Bullying and Bonding Online
Season 3: Episode 5
And, learn more about Natalie Hampton’s Sit With Us app.
Veronica: Ah, meerkats, those super adorable creatures. You know, the ones that often stand upright to gaze across the Savannah like little furry soldiers. There was a show a little while back called Meerkat Manor. Do you remember what? Basically it was Big Brother but with a pack of meerkats. It was about this super tight group of furry buddies that for the most part worked together to keep their little gang humming along. There was this one episode that really stuck out. It’s the one where a young female meerkat pisses off the alpha meerkat and is cast out from the group. Without friends, she doesn’t get groomed. Without being groomed, she gets covered in bugs, and soon she’s just this miserable, poor, sad little creature. Meerkats are social animals. They need to belong, and it’s a matter of basic survival. Just like it is for us.
I’m Veronica Belmont, and this is IRL because online life is real life. This episode we’re all about the meerkat in each of us. Humans are crazy social. Our ability to bond with each other and to ostracize each other is what makes a difference between thriving and failing, but our digital tools magnify those basic animal instincts, upping the stakes and forcing us to think harder about why some people get brought into the tribe, and others get left out in the cold. We’re figuring out what drives our ideas of in-groups and out-groups, and how we can use our digital tools to build kinder more human realities. IRL. IRL is brought to you by Mozilla, the not-for-profit behind Firefox. I’ve been using the Firefox Focus browser on my phone for its built-in privacy. With their focus browser, I don’t see ads, search is super fast, and I know that no one’s collecting my browsing behavior. Fancy that.
I’m super happy to have Franchesca Ramsey with me today. She’s a comedian, activist, YouTube star, and the host of MTV’s Decoded, and most recently the author of her first book, Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist. Franchesca, welcome to IRL.
Franchesca: Thank you so much for having me.
Veronica: I have to say that the title of your book, Well, that Escalated Quickly is my favorite part from the movie Anchor Man.
Franchesca: You did a great job of saying the title. You gave it the perfect amount of inflection, because if you don’t use it then I don’t even recognize the tite of my own book.
Veronica: I know. It’s one of my favorite retorts online. One of my favorite things to jump into the middle of a conversation and just be like, “Well, that escalated quickly.”
Franchesca: I mean really in the context of today’s conversation, it really is apropos because unfortunately when you do have conversations online, whether it’s about politics or identity, which is the type of stuff that I do in my work, oftentimes things do really escalate very quickly, and it can be really hard to walk that back.
Veronica: I’m thinking about that pile-on effect that you get where members of an online mob might see an opening and feel like they’ve got permission to take a swipe at someone. Group dynamics can definitely get ugly online. But I want to start here by reminding ourselves that the opposite is also true. Being a social animal has deeply positive roots, and our first story really shows that off. It’s a story about someone who tried to act like that alpha meerkat, tried to decide who didn’t belong, but it’s also about how a little online magic helped turn a bit of bullying into much more powerful bonding. Franchesca, please stick around because I want to hear your take on this one afterward.
Franchesca: Okay, cool.
Veronica: Okay, a little background info. One nice sunny day in Oakland, a couple of friends were barbecuing down at Lake Merritt. People come there all the time for picnics, just to hang out. Except on this particular day, a woman, a white woman, decided to call the cops on these black guys who were barbecuing, ostensibly because they were using charcoal in an area where it had been prohibited in the past. The wife of one of the men shot some video footage of the altercation, and it didn’t take long before the video went viral.
Speaker 1: Okay, let’s have charcoal debate because these guys are sitting out here peacefully having a barbecue.
Veronica: For many, this was basically a Jim Crow scenario, somebody trying to keep people of color from socializing in “her” park.
Jhamel: When I saw it, I was like, “Whoa, this lady is out of her mind.”
Veronica: This is Jhamel Robinson. He lives in Oakland.
Jhamel: I just thought to myself, who is she to tell these people what they can and can’t do in their own community? Those people, they were minding their own business.
