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5 Things We Can Each Do to Make Social Media and The Internet A Kinder and More Tolerant Place, With Maria Ross

I think online bullying is one of the biggest epidemics of this young generation. I’ve talked about this with other parent friends of mine. As parents, we are terrified about what our kids face. Just the other day, I was talking with two moms of tweens and they were saying it wasn’t like when we […]


I think online bullying is one of the biggest epidemics of this young generation. I’ve talked about this with other parent friends of mine. As parents, we are terrified about what our kids face. Just the other day, I was talking with two moms of tweens and they were saying it wasn’t like when we were young. If we had problems with someone at school, we left for the day to the safe haven of our house or neighborhood. Online shaming now follows people everywhere, to a wider global audience than just the kids at school or folks in your office. I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t feel totally comfortable answering this, but I would imagine the long-term effects would be damaged self-esteem and a false view of self, fear in expressing yourself, reclusive behavior, depression and possibly other destructive behaviors. Monica Lewinsky once did a great TED talks and said that public shaming was the new blood sport and I think that’s true. Some reality TV has fueled this fire by turning treating people badly into “entertainment” and we’re normalizing hate in that way. We can see it spilling over into our real lives and our cultural lives. To me, negative reality TV is one of the worst blights on our culture and is anything but inconsequential entertainment.


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 Maria Ross. Maria is the founder of Red Slice, a consultancy that advises entrepreneurs, startups, and fast-growth businesses on how to build an irresistible brand story and authentically connect with customers. She is a keynote speaker who regularly speaks to audiences on marketing and building an engaging brand story that drives growth and impact. She is the author of Branding Basics for Small Business and The Juicy Guide Series for Entrepreneurs. Maria started her career as a management consultant with Accenture and went on to build marketing and brand strategies for multiple companies, including Discovery Communications, Monster.com, BusinessObjects (now SAP) and other startups and technology leaders, before starting her own business. As a brand strategist, she has worked with brands such as Microsoft, Dropbox, Alteryx, Talemetry, and GSK, as well as many smaller leaders and entrepreneurs in niche industries. Maria has been featured in and written for numerous media outlets, including MSNBC, Entrepreneur, Huffington Post and Forbes.com Maria understands the power of empathy at both a brand and personal level: in 2008, six months after launching her business, she suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm that almost killed her. Her humorous and heartfelt memoir about surviving this health crisis, Rebooting My Brain, has received worldwide praise. Maria lives with her husband, young son, and precocious black lab mutt in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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’ve been running my own brand consultancy for more than 11 years now. Prior to that, I spent years in management consulting and marketing on both the client and agency sides. I never thought I’d be an entrepreneur, but here I am! My longest gig ever. I have a wonderful husband, a hilarious and creative 5-year-old son and a precocious little Black Lab mutt. My entrepreneurial journey has been a unique one, as it was interrupted by a brain aneurysm rupture that almost killed me. I recovered, got back on my feet, re-boosted my thriving business again — and have since written several business books, as well as a powerful personal memoir about my journey, Rebooting My Brain. As a result, I advocate for brain injury awareness, volunteer and speak publicly to educate about brain injury effects and be a voice for other survivors. I love red wine, British crime dramas, CrossFit and am a Jeopardy! addict.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Oh gosh, too many to count, I’ve been lucky! As mentioned, my career started in corporate America. I worked for a management consulting firm, a large cable network, an ad agency and a dot-com and other tech startups and companies. Some highlights include: Speaking on stage to more than 400 veterinarians; hiring wildlife handlers to appear at a children’s fair; managing an 80-city global corporate roadshow, being “almost” part of one of the most iconic Super Bowl ads of all time, and naming a product that ultimately became the company’s successful brand name. But personally, and profoundly, of course, it would have to be surviving and recovering from a ruptured brain aneurysm. That event completely changed my life, forced me to reframe my priorities, relationships and the way I work and shattered any notions of being afraid to try new things with my work and my business.

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?

