01 Escape from Cuttlefish Cove (2024)

<![CDATA[Author’s Note
A few years ago, I began a social experiment in which I phoned my internet detractors and engaged them in conversation. This concept grew, and soon enough I was moderating discussions between others who had clashed online as well. I’ve published many of these calls through my podcast Conversations with People Who Hate Me.

This book tells the story of this social experiment, the events that precipitated it, the mistakes I’ve made along the way, and the twelve lessons I learned throughout the process. Each chapter is one of these lessons. I have learned far more than twelve things, and I trust there are many things that I’m not even yet aware that I learned—seeds that are still sprouting in the garden of my mind—but we all have stuff to do and places to be, so I cut it down to a dozen of my most salient takeaways so we can all get on with our beautiful lives.

The dialogue in this book has been verified by recordings and message archives. For the few brief conversations that have no record, I have re-created them from memory and consulted my conversation partner to confirm that my retelling matches their memory, too.

There are seven guests from my podcast whose conversations I spotlight in this book. All of them—with the exception of a public figure—are referred to pseudonymously. Some aliases correspond with the name these guests used on the podcast, others do not.

Comments and messages that I quote have been fact-checked against screenshots. Typos have, for the most part, been left in. However, a few details have been intentionally altered for the purpose of further anonymizing some of the people I mention.

You are welcome to read this book as a guide on how to navigate difficult conversations of your own, or as a distant story that happened to someone once. Take what serves you and leave what doesn’t.

You may see yourself reflected in me, or perhaps you will see your reflection in the people who called me a “moron,” a “piece of sh*t,” and told me to “killlllllllllllllllllllllll [my]self.” Maybe it’s a mix of both. Or maybe you won’t identify with anyone mentioned in this book at all and wonder if there’s something wrong with you. (There isn’t.)

Whatever the case may be, welcome. I’m thrilled to have you here. Let’s get started.

Chapter 1: The Internet is a Game

“People hate me,” I say, slumping in my chair.

“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to tell you: I hate you,” Ethan jokes.

I half smile, more to acknowledge that a joke was made than anything else. Really, I’m just grateful to be talking to a real human being rather than the digital ones I interact with every day. After months of receiving a steady stream of negative comments and messages, hom*ophobic jabs, and a handful of death threats, it has all become too much to bear.

“I’m really sorry,” he says, scrunching his nose to offset this moment of sincerity.

We’re sitting in Ethan’s office on the thirty-fifth floor of a building in midtown Manhattan, where he oversees Seriously.TV, the digital television network where I’ve been writing and producing short, topical comedy videos for the last six months. Our offices don’t look like the typically sleek headquarters of a startup media enterprise. If it weren’t for the production equipment in the halls and the scripts lining his desk, a passerby might not even realize this was a media outlet at all. The furniture that surrounds us seems to have been inherited from a corporate bank, as the generic patterns and high-gloss cherrywood are better suited to talk of investments and portfolios than joke punch-ups and sketch pitches.

My phone pings and I look down to see a notification. Immediately, I tap it, as I have been well trained to do.

“Your page has a new message,” it reads. Like a good user, I click to open it.

“Youre a moron. Youre the reason this country is dividing itself. All your videos are meerly opinion, and an awful opinion i must say. Just stop. Plus being Gay is a sin.”

The cruel irony of getting a hate message while talking to my boss about the influx of hate messages is not lost on me. Wordlessly I show it to Ethan, illuminating his face with the dull white glow of my phone. He sits back after reading it, takes a beat, and then, in cartoonish shock, exclaims: “Wait… you’re gay?!”

“Don’t tell my husband.”

He laughs. This is our little bit. But I’m only performing it out of memory and Ethan can tell. He exhales and rubs his forehead. “I think this is just what comes with the territory.”

I nod and look off into the distance.

“Look, I’m really sorry,” he says. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Yeah,” I reply because no one ever knows what to say. Not my friends, not my husband Todd, not my boss, not even me.

“Well, I think you’re great.”

“Thanks, Ethan.” Then, co*cking my head to the side, I roll my eyes, and, in a Muppet-like underwater garble, I say, “I think you’re great, too.”

“Now get out of here! And don’t ever come back!” He points a dramatic finger to the door, with an emphasized underbite like a cartoon villain.

I laugh, get up, leave his office, and stand outside his door for a moment so I can reopen the message I’ve just received. I begin my ritual: Take a screenshot. View profile. Scroll. View photos. Next. Next. Next. Back to profile. Scroll. Scroll. Scroll. I do this each time I receive a message like this, which has recently been quite often. In the seconds it takes to complete this ritual, I learn the name, hometown, and workplace of the sender. This sender’s name is Josh. Josh is in high school, a senior from what I can tell. He works at Best Buy. Josh has recently gotten a haircut. “What do yall think?” he asks in the photo’s caption. According to the memes that he’s shared, it seems that we unsurprisingly support different candidates in the 2016 presidential election that’s just over one month away.

I know what’s about to happen. I know I will put Josh’s message in a digital folder that sits on my computer’s desktop. I know that in that folder his message will join countless others just like it, all written by other internet strangers who seem to hate me. What I don’t know, though, is that this one message, and this one stranger, will soon spark a change within me, prompting me to reconsider everything I thought I knew about the internet, disagreement, and conversation itself.


This is my dream job. I get to make creative work on the internet about issues that matter to me, all while grinding alongside others who are doing the same. The consequences of this job—namely, the onslaught of hate—may be overwhelming, but I’m not going to give up now. I can’t. I spent the last half-decade consciously working toward an opportunity like this and I’m not going to let it go.

Four years earlier, I was cast as an ensemble member of a downtown performance art collective called the New York Neo-Futurists—Neos, for short—whose signature weekly show had us performing thirty short pieces in one hour. Because of their length—around two minutes each—some audience members would mistakenly call these pieces “sketches,” which we were quick to correct: These were not sketches, they were plays. Sketches, we explained, were filled with tightly written jokes and featured characters. We never wrote jokes; our comedy came from the tasks we forced ourselves to do. And we never played characters, we only performed as ourselves. This is because there was one rule we followed: We couldn’t lie. Everything we wrote and every task we performed had to be true. If one short play was titled I Am Going to Call an Ex and Tell Them Why I Miss Them, then, live on stage, the performer would actually have to dial up a former partner and, in front of the audience, tell them why they missed them. A confessional monologue about facing arachnophobia had to be honest. If the performer decided to confront a spider each night, then that spider would have to be real. But honesty didn’t mean everything had to be serious, so another play might feature the entire ensemble performing a tightly choreographed dance to the recorded sounds of a subway platform remixed over a syncopated beat. (Those recorded sounds, though, would have to be real.)

Each week I had to write new plays and this ongoing assignment taught me to take stock of everything around me, interrogate exactly how I felt about it, and translate that feeling into art. I soon began to process daily life as a series of prompts, and I met each of these prompts with a question: What am I going to do about it? Through this lens every experience, every observation, every cry, and every triumph became inspiration. A mean customer at my restaurant job, What am I going to do about it? The sounds of Brooklyn as I walked home after working a dinner shift, What am I going to do about it? An unrequited crush, What am I going to do about it?