Veronica: Some context here. Oakland has been changing a lot over the past few years. Gentrification has led to tension between longtime Oaklanders and newcomers, snapping up real estate that’s cheaper than nearby San Francisco. This tension has often split down cultural and racial lines. After this particular incident in the park, Jhamel and a friend started a private Facebook group called Barbecuing While Black, and then by the magic of social, a community started to form. They planned a little protest down at the lake figuring maybe 40 or 50 people would show. When Jhamel noticed that 2,500 people had shared a digital flyer he posted, he figured it might be getting bigger than he expected.
Jhamel: I was like, oh man, we got to … This is crazy. It surprised all of us for sure.
Veronica: Hundreds of people showed up, IRL, to assert their own community and to just say, “Hey, we belong here too.”
Jhamel: It was beautiful. It was just a lot of love and unity. People were sharing their food. Everything was free. People come from other grills and say, “Hey man, I’ve got some hot links, or I’ve got some burgers or whatever. Can I throw it on your grill??” We had all kinds of desserts out there. We had games for the children. People brought out tables with dominoes and cards and different games of that sort.
Veronica: The cops came by too.
Jhamel: Yeah. The police were riding by and I was like, oh God, they’re going to make trouble. Next thing I know, I see a bunch of cops parked and they’re lined up in the middle of the street directing traffic. I’m like, wow. It was hot that day so, “Are you guys hungry, thirsty, whatever you need, just let us know. We’ll take care of you.” A lot of the officers did eat. There’s actually a picture that went viral, two cops and they’re were just grubbing down on the food. As the day was over, I thanked every officer I came in contact with, “Thank you for coming, because I know you didn’t have to be here.”
Veronica: Social media had helped a community galvanize itself. It had helped a community say, “Yes, actually we do belong.”
Jhamel: The highlight of the day was going across the street and just standing on the steps and just seeing how many people had showed up. Basically that whole side of the lake was packed with people of color. I mean, there were non-people-of-color there as well. It was just a beautiful thing, and just seeing everybody just coming together.
Veronica: Just goes to show that we’ve always got it in us to bond over our shared humanity online or IRL. The community building powers of social media often get highlighted among groups that are denied mainstream voices. So you get people talking about gay Twitter or feminist Twitter or black Twitter as these especially cohesive communities.
Meredith: My name’s Meredith Clark. I’m an assistant professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia.
Veronica: Part of Meredith’s research covers how black communities connect on social media and how that’s become a democratizing force.
Meredith: What Twitter does and what it does for every community is allow anyone who can connect to the platform to be able to speak on their own behalf, so all at the same time you’ve got the voices of black agnostics and black Muslims and Latinx folks who identify as Afro-Latina. All of us at the same time talking and being able to represent ourselves I think is the strength of being able to use a service like Twitter.
Veronica: It’s also a powerful tool for say getting hundreds out for some activist barbecuing.
Meredith: In terms of mobilization, you can get a message directly to a number of people all at the same time. You can coordinate in ways that are a little bit easier than you could before with pre-existing technology.
Veronica: For Meredith, Black Lives Matter has been one of the premiere examples of black Twitter in action.
Meredith: The Black Lives Matter movement would not have become what it was if not for a platform like Twitter where people had been having conversations about mass incarceration, about police brutality and police violence all along, but then here comes this hashtag and the videos that are shared with the hashtag and exposes more people to the stories in different parts of the country, and mobilizes more people who have been talking about these things, but have been talking about them in their respective communities and not all together.
Veronica: At the same time, you can’t just deliver Twitter to the world and expect the revolution to run itself. Meredith says the people who build social platforms need to be more responsible to the communities that use them.
Meredith: I do think that social media companies can do a better job of designing their platforms and their tools to protect vulnerable people as they use them, and I think one of the ways to do that is of course to bring those vulnerable people in, to pay them as consultants, to listen very carefully to the things that they’re telling you, and to work with them to develop tools that are more effective.