I don’t know if “funny” is the right word, but when I first started my own business, while I knew a lot about marketing and branding, I knew nothing about running a business! I completely screwed up estimating two really big projects. I hadn’t accurately accounted for my hourly rate and time and ended up making my subcontractors a lot of money, with very little profit to show for myself. I never made that mistake again because I learned how to properly value and estimate my time.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Right now, I’m focused on my forthcoming book, The Empathy Edge: Harnessing the Value of Compassion as an Engine for Success (A Playbook for Brands, Leaders and Teams), coming this October 2019 from Page Two. It’s been a three-year project, and a labor of love. I wanted to find a way to use my work as a force for good. It’s something about which I’ve guided many branding clients: Helping them amplify their influence to have a positive impact. The book’s message is about flipping the script on what success means and showing that empathy is not just good for society, it’s good for business. It features interviews, research and case studies from organizations big and small who are putting compassion to work and reaping great rewards. We need a more empathetic world and I thought, why not start at the place where we spend the bulk of our time? At work! It’s a practical playbook so people can take action immediately to start flexing their empathy muscles.

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?

I have not personally, as I’m super careful about what I post and share. I have always shared myself with some trepidation and am very protective of my young son’s digital footprint there. That said, on social media ads that I’ve run, I have received some negative comments from people who did not even know my work. And my personal memoir, while very well-received overall, got a few very nasty and mean reviews online. Of course, they always sting. I’m an overachiever so anytime someone is not “happy with my work” I take it personally. It’s hard when you put your work and message out there and it’s not well-received, or worse, misunderstood.

What did you do to shake off that negative feeling?

I learned to adopt what I call the “Strainer Method” for negative feedback. Feedback is always a good thing. We can’t improve if we don’t get it. When you get hit with negative feedback, you have to strain out what is not useful to you and see if there is some gem of wisdom you can use to improve. For example, if someone criticizes my writing, I try to see what I can learn about that. However, some people are just crazy. You have to let that stuff roll off you or ignore it. Throw it away. My husband and I enjoyed diffusing my hurt by laughing at some of the mean comments my book received. For instance, one woman didn’t think I was close enough to death for her own enjoyment! You really can’t please everyone. You can’t even attempt to try. That’s what having a strong brand and message is all about. It means if it’s clear enough, it takes a stand even though some people may not like it. Don’t do it for them. Do it for yourself and your tribe. I always say that if my work helps just a few people create a successful business or amplify their impact, my work is worth it. I focus on those results. One tactic that helps is to keep a “Sweet Stuff” file in my email of thanks for support from fans and clients, which I revisit if I’m ever feeling low or unsure.

Have you ever posted a comment on social media that you regretted because you felt it was too harsh or mean?

I’m sure I have. In some cases, I have let myself get drawn into bickering on Twitter, etc. Now I love being able to delete my comment or post! If you pause before clicking “Submit” you’re probably better off waiting a bit and seeing if it’s something you really want to or have to say. But sometimes, I have just spoken out about issues that are important to me and when I do, I always try to cite facts to back things up and try not to post anything I may regret later. For example, I have been very tempered in some posts aimed at our US administration’s behavior. I try to be respectful while still saying my peace and making a statement. I don’t want anything to come back to haunt me, but I want to be true to my voice. I believe you can do both.

Can you describe the evolution of your decisions? Why did you initially write the comment, and why did you eventually regret it?

As a hot-tempered Italian redhead, I tend to pop off from emotion! I am in my late 40’s now, so I know this about myself, and it’s taken a lifetime to control — although I don’t always stop myself in time. I think being able to first write your angry or passionate thoughts down in a safe place is the way to go. I have never, ever regretted giving myself a cooling off period and then coming back to something to see if that is really what I want to say. We have to remember everyone else has emotions just like us. Even the people we vehemently disagree with. That’s where empathy comes in. I can’t scold you for your behavior if I’m doing the exact same thing. Instead, how can I try to see things from your point of view? How can I think about phrasing my comment or reply in a way where I get my message across while still being kind and factual? No one wants to be attacked on social media. No one. Even if they want publicity, it still stings in some dark corner of their heart. I try to remember that.

So many of us forget that public figures have emotions, hearts, dreams, and feelings. Just because someone is famous doesn’t make them immune to being human. You can dislike a public figure for sure, but you don’t have to hate. You can be strong, committed, outspoken, relentless and active — and still not hate. Otherwise, you’re just as bad as the problem you seek to combat.

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?

