|Otis, my 4 month bulldog, after his morning Twitter snack.|
When I was in the third grade, there were two bus stops that I could choose from. The closer one was literally a hop-skip-and-a-jump from my front door. One of the most popular girls in my class, as well as my neighbor friend, were also at that stop. The other bus stop was a twice as far and only two other children used it, a brother and sister pair in kindergarten. It only made sense that I chose the one right outside my door.
Yet that same bus stop also had a bully problem. A few 8th grade boys, all much bigger than the rest of us, liked to terrorize the younger kids, mostly with rude words or threats. But Johnny, the most handsome and talented of us smaller kids, received much worse. Some days, the older boys treated him kindly, playing catch football with him in the street or climbing trees in the vacant lot together while we waited for the bus. Then, out of the blue, they’d attack him. Maybe he’d mouth off, or try to act too cool, but regardless, they’d gang up on him. They called him names, and even threatened to make him eat dog poop on a regular basis.
It was hard and being the shyer girl that I am, I hated that bus stop. I never knew when the bullying would begin, and rather than face them, I finally abandoned the bus stop, choosing instead the longer walk every morning to the other one, away from my friends, just so I wouldn’t have to stand with the bullies for ten minutes in fear. Yes, I still had to see them on the bus, but the bigger boys had their own section in the back, and I would quietly slip into a seat towards the front, avoiding the entire situation. I always felt bad for Johnny, but never once did I let him know.
I abandoned the bus stop, and Johnny, to the bullies.
I recently read an interesting piece on Medium by writer Mike Monterio, documenting his insider’s viewpoint of Twitter from its beginnings in 2005 to its end, which he suggests is the present moment. He tells an entertaining and intriguing story about his adoption of Twitter and how funny those earlier days were. He shares a story from 2006 when he tweeted, “Oh my God! I’ve been shot!” out to his followers. He saw it as a joke, and in turn found many others who shared a similar sense of humor with him. It was 2006 in the Bay Area, and the technological Wild West had just begun rising from the ashes of the post-dotcom bubble burst that had left many unemployed and others ready to disrupt the world.
I didn’t find Twitter till 2012, when I released my first novel. My publisher told me that Twitter was a place of business, even more than LinkedIn, and I set out upon the platform, using it not only to find research for my novels and blogs (lots of great ideas all in one place), but also to sell my books.
Fast forward to now, and it appears that Twitter has gone from a place where everyone is clever and bright to a world full of trolls. Angry trolls. To hear Mike say it, Twitter just isn’t fun anymore. Personally, I never saw it as fun, but I know what he’s talking about when it comes to trolls. Fortunately for me, the worst thing I’ve ever been called on Twitter is “filthy liberal” which isn’t so bad. But I’ve met other authors, agents and entertainers that have suffered terribly for sharing their ideas. The more famous, the worse it gets. “Mean Tweets” are a real thing, an art form almost, that trolls seem to excel at. I wonder if they have weekend retreats for such writing? Instead of learning to develop story lines, or characters, or even pitch their work, they spend hours with professional trolls learning how to tear someone apart with only 140 characters. I can only imagine it.
On top of it, we have our Twitterer-in-Chief threatening nuclear war in 140 characters, so it’s a fair assessment that what Twitter had aspired to be isn’t what it has grown up to be. I wrote a piece a few months back about the negative aspects of our online life, Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell and the Internet Inferno, where I also address this negative aspect of the Twitter space. I always meant to write a second piece on the positive aspects of the Internet social media experience, in this case Dante’s Paradise. I still may write that piece, but the increasing number of posts about the end of social media made me realize that something more important is going on here — our social media tools aren’t the problem, it’s the small minority of humans who like to bully that are the problem, and this is NOT a new issue.
Bullies have been around forever, and those of us who like to play nice have often been put out of a space in order to avoid them. We’re either tired of being the object of their hate, or we grow weary of watching others tortured by the sick sense of entitlement this subset of the human family has. It hurts both to speak up (because they then pummel you) or watch your friends suffer. So eventually, we stop going to the location where the bullies are.
It makes me think of the bus stop instance, way back when I was a kid. The playground is also another example of this. I think the reason we’ve removed recess from our children’s lives is because we’re all still haunted by the things that we encountered there. I remember boys beating each other up and older girls stealing jump ropes from younger kids. My friends and I tried to find a quiet corner to play without being seen. But we still went out to the play yard, because the alternative was to punish ourselves by staying inside.
This is what many have been doing the past year, trying to stay on the playground yet avoid the bullies while also maintaining free speech. On Twitter, we modify our news feeds and block those who attack us. On Facebook, we create groups that are moderated. Medium has been a refuge for many who desire connection without harassment.
However, recent articles seem to be suggesting that perhaps we need to abandon social media all together. I see it everywhere and there’s a part of me who agrees. I even removed Twitter and Facebook from my phone, I now only use them when I get to an actual computer (gasp!)
But two weeks ago, I woke to the sounds of munching. Otis, my new bulldog puppy, was chewing away on something, happy and delighted. I dragged myself out of bed and discovered, much to my amusement, that my dog had chosen the Twitter Book to eat that morning. At first I felt proud, like he was an omen of agreement for my decision to cut back on social media. I snapped a picture and shared it on Instagram (and on Twitter of course). Isn’t it funny? Isn’t it cute?
Yet something else is there as well. Literally a bully, in a childish grasp for attention, had destroyed something of mine. Otis had taken the Twitter Book and ruined it. The bully had won.
This is the essence of social media — it is a bus stop where we hang out in order to go somewhere. To travel, to learn, to grow, to make friends. It is a social place, filled with noise, laughter and yes, even bullying. Social media is the playground of our childhood all over again, and this time I’m not sure I should abandon it. It has been a valuable tool in my life. For example, I’ve secured several public speaking gigs through interacting on the network. I also found my new publisher through #pitmad, aka pitch madness, selling an entire trilogy about Ancient Egypt in 140 characters. Twitter has been good to me, and rather than abandon it to the bullies, I think I’ll stay, and instead offer up more fun, positive dialogue and interest in my fellow man.
Recently, a troll called Sarah Silverman a cunt. Yes, he used the C-word, and I can’t believe I just wrote it! What did she do? Sarah is certainly no wallflower and I bet if she’d been the one at the bus stop instead of me, she’d have kicked some ass. But she did something even braver than giving the bully a taste of his own medicine. Instead of responding with some equally derogatory remark, she reached out with compassion and got to know her attacker, even going so far as to ask her followers to help the guy pay for a much needed surgery.
No, Sarah wouldn’t have beaten up those 8th grade boys, she would have aimed instead where it matters even more — in the heart. This isn’t to “one up” someone, instead such an act brings harmony to the playground. Now we all feel safer, even the bully is happy, and recess is fun again.
I don’t think it’s about growing a thicker skin or tolerating anger or rude behavior. It goes deeper…it’s about creating resiliency and the ability to let another’s anger pass by. We need to infuse the internet with more truth, beauty and goodness and that means being open and compassionate. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously stated,
"Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."