Veronica: I think that’s a super interesting point. You’ve got a small group of engineers in California designing these tools that go on to shape a whole selection of different groups and subcultures. What effect does that top-down design have? What do you think, Franchesca? Do we already have the tools in place to build healthy communities, or is there something fundamental still missing in the way that these things are designed?
Franchesca: I actually completely agree that we need to bring members of those vulnerable communities into the fold when it comes to building these social networks and figuring out the best way for them to keep the platforms safe. I also think in addition to having people as consultants, those are the people that need to actually be involved in building those platforms and making them safe. We found on places like Twitter when women, when people of color, when LGBTQ people speak up about the harassment that they’re facing on these platforms, often the gatekeepers are completely stunned. That’s because they’re white dudes. They’re straight white dudes that don’t experience this harassment at all. For them, it’s a shock for them so of course, they’re not thinking about how to combat that harassment because it’s not part of their experience.
I definitely think there are ways to make the platform safer. Do I know what those ways are? Off the top of my head, I don’t, but I think that’s because we need to do a little bit more research to understand how people are abusing these platforms. Often times, terms of service are very black and white when it comes to what harassment is without actually understanding how harassment functions whether that’s people making multiple accounts to impersonate me and saying, “This is satire,” when in reality it does function as harassment. People using creative spelling for slurs. People screencapping tweets and editing them to make it seem people have said things that they haven’t said. To me, these all qualify as harassment, but they’re not expressly defined in the terms of service. Again, I think really understanding how people are misusing the platform is how we’re going to create safer spaces for everyone online.
Veronica: Well said. I can think of no better way to learn how social platforms get misused than to recount a truly epic fail. Our next guest has a super interesting take on why the Twitter crowds do such a good job at turning people into pariahs. Jon Ronson literally wrote the book on the way we ostracize each other online. His bestseller So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed drills down to the basic human drives that make us shun some people while we let others be part of the pack. Ronson found that social media is ideal for magnifying those instincts. Case in point, there was a story a few years ago about a little boy who ran into his aunt’s arms saying, “I love you, Auntie,” but the boy jumped so hard that he damaged her wrist. The aunt sued the little boy to pay for her hospital bills. Yeah, Twitter did not approve.
Jon: This is like the worst human who ever lived. Then like a couple days later that the story was not that at all. Basically, because of this little weird American health insurance business in her deposition against the health insurance company who wouldn’t pay for the operation to get her wrist back in shape, the wording made it look as if she was including the child in her deposition. It was just legal wording to get the health company to pay for her operation
Veronica: That actually does make some sense, but too late. Twitter had already destroyed her and moved on.
Jon: So if we had waited two days, we wouldn’t have torn this woman to shreds because the information was wrong. A hundred thousand people tearing somebody apart in such a brutal way thinking of the very worst things that they can say to that person relentlessly for days, that’s not criticism. That’s punishment.
Veronica: Where does this reaction come from?
Jon: It comes from a very good place, the good place being right and wrong, some progressive social justice.
Veronica: It’s like banding together to cast out a bad actor. That phenomenon can benefit the community, like it did in our first story, but this kind of trial by crowd can also blow things out of proportion, and fast.
Jon: Somebody who nobody has ever heard of with 100 Twitter followers tweets something a little bit unwise, and I’m not talking about serious transgressions here. Then before that person knows it, they’ve become the epitome of some kind of corrupt ideology. Thousands of people, sometimes hundreds of thousands of people can no longer tell the difference between serious and unserious transgressions. They treat this person with a kind of life-changing brutality that’s not only, I think, inherently brutal, but is also completely counterproductive because it’s really unlikable. Nobody wants to live underneath overzealous authoritarians.
Veronica: Jon figures we all have some culpability when people get shunned online even if we’re not throwing stones ourselves.
Jon: If the moderates stay silent, then who gets to be the spokespeople? It’s the people with the loudest voices. Just look what’s happening on every side of the debate, on the right, on the left. It’s the people with the loudest and most obnoxious voices are the ones who are setting the agenda.