I loved this work and poured myself into it for years, waiting tables during the day and then running to the theater at night. After shows I would take the late train home and soar through the tunnels beneath the city, savoring the connection I had just made with a few dozen people. I grew as an artist, as a writer, and as a person, too. Creating work for a live audience was intimate, and it was this intimacy that gave theater its magic, a magic that I was invited to witness and revel in night after night. But this intimacy was also a limitation. A wildly successful, sold-out performance of our weekly show meant that it would only ever be seen by ninety-nine people. The long-form play I spent half a year writing was attended by just over a thousand audience members in its three-week run. I knew that good art did not need to be popular, but I also knew that audience size meant stability. And if I indeed wanted to turn my creative work into a full-time job, as I so badly did, then an audience is precisely what I would have to find. I just didn’t know how. Fortunately, I was surrounded by other artists working toward the same goal.

The company was a community of ensemble members and their friends, partners, and outside collaborators, and the members of this community were always up to something. Some facilitated morning dance raves, others produced short experimental films, while a couple were boldly exploring new forms of media. Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor had been quietly tinkering on a podcast that was narrated by fellow ensemble member Cecil Baldwin. The show, a fictional radio broadcast from a nonexistent desert town, was called Welcome to Night Vale, and when it unexpectedly soared to number one on the iTunes podcast charts in the summer of 2013, we all celebrated their success. I was pleasantly shocked that a show whose scripts were written on Google Docs, recorded with forty-dollar microphones into free software, and, best of all, was created by hard-working people I loved, had become the most popular podcast in the United States. This made everything seem possible and I cheered on their success from the sidelines, until one day when I was invited onto the field. “Do you want to be part of our little show?” Jeffrey asked me in an email. “Do you want to play Carlos?” I immediately knew what an honor this was. Carlos was the narrator’s love interest and was so beloved by the podcast’s growing listener base he would often appear in various fan art posted to Tumblr. What’s more, he and Cecil were a rare source of queer, interracial representation in sci-fi storytelling. “of COURSE??!” I scream-typed back in response. A few months later, I joined them on their first West Coast tour where in the hour before each performance, I would stand in the wings as the theater doors opened so I could hear the distant murmurs of incoming audience members grow into a roar. Through the curtains I was able to catch glimpses of digital friends meeting in person for the first time. A community was being formed through a podcast.

As Welcome to Night Vale’s reach expanded, the tours grew longer, too. And it was in the postshow meet-and-greets that I was able to speak with young fans who quietly confided in me truths they had yet to tell their parents. “I just wanted to let you know,” a fan once whispered to me while their dad patiently waited a few feet away, “Cecil and Carlos are very important to me, if you know what I mean.” They trailed off, surreptitiously gesturing at their awaiting parent. “So, I guess, thanks.” At each stop, similar hushed confessions were delivered to us, and each time we would get the growing sense that we were doing much more than simply welcoming audience members to a fictional southwestern town. To some, we were offering a possibility of what might be. I would often float to my hotel room after these interactions, marveling that this show, that this moment, all got to exist because of the internet.

Each performance to a sold-out crowd of thousands yielded an incredible rush, but this success was not my success. It was someone else’s and I worried that I was an undeserving beneficiary. I longed to make my own piece of popular work, and the way I thought to do that was by getting an agent. Upon returning from a cross-country tour, I used whatever connections I could to set up meetings with potential representatives.

I’d had these meetings before. Ten years earlier, while I was still in high school, potential agents would call me into their offices, praise me for my talent, and then tell me how unlikely I was to get work. “You’re so,” they would all say, searching for the word “specific.” This was a euphemism that the industry used to mean “too diverse,” and it was often applied to anyone who dared to occupy multiple marginalized identities at the same time.

Now, however, in 2015, I was sure that I would get an agent in no time. How could I not? I was finishing a successful tour with a popular podcast, and I had just been nominated for a prestigious theater award for a play I had written months earlier. Surely, they would be chomping at the bit to work with me. Strangely though, none of them were. As a teenager, I had accepted all of their feedback as objective truth, but now that I was essentially being told the same thing as an adult, I refused to accept it. Agents were signing friends with far less experience. Desperate for clarity, I started looking at casting notices, and only then could I begin to understand why they were hesitant to sign me.



What I thought was a personal failure, I was now beginning to understand to be a much larger systemic issue. There were simply far fewer roles for non-white people. Signing me as a client would just be a bad business decision on their part. So, agentless and frustrated, I turned to my reliable prompt: What am I going to do about it?

A year earlier I had written a short piece for the Neos’ weekly show in which I performed every line spoken by a person of color in a popular romantic comedy. There were just a handful of lines, all spoken by an underused Latina actress who played a supporting character’s maid. The piece’s brevity would send the audience into fits of laughter, and as that laughter subsided, I could hear them consider the darker insinuation. Guffaws turned to groans which gave way to gasps. It was, I found, a perfect way to share an idea: Wrap it in laughter so the medicine goes down easier. I began to think of this as “candied kale.” Nutrition wrapped in sugar. A lesson, coated in entertainment. Now I just needed to make that idea bigger. Perhaps, I thought, I could apply this idea to other films, but rather than performing the lines myself I would edit down the actual footage to only the words spoken by actors of color. It would be time-consuming but with an entire summer stretched out before me and not a single agent interested in signing me, I figured I had nothing to lose.

Day after day, I sat in my bedroom, hunched over my laptop, whittling down feature-length films to a handful of seconds. The entire 558-minute The Lord of the Rings trilogy was cut down to 46 seconds, 0.14 percent of its cumulative runtime. Maleficent, the live-action Disney spin-off of Sleeping Beauty featured only an unnamed captain and ran at 18 seconds. The popular movie-musical Into the Woods featured no speaking roles for actors of color at all. My methodology was simple: Select movies that told universal stories that simply were cast as white by default. The Lord of the Rings was about the epic quest for a ring. Maleficent was about a misunderstood godmother. Into the Woods told the story of a witch who forced a baker and his wife to traipse through an enchanted forest and collect items from recognizable fairy-tale characters. None of these movies were about race, per se, nor were these stories inherently white, yet they were told with all white actors.

I called the series Every Single Word, fashioned a logo on Microsoft Word, and began sharing the videos on my YouTube channel. After only a few weeks, the project gained traction. First, there was a story in Slate. Then BuzzFeed. Then the Washington Post. Then All Things Considered. Soon enough, the series was seemingly everywhere. I couldn’t believe that a project I had made in my bedroom was reaching millions of viewers and that its intended takeaway was actually coming through. “I never realized this,” people would say to me about the disproportionate racial representation on screen. “Now I can’t unsee it.”

I had finally made a project that spoke to a large audience. A creation that spotlighted an issue far bigger than me. It was this democratization of the internet that thrilled me. Social media did away with gatekeepers, so now regular people like me didn’t have to wait for permission to speak their minds. We, the people, could stand up to a public figure and finally be heard. I wanted to do this forever. To keep using the internet to talk about social issues in accessible formats. To keep making candied kale.

