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Confessions of a Former “Reply Guy”

Aymann Ismail talks to Scott Barolo about how he’s making amends for past online mansplaining.

Aymann Ismail and a "reply" button on Twitter.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Lisa Larson Walker.

Even if you’ve never heard the term “reply guy,” you’ve probably seen one—popping up in women’s mentions with a “well, actually” or “just asking questions.” On a recent episode of Man Up, Aymann Ismail explored the nine different manifestations of this internet scourge with the people behind the @9replyguys Twitter account: Shrew, a neuroscientist and psychologist, and Scott Barolo, a biologist and … reformed reply guy. Ismail talked to them about their project to call out sexism on Twitter—and how Barolo in particular is learning to do better. A portion of their conversation, condensed and edited for clarity, is transcribed below.

Aymann Ismail: Did you ever catch yourself being a reply guy yourself?

Scott Barolo: Oh, absolutely, yes. And I have been called out on Twitter for mansplaining and for generally sticking my nose into a conversation where I wasn’t welcome. I’m a pretty privileged person in most situations that I find myself in—all situations that I find myself in. And I’ve never really been fully held accountable for what I do and what I say—to be honest, because I’m a man.

Shrew: Lord knows I’m trying.

Ismail: You guys created @9replyguys, which introduced a taxonomy of reply guys, separating them into nine categories with distinct characteristics. Pinned at the top of your account is a long Twitter thread explaining it all, with some very useful and funny GIFs. The thread is funny, sad, and in a few cases a little scary. Not surprisingly, reply guys absolutely hate it.

Shrew: The account was not something that we planned on starting, and even now, a year later, we can sort of tell when a wave of sexual harassment stories or people trying to share stories of a bad environment are cropping up because they start to share the thread a lot. So it’s a kind of bellwether of different groups of people discovering that reply guys are coming out, and they come out in full force when people are trying to share stories of having been marginalized.

Ismail: So these guys aren’t organized. It’s not like a concerted effort. There’s no base of reply guys all working together and deciding, OK, ready, and now! That’s not happening. What is happening?

Shrew: If they were, you think they’d come up with something new.

Barolo: I think you’re right. There’s no central base that is sending out orders, but I think that men who are raised in a patriarchal society are trained in how to behave in certain ways, and we model our behavior on other men, and different people are trying to do different things, but one thing we’re trying to do is feel comfortable and feel like we’re good people, and I think that motivates a lot of bad behavior on the internet.

Ismail: What kinds of things do you end up mansplaining?

Barolo: If I feel that I have a piece of information that wasn’t fully explained in a conversation to my satisfaction. Then I do have an urge to jump in and say, “Oh, by the way, you forgot this important fact or this one detail, even though it’s not critical to what you’re trying to say.” Which just then converts the conversation from being about whatever it was about into being about how much I know. It doesn’t go quite so well for women when they do that.

Ismail: I can relate. This happened to me three days ago: I was traveling with my wife, and she wanted to go one way, and I saw a sign that [told me] we actually should go this way. And I just started walking as if I was entitled to just decide where we were both going. I ended up being wrong, and I felt stupid, and she was like, “Yeah, well, see where relying on your instincts got you.” And I was like, “Yeah, well, you’re kind of right.”

Barolo: I think we’re rewarded for doing things like that. Stepping in, even if we’re not quite sure what we’re talking about. Stepping in and saying, “I know what to do.”

Ismail: Are you more careful now? What has coming to this realization rewarded you with?

Barolo: I am more careful when I want to say something. I do interrogate myself a little bit more now. Not always, and not always successfully, but I do interrogate myself. And say, Why do you have the urge to say this right now? Is this just about you, or are you really bringing something to the table? And as Shrew can tell you, most of the time I am not bringing something to the table. So more frequently now I will lay back and just let it go.

To listen to the entire episode, including Slatesters’ own experiences with reply guys, click the player below or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.