Veronica: The biggest lesson in Jon Ronson’s book, I think, has to do with the question of time. It’s how immediate our shaming, our casting people out of society can be, how snap the judgments become on something like Twitter.
Jon: Patience and withholding a judgment is really important because often if somebody turns up who’s completely monstrous, so monstrous it’s unbelievable, quite often the reason it’s unbelievable is because it’s not true. Why not wait a day or two and see how it unfolds? Wait for evidence. Part of the reason why social justice on social media took hold is because the actual justice system is so flawed, but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. There’s a lot of things that the actual justice system does that we could learn from. You know on Twitter we purport to hate tabloids, so try to endeavor to not act like a tabloid.
Veronica: Pretty sound advice, and yet weirdly difficult to carry out when you’re in the middle of a tweet storm. All right, then. We know that being ostracized is a brutal, but common part of any social animal’s experience, but what’s actually happening to us when the group starts shunning? Whether it’s online or offline, I wanted to know what happens to human minds when they’re not allowed to bond?
Kip Williams: Ok my name is Kip Williams. I’m a professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University.
Veronica: Kip had been doing typical research experiments in a lab, but then he got the idea to try a little role-playing game with his colleagues.
Kip Williams: There were five of us on the top floor of a building. I said, “It would be interesting if we each day one of us was chosen to be ostracized by the other four.” We would signify this by having a scarlet letter O above the door of the person who was going to be ostracized on any given day.
Veronica: Everybody got on board, and they kept diaries about what went down.
Kip Williams: It turns out it was an extraordinarily powerful in terms of how it made both the targets feels, the people who were getting ostracized on any given day, and even how it made the sources of the ostracism feel, the perpetrators. It really consumed us for the entire week, so that we got very little accomplished. We were just thinking about it the whole time.
Veronica: What’s the brain science behind this? What happens at the software level when I’m getting shunned?
Kip Williams: In the short-term, it activates the pain detection centers of the brain just like the same area of the brain that is activated when you are in physical pain. Your self-esteem drops, your feelings of belonging drop. Your feelings of control over your environment drops, and your feelings of worthiness of attention drop. You feel invisible. Your mood, you become angry and sad, kind of alternating back and forth.
Veronica: Kip was just doing a short-term experiment, but imagine that playing out day after day in the mind of, I don’t know, a kid in eighth grade, a kid whose ostracism isn’t just playing out in the hallway at school, but in a permanent way online where all her peers assemble and acknowledge each other. The cumulative effect can be devastating, and that kind of online experience has very real offline effects.
Kip Williams: Anytime that it happens in real life, it’s just going to be so much more powerful than what we find in the lab. We give personality inventories to people who have had long-term ostracism compared to people who have other problems like chronic pain or chronic illnesses. They are clinically depressed. They feel helpless, like there’s nothing they can do to change their situation, and they feel unworthy of attention.
Veronica: Kip found that the human animal is so averse to being ostracized, that we’ll put up with just about anything in order to avoid it.
Kip Williams: People who had been ostracized for a long time said they’d rather be physically abused. We said, “Why? Why would you say that?” They say that well, “At least I know that they know that I’m there.”
Veronica: Now listen to what Kip says next because I think this really is key.
Kip Williams: All social animals engage in ostracism. It’s a ubiquitous phenomenon across species, across cultures. We’re probably not going to be able to stop it from happening. It’s adaptive. It makes groups stronger to ostracize burdensome members. That’s why it’s there in the first place. It’s evolved as an adaptive behavior.
Veronica: An adaptive natural behavior, something bred in the bone. It doesn’t mean it’s not problematic though. When ostracism happens online, it’s not like the group is just ignoring you the way Kip was ignored. It’s actually way more direct and mean, right? We all know how easy it is to be cruel when you’re hiding behind a screen. Francesca Ramsey, I want to get a sense of your experience with this sort of thing. You host a very popular web series about race and culture. That makes you a target for people who want to other you, who want to shun you. I wonder if they ever even stop to think about the person they’re affecting at all?