Ironically, a series that was inspired by agents’ lack of interest had sparked a flurry of requests. So when my new agent, Kaitlyn, sent me an audition for a digital television network that would release short, shareable videos throughout the day to quickly comment on news stories, I leapt at the opportunity. There couldn’t have been a more perfect job for me. This position would call upon the writing practice I developed for the Neos, the internet fluency I gained from Night Vale, and the socially conscious mission I established with Every Single Word. When Kaitlyn told me I got the job, I cried. And when I showed up to my first day at Seriously.TV, two weeks later, I was ready to devote myself fully.

On my first day I was given a tour of their—our—facilities. The studio, a converted storage closet, was tiny for my new coworkers coming from the television world but enormous for my experimental performance art background. I excitedly shook hands with the team of talented editors and camera operators who would run the technical side of production, and counted my blessings that every day I would be able to wake up, scan the news, ask myself What am I going to do about it? and an entire team of experts would answer that question with me.


I was determined to master this new terrain. Seriously.TV’s videos would be released primarily on Facebook, and whereas Welcome to Night Vale was a cult hit for those who knew about it, and Every Single Word was celebrated in the socially progressive enclaves of Tumblr, now I would be speaking to the internet at large and not just one of its breakout rooms. This was April of 2016. The presidential primaries were in full swing, a culture war was just beginning to brew in the news cycle, and social media was becoming the new public square. This platform was a privilege and I resolved to use it for good. I even had a clear goal: Spark vital conversations about social issues, educate the masses, and mitigate conflict through knowledge. And so, in the free moments between script deadlines, lunch breaks, and train transfers, I closely studied the internet, eager to optimize my videos to reach as many people as possible.

I needed to figure out how to be relevant. But the conversation erupting every day on social media was a constantly evolving, amorphous blob, a shape-shifting mechanical bull that took precision and talent to ride. The internet seemed to have an opinion about everything, and all of those opinions were broadcast at the same time and at the same volume. Personal grievances were published alongside impassioned pleas for justice. Vulnerable confessions were woven between mundane observations, and the rest of the cyber real estate was dedicated to joke memes, carefully curated apathy, and the messy airing of dirty laundry. To be relevant, I would have to focus on whatever was most talked about that day online.

I needed to figure out who I was speaking to. But an infinite stream of people zoomed past me on the digital highways and byways of social media, and it became too overwhelming to think of each of these passing pixels as individual human beings, so I started thinking of those little grainy profile pictures as “everyone.” My audience was no longer a collection of specific individuals that I could see in the dim light of the theater. Now it was all the people watching all the time. This was an endless auditorium. And it was exactly where I wanted to be.

But this endless auditorium was pretty noisy, so I needed to figure out how to be heard. “DO BETTER!” internet activists were shouting in posts, comment sections, and sometimes literally in tweets that said just that. These two words seemed to slice through the noise faster than a meticulously edited op-ed, or a carefully researched book. If I screamed loudly enough with my caps lock key, it seemed like The Powers That Be would listen. “THIS DEMANDS YOUR ATTENTION” seemed to be an effective way to identify anything from a local nuisance to a systemic miscarriage of justice. Bold declarations and simple mandates traveled way further and faster than soft questions or nuanced considerations. Wrestling with the complexities of a certain topic was fine and good, but the way to skyrocket through the algorithm was to say something in black and white: This was good, and that was bad. This was right, and that was wrong.

To truly succeed on the internet I would need to adapt to its demands. I loved the fervor with which people were speaking and the intensity with which they defended their ideas. Everyone finally had a voice and together our voices formed a chorus. Each tweet, post, and video became an opportunity, a personal press release that reported on every feeling and thought I might have. And since I was here to make candied kale, I resolved to use my platform as a voice for the marginalized against The Powers That Be. I was on the side of progressivism and social justice, so it followed that The Powers That Be in question were conservatism and anything else that may have gone against the edicts of social justice.

I came to see myself as a David, fighting an army of Goliaths on behalf of other, smaller Davids. Luckily, the internet produced a new Goliath every day, a new opponent to defeat, and whether it was a corrupt system or a private citizen who erred, my fellow Davids and I were always up for the task. After a lifetime of not quite belonging, I finally was unquestionably part of a movement larger than myself. An army. A team. A side. Change, real change, was finally within reach.

Now that I had a clear enemy, the relentless news cycle was no longer a cacophony of catastrophes, but an endless supply of prompts, one that always provided an injustice that I could seek to correct. When Donald Trump made a comment that Hillary Clinton was playing the “woman’s card,” I made a satirical ad for this nonexistent product with my coworker Mary. When the actor Kirk Cameron said that “wives are to honor and respect and follow their husband’s lead” to the Christian Post, I filmed a sketch where I played a Kirk Cameron defender whose wife was revealed to be a literal puppet. And when North Carolina’s Governor Pat McCrory signed a bill that sought to ban transgender people from using the bathroom that aligned with their gender identity, I asked myself: What am I going to do about it?

Like many fear-based laws, North Carolina’s bathroom bill was disguised in the seemingly well-intentioned mission to protect women and children. Hateful legislation depended on fear, and fear grew from the unknown. I wanted to reverse that. What I came up with was a weekly series where I would interview my trans friends in the bathroom that aligned with their gender identity. I titled this series Sitting in Bathrooms with Trans People and in a makeshift studio in one of our floor’s two restrooms, I would ask my guests about the expected topics—like, when they decided to transition and how they began understanding their identity—but also the mundane: favorite snacks, boring pastimes, and the guilty pleasure reality shows they watched in secret. With each interview, I was attempting to chip away at the harm caused by these laws. So when the series’ first episode became Seriously.TV’s first video to get one hundred thousand views, and the first to attract media attention, I couldn’t help but see each view, each piece of coverage, as a dent in transphobia itself. My numerical success was now directly tied to the amount of good I thought I was bringing to the world.

And if my view counts were directly tied to progress, then I wanted to push my metrics even higher. To do that I would finally have to address my Achilles’ heel: earnestness. All of my work up to this point—the Tumblr posts I would write to Night Vale fans about coming out of the closet, or navigating my biracial identity, the Every Single Word speeches I gave about racial representation on screen, even the soft comedy of Sitting in Bathrooms with Trans People—reflected my authentic voice, which was deeply earnest and sincere. Unfortunately, I was learning that this was a cardinal sin on the wider internet. In fact, many public confessions of something as simple as liking a book or enjoying the company of a loved one were preceded by “Earnest post alert!” as a sort of trigger warning that an unfiltered feeling was about to be shared. I couldn’t quite understand why. Was it because apathy, snark, and sarcasm were more in keeping with the onslaught of bad news that dominated our news cycle? Did public expressions of joy undercut the severity of the unfolding sociopolitical mess? Whatever the reason, I had to figure out how to maintain my success on a platform that would shun me for daring to express my true self. The only positivity that seemed to be allowed was what I came to call “gruesome positivity.” Saying you had an amazing weekend with your family was far too Hallmark-y, while saying you had an amazing weekend with your sworn enemy was acceptably subversive. “Ooh! I really love this actor,” however true it may be, sounded too simple. On the other hand, “step on my neck daddy” invoked a sadomasoch*stic desire to be ruined as a way to disguise any feelings of real joy. Paradoxically, sincerity came off as insincere on the internet, and snark sounded more honest. I knew if I wanted to really succeed I would have to sharpen my jabs, and trade in my proverbial wool sweater for barbed wire armor. So, on a late May afternoon when I came across a viral video of a young conservative woman taking our generation to task, I was sure I had found my opportunity to try out a new, more biting tone.

