The Day The Internet Made Me Cry

Every day for the last six months

Something went wrong… anxiety… fear… terror.  Project about to die.  Must keep going.  Deep breaths (no, they’re shallow, but keep saying deep).  It’s all my fault, all my fault, all my fault.

Bad person, bad person, me.

Seven and a half years ago

I’m sitting on my dashboard in my car and I’m crying.  It’s over… it’s over… and it’s all his fault.

Eight years ago

I had an idea for a website.  It would be the first time I tried to make a website.  Well, outside of the ones that everyone made on GeoCities and AngelFire in high school.

I wanted to make a literary magazine, because college and time and boredom.  It was a year or two into me realizing that writing was, like… everything… and I wanted so badly to tap into that.

It was also my last year on campus (a nice, healthy sixth year), and I had a feeling it was just… time.  I had made new friends, friends from writing classes, some Jewish friends (“How novel!” said the Jewish college kid) from Chabad, and I had some leftover super-creative Christian friends from the year before.

So I used the same site, it was called Our Open Mic (because I loved open mics), and I got those friends together, and we all agreed to use this site to publish whatever the hell we wanted to.  This was back when you said “blog” you usually were referring to LiveJournal, but this one I made as fancy as it got back in the day.  It was on this thing called Joomla that some idiots still use today to make websites.  It’s kind of like WordPress, but horrible.  Back then it was super-high-tech, though.  I think.

We all used the clumsy blog software that I bought to go with Joomla, and the idea would be that we would upload our poems, our writing, or just some thoughts.

When we started, I had them do this exercise from a book called, “If You Want To Write” by the late, great Brenda Ueland (Sorry to regular readers who are sick of me mentioning that book.  But go buy it).  I had just read it, and I had this feeling like… this book is going to change my life.  And maybe it would with them too.

I had them all write something “bad”.  I told them to write the worst thing they could possibly think of writing.  That’s what Brenda said to do, you see, if you ever doubt your own writing.

The results were hilarious.  And amazing.  And beautiful.  We all fell in love with each other, even though most of the writers didn’t know the others when they started.

And even though this was back in the day, before social media resulted in 1 billion shares to blog posts, and the fact that I think we maybe had one outside reader (not counting my mom), we had the feeling that this was something special.

In a way, because it was so insular, and there were no readers, and no SEO strategy and no social media at all, it was more like a community site for a bunch of artsy kids.

There was only one guy (let’s call him Jake) in the group that I wasn’t friends with before we started.  He was a friend of my cool friend (let’s call him) Matt.  He was this punk guy, the kind of Arizona punk that had tattoos and these gigantic gauge earrings that made you wonder what would happen if he ever decided to take them out. 

I judged him at first, and thought, “Is this guy just gonna write angry punk stuff?” whatever that is.

But Jake turned out to be this sensitive guy.  This beautiful poet, too.  He had a way with words that gauge earrings don’t immediately indicate to an onlooker.

I think that was the first time I glimpsed the power of what the internet could really do.  It’s probably a big reason why I do what I do today, why I can’t stop creating new blogs and finding new communities to join. The internet can transform our image of people, and take them from punks to poets.  It can make tiny islands (or huge continents) where people can be comfortable being their true selves, their inner selves.

It was wonderful to see that with everyone, but, for me, especially with Jake.  Because of the fact that I had prejudged him.  Because of the fact that his writing so contrasted with my stereotyping.

As communities do, the site matured.  And since it was the internet, it happened really fast.  We started to write about more serious things, and we stopped joking as much.  We got to know each other on a deeper level.  We did a few actual open mics, which were epicly beautiful.

The internet made us, more than we were ready for, intimately close.  Everyone suddenly started revealing secrets and being more and more honest.

And that’s when I learned the dark side of the internet.

I was becoming more religious, so I started writing about religion.  It was so affirming at first.  I had rarely written the word “God” in all my life, and yet now I had a community, what with the Christians and the Chabad house kids, who wanted to hear that word and talk about it and debate it.  It was glorious.  And with each piece I delved into the topic, the more enamored with the topic I got.

One day I wrote a piece I was particularly proud of.  It was about how I was discovering the value of conviction, of belief.  My whole life to that point I had valued doubt and questioning, but I saw this beauty in my rabbi and those Christian guys and those Chabad kids that made me suddenly feel this surge of pride in people who had a conviction and stuck to it.  I found it to be brave.

I wrote, “In a way, even though I’m spiritual, I admire atheists more than agnostics.  They stand proudly for something.  They believe, and don’t hide behind doubt.”

And suddenly, Jake, the beautiful poet, moved beyond punk and into a volcano.

It was a slow eruption, the rumblings starting innocently enough, “Careful what you say about agnostics, man.  They deserve more credit than that.”

Now, you have to understand.  This was before atheism was a “hot topic” on the net that makes everyone frothy at the mouth.  It was back before we had articles and speeches about the horrible effects of public shaming, and the degrading power of negative comments on blogs. 

So I wasn’t ready for the volcano.  Instead, I just explained the idea further, I brought it out more.  I said there was more value in conviction than in doubt.