See answers above. I think if someone does something publicly that is morally wrong, that is one thing. You can judge abominable behavior and call it out. But we’re talking about general online content here. If creators are just out there, making art, or sharing their dreams, or telling their story, we need to be kinder. We can dislike it. We can choose not to share their content. We don’t have to proactively cut that person down. That person has a mom. They may have a spouse or a child. They may have a dog who things the world of them. They lay down at night just like everyone else, alone with their thoughts of “Am I good enough? Is this worth it? Maybe I should just quit.” We have no idea what that person’s journey has been. No matter what, everyone wants their work in the world to be appreciated.

For example, I am very skeptical of many of the Internet “gurus” out there, offering personal growth advice or telling us all how to be productive or “live our best lives” (I hate that phrase!) But even for the ones at whom I roll my eyes, I know they are probably helping someone, somewhere. They don’t have all these fans for nothing. So maybe they are making someone laugh on a bad day, or giving them the courage to take a leap, or yes, helping them eat right and get up at 5 am every day. Why should I ruin that for someone else? I’m thinking of one guru in particular who I think is entertaining, but kind of deluding people into thinking they have all the answers when most of what this person says is just a rant, in my opinion. But you know what? That person is just not my cup of tea. Why should I take away the positive effects this person might be having on someone else, helping them change their life? You don’t need to cut that person down publicly. It doesn’t add anything to your life. It doesn’t make you a hero. It just makes you look like a sad, angry fool. And that is what most haters end up looking like when they post something vicious and nasty!

Do you think verbal online attacks feel worse or less than a verbal argument in “real life”? How are the two different?

Oh, I don’t believe for one second that 99% of the comments people make online would be something they have the guts to tell someone in real life. That’s what makes it so hard. They lack empathy because they are not standing there, face to face, with a real human, looking into their eyes as they deliver the blow. And to be honest, I don’t believe that people truly believe half of the mean things they post. They just want attention. They want to look clever or snarky.

That said, I think that on the recipient end, it hurts even more because it exists forever. Millions of people you don’t know see it…and more every day. They might torture themselves by going back and reading and re-reading that comment a thousand times. It’s a lot easier to get time and space from a “real life” argument than it is to relive it over and over again on your screen.

What long term effects can happen to someone who was shamed online?

I think online bullying is one of the biggest epidemics of this young generation. I’ve talked about this with other parent friends of mine. As parents, we are terrified about what our kids face. Just the other day, I was talking with two moms of tweens and they were saying it wasn’t like when we were young. If we had problems with someone at school, we left for the day to the safe haven of our house or neighborhood. Online shaming now follows people everywhere, to a wider global audience than just the kids at school or folks in your office. I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t feel totally comfortable answering this, but I would imagine the long-term effects would be damaged self-esteem and a false view of self, fear in expressing yourself, reclusive behavior, depression and possibly other destructive behaviors.

Monica Lewinsky once did a great TED talks and said that public shaming was the new blood sport and I think that’s true. Some reality TV has fueled this fire by turning treating people badly into “entertainment” and we’re normalizing hate in that way. We can see it spilling over into our real lives and our cultural lives. To me, negative reality TV is one of the worst blights on our culture and is anything but inconsequential entertainment.

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?

See my answer earlier. I think because they can act in the moment, it feels anonymous and without any consequence, they don’t have to look the person in the eye and see the damage they cause. In addition,they also can vent their own anger and frustration more easily, often related to something that has nothing to do with the person they are shaming. It’s more about what is going on for them, and their own cry for attention or relevance. Everyone wants to feel important, to matter, to “have their say” and I think that, in a twisted way, people who engage in this behavior are trying to do 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?

  1. Think before you post. Make sure you are not simply having a knee-jerk reaction. Take time to craft a thoughtful and constructive reply.
  2. Remember everything is permanent. Write every post as if it was going to be used against you in court,or that your parents, a future hiring manager or love of your life would see it.
  3. Every person is a human being. No matter how they appear online or if they are famous. They have families, moms, possible kids. They are a hero to someone, somewhere. They are loved by someone, somewhere. Picture them as an innocent 5-year-old. Would you still say what you’re about to say in the way you are about to say it?
  4. Don’t confuse dissent with disrespect. You should express yourself and condemn bad acts or behavior. Don’t confuse condemning human rights violations with shaming a teenager posting a YouTube makeup tutorial. It’s okay to disagree, it’s okay to give negative feedback. But doing this gracefully has become a lost art, one they don’t teach in school. We feel like the only way to disagree is to attack. That is not the case. You can have a healthy debate with someone or disagree with them but still respect them as a person. If you must give negative feedback, do so with dignity. Stay relevant and to the point. Use facts. Try to be constructive. If you think you have to be vicious and cruel to get your point across, you need to spend some time better crafting your opinion.
  5. Promote positivity in your own feeds. Praise people online, Like their posts. Share good positive content. The more positive feedback to the things you do like and agree with, the more we put that compassion out there. This is where the Internet can be wonderful. It can provide support between two perfect strangers who are moved by each other’s work.