The woman in the widely shared video was Alexis Bloomer, and her bright green eyes looked directly into the camera as she sat in the driver’s seat of her parked car listing the reasons that millennials—her generation and mine—weren’t living up to the standards of our elders. “Our generation doesn’t have the basic manners that include ‘no, ma’am,’ and ‘yes, ma’am,’?” she said. “We don’t even hold the door open for ladies, much less our elders anymore.” My ears perked up, knowing that a harkening back to “the good old days” was a dog whistle that harmonized with Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. A Goliath had presented itself and I had a new voice to sharpen, so I picked up my digital slingshot and quickly wrote a script that responded to her points one by one.

“We use words like ‘bae’ to describe someone we love,” she said in her video.

“And we use words like ‘racist’ to describe someone who thinks that the word ‘bae’ isn’t real simply because it didn’t originate from a white eurocentric vernacular,” I typed back in my script.

“Now I guess I see why people call us ‘Generation Y,’?” she said into her camera.

“Because it comes after ‘x’ and before ‘z’ and that’s how the alphabet works,” I planned to bite back into mine.

The next morning, I recorded my lines staring directly into my phone’s camera, imagining that I was addressing Alexis directly. I employed a more sarcastic and patronizing tone than I was used to, the same voice a parent might employ with their child when asking “Are you sure you did the dishes, mister?” while looking at a pile of dirty plates in the sink. By directing my biting comebacks to an imagined hologram of my conservative counterpart, I was emboldened to cut harder than I ever would have if she had been directly across from me.

Within twenty-four hours of my video being posted it had amassed over a million views, becoming the first Seriously.TV video to reach such a milestone. I couldn’t unglue my eyes from the skyrocketing digits in the bottom left hand corner of the screen. And as the numbers kept climbing, it was as though I was taking a hit not just at Alexis Bloomer, but at conservatism itself. In my mind, the two became the same. Alexis was conservatism and conservatism was Alexis.

Right beside the rapidly rising view count was the comment section. Supporters said kind things in response and championed me for taking her down. “OMG YESSS thank you for this cuz her video is straight trash!” one user wrote on my page. “Lol been waitin for a good clapback and you delivered!” But, for the first time, I had critics. Many critics, it seemed. “I really want to bitchslap some reality in his ass,” one person wrote. Another man called me a “whiny little bitch.” “He literally was cancer,” said one user in his review of the video. But this criticism was so novel that rather than being offended, I was flattered that I mattered enough to hate.

The numerical success of this video was undeniable, so I meticulously reviewed all that I had done differently in order to duplicate its success in the future.

By donning a more sarcastic tone, I was able to cut through the noise of the internet and speak its language. By responding to an already-viral video, I was ensuring my own video’s relevance. By providing clips of her video, passersby didn’t need to know any backstory. By keeping the format a simple back-and-forth between setup and punch line, I lowered the barrier to entry. But perhaps the biggest factor in this video’s success was that I had a clear opponent. This gave my viewers a show. Alexis and I were even visually coded as oppositional: She was a blond, conventionally attractive, “all-American” white woman who looked like she could be the poster girl for the Republican party, and I was a brown, Mohawked, pearl-earring-wearing gay guy whose tank top revealed an upper body that clearly screamed “chosen last for dodgeball.”

In listing the factors that I presumed led to this video’s virality, I had inadvertently created a set of rules that I could follow for all future videos: Be aggressive, seize on trending topics, provide all necessary context, keep it simple, and have an opponent. And to consider these edicts as rules allowed me to see the internet as a game. Once I understood that, everything else fit into place.

The likes, shares, and views that I chased were the points I could accrue. The news stories I encountered were the challenges I had to complete. Each video was a new level, and the success of one would unlock the next. And, like a video game, I was playing as an avatar, a snarkier, more biting version of myself. My avatar looked like me, had the same name as me, but he was not fully me. His words were scripted, his sentences edited and crisp. My avatar was ruthless, which was good because games can be won or lost—and I was determined to win.

After all, I was in pursuit of a noble goal: to defeat injustice everywhere. Time was of the essence so I traded the contemplative What am I going to do about it? for the more efficient What’s the funniest way I can destroy this right now? Each day was a new “go” at this obstacle course, another opportunity to beat yesterday’s score, and I was having a blast as I did it.

Throughout the summer of 2016 I was on a winning streak, taking prompts from the news cycle and spinning them into satire, reaping the rewards each time I released a video. I made short PSAs that mocked faulty conservative logic, I wrote direct-to-camera essays that exposed hypocrisy, and I covered the RNC and DNC as a correspondent. As August approached, I wanted to build myself a regular weekly sketch series.

I had become particularly enthralled by the popularity of unboxing videos, a YouTube genre where an on-camera personality opens up a new gadget and shows off its components to their audience. So I decided to satirize it. Instead of unboxing the latest smartphone or gaming console, I would crack open intangible ideologies as if they were products. That meant unboxing the “Mistreatment of Native Americans” and finding a globe with an accompanying Wite-Out, in order to “erase already existing and thriving regions so that you can visit them, reclaim them, and then rename them after yourself.” When I unboxed “Masculinity” I pulled out a hazmat suit and gas mask to avoid the toxins that would inevitably emanate from the package. And when I opened up “Police Brutality” I performed my cartoonish shock when I couldn’t find an indictment in the box, as if it was a component that should have been included but wasn’t.

I released two or three videos per week and this frequency allowed me to get better and better at the game, ensuring a weekly deposit of likes, shares, comments, and views into my ever-growing pot of points. But as with every game there was, I learned, a way to lose points, too.

As my videos grew in popularity, so too did the hate in response. With each unlocked level, crushed opponent, and new follower, there came a detractor ready to pounce, lurking around every corner, and hiding in every comment section. What was first a novelty quickly became a troubling infestation and, instinctively, I started taking screenshots of as many pieces of hate as I could and collected these comments, messages, and tweets in a desktop bin I aptly labeled HATE FOLDER.

Some of the HATE FOLDER screenshots were amusing, like the ones that took swipes at my masculinity. The comments that called me a “fa*ggot” were always delightful. They were kind of like calling a whale a whale. Sure, this might hurt another mammal who doesn’t want to be called a whale, but a whale would be like “Yes, that’s me. May I help you?” The word “cuck” was also frequently thrown at me. It was an abbreviated version of cuckold, a slur for men who had been cheated on by their wives and I always wondered how this was meant to offend me, as I surely would encourage my hypothetical wife to cheat on me and get the physical touch I couldn’t offer. I was often labeled a “beta male,” too, the derogatory term for weak men who weren’t strong enough to be alphas, but even beta was generous. Maybe gamma male or even delta male would have been a more accurate approximation of what I was, as I proudly lived so beneath the bar that society had set for masculine paradigms. Anytime I threw a basketball, hammered a nail, or carried anything over five pounds was proof that my mere existence was a performance art piece in opposition to masculinity.