Franchesca: I think, for me, what’s been really interesting is that since so much of that behavior is taking place online, I think it’s a lot easier for people to slip into that place online. I think it’s a lot easier for people to slip into that behavior because one, they don’t have to do it to my face. I think that it does take some level of self-confidence to say nasty things directly to someone versus saying them online where you can often say them anonymously, and that, in group dynamic, does really happen when you see other people egging people online to participate in that behavior. Just like you said, it doesn’t make it any less problematic, but I do think that the internet really has created a breeding ground for this behavior that doesn’t always exist in real life.
Veronica: The internet is really good at creating that dog pile effect, isn’t it? I see one person attacking someone, and suddenly I’ve got permission to try it too. Then by attacking you, I’m forming a bond with all these other people that agree with me. If you’re on the receiving end of a pile on, there’s this huge cumulative effect that you really can’t easily escape.
Franchesca: I think the thing about the internet is that sure, we can turn it off, but when you have people that are using the internet to reach out to you on a number of platforms, it really can feel all-consuming. For people like myself who use the internet for work, I don’t necessarily have the luxury of just saying, “I’m no longer going to use social media, or I’m no longer going to use the internet.” It’s part of my job. Unfortunately, these people often reach out to members of my family, or people that I’m friends with, or my husband, my fans. It’s not just about me in that respect. I think what we’re seeing with young people when it comes to dealing with bullying online is that when they go home, they’re still experiencing it and also feeling ostracized because they can see what everybody else is doing. That feeling of being left out, and the feeling of seeing other people participate in bullying you when you’re not there is really difficult.
Veronica: So true. That’s a perfect segue, Franchesca, because our final story is about one young girl who had enough of the bullying and the constant ostracism and actually used the internet to turn that situation around in a really amazing way. This is a story about finding your people with a little help from the internet, but it begins with a girl who was disconnected from everybody.
Natalie: Hi, my name is Natalie Hampton.
Veronica: Imagine Natalie, first day of Grade 7, just transferred to a new school. She sees nothing but strangers.
Natalie: I didn’t make a lot of close friends, and I really didn’t feel at home there. Then that just got worse, and worse, and worse to the point where I was being ostracized almost every day. Then in the spring of my seventh grade year, I started being physically attacked. Girls would just throw me into lockers in the hallway or trip me.
Veronica: Natalie would come home sobbing every day. Some of the other girls stole Natalie’s computer, beat her up. She was afraid to go to school at all, afraid to walk into crowds, and she started having panic attacks.
Natalie: My life changed so drastically because I felt like all of these horrible things were happening. I was still being ostracized, and no one was doing anything to help.
Veronica: She tried taking her problems to the grown ups in her life.
Natalie: I was sent to the school counselor. She said that no one gets bullied for no reason, so I need to take a long, hard look at myself and see what’s wrong with me to be causing all of this. For me, it really destroyed my trust in the adults that were supposed to be protecting me because I felt like I was screaming out for help, and no one was listening.
Veronica: Natalie tried to make it work for three years, but it didn’t get better. She finally left. Luckily, her new school was more supportive. Natalie started to get some of her confidence back.
Natalie: That’s when I started brainstorming for what I could do to make a positive impact.
Veronica: She thought a lot about the pain and isolation she felt at her old school.
Natalie: Sitting alone at lunch every day, and how when I was sitting there all I wanted to hear was for someone to come up and say, “Come sit with us.” That’s when I came up with the idea for Sit With Us.
Veronica: Sit With Us is the name of an app that Natalie set out to create.
Natalie: I was 15. I knew absolutely zero coding, but somehow I had this big idea to create an app. I started taking coding classes right away.
Veronica: After a lot of beta testing and plenty of help, Sit With Us was released at the start of the 2016 school year.
