A year ago, I wrote a controversial article about noise pollution that triggered a Twitterstorm.
Outrage roared through my Inwood neighborhood and onto all of my social media accounts. I became a trending Uptown horror show. Like in the Black Mirror episode called “Hated in the Nation,” I faced a virtual jury that seemed to wish me dead. These digital adversaries — some of whom I knew — erected a stock character of me: “a Gentrifying Becky from Wisconsin.” No matter that I’m from Indiana and moved to New York 15 years ago from the large town of Chicago, I was rebranded as a blonde bumpkin, earning much-needed advertising dollars for several online publications.
For a freelancer who has often struggled to get published, the reaction devastated me. Waiters gave me strange looks. Receptionists gossiped about me at places where I received health care. With national stress related to police violence and a traumatic presidential campaign, I became a caricature representing rent increases, white privilege and ignorant racism originating from the cornfields of the Midwest. A fellow writer, who is sometimes trolled by the Russian government, thought I was exaggerating. Then he googled me and said that given the choice between Putin or a whole neighborhood, he would chose Putin as his punisher.
For all of the vigorous communication, there was a moment when opposing sides could have seen each other and shared common goals of respect on our streets. But those delicate seconds dithered away in the march to create clever hashtags and collect screenshots as “evidence” to my supposed racism. Twitter sent me reports telling me I had a 72 percent negativity rating. On top of being a monster, I failed Twitter. To an overachiever like myself, this was just another wound.
I did write the article. I put it out there. But I tried to be understood, like so many of us who participate in online forums. What happened to me could happen to anyone in twitterland.
Last summer, gymnast Gabby Douglas received abuse when she was photographed not putting her hand on her heart during the National Anthem. This after helping her team win an Olympic medal. In January, Monica Lewinsky defended 10-year-old Barron Trump against vicious trolls. Days later, she stood up for SNL writer Katie Rich for joking that Barron would be America’s “first homeschool shooter.” Lewinsky tweeted that “online mobs are not the answer” and that “comedy is an imperfect science.”
Looking back, I think I deserved debate instead of debasement issued by peers with their own flaws. Fortunately, I didn’t get the same treatment as Justine Sacco, a publicist whose life turned upside down with a badly constructed tweet to her 170 followers. I consider myself lucky.
Before my piece appeared in the Daily News, I tried to sell it to other publications and was told noise stories were common. Fellow writers thought my original version was too scientific and unemotional. So, I amped up my beginning until I could no longer see it. Since you’ve come this far with me, I used phrases most humans can’t string together without wanting to blow something up. These choice words included “dick,” “stereo boy,” and “possible criminal.” Yep. I did that.
An editor at the Daily News accepted my article that went from more than 1,000 words to 600, tightening the tension. He chose that piece instead of a sleepier one I wrote about the ethical treatment of medical cadavers. My impression of him was that of an old-school journalist, who — in a shrinking newsroom — felt pressured to deliver clickable content to an insatiable audience. (He may have been more overwhelmed than I was.) The photo of Jay-Z further sensationalized my story, the final package of which I didn’t see until it hit the net. When I asked to take the photo and some language down soon after it appeared, I was told the Daily News couldn’t find another picture of La Marina, the club I mentioned by name. The language stayed for days. I prepared to die.
I didn’t die, although I did lose weight. In shock, I sat in a cafe and projectile vomited across the room, not once but twice on an empty stomach. I still have nightmares. I probably have PTSD.
Pals keep reassuring me that “things have quieted down” and that I should forgive myself. After all, I no longer open my Facebook to find messages telling me I am the lowest piece of human garbage or that I should kill myself. But the damage of a digital attack continues long after the storm. A representative from an online reputation company estimated that I would have to pay $6,000 once a month for eight months to clean up my google search results with positive and neutral blogs. Without that kind of money, I’m forced to inhabit my soul rather than my image.
I’m tougher than I thought. Also, I’m neither good nor bad but something in between, which may be more interesting. I hate hurting people’s feelings, even though I still despise the inconsiderate noise blasting into my apartment from the clubs and traffic that clog my residential area. I want other people to respect my rights and feelings too, regardless of my skin color or how long I’ve lived here. Noise pollution is still pollution, even in New York City.
Do I regret writing the article? Every day, although I learned a lot and now consider myself a wisdom keeper. In the future, I believe every job candidate will have a tattoo, a piercing and an online disaster that may or may not represent the whole person. I have a head start into this likely reality.
Obviously, I would have written the beginning with more sensitivity to my neighbors of color. When the first negative comments appeared on Facebook, I slapped my forehead with the realization that I wrote my op-ed in a bubble. I assumed I would be congratulated. Instead, I enraged five continents in the first three sentences. Even though my intention steered toward noise pollution and not race, I could see why folks were upset. What was I thinking? (By the way, the “kid” I wrote about was between the ages of 25 and 30 and had a beard. I’m 42. To me, he was a kid.)
My neighborhood is changing. As I sit here well fed in modern Manna-hata, I worry about being displaced by high rents and unkind people. I must remember the Lenape, the area’s true natives, who sold Manhattan to the Dutch in 1626 in exchange for goods valued at 60 guilders. I have choices that don’t include decimation.
But I’m not so sure. Centuries ago, this island’s inhabitants struggled to survive. Today, we have smartphones and talent to waste.