Transcript

545:

If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS
Transcript

Originally aired 01.23.2015

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/545

Prologue.

Ira Glass

OK, so let's all just pause here for a second for something that is so rare on public radio, or I guess anywhere actually. Let's pause for something that everyone can agree on, something that doesn't divide Republicans and Democrats, Sunni and Shia, Taylor Swift fans and Katy Perry fans.

There's something that I found like that that everybody can agree on. It's a graphic. It's a graphic that somebody showed me on the internet. It's an optical illusion created by a professor at MIT who studies vision and the brain.

And basically there are two gray boxes. One of them is surrounded by lighter stuff, so it looks darker. And the other gray box is surrounded by darker stuff, so it looks lighter. But, in fact, the whole point of it is it's an optical illusion. The two gray squares are exactly the same shade of gray. That's just a fact.

But, of course, since this graphic is on the internet, there's a comments section. And you might think, what would you possibly comment on, right? It doesn't seem like there's anything really here to discuss. Gray is gray.

And I'll refrain from my 50 Shades of Grey joke here, and just say, when you scroll down through the comments, people do find a way to disagree-- even about this. And maybe you've been on the internet, they like to curse about it.

One person writes, what a load of [BLEEP]. They are different colors. Another writes, not the same [BLEEP] shade. Says a third, not convinced.

Then people start in with advice. And at first, they're super nice about it. They're trying to be helpful. They tell the doubters to take their fingers and cover over everything but the two gray squares on their screen. And they'll see they are the same color.

Several people suggested that they can open up the file in Photoshop or MS Paint and use the dropper tool to see the exact RGB values of the colors. And they'll see that they're the same-- by the way, 120120120 with 160 hue, 113 [INAUDIBLE].

After all of that, somebody still writes, the second square looks brighter to me. Somebody else replies, it's definitely brighter than you. People start calling each other stupid, which, of course, leads to the kind of big, over broad sweeping statement you see in comments sections everywhere.

Quote, "If after reading this thread you refuse to actually test it and choose to stick with your dogmatic belief, then you are everything that is wrong with America."

I think we're also used to all kinds of ugliness online in comments sections, in Twitter, and Facebook, and everywhere else. At this point, most of us don't even give it a second thought.

And so today on our radio show, we decided, well, let's give it a second thought. Let's dive into the bile. Let's dive into the hate and look around and see whatever we can understand. Let's ask the dumbest questions, like, why so mad? And if you are so mad, why go to the trouble to tell strangers how mad you are?

From WBEZ Chicago, it's an hour of stories with some very upset anonymous people who we get to know a little bit. It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. Ask Not For Whom The Bell Trolls; It Trolls for Thee.

Ira Glass

Act 1, "Ask Not For Whom The Bell Trolls; It Trolls For Thee." Let's begin with the worst-case scenario of things that can happen on the internet-- with the troll-- in fact, a kind of exceptional troll.

Trolls, of course, are people who post hate and abuse online. They use comments sections and social media to hound people and shriek at people. Studies show that both men and women are harassed online. But women get way more malicious messages, and they're way more likely to be stalked online or sexually harassed.

Lindy West is a writer who's written for a lot of places, like Jezebel and GQ and The Guardian. Her work is online, so she is very familiar with internet trolls. And she has our story.

Quick warning to podcast listeners, from this point forward, we are not going to beep anything in today's show. If you prefer a beeped version of our show, you can find that at our website thisamericanlife.org. Here's Lindy.

Lindy West

One midsummer afternoon in 2013, I got a message on Twitter from my dead dad. I don't remember what it said exactly. And I didn't keep a copy for my scrapbook. But it was mean.

And my dad was never mean. So it couldn't really be from him. Also, he was dead. Just 18 months earlier, I'd watched him turn gray and drown in his own lungs. So I was like 80% sure.

And I don't believe in heaven. And even if I did, I'd hope to god they don't have fucking Twitter there. It's heaven. Go play chocolate badminton on a cloud with Jerry Orbach and your childhood cat.

But there it was, a message. Some context-- in the summer of 2013, in certain circles of the internet, comedians and feminists were at war over rape jokes. Being both a comedy writer and a committed feminist killjoy, I weighed in with an article in which I said that I think a lot of male comedians are careless with the subject of rape.

Here's just a sample of the responses I got on social media. A quick warning, these are internet comments about rape, so it's going to suck.

"I love how the bitch complaining about rape is the exact kind of bitch that would never be raped." "Holes like this make me want to commit rape out of anger." "I just want to rape her with a traffic cone." "No one would want to rape that fat disgusting mess." "Kill yourself." "I want to put an apple into that mouth of yours and take a huge stick and slide it through your body and roast you." "That big bitch is bitter that no one wants to rape her."

It went on like that for weeks. It's something I'm used to. I have to be. Being insulted and threatened online is part of my job, which is not to say it doesn't hurt. It does. It feels-- well, exactly like you would imagine it would feel to have someone call you a fat cunt every day of your life.

When I got that message from my dad, it was well into rape joke summer. I was eating 30 rape threats for breakfast at that point, or more accurately, "you're fatter than the girls I usually rape" threats. And I thought I was coping. But if you get a blade sharp enough, it'll cut through anything.

The account was called Paul West Donezo-- Paul West, because his name was Paul West, and Donezo, because I guess he was done. He was-- done being alive, done doing crossword puzzles, done forcing me to sing duets at dinner parties, done writing little poems on the back of every receipt, done being my dad.