Of course, this amusem*nt was only a shield to act like these comments didn’t hurt. When I received these pieces of hate I did not meet them with quick comebacks or smart retorts. When someone named Valentin told me I was “a disgrace to humanity,” I felt horrible. When an anonymous Twitter account tweeted out “On a scale of 1 to GRIDS”—gay-related immunodeficiency, the outdated term for AIDS, with an extra ‘s’ thrown on for flare—“how gay is @dylanmarron?”… I didn’t have any joke in response, just sadness and the horror that someone could write that. I didn’t even know what to do with the two-word message I received that just said, “dumb fa*g.”

Online hate was a relatively new phenomenon, a problem that no one really knew how to deal with quite yet, so I didn’t have many tools to process it. At first, I chose not to talk about it at all, figuring this was a champagne problem that was best left ignored. Then, when I no longer could keep it to myself, I went the opposite direction: talking about it nonstop to anyone who would listen.

My husband, Todd, was just beginning his first year of law school three states away, which meant that I could only ever process the daily HATE FOLDER additions with him on quick phone calls in between his classes or on the weekends when we would see each other. He always gave me the time and space to vent, carefully listening to every convoluted theory and observation I frantically shared no matter how many times I had said it before, and he would always supportively say, “I’m so sorry, sweetie. What can I do to help?” But I didn’t know the answer.

At drinks with friends I would read aloud the funniest additions to the HATE FOLDER, as a hybrid form of therapy and entertainment. Invariably my friends would put down the authors of the posts. “f*ck those trolls,” they would say defensively. “They’re just sad, lonely people.” And each of my friends prescribed the same remedy: “Just log off!” But this prescription was much easier to dole out than it was to take. The internet was essentially my workplace. Logging off wouldn’t be that easy. Plus, I was in the middle of playing the game and succeeding. How could I stop now?

Paradoxically, I despised the HATE FOLDER’s existence but also couldn’t look away. Not talking about it didn’t help. Talking about it didn’t really help, either. Trapped in this predicament, I found there was only one thing that truly soothed me: imagining the kindest possible version of the people behind the hate.

Because most of the negative messages and comments came through Facebook, I was one click away from the senders’ personal information, photos, and posts. Did they know that? Were they aware that when they called me a libtard I could also see the name of the high school where they taught English? That when they told me how I should die that I was just three pages away from finding out their aunt’s favorite band? Sending hate on social media, especially Facebook, was like sending a hate letter via snail mail and paper-clipping every photo ever taken of you, your employer’s address, and a partial family tree. And it was this information that I used to construct a full three-dimensional backstory for each of my HATE FOLDER occupants.

Using the available information as support beams, I would project intricate narratives onto the biographical gaps in their profile. If someone, for example, had one picture of a family reunion, and another photo of a car they recently restored by hand, I would connect the two photos in my mind by imagining them driving that refurbished car to that family reunion. I would see them arriving to joyous cheers from all of their cousins who had been “liking” updates about the renovation along the way. “You finally did it!” one uncle, who was tagged in a recent post, would exclaim. This hypothetical montage helped soften the image of a person who might have told me that I had a punchable face.

By fashioning a Frankenstein monster out of the disparate details left in my detractors’ ever-growing digital trails, I was able to paint vivid scenes from their lives—tiny moments of fictionalized mundanity—and it was these scenes that kept me sane. By imagining the most loving backstories I could, I was able to convince myself that they were human beings with feelings, which made me less scared.

And so, that is why I find myself standing here, outside my boss’s office, scrolling through the profile of a stranger named Josh.


I make my way back to my desk where I slump into my rolling chair and pull up Josh’s profile on my computer. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve reread his message, but by now I’ve practically memorized it: “Youre a moron. Youre the reason this country is dividing itself. All your videos are meerly opinion, and an awful opinion i must say. Just stop. Plus, being Gay is a sin.” Meerly, I whisper back to myself, hoping that identifying this typo will somehow offset the sting of his message. It doesn’t.

There is something different about Josh, though. Whereas other HATE FOLDER members have scattered biographical data, forcing me to do more work to fill in the blanks, Josh posts so frequently that there is little I need to fictionalize. Now I am no longer constructing an imaginary human being, but simply paying attention to the one right here in front of me.

I see, for example, that he has shared a meme that shows Hillary Clinton mesmerized by the falling confetti at the DNC beneath text that reads “IS THAT CONFETTI OR 30000 SHREDDED EMAILS?”

Another scroll reveals a paraphrased Bible passage he recently shared that says, “Do not be deceived. Neither… hom*osexuals, nor sodomites… will inherit the kingdom of God.”

In one post, though, he is raising money for his high school theater production.

In another he is posing with a birthday cake.

“Celebratory lunch made by me,” he had captioned a picture of a meal he prepared. A comment on his post tells me that he had been cast in his school’s musical.

A third post is a geotag at a movie theater where he apparently saw the Pixar movie Finding Dory. “What a tearjerker. LOVED IT!” he wrote. Todd and I had gone to see the movie that summer and we, too, cried throughout it.

There is a kindness to him, a sweet vulnerability. He seems to boldly resist the anti-earnest edicts of the internet and shares exactly what he is feeling, right as he feels it.

“Anyone want to hang out tonight? Don’t want to spend my Friday night sitting on my bed watching TV,” he wrote in a post. I think back to the many Friday nights I spent inside, waiting for an invitation to a hangout that never came.

“Feeling alone,” he confessed in another post. I suspect if I had kept a digital record of every thought I had when I was a teenager that I would have written something almost identical.

I tap my phone to check the time and see that I’ve spent the entire afternoon on Josh’s profile. This was another frustrating thing about the hate: the sheer amount of time it stole from me. I have a comedy show in a couple hours and I don’t have any material prepared.

Since I’m not a stand-up comedian, I usually have to find a creative way to fit into a lineup of traditional comics. Sometimes I’ll read aloud an essay I’ve written, other times I program an automated robot voice to lead the audience in a dance party, but those require significant preparation and time that I don’t have. I entertain the thought of pulling out at the last minute, but I don’t want to do that to my friend Nicole who is the producer of tonight’s show. I need to come up with an idea quickly.

This performance won’t be released as a video, which means that it won’t be seen by millions of people. Instead, it will be seen by the dozen or so audience members who are down to go to a comedy show at 11:00 P.M. on a weeknight. No matter what I do tonight I won’t be able to unlock a level in the game. There will be no points to collect. Strangely, this is motivating. A hint of creative freedom and a warm nostalgia come over me as I recall writing short plays for the audiences of the New York Neo-Futurists. I didn’t have the luxury of that speed anymore. Back then I would take time to consider what was on my mind, how it affected me, and then create from there. It’s pretty clear what’s on my mind right now. I look at Josh’s profile and then his message and then back to his profile. I double click on the HATE FOLDER and scroll through its growing population. Then, tapping me on the shoulder like an old friend is a question: What am I going to do about it?

I’ve been seeing stories of internet harassers getting fired. This always seems like justice on the surface, but it leaves a weird taste in my mouth. Does causing the harasser to lose their job make the sting of harassment go away for the victim? And does this job loss actually stop the person from doing it again? Maybe. I don’t know. But time is running out and I’ll need to leave soon for the show, so I need to work fast.

