Pretend You’re Talking to Yourself: The level of animosity on the internet never fails to astonish me. It feels like what I imagine bathing in dirty water might be. You dip in, hoping for relief, only to climb out grimier than before. Before I post, I ask myself, “Would I want someone to say that to me?”
As a part of my interview series about the things we can each do to make social media and the internet a kinder and more tolerant place, I had the pleasure to interview Nita Sweeney. Nita is the author of the running and mental health memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink. She runs marathons, coaches writers, teaches writing and meditation, and publishes Bum Glue blog and Write Now Columbus newsletter. Nita lives in central Ohio with her husband, Ed, and their yellow Labrador, Scarlet.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to play flute in the symphony or write novels for a living so I went to law school. After ten years of practice, a major depressive episode forced me to rethink that career. Writing had always been my true love. I’ve now spent several decades writing, teaching and coaching writers, and I love it.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Whether through mania or fierce determination, in 1997 I convinced my husband to move with me and our two dogs to Taos, New Mexico so I could study with best-selling author Natalie Goldberg. Having the opportunity to learn from and work closely with her shaped everything I do. It gave me a foundation that remains strong today.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
After one of my classes, a participant said, “If I closed my eyes, I could hear Natalie.” She was referring to my teacher, Natalie Goldberg. We both laughed, but it embarrassed me. While I respect Natalie, I didn’t want to mimic her. I needed to develop a unique message based on my experience. I also needed to trust my inner voice and not rely so heavily on what I’d been taught. Retweeting, sharing, and quoting others online can be helpful, but expressing my unique take on the world helps me rise above the crowd.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The past year has been filled with exciting projects. Most recently, I’ve been selected to participate in the Columbus, Ohio live mental health performance, “This is My Brave.” I just met the rest of the cast and the production is going to be raw, honest, and fabulous! I’m very excited about it. “This is My Brave” aims to reduce the stigma around mental illness and addiction by giving people dealing with these issues a chance to express themselves before a live audience. As someone who lives with a mood disorder, I cherish this opportunity to share a moment of my journey.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. Have you ever been publicly shamed or embarrassed on social media? Can you share with our readers what that experience felt like?
In Depression Hates a Moving Target, I wrote about my first online experience with a troll. A few months after I took up running, I joined a web-based group for slow runners. The group members cheered each other’s accomplishments, so I was stunned when someone made fun of my screen name, “willwrite4chocolate” and called us “losers.”
I was so naïve about trolls that I responded to the criticism. Huge mistake! The troll stole my profile photo and “cloned” my screen name by adding the number “1” to the end. The troll then began criticizing others as if it were me. I reported this to the administrators who quickly took down the account, but it taught me to simply report the incident, not engage.
What did you do to shake off that negative feeling?
I went for a run! It helped that other group members messaged me to reassure me I was welcome. If they hadn’t, I might have logged off the group for good.
Have you ever posted a comment on social media that you regretted because you felt it was too harsh or mean?
I’m sad to admit it, but yes.
Can you describe the evolution of your decisions? Why did you initially write the comment, and why did you eventually regret it?
In my early social media days, someone I knew posted a link to something I felt was misleading. My original intent in commenting was to “set the record straight.” You can imagine how that went. The replies flowed in. I felt attacked. I attacked back. Never a good scenario.
When one reads the comments on Youtube or Instagram, or the trending topics on Twitter, a great percentage of them are critical, harsh, and hurtful. The people writing the comments may feel like they are simply tapping buttons on a keyboard, but to the one on the receiving end of the comment, it is very different. This may be intuitive, but I feel that it will be instructive to spell it out. Can you help illustrate to our readers what the recipient of a public online critique might be feeling?
When someone attacks me on social media, I get angry and think they don’t understand. If I’m not in a good space, I’ll reply in an attempt to “help” someone better understand my position. But social media creates a weird layer, a buffer. I’m not dealing with the individual. I’m talking to an online persona, even if you know the person. Critiquing someone online just ramps up the anger and makes the person double down. I have yet to see an online argument resolve anything.
Do you think a verbal online attack feels worse or less than a verbal argument in “real life”? How are the two different?
My responses are different, but still intense. I am more likely to get angry about an online attack while I might feel sad or guilty over a “real life” attack. In a “real life” situation, I’m more inclined to look at my part and try to figure out if I did anything to contribute to it. With online interactions, that buffer makes it take longer for me to want to remedy things.
What long term effects can happen to someone who was shamed online?
It depends on the person. I’m not a mental health professional so I can’t speak to that aspect. I learned that engaging with people online is rarely useful. The long-term effect was for me to think twice (maybe three or four times) before commenting.
Many people who troll others online, or who leave harsh comments, can likely be kind and sweet people in “real life”. These people would likely never publicly shout at someone in a room filled with 100 people. Yet, on social media, when you embarrass someone, you are doing it in front of thousands of even millions of people, and it is out there forever. Can you give 3 or 4 reasons why social media tends to bring out the worst in people; why people are meaner online than they are in person?
I only know of one reason people are meaner online and it’s that buffer I mentioned before. If you’re holding your smart phone, tapping lettings on a keyboard, are you really “talking” to a live person? Intellectually we know we are, but is that earthworm part of the brain aware of that?
If you had the power to influence thousands of people about how to best comment and interact online, what would you suggest to them? What are your “5 things we should each do to help make social media and the internet, a kinder and more tolerant place”? Can you give a story or an example for each?
- Find a Balance: Social media and internet engagement are essential for me to promote my book. To preserve my own mental health, while also being effective at book marketing, I’ve had to find a balance between engagement and emotional overwhelm.
- Pretend You’re Talking to Yourself: The level of animosity on the internet never fails to astonish me. It feels like what I imagine bathing in dirty water might be. You dip in, hoping for relief, only to climb out grimier than before. Before I post, I ask myself, “Would I want someone to say that to me?”
- Take a Breath: Some mental health experts suggest pulling back from social media. I’m using a different approach. Before each post, I take a deep breath and examine my motives. Is my comment necessary?
- Examine My Motives: Can I make my point without demeaning another person? Is my desire to comment reactive? Will my post add positivity to the conversation?
- When in Doubt, Don’t: Often silence is my best choice. I won’t slather sugar-sweetness on ugly rants, but I also won’t shovel more manure onto a steaming pile. Thoughtfulness, awareness, and intention are my keywords. That’s what’s keeping me sane.
Freedom of speech prohibits censorship in the public square. Do you think that applies to social media? Do American citizens have a right to say whatever they want within the confines of a social media platform owned by a private enterprise?
I am a huge First Amendment advocate. I would argue that social media is a public forum despite private ownership, but you still can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded (privately owned) theater without repercussions.
If you had full control over Facebook or Twitter, which specific changes would you make to limit harmful or hurtful attacks?
Allowing others to report posts and comments is helpful, but Facebook and Twitter are like any other space to which freedom of speech applies. You have to balance the harm against the benefit.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“A brand is no longer what we tell the consumer it is — it is what consumers tell each other it is.” — Scott Cook, Founder, Intuit
I think about this every time I do anything online. What do I want my readers saying about me and my writing? A “brand” is made up of decisions. Each choice shapes that. Each post, each comment, each share is a choice that becomes my “brand.” Thinking about it this way helps me stay honest and focused.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Oprah! She does so many things well. Plus, she’s OPRAH!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!
Thank you for asking such great questions!