BY ROBIN TRAN
When I hear good friends of mine pontificate about how much they hate social media and “outrage culture,” I can’t help but feel hurt. Putting aside for a second the irony of being outraged over outrage, I take their sentiment personally because they’re mocking a tool that gave me a voice after a lifetime of being silenced, and the very thing they hate is what actually saved my life. If it weren’t for the Internet, I likely wouldn’t be here today.
As a child, I was essentially invisible. My father was barely around and my mother was chronically depressed, so nobody really raised me. By the time I reached junior high, I was a depressed, clumsy, awkward teenager, bullied relentlessly for my looks, as I had a unibrow that the girls loved to tease; for my weight, after I developed a food addiction after being fed McDonald‘s since I was 5-years-old; and for my race. I spent most of those years hiding in corners.
I was invisible those years also, but it was a deliberate decision this time. I felt like I had no voice. No recourse. Then one day, a classmate introduced me to AOL Instant Messenger.
The very thing they hate is what actually saved my life. If it weren’t for the Internet, I likely wouldn’t be here today.
After that day, I spent every night chatting with classmates that I’d been too shy to talk to in real life and found that many of them also felt isolated from everyone else. For the first time in my life, I felt a connection to other people. All of us students on the outskirts of the school built our own little community by creating chatrooms where we’d discuss our angst. It was a safe haven for outcasts, as we’d chat for hours about how all the “cool kids” were probably out partying and living life. This became the blueprint for how I connected with others.
When I’m reminded that Internet connections aren’t as strong as real-life connections, I’m inclined to agree, but I also hold some resentment toward that view and think to myself, “Well, I don’t exactly have the privilege of feeling like I actually fit in with any group.” In fact, I was constantly othered whenever I made a new group of friends in real life, and I was regularly the group’s punching bag.
When I was in college, I befriended several church friends in an effort to “fit in” with what I thought society wanted me to be. I was the only Asian at that church and they never let me forget it. My nickname there was “Ching-Chong.” I let them call me this—and even convinced myself that I enjoyed it. I wanted to show them what a good little soldier I was.
I had other differences with them as well. Whenever politics was brought up, I was overwhelmingly outnumbered and made to feel like all of my opinions were wrong. I eventually caved in to peer pressure—and once again—attempted to “fit in” by internalizing their beliefs. I even briefly became a Republican so that they would like me. (Hey, it was college, the time for experimentation, right?)
I was also the shortest person in the group, so even when I wanted to speak up, I’d be shouted down as they towered over me with their imposing bodies and loud booming voices. It was so discouraging because I had so much to say and nobody would listen.
This became the blueprint for how I connected with others.
Their politics eventually became too hateful for me, and I left the church over their openly bigoted stances about gay people. Once again, I was left without a group of friends. Feeling like nobody understood me, I did the only thing that I felt like I could: I blogged my heart out every night.
I used Xanga and LiveJournal (and whatever blogging service I could get my hands on), but these were the days before easy access to high-speed Internet became readily available for everybody, so very few people read my blogs. It felt like my thoughts fell into a void. I’d write about my experiences and feelings just hoping that somebody out there would care.
Unbeknownst to me, a lifetime of feeling silenced and disenfranchised had filled me with serious anger and rage issues, which I’m still working through in therapy to this day. All I could do was write, but it felt like nobody was reading.
That’s why I am so thankful that Twitter and Facebook exploded a few years ago. With the advent of easy access to high-speed Internet, suddenly it was possible for anyone to reach a wide audience. This filled me with excitement. I loved that Facebook allowed me to read what all of my friends were thinking and doing 24/7, and I loved sharing my experiences as well. For me, Facebook was extremely positive, because for the first time in my life, I no longer felt powerless.
Gone were the days where I’d write a blog that would be disappear into a black hole. Now, people paid attention to what I had to write and say. My old acquaintances didn’t fully grasp what I was doing. They’d wonder why I was “complaining” too much “all of a sudden,” which amused me because if they had been paying attention, they’d have known that I’d been sharing my thoughts on social media for over a decade.
With the advent of easy access to high-speed Internet, suddenly it was possible for anyone to reach a wide audience.
In fact, I feel like a lot of people’s confusion about “outrage culture” happening “overnight” suffers from the same blind spot, especially when I see their bewilderment to social justice issues. They often act as though so many people are suddenly upset, apropos of nothing. From my perspective, I recognize the anger from people who are thirsting for social justice because I’ve been through similar experiences.
The anger you see on social media didn’t come from nowhere. For many people, including myself, it’s in response to years of built-up frustrations. I certainly spent years playing nice and trying to appease my bullies and oppressors, and it didn’t get me anywhere.
Nowadays, I consistently make new Facebook friends and Twitter followers, and we share our experiences of being silenced. Many of them feel the same way I do. We don’t feel outnumbered anymore. They’re there for me like I’m there for them. Even though “real-life interactions” build stronger relationships, Internet connections at least helped ease my loneliness.
I now speak my mind on a regular basis via social media, and I love having an audience that relates to me. If someone disagrees with my opinion and tries a bullying tactic that would’ve worked in real life, one of my Internet friends will intervene and stand up for me. Many of them recognize these bullying techniques since they’ve had it happen to them.
It feels like a great equalizer. Bullies’ imposing heights and louder voices don’t scare me anymore, because height doesn’t matter on the Internet, and caps lock isn’t as scary as genuine screaming.
Even though “real-life interactions” build stronger relationships, Internet connections at least helped ease my loneliness.
I’ve heard people claim that those who are contentious on the Internet are “the new bullies,” and while I think there are instances where this is a valid criticism, I find it funny that people who decry the “new bullies” didn’t seem to be concerned with bullies when I was mistreated for years. They always told me to “get over it” and to “toughen up.”
I feel like now, for the first time in their lives, they’re the ones who feel disadvantaged. They feel outnumbered and silenced. Perhaps the Internet makes them feel as out-of-place as the world always made me feel.
And while I don't want anyone to feel out-of-place, I can’t help but think this could’ve all been avoided had they listened to the initial pleas and realized that my anger—and I believe, the anger from many people in society—had been simmering under the surface for years and decades.
I’ve made so many friends on social media, and yes, I do talk to some of them in real life. I finally met people who don’t outright dismiss my existence. I found people who understand me. I found a place where I feel listened to and accepted. I owe my life to social media. It was always there for me when nobody else was.
Robin Tran is a standup comedian and writer. You can find Robin on Twitter @RobinTran04 and watch some of her standup comedy clips on YouTube.com/RobertTran04.
Photo via PhotoExtremist/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)