I click back on Josh’s profile. “Works at Best Buy,” his profile reads. This sits just beneath the town he lives in, and one tab away from a quick Google search that can show me exactly which Best Buy location employs him.

Finally, I have an idea.

“Hello!” I greet the audience as I make my way to a laptop that has been set for me on the other side of the stage. After introducing myself, I open with a question to the crowd: What do you get when you express opinions on the internet? I click on the forward arrow of the laptop’s keyboard and the next slide appears. “Trolls!” I shout, as a photo of looming ogres flashes on the screen behind me. There are scattered nods of recognition throughout the room.

Okay, I think, we’re off to a good start. I click forward to begin navigating through screenshots I’ve pulled from the HATE FOLDER, reading them aloud as I go.

“?‘If AIDS had a voice… and a stupid haircut…’?” I recite from a comment, then telling the crowd that I’d be honored to be the voice of AIDS, but “I also get my haircut from my husband so go f*ck yourself.” The audience cheers. Click.

A screenshot appears that just reads “?‘gaywad fa*gggggg.’?” I read aloud this two-word message from a person named Donovan, over-emphasizing the five extra g’s that he has thrown in there. The audience giggles. Click.

Josh’s message is seen on the screen and I read it to them, identifying his missing apostrophes, misspelled words, and his decision to capitalize the g in Gay. The audience bursts with laughter when I point this out. Click.

“?‘f*cking fa*ggot ass, go ride with a cop and pull someone over in the hood and be the first guy to approach the drivers window puss*.’?” I dramatically reperform this message from a man named Kevin, hitting the P of his final all-caps word. Click.

As the slideshow continues, I keep calling out every typo, every “there” that should be a “their,” every run-on sentence, and every piece of faulty logic. The audience is loving it way more than I thought they would, and I am loving that they are loving it.

“?‘Were you born a bitch or did you just learn to be one over time? You’re such a fa*ggot,’?” I recite from a message written by someone named Brian. I point out that Brian’s finger must have slipped because his immediate follow-up to this message was the thumbs-up emoji and the audience delights at this gaffe. There is something unexpectedly therapeutic about externalizing the HATE FOLDER into a slideshow. It’s as if I’m taking the arrows that have been shot my way and repurposing them into entertainment. Click.

“Trolls suck, right?!!” I ask the audience like we’re at a rally.

“Yes!” they dutifully shout in response. Click.

I start to switch gears. “So, I started exploring Josh’s Facebook.” Click.

Josh’s message reappears on the screen to remind them. Click.

The anti-Hillary meme is shown. The audience is silent. Click.

The Bible quote condemning hom*osexuality comes next.

“But then…” I tease. Click.

Now, on the projection screen is Josh’s confession about crying while watching Finding Dory. The audience erupts with laughter and cheers. Click.

Josh’s post that says “Anyone wanna talk? Im bored” is now on the screen. There is a sudden shift. Many let out tender aws. Click.

“Feeling alone,” Josh’s next post reads. The room has now completely shifted to be on Josh’s side. I take a beat to acknowledge the change, and then keep going. Click.

“Now Josh doesn’t realize that I have full access to everything on Facebook even though we’re not friends because he messaged me,” I begin, leading the audience around our twist. “So here’s what he didn’t realize he included on his profile.” Click.

“He works at Best Buy,” I identify. “So I looked up that Best Buy.” Click.

The next slide displays the number for that Best Buy location. I pull out my phone, and a few audience members gasp, sure that they know where this is going. I punch in the number, put it on speakerphone, and hold it up to the microphone.

“Thanks for calling Best Buy,” the prerecorded voice on the other end of the phone says. “We’re currently closed.”

I press 0 to get an operator. “Thanks for calling Best Buy. We’re currently closed.” In my rush to prepare this slideshow I had failed to test out whether or not they were open or even had a voicemail at all.

“So the next part of my bit will not work,” I say to the audience, slightly embarrassed. “But what I was planning is that we were going to leave a voicemail on Best Buy’s voicemail that went like this.” I click the next slide, which I had intended for the audience to read aloud into Best Buy’s answering machine, and they kindly play along and read it in unison:

“Hi, we are sending love to your employee Josh! He’s a good person. Please ask him to pay it forward by expressing appreciation to someone he may disagree with.”

I thank the audience and say good night. They cheer as I step off the stage, triumphant. It’s a different triumph than the one that comes from a coin haul of likes and shares. It’s something else. Something calmer, more whole. This was a sort of homecoming for me. By returning to my more earnest, sincere self I was tapping into something more authentic.

Tomorrow I will return to the game. I will continue sprinting at the speed of trending topics, responding to the news as it happens. I will don my avatar’s snarky costume and stare into a camera lens to boldly slay whatever new Goliaths may present themselves. But that’s tomorrow. Tonight I revel in this contentment and, just like old times, I take the late train home, soaring through the tunnels beneath the city, knowing that I just made a connection with a few dozen people.


As October rolls along, the challenges keep coming and I’m ready to tackle them head-on. As lovely as it was to return to my softer, more sincere voice with the slideshow, I’m focused on domination. With the November presidential election on the horizon there is a Big Boss to slay and I need to do everything I can to fight back. Luckily, I’m getting better. My writing is tightening, my takes are sharpening, and I’m getting quicker and quicker at my responses. I’m even becoming a better reader of the internet, a stronger interpreter of its ever-evolving trending topics, like one of those veteran stock analysts who can predict a crash months before it happens. The news cycle continues to be an unwieldy mechanical bull and I am staying on for longer and longer. The speed with which I develop a take on a news story is getting faster, too.

Most important though, each video I make is getting more and more views. With every like, follow, and share, I believe I am educating the masses, resisting the conservative agenda, and bringing my growing audience over to the right side of history with crisp jokes and watchable content. Writing in my avatar’s voice becomes so second nature that it is no longer a costume, but skin. His voice is now my voice. I have perfected the epic takedown, proudly beating the battle drum of justice to the intoxicating cheers of many.

With each new milestone I hear the dopamine-inducing sound of a coin hitting a pile of other coins, like the synthetic chime of a slot machine. Three videos in a row with over one million views, ching. Thirty thousand likes on my Facebook page, ching. Over a thousand likes on a joke, ching. A nomination for a prestigious award, ching ching. And then, I finally hit the motherlode, the crowning achievement of internet hierarchy: the verified blue check mark. This circular blue emblem appears on my Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram profiles right beside my name like a cerulean crown that finally bestows upon me the status I have long pined for. New level: unlocked.

But as the coins pile up, the HATE FOLDER is growing larger, too. My haters are saying much more violent things, which now make other messages seem lighter by comparison. Josh’s message, which stung when I first received it, was now in the same folder as “how bout I dress like your mom and go sucks some co*ck just like her” and “your father should’ve beaten you more.” This makes me cherish my coins all the more closely as they are now the counterweight to each piece of hate I receive, but I try to take it in stride. As October flips to November, I am certain that all of this is worth it, that I am enduring the hate for a much greater cause, and we will reap the benefits on Tuesday, November 8.


Election week finally arrives.

Sunday. My computer chimes with an email from my boss Ethan.

