A few months ago, I wrote an article that I was really excited about, spammed it all over the web, and crossed my fingers. What happened over the next few days affected me more than I’d like to admit, but here we are at the confession booth. I guess it’s time to drop my ego and do some self-expression so I can move on.
What went down
After writing my article, I posted this picture to Reddit and imgur of a girl I had met in La Chureca, who I had written about in my blog post:
I love this picture. This moment, caught on camera, expresses something I felt throughout this trip – a close connection with the people I met. Here is a happy little girl smiling shyly after I said she was very pretty. She lived in the largest landfill in Central America, “La Chureca,” with over 1,000 other people. They collect and sell trash every day, making an average of $2 a day. Their homes are made out of materials they find, they bathe in a toxic lake, many of the girls enter prostitution, and drug abuse is high, among many, many other problems.
Yet here is this little, smiling girl; shy, but happy to have heard me say she’s very pretty. Little things like this inspired me to do more to help–and to do so more urgently–if I could find a way.
One way was to tell her story. So I wrote the article, posted some pictures, and linked to Reddit and Imgur with a short, but attention-grabbing title that would quickly express the story that made this picture meaningful to me.
Others thought it was meaningful as well and my photo received a lot of upvotes, enough to move it up to the front page of one of the biggest forums on Reddit: a forum that has about 7 million subscribers.
Not everyone logs onto Reddit every day, and pics is a forum every Reddit user is automatically subscribed to, but we’re still talking about a massive audience of people. My picture was viewed more than 670,000 times, received more than 10,000 upvotes, and on the day I posted it 833 unique people searched for my blog and looked around (for a total of 1,225 page views). I was feeling pretty great about it!
But . . . 6,397 people down-voted it. No big deal, but it was still shocking to me since I thought it was such a harmless and cute picture. And then there were the comments.
Sometimes, negative things drown out the positive.
“Yeah have you ever read a more pretentious title than “The Weekend Philanthropist”? Trash dump? This is just oozing sheltered hipsterism.”
“The weekend philanthropist? I can smell the thinly veiled narcissistic smug from here. These are people, not animals in a zoo. If you feel you need to help, do so and shut the fuck up. Don’t run around snapping 1000 pics for Facebook in a weak attempt to seem like a good person.”
There were a lot of others, some of them more laced with cynicism than others. Some people were offended that I called her home a trash dump, thinking I was just using that phrase euphemistically and not realizing that she literally lives in trash. Some people were just trying to be funny. Others attacked me pretty hard, pointing out specific phrases I used in my article and showing how pretentious or naive they were. At first, these negative comments were getting the most up-votes, and therefore were seen by more people. As usual, for me, I responded in a cool-headed way at the time, but the negative comments stayed around, bouncing around in my head and annoying me for a while. I couldn’t get them to go away and they began to affect me.
Others defended me, of course. If you read the comments on the Reddit post now, you’ll see many more positive comments than negative.
“I’m gonna go ahead and apologize to you for those people who lack the moral and ethical backbone to apologize to you for the stupid things they’ve said. “I’m sorry”. There. They feel better now. You’re doing good work, stranger. Don’t let fools on the internet bother you.”
“It’s nice to see people covering aspects of my country. It’s a wonderful photo! And to people getting all uppity these people literally live on a dump site that was exacerbated by the earthquake in the 70s. But they’re usually the most humble, caring people you can find.”
What I told myself
Despite myself and the things I said to keep myself positive about it, and despite all the positive attention and comments my post received, the negativity affected me. I started editing my blog posts more closely, thinking about how anyone might interpret it in the wrong way, and taking a longer time between writing and posting. That can be good, but it can also paralyze you if you let it go too far. It took a couple of months to finish the travel memoir that I was going to finish in a couple of weeks, and even then I continued to hear the echos of some of those negative comments.
I created a story, a story that is very probably true, that the online world favors satire and pessimism. Being positive comes off as naive. Now I knew that philanthropy not only doesn’t have shock value, but it can actually be more controversial than many of the other topics. In America we admire the entrepreneur. I can start whatever kind of business I want and be applauded for my ingenuity, even (and especially) if my business is based on a clever sales gimmick. The second I start to work for free, though . . . the accusations roll in on how I could do it better.
I was a small, untrained voice on a corner of the internet that thought too highly of the affect anything I write will have.
Yeah, it was negative.
It paralyzed me from writing in the confident and easygoing way I had before, over-analyzing everything I wrote so it couldn’t be attacked. I thought no one wanted to hear about what I had to say anyway, that they’re too busy watching videos and easily-consumed media (kitty kats, yay!) to sit and read a long-text article.
But that’s not true. Not completely true, anyway.
The Party is Life
This analogy comes from How to Stay Sane, which is a friggin’ fantastic book by Phillipa Perry about the stories we tell ourselves and how that affects us.
If I walk into a party with my head held high, with the optimistic attitude that everyone is pleased to see me or would like to meet me (and I them), I will catch someone’s eye even if, hitherto, everyone in the room was a stranger to me. I will ask them about themselves and they may ask me about myself; we will probably find some common ground and I might learn something from them as a bonus. But more than that, I give myself the chance of forming what feels like a connection. It might last just a few minutes, or it may be the beginning of a long friendship, but in that connection I feel deeply nourished.
If, on the other hand, I walk into a party with my eyes on the ground, neither interested in meeting anyone nor thinking that anyone would be interested in meeting me, I will not catch anyone’s eye and I will not enjoy the party. I will be thinking about ways to leave it. I will not be fully present at the party. Instead I will be present only with my prejudices; I will be projecting a fantasy, or an experience of the past, onto the present, and relating to that, instead of to what is going on around me.
The party is life.
At first I read this and thought, “Meh, I always walk into parties knowing I’m going to meet some cool people. I have my head high, I know I’m interesting and I know others are as well.” But then I realized that my online view wasn’t the same. Over the last few months I’ve been “walking into the party” with my head down, feeling like I don’t have a voice, like others will be critical of it, that it’s easier to not say anything than it is to say something that might be used against me.
I’m done doing that. Yes, I’ve told myself to not let others affect me for my whole life; it hasn’t worked before and it won’t work now. What others say does affect me, whether for good or bad. But I’m recognizing that the story I’ve told myself about writing on the internet is just a story, that it has lead me to stop expressing myself, and that I don’t like that. By recognizing it as a story instead of a fact I have the ability to change it.
To focus on the negative is to ignore all the positive things have happened as a direct result of writing – all the people I’ve met, all the conversations I’ve had and the ones I’ve started, the money I’ve raised, the trips I’ve taken, and so much more. I met Leo, Travis and Sophie, Jon Thompson, Liana, became more involve with Tab’s nonprofit and Chuck’s yearly donation event, and had great conversations about philanthropy with so many others. I raised over $1,000 that went to many people in Nicaragua, started selling jewelry in partnership with a women’s cooperative and have purchased $1,100 of it from them so far, and so many other things. A great business, Blush Box, just purchased 100 pieces of the jewelry to add a little philanthropy to their summer box! (More details to come on that!)
And that’s just this blog. On my philosophical blog many other things have happened.
So, the internet doesn’t suck as badly as I’ve been telling myself it does for the last few months. The party is life, and I’ll walk into it with my head held high.
Here’s to a great second-half of 2013.