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?

This is so hard. I don’t want us to become a censored police state, but I would love for us all to agree about what is kind versus cruel. And I’m not sure we can. Everyone has their own boundaries, it seems. Laws defining hate speech can go a long way, and I think in that case, private companies have a responsibility to also police for that. It’s just like a CEO has the responsibility to report a crime committed in her own office or workplace, right?

But on the whole, we need to be free to say what we like, provided it won’t incite hate or violence. Yes, that means people might still post nasty comments in your feed. They have that right. It’s when it crosses over into brainwashing people or emboldening them to act in violence that it becomes problematic. We’re seeing the effects of this in our country right now with the recent shootings. Words are just words until they become bullets. I don’t have a good answer to this, I’m afraid. But I think we need to keep having the conversation.

My hope is that our better selves will help police this from a societal point of view. Meaning, the majority helps normalize compassion over cruelty and there is cultural pressure not to behave like a jerk. Sometimes, it’s the pressure of others that can keep us in check — in a good way!

If you had full control over Facebook or Twitter, which specific changes would you make to limit harmful or hurtful attacks?

I don’t think this is a problem I can solve, see above. When we leave it up to other people’s subjectivity to limit commentary, who gets to decide what is kind and what is hate? We are all raised in different circumstances and with different lenses. I think there needs to be better guidelines from law enforcement, but those companies also need to create their own guidelines as well. Kind of like their shared values. If you don’t want to adhere to them, you don’t have to be part of that community. They are allowed to set behavioral standards. Just like any other workplace or business.

On those platforms, you have the control on which comments show up in your feed, or if you want to delete hateful comments, so they do give you some power and you have to take ownership of that as well. What I would do is rabidly ensure more visibility and accountability. The platforms apparently have mechanisms in place, but they react too slowly to complaints. I know this from a friend’s personal experience. The responses should be immediate when a complaint is filed and they should not make it so damn hard to find a way to contact a real human being there. It’s maddening!

What we all need to remember is this: No one is forcing us to be on social media. It’s a choice. Yes, I like posting pics for my friends and family, seeing what is going on with them and remembering birthdays. But society functioned fine for centuries without it. If it becomes a cesspool of hate, we can always opt out. We can’t choose to do it and then bemoan that the platforms are not doing enough. That said, they can and SHOULD be controlling things like outright violence, predatory troll bots and fake news feeds. That’s just unethical to allow those to be ruining people’s lives and giving people false information that affects things as important as elections.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have two that guide my work and that I return to over and over again, and both happen to be attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt:

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

and

Do what you feel in your heart to be right — for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”

Both speak to understanding that you have to stay true to your own values, no matter what others may say. When we feel undeserving, inferior, or “less than,” that is a script we are telling ourselves. No one can “make” us feel that way. They can try, but we own how we feel and how we respond.

And with the other, this is such a creative mantra for me and related on this topic. When you speak up, when you create, people will criticize. It’s what they do. But so many more people will be touched, inspired, or impacted. There were many people who’ve had opinions in my life about what I “should” do, say, feel. Most of the time, they were wrong, not me. Not when I was truly following my convictions. Do your thing and focus on those people, not the ones who will inevitably try to tear your message apart. They are spending time attacking you versus doing their own good in the world. Follow your heart and your conscience.

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 🙂

I’m probably not alone, but I would love to meet with Michelle or Barack Obama. I so admire their intelligence, grace, respect, and desire to make the world a better place. Many of Barack’s words about empathy inspired my new book coming out, The Empathy Edge.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Instagram: @redslicemaria

Facebook: facebook.com/redslice

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mariajross/

Twitter: @redslice

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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