“I’m sorry that you’re going through all of this,” his email begins. “I wish there were an easy answer. You are the face of something that certain people don’t want to hear. I’m guessing, from the way they react, that they feel like they’re being attacked personally, so they attack personally. I wonder if there’s a way where you can start a dialogue.”

Since our conversation in his office, he’s been actively checking in on me. There is no rule book for what a boss should do when their employee gets a swarm of harassment on the internet. It is too new a problem to have a precedent, so here he is doing his best to form one.

Tuesday. The day has finally arrived and I post my way through it.

I cast my vote with my mom and take a selfie with her to show off our stickers. Refresh. Refresh. Refresh. 1,065 likes. Ching.

As I rehearse for our Election Night livestream, I scroll Twitter and discover that Donald Trump and I voted at the same polling place. A gift from the gods of content. “Trump & I share a polling place. Our votes will count equally. Proud to say that they’ll cancel each other out. Democracy is cool,” I tweet. I screenshot it and share it on Instagram and Facebook. Refresh. Refresh. Refresh. 1,800 likes. Ching.

Early returns begin trickling in and Texas is prematurely shaded blue. “Texas, blue looks good on you. I say buy it. #ElectionNight.” I tweet it out. Refresh. Refresh. Refresh. 490 likes. Ching.

I tally up all of the likes I’ve received as if they are official returns. We’re going to win, I think, taking my social media engagement as a bellwether for our national election. But as the evening progresses, the unthinkable begins to happen: Donald Trump pulls ahead. My tweet from hours earlier has not aged well. Confusion and distress set in around me, but rather than talking to those in my physical vicinity, I walk up to my digital podium and offer a calming tone of assurance to the countless people I am sure are eagerly awaiting my statement. “No matter who wins, remember folks: the work starts tomorrow.” I screenshot it and share it on Instagram and Facebook. Refresh. Refresh. Refresh. 1,497 likes. Ching.

Wednesday Early Hours. At 2:29 A.M. (EST), Donald Trump is declared the winner of the 2016 presidential election.

“What happened?” my cabdriver asks me as I crawl into his back seat, exhausted and depressed.

“He won,” I say, somberly.

“Oh,” he replies, matching my tone. We sit in silence for the rest of the ride.

I open Twitter, and my thumbs hover over the keyboard as we glide across the Manhattan Bridge but I can’t seem to think of anything to say. No likes. In place of the synthetic coin chime is a hollow silence and the droning hum of the taxi’s engine.

Wednesday Morning. Waking up, I am still blindsided that this long-shot outcome is now our new reality. How had we not seen this coming? Unthinkingly, I open the HATE FOLDER and mindlessly scroll through the screenshots. I click on one and then hold my finger down on an arrow that causes the messages and comments to cascade like a flip-book. I see flashes of the backstories I had constructed for each of their authors. The refurbished cars, the family reunions, the schools, the friend groups.

Maybe, I think, this folder is a better representation of the country than I had previously thought. Most of them probably voted for him. When I consider them as a collective, I am angry and hurt, but when I think of them as individuals, whose scattered biographical details I’ve woven into novellas, I see that they are simply human beings, whose lives are just very different from mine. My mind jumps back and forth between these two truths—understanding them, on the one hand, as a terrifying army of Trump supporters, and, on the other hand, individual people subject to influence and power just like me. Will that help? I’m not sure.

Friday. I take the day off so I can surprise Todd up at law school. I sit slouched in my seat on the Amtrak, staring out the window as I watch the late New England fall fly by. As the train pulls toward Boston, the trees are growing more and more bare but I have no more clarity than I did before. Instead, a random memory keeps coming to me.

In middle school my dad took me on a long-planned, highly anticipated trip to Los Angeles so that we could tour the movie studios. Tour after tour, we learned the tricks of filmmaking from the enthusiastic tour guides who led us around. On-camera rain, we were told, was actually a mixture of water and milk. Water didn’t show up well on screen. Sometimes it took a whole day to film just one page of a script. The exterior of a character’s house might be miles away from the interior set of that same home. But today there is one filmmaking trick that feels especially apt.

To give the illusion that a scene is taking place in the middle of a massive crowd, like, say, a protest, a director wouldn’t need twenty thousand extras for the shot. They wouldn’t even need CGI. All they needed to do was pack a few dozen people very tightly into the frame and viewers’ minds would fill in the rest. By seeing a shot of twenty extras packed shoulder to shoulder, all carrying protest signs, our minds just assume that there is a sea of people surrounding them. Wasn’t the internet doing the same thing? Wasn’t I tricked into believing that one thousand likes was the whole world? All this time I’d been operating under the illusion that I was having a dialogue with everyone when, in fact, I was just monologuing at some.

Perhaps activism through explainer video isn’t really activism at all if that video only reaches people who already agree with me. It’s humbling to realize that I’m not nearly as influential as I think I am. The audience I had believed I was addressing in every video, tweet, and photo was more of a closed room than an endless auditorium. The conversations I thought I was starting were just between people who already agreed with me. On the internet, as in Hollywood, something small can look massive when shown from the right angle. A few dozen extras crammed into a well-designed frame can fool us into believing they are surrounded by a sea of people, just like thirty thousand followers and two hundred shares can seem like the whole world. What was the point of the game now that I was seeing the scale accurately? What were these coins actually worth?

My videos alone were never going to sufficiently evangelize progressive ideas. If I indeed wanted to involve more people in the conversation—people who didn’t yet see the problem with any of the issues I frequently discussed, like, say, policing, or transphobia, or microaggressions—was I succeeding, or was I simply enjoying the reverberations of virality in my own little echo chamber, thinking that I was slaying Goliath when I was simply cosplaying battle reenactments with my fellow self-identified Davids?

I don’t even know if I’m worthy of the “activist” title some have bestowed upon me. All this time I had been determining which issues to cover based on what was being most talked about on the internet. Did that make me an activist or just another player riding the wave of a trending topic in pursuit of a coin haul? In trading nuance for easy coins, complexity for simplicity, was I the social justice advocate I thought I was, or was I simply playing one online?

My avatar had become a caricature of me, so binary in his thinking, so simplistic in his pronouncements, that he was unrecognizable from the real me. Yet he had gotten so popular that he was almost out of my control. His costume had fused to my skin simply because I wore it for too long. I thought that his biting tone and crisp takedowns would cut through the noise of the internet, but now I see that he and I were only adding to it.

What is my work going to look like now? Before it had so clearly been the battle cry of a winning army, but what would it sound like when we were down? Truly, I have no idea, so I open up my Notes app and write down whatever half-baked ideas come to mind.

A line from Ethan’s email replays in my head. I wonder if there’s a way where you can start a dialogue. I think of the term common ground that seems to be floating around the zeitgeist and write that down, imagining some sort of lighthearted web series where I play games with Trump supporters and see what we have in common, although that seems pretty one-note. I then begin to imagine a live touring show where I speak to Republicans and members of hom*ophobic churches. People who hate me, my thumbs type into my Notes app. That’s about as far as my creative mind is willing to take me today.

Saturday. Figuring that I need to start somewhere, I call Matt, my most conservative friend. And when I say that Matt is my most conservative friend, I mean that he is a registered independent who has, on occasion, voted for Republican candidates.

