of diversity in tech is that a lot of the people making new products have never experienced harassment and have no clue what it’s like. It’s nothing like you imagine. I’d never wish abuse on anyone – I just want more creators to take the time to consult people who’ve been targeted and ask them to find loopholes in the product before it goes live and the damage is done.
TB: If I gave you a (return) ticket to space, would you go? And if so, where to..?
HB: The cost of a return ticket to space is £250k. The average cost of raising a child to 18 is, conveniently, £250k. So now that the NHS has finally agreed to tie my tubes and ensure there’ll be no more @hollys on this planet, I should be able to buy my own return.
In which case, I’ll trade you for two singles and send the next two trolls to Pluto.
This piece was first published in The Drum's 20 April issue, guest-edited by Trevor Beattie.