On the internet, you can be anything. But out of all the things you could be (barring the criminal and the morally abhorrent) one generally agreed to be among the worst is a hater.
Haters are a convenient scapegoat, really. No matter what you’re doing, whether that’s shilling scammy crypto tokens or producing content intended to keep kids’ eyes glued to their iPads, you can brand anyone who dares dislike you as a “hater,” someone who has nothing better to do with their time then sitting around detesting you.
“Haters,” many would argue, do not produce anything of value, but rather exist solely to pass judgment on those with the courage and skill to make something of themselves. This is a particularly useful rhetorical device for those in the public eye: reality TV stars, celebrities, billionaires, and Taylor Swift, to name a few, but it’s just as often used by regular people defending the things they like. Recall, if you will, the many, many times the internet has debated whether it’s okay to criticize popular culture at all, or whether we should all just shut up and “let people enjoy things.”
(Before we go any further, a note: By “hater,” I mean a vocal critic of a certain media property or celebrity, not someone who hates entire groups of people or engages in personal attacks or bullying. That said, there is no hard line determining whether a statement is a personal attack or reasonable criticism — and to be on the receiving end of criticism often feels extremely personal, regardless of how measured the criticism is. That only makes differentiating them more difficult, and the need for nuance more crucial.)
There’s a second rhetorical device beloved by influencers who despise “haters,” and it is the concept of “spreading positivity.” It works like this: Society has long bristled at the idea that there is a class of laborers who make money simply by posting on the internet, and that the influencer’s job often appears to be to make sure everyone is very jealous of them. In response to this line of criticism — that they’re being materialistic or flaunting their wealth, that they’re vapid, that they’re contributing to a culture that prioritizes aesthetics over substance — the influencer will say that all they were trying to do in the first place was “spread positivity.” An example: After Jake Paul, a YouTuber who has been accused of hawking scams to his fans multiple times, opposed misogynist influencer Andrew Tate’s social media ban last August, Paul claimed that he “had nothing but positivity to spread.”
It’s a term that’s been used to justify so many different kinds of unjustifiable behaviors that “spread positivity” is essentially meaningless on the internet. This is why, on Talia Lichtstein’s TikTok, her bio proudly reads “Spread negativity ❤️.” The New York-based 24-year-old isn’t kidding: Her content mostly consists of her talking into her camera, talking about things she hates. “People who, instead of clapping with their hands, they clap by hitting a part of their body,” for instance. Also: red and white Converse sneakers, the convention of “sending love,” pretty much everyone at the airport.
But for Lichtstein, the point isn’t to be mean. There’s so much pressure for women on the internet to be upbeat, likable, and inoffensive that, she argues, “we need to overcorrect a little. The solution is not to have everyone walking around shouting, ’I’m allowed to be a hater!’ But there needs to be a couple.”
The internet agreed: Over the past year and a half, Lichtstein has built a TikTok following of more than a million, landed her own show on Snapchat, and is able to support herself as a full-time content creator. “I had accidentally marketed myself in a very clever way, because I hadn’t realized there was a hunger for particularly female voices who were staunchly honest or who, quote-unquote, ‘tell it like it is.’”
It should be mentioned that Lichtstein is a perfectly lovely person, and that the “spreading negativity” schtick does not apply to any kind of identity or appearance-based judgments. “Delightfully caustic” might be a better way of putting it. Her content is part of a larger wave of people online embracing being “a hater,” “toxic,” or an otherwise unsavory internet label. “How I sleep after a day of being a proud hater and starting arguments and spreading negativity,” reads one viral TikTok of a person looking particularly snug. “Hating on ppl is so fun, I’m a hater fr, I wake up everyday ready to spread negativity and hopefully ruin lives,” says another with nearly 200,000 likes. Online, you’ll find usernames and podcasts with names like “Spread Negativity, Be Toxic” and people delightedly tossing around catchphrases like “gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss!”
They’re jokes, obviously, but they’re also a pushback against the idea that divergent beliefs are inherently poisonous. “Gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss [is] a meme that’s now used to point out the hollowness of capitalism or organizations like the CIA co-opting social justice talk,” wrote my colleague Alex Abad-Santos in an explainer of the phrase. “Spreading negativity” feels like a way to needle at the vapidity of those who claim to “spread positivity” regardless of the harm their actions cause.
These kinds of “pro-negativity” behaviors, whether ironic or not, have been studied by scholars for decades, notably by University of Wisconsin communications professor Jonathan Gray, who in 2003 argued for the inclusion of “anti-fans” within audience studies, or people who actively dislike specific texts. Anti-fans, many scholars have suggested, subvert the traditional mode of media consumption, wherein we’re supposed to accept and like the thing we’re watching. “As active, engaged viewers, we are not supposed to dislike, and we are meant to treat dislike with suspicion in others because liking has been characterized as a progressive effort to champion the underdog in popular media,” writes Anne Gilbert in the anthology Anti-Fandom: Dislike and Hate in the Digital Age.
Social media, where like and dislike can be quantified, only widens the chasm between fans and anti-fans. On forums and in comments sections with character limits, where punchy, unambiguous responses are upvoted and prioritized by algorithms, the nuance between the two extremes often gets lost. It’s partly why people whose jobs necessitate being in the public eye (influencers, for example) often suffer from a worldview in which only two types of people exist: followers and haters. It’s an understandable frame of mind when much of the attention they see is either from ardent superfans or death threats.
Ironically, despite her TikTok bio, Lichtstein makes an effort not to fall into this trap. “It’s not about just having negative things to say, but having multiple things to say,” she explains. “Nothing is black and white, there’s a gray area. When people criticize me, I think, ‘Is this a valid criticism, or are they just calling me fat and ugly and stupid?’ If they’re saying, ‘I really like what Talia has to say about feminism or whatever, but sometimes I can’t deal with the yelling,’ then that makes me want to mix it up and maybe be a bit more soft-spoken, because then it could reach more people.”
I ask what she hates most right now. The first answer she gives is indicative of her more recent diatribes, against harmful influencers like Andrew Tate and regressive politics. “I hate the culture of misogyny online,” she says. “I feel like a lot of people are, because of social media, falling for these hate campaigns against people like Amber Heard and Meghan Markle.”
There’s another thing that’s bothering her, too. “I hate the rain,” she adds. “I hate the people who are like, ‘Oh, but we needed it!’ But it’s not fun and doesn’t benefit me. It really sucks.”
This column was first published in The Goods newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one, plus get newsletter exclusives. Listen to this episode of The Gray Area — a philosophical take on culture, politics, and everything in between with host Sean Illing — to hear more.