“Dylannnnn,” he says as he answers my call, tenderly elongating the n’s as he has since freshman year of college.

Matt and I last spoke almost a year ago when the primaries were still in full swing. Over beers he told Todd and me that he would never, under any circ*mstances, cast a vote for Hillary Clinton, and I am hopeful that he can offer a glimmer of insight into why he decided to vote for Trump.

“Are you kidding me? Of course I didn’t vote for him,” he replies in shock that I even asked. My relief is offset by disappointment, as I had hoped that he could make sense of all of this and, in the process, help me believe that my ideological network was wider than the thin hallway it seemed to be.

As we say our goodbyes, it occurs to me that this is one of the few conversations I’ve had about politics away from the game and not in front of an audience. I like this feeling.

Soon after we hang up, I see that my Facebook page has a new message.

“Hey brother. I’m a Trump supporter. I have watched your videos and was wondering if you would be willing to talk? I think a discussion without yelling or screaming at each other could really maybe be beneficial for us both.”

Something seems to be in the air, and I begin to fantasize about inviting this man into the studios for an interview, but there is little information that is publicly accessible on his profile and fear takes over me. What if this is a setup? Perhaps this idea of speaking to the other side is only a fantasy.

Sunday. On the train ride back down to New York City, I think about how nice it was to talk to Matt, but how scared I was to further engage with the Trump supporter who messaged me. How will I ever be able to speak to “the other side” if I don’t have access to anyone who is part of it and am too scared to speak to strangers who reach out to me? I try thinking of any Trump supporters in my life who I would want to talk to, but my mind is blank.


I continue to make videos for the two months that follow the election, collecting points along the way and adding to my ever-growing HATE FOLDER. Part of me still wants to change course, but why fix something that isn’t broken? The coins keep accruing and what I’m doing seems to be working just fine.

It is December 30, and tonight I have another show. This time it’s my friend Josh’s and I reconsult his invitation email to figure out what I’m going to do. “We’re gonna have comics give a presentation or talk about something *good* that happened this year. Like a Positive Year In Review. 5-7 minutes. Ya down??? Luv, J.”

Something good, I think to myself, scanning my arsenal for what might fit the bill for this show. But every idea I have seems to always return to Josh. The other Josh. HATE FOLDER Josh. This seems like the perfect opportunity to do that slideshow one last time, which means that this time I will need to actually reach a Best Buy employee. And if this is indeed its final performance, I figure I should film it.

In preparation for the slideshow’s social media debut, I carefully comb the deck, redacting last names, hiding personal information, and blurring any faces that may appear, but I decide to leave in the detail that Josh works at Best Buy, confident that disclosing his employment at a company with 125,000 employees nationwide won’t be revealing too much. I engineer a way to actually reach the manager of this Best Buy, which involves the genius move of calling them when they are actually open.

“Thank you for calling Best Buy!” a voice answers in the middle of the day.

“Oh, hey,” I stammer, taken slightly aback that I am finally talking to a real live human voice. I make sure that I’m recording so that I can play this at tonight’s show. “Um, I just wanted to leave just a random message for one of your employees. Um, I think their name is Josh? Um, I just wanted you to, uh, let him know that he helped me the other day in the store and that he’s just a great person and I hope he keeps being great to people.”

“I am so happy to hear that, sir,” the employee says.

Now that I’ve finally reached the store, I am overcome with a strangely bittersweet feeling. This will be the last time that I make this phone call and I find myself preemptively missing someone I don’t even know, a person who called me a “moron” and reminded me that my sexuality was a “sin.”

I do the show, and the slideshow hits exactly as it did before, getting laughs where I want them, gasps when I need them, and adoring coos as I navigate Josh’s profile. On January 2, I upload the video to Facebook and YouTube.

“Empathy for My Trolls,” I type into the video’s title field. Publish.

So long, Josh, I think. I wish I could see your face when your manager delivers this message.

Late that evening, my phone pings with a notification. “Your page has a new message.” Like a good user, I click to open it.

“Do you really think that going throgh my facebook and showing off the posts when i was depressed is a good idea? When you’re trying to promote peace and love? All it does is show that you’re a hypocrite.”

I freeze. It’s Josh.

How could he have seen the video? I think. And then, in shock at my own shock. Of course he saw the video! How could I think he wouldn’t?

I have stumbled upon a glitch of the game, a loophole that the game’s architects didn’t foresee. All this time I had forgotten that Josh was a living, breathing human being with feelings, even while sharing a slideshow designed to show that Josh was a living, breathing human being with feelings. So distracted by performing “empathy for my trolls,” I forgot to actually have it. But hadn’t he, in sending me his first message, forgotten I was a living, breathing human being with feelings, too? Hadn’t the concept of my humanity also escaped him?

And through this glitch, I finally see something I hadn’t before. Everything I was wrestling with after the election is now crystalizing right in front of me: The internet distorts reality. Not just for me, but for all of us.

We think we are seeing others clearly, but we aren’t. The sheer volume of people that we pass every day forces us to turn everyone we encounter into the simplest version of themselves: a profile picture and whatever identifiers we can see in their bios.

We think we know who we’re seeing online, but we don’t, really. We can’t see the life lived beyond the profile pictures, no matter how long we spend imagining that life.

We think we are showing ourselves clearly, but we aren’t. We are able to seem more famous than we actually are, more aggressive than we mean to be, more unbothered than we truly feel. The internet turns us into caricatures of ourselves, thin drawings that overemphasize some features but conceal all the rest.

We think we’re seeing everything when we aren’t. Much of what we see is dictated by the mysterious algorithms that feed us what they think we want to see, which itself is based on a complicated arithmetic of what we’ve engaged with and what powerful entities want us to see.

We think we are seeing everyone, but we’re just seeing a trick crowd shot on a Hollywood soundstage. A small number of people smashed into a frame, causing our minds to fill in the rest.

I thought that by playing the game I was cutting through the distortion, when in fact I was helping to amplify it. Each rule I had obediently followed contributed to the warp of the internet. By obsessively following the trending topics, I was contributing to a sense of groupthink. By creating these tiny nuggets of videos, I was often removing necessary context, shaving it down to its most basic and shareable form. By adopting a more aggressive, snide voice I was constructing a false self, a meaner avatar who concealed my own authentic voice. By seeing those I disagreed with as my “opponents,” I was distilling them to their most basic qualities, and worse: I was pushing them away from the very topics I wanted to discuss with them. And in my constant commentary, I was never really listening, just contributing to the noise in the echoing hall of podiums. All of this helped perpetuate a binary, overly simplistic worldview that stripped the conversation—and each other—of nuance and complexity. We were no longer individuals but holograms that we sent off to battle for fake points that we could never really cash in.

The internet, I am now learning, is not built to mitigate conflict; in fact, it seems like it’s built to sustain it. I had so deeply bought into the game, thinking that winning would start a conversation. But it was the game itself, and my allegiance to it, that obscured the humanity of the people I was playing against. It obscured my own humanity, too. Without realizing it, I had hurt someone who once hurt me. I had become the Goliath.

So, I ask myself. What am I going to do about it?]]>

      Escape from Cuttlefish Cove (2024)


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