And then the volcano erupted.

Jake started attacking, full on.  Just like you see now just about every day on reddit or Slate or wherever else you look.  But this was a poet, I thought.  This wasn’t a volcano… it couldn’t be.

Suddenly the writers stopped writing.  They were witnessing my back and forth with Jake.  They were watching the volcano erupt.

Back and forth it went.  Over and over.  I tried to be this leader, because I was the leader of the site, I tried to explain why he needed to calm down.  But he called me horrible names and he compared me to a Nazi and he… well, I guess he was a troll.  The first troll I would meet on the net.

I finally couldn’t stand it anymore.  It was days of this; days.  My site was basically on shut down because people no longer felt the safety of the site, they saw it as a place of drama.  They were readers, not writers.

I went to my rabbi, desperate, and asked him what I should do.

“Cut him out,” he said without hesitation.  “You should have done it from the start.  You can’t have someone act like that in a community.”

Cut him out.  It was so novel.  To kick out a person… I thought that was censorship.  But it had gotten so bad I thought maybe my rabbi was right.

So I kicked him out.

And the volcano spilled into real life.  He harassed me, he attacked me online and through our mutual friends.

And worst of all, the site was dead.  Just dead.  This thing that was growing and flowering and beautiful had just died.

The site had become poison to me.  I cared about it, but now I was afraid of it.  It had this power, I saw now, although I didn’t fully understand it.

And so I stayed away from the site.  In my mind, it was dying, but in truth, I was letting it die.  I couldn’t stand to look at it anymore.  I pretended to care, but all I cared about was running, running far away from Jake and drama and websites that betray you.

And soon, it really was dead.

Seven and a half years ago

Six months after I started the site, I got in my car, I put my head down on the dashboard, and I cried like a baby.  It was all his fault.  All his fault.  The bastard.  That’s all I could think.

But deep, deep, within me, I couldn’t help feeling guilty.  My real voice, my inner voice was saying, “This was your fault.  You did something wrong.  You should have handled it better.  You are a bad leader.  A bad writer.”

Every day for the last six months

Six months ago, I started a new blog.  One just like that first one.  With writers writing for free, for the tradeoff of having a voice in a world that often hides theirs.  Who want to be in a community.

And for the last six months, I’ve been horribly anxious over it.  Afraid of it.  At times, I want to run away from it and never come back.

Now the internet is so much more complicated than it used to be, with millions of Jake waiting to explode, with shares becoming some sort of stupid fake currency, and online communities going from hidden to in plain view.

I screw up sometimes, like I did with that first site, and I’m reminded of that.  I have some sort of anxious reaction to it almost every day.  Some part deep inside of me says, “The same thing will happen.  It will all explode.  You aren’t capable to lead.  You’ll fail, just like you did before.” 

And yet… I’m still doing it.  And it’s been six months now.  Six months since the site launched, the same time it took for me to turn and run from Our Open Mic.

That voice lives in me, but in the intervening years, I’ve been working on another one, and it’s why I’ll never run away again.

It’s a voice I got from Brenda Ueland.  A voice I got from my rabbi.  From other rabbis since then.  From my therapist.  From experience.

It says a lot of beautiful things to me, that voice:

“Things go wrong, but if you stay strong, it will all be okay.”

“Failure is a sign you’re taking risks.”

“If your intentions are good, the results will be good.”

“Temporary setbacks are just that: temporary.  Time passes, and you learn, and you grow.”

“The process is what matters, not the end result.”

“You are a good person.  Don’t ever forget that.  Even when you act like a bad person.”

“Apologize for your mistakes, but don’t apologize for doing what you think is right.”

“Your emotions do not necessarily reflect reality.”

“Don’t forget your mission… never forget your mission.”

“You will never be perfect.  Embrace that.”

I love that voice.  It’s a trained one, programmed to be played when the anxiety strikes or when I want to run away and hide or go out and fight.

It took me years to realize it, dozens of people to speak to, thousands of experiences.  But one day, I don’t know when, I finally understood what led up to that day I cried in the car.  The day Our Open Mic died.

There is rarely, if ever, a problem with us.  A problem that’s our fault.  As in, on a soul level, like something that defines us.  When I cried in the car, when I ran away from the site, it was because I felt that the volcano was my fault.  That I was bad, a bad person, and a failure.  That I would never be able to lead.

In other words, it was because I let the bad voice into my head.  It was because I believed its lies and its fear-mongering.

And so I cried.  And I ran.

Today I still cry, when my anxiety breaks enough to let me.  I’ve cried twice since the new blog launched, and dozens of times before that.  Because of the internet, and how scary it can be for someone trying to trek into its uncharted territories.  Because of the many trolls/volcanoes I’ve run into on my way here.  Because of the difficulty and risk of trying to take on a leadership role.

But really, for none of those reasons: only because of the bad voice.  Only because of the liar inside.  No outside reality defines us or our soul.  Only the voices and then our actions that result matter.

I will continue crying.  But I will forever know that this voice is my enemy, and that I have another voice, many voices, who are my allies.  And while they had to be built from scratch, they speak the truth.