Natalie: As soon as you open the app, you sign up with your school and your name. You create a little profile page like any social media site.
Veronica: Let’s say you’re a kid who doesn’t know anybody, doesn’t have any friends. The app gives you a list of tables you can join without any fear of rejection. Sounds pretty good, but would it catch on?
Natalie: I thought that I could get a couple people at my current school using it, but to my surprise it just immediately took off. We were getting around 10,000 new users a week. Now we over 100,000 users. We’re operating in eight different countries, and we’re continuing to gain new users every day.
Veronica: Today Natalie is graduated, and she’s pushing for others to use social media to build more human communities.
Natalie: When I was being bullied I was getting death threats and sent mean comments. It felt like everyone in the world hated me, and that there was no way that it could get better because of how people were using the internet. Through this, I’ve really discovered that there are students who are willing to make a positive change. It’s just hard to find them at first. Creating this app has really shown me how many people out there want to change things, and want to help, and who are now standing up and doing so. It’s really given me a positive outlook on the direction that my generation can go in.
Veronica: You can check out Natalie’s app yourself. Just search those three little words, Sit With Us. Okay, Francesca. Listening to Natalie helping people find some solidarity online, I feel like most of us have done the opposite from time to time. We tend to actually separate people out. I’m going to put you on the spot a little bit here. Looking back, have you ever thrown a stone online, and then regretted it?
Franchesca: Absolutely. I think I’m human. Clearly, the research that you’re talking about in this episode supports that this is something that none of us are above. I think the interesting thing about the internet, specifically, is that it’s given a voice to a lot of people who often times have felt voiceless. I think even though sometimes people do pile on, and I don’t necessarily always think that that is the best course of action, I can understand people’s need to express themselves online especially when it comes to oppressive systems like racism, and sexism, and homophobia where they feel like aren’t heard in their real life. The internet is a place that they can feel heard. Absolutely, there have been times that I have reacted to someone saying or doing something online that maybe in the moment I could have reacted in a way that would have been more level headed. I also do think that it’s important to analyze that anger doesn’t necessarily invalidate someone’s truthfulness or the reason that motivates them to say or act in a certain way. I do agree that the way that we use social media, we have to be a little bit more careful because once you ring that bell, you can’t unring it.
Veronica: What I love about Natalie’s story is that it gets me thinking with the right attitude, all of our digital tools can actually build happier bonds. We actually have these tools. We can pull this off. Franchesca Ramsey, thank you so much for your insights today.
Franchesca: Thank you so much for having me.
Veronica: I’ve got links to Francesca’s personal site, her MTV show Decoded, and book That Escalated Quickly, in the show notes at IRLpodcast.org. I guess in the end, we’re all still a bunch of meerkats, pretty cute a lot of the time, but also animals. Since our packs are larger than ever online, those decisions to exclude each other or bring folks into the group have bigger stakes than ever too. Our tools for ostracizing each other are the same tools we use to create powerful community because all those digital tools, what they have in common is they’re magnifying the basic social instincts, good and bad, that are there in each of us. Social animals like us have to find ways to thrive in the pack whether our pack is a high school cafeteria or an online forum that hasn’t even been invented yet.
IRL is an original podcast from Mozilla, the not-for-profit behind the Firefox browser. You can find lots more material about digital inclusion and building healthier internet communities along with a link to Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve been Publicly Shamed, in the show notes at IRLpodcast.org. Next time, it’s Episode 6, Kids These Days. We’re going to figure out what it means to parent the first completely digital generation. Are iPads better than babysitters? Does your son have a secret online life, and is that any of your business? All of these questions are answered, and we have the exclusive new look at data from a huge new study by the folks at Common Sense Media. You’ll definitely want to hear about what they discovered about tech and today’s kids.
I’m Veronica Belmont, and I’ll see you online until we catch up again, IRL. Are iPads better than babysitters? Does my son have a secret online life? Did that make it sound like I have a son? I don’t have a son.