The little bio on Twitter read "embarrassed father of an idiot-- other two kids are fine, though." His location-- dirt hole in Seattle.

The profile photo was a familiar picture of him. He's sitting at his piano smiling in the living room of the house where I grew up. The day they sold that house-- when I was 25-- I sat on the stairs and sobbed harder than I ever had before, because a place is kind of like a person, you know? It felt like a death.

I wouldn't cry that hard again until December 12, 2011 when I'd learned that a place is not like a person at all. Only a person is a person. Only a death is really a death.

My dad lost consciousness on a Saturday night. That afternoon, when we could feel his lucidity slipping, we called my brother in Boston. You were such a special little boy, he said. I love you very much. He didn't say very many things after that. I would give anything for one more sentence. I would give anything for 140 more characters.

The person who made the Paul West Donezo account clearly put some time into it. They'd researched my father and my family. They'd found out his name, and then they figured out which Paul West he was among all the Paul Wests on the internet. They knew that I have a brother and sister. And if they knew all that, they must have known how recently we'd lost my dad.

Conventional wisdom says never feed the trolls. Don't respond. It's what they want. I do that. It doesn't help.

I could just stop reading comments altogether, but sometimes I get threatening ones, like the other day someone said I should get Charlie Hebdo'ed. Colleagues of mine have had their addresses published online, had trolls actually show up in person at their public events. If I don't read comments, how will I know when they've crossed the line?

I could just stop writing altogether. I've thought about it. But it seems to me that our silence is what the trolls want.

Faced with Paul West Donezo, I was stuck with the question, what should I do? If I respond, I'm a sucker. But if I don't respond, I'm a punching bag. So I did what you're not supposed to do. I fed the troll.

I wrote about Paul West Donezo in an article for jezebel.com. I wrote sadly, candidly, angrily about how much it hurt, how much that troll had succeeded. And then something amazing happened.

The morning after that post went up, I got an email. "Hey Lindy, I don't know why or even when I started trolling you. It wasn't because of your stance on rape jokes. I don't find them funny either. I think my anger towards you stems from your happiness with your own being. It offended me because it served to highlight my unhappiness with my own self.

I have emailed you through two other Gmail accounts just to send you idiotic insults. I apologize for that. I created the paulwestdonezo@gmail.com account and Twitter account. I have deleted both.

I can't say sorry enough. It was the lowest thing I had ever done. When you included it in your latest Jezebel article, it finally hit me. There is a living, breathing human being who's reading this shit. I'm attacking someone who never harmed me in any way and for no reason whatsoever.

I'm done being a troll. Again, I apologize. I made a donation in memory to your dad. I wish you the best."

They attached a receipt for a $50 donation to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance where my dad was treated. I guess he found that out in this research too. It was designated Memorial Paul West.

I didn't know what to say. I wrote, is this real? If so, thank you.

The troll wrote back one more time, apologized again, and this time, he gave me his real name. I could have posted it online, which he knew. But I didn't. And I'm not going to be saying it here either.

That was almost 18 months ago, but I still think about it all the time because I still get trolled every day. If I could get through to one troll, the meanest one I ever had, couldn't I feasibly get through to any of them, all of them?

Was he special? Or did I do something right? I wonder how he would tell me to respond to the people trolling me today. I wish I could ask him. But then I realized, I could.

Lindy West

I don't know. I guess I'm just kind of nervous. But it'll be OK, right?

Chana Joffe-walt

Yeah.

Lindy West

This is me in a studio with producer Chana Joffe-Walt and a phone.

[TELEPHONE RINGING]

Man

Hello?

Lindy West

Oh, hello?

Man

Hello?

Lindy West

Hi. How are you?

Man

I got to tell you, I'm really nervous at the moment.

Lindy West

I'm a little nervous also.

Man

At least I'm not alone.

Lindy West

No, no, not at all.

I asked him why he chose me. He'd said in his email that it wasn't because of the rape joke thing, so what exactly did I do?

Man

Well, it revolved around one issue that you wrote about a lot which was your being heavy-- the struggles that you had regarding being a woman of size, or whatever the term may be.

Lindy West

You can say fat. That's what I say.

Man

Fat. OK, fat.

Lindy West

I write a lot about body image, about the stigma and discrimination that fat people face, about being a fat woman. He told me that at the time he was about 75 pounds heavier than he wanted to be. He hated his body. He was miserable. And reading about fat people, particularly fat women accepting and loving themselves as they were, infuriated him for reasons he couldn't articulate at the time.

Man

When you talked about being proud of who you are and where you are and where you're going, that kind of stoked that anger that I had.

Lindy West

OK, so you found my writing. You found my writing, and you did not like it.

Man

Certain aspects of it.

Lindy West

Yeah.

Man

You used a lot of all caps. You're just a very-- you almost have no fear when you write.

Lindy West

Yeah.

Man

You know, it's like you stand on the desk and you say, I'm Lindy West, and this is what I believe in. Fuck you if you don't agree with me. And even though you don't say those words exactly, I'm like, who is this bitch who thinks she knows everything?

Lindy West

I asked him if he felt that way because I'm a woman.

Man

Oh, definitely. Definitely. Women are being more forthright in their writing. There isn't a sense of timidity to when they speak or when they write. They're saying it loud. And I think that-- and I think, for me, as well, it's threatening at first.

Lindy West

Right. You must know that I-- that's why I do that, because people don't expect to hear from women like that. And I want other women to see me do that and I want women's voices to get louder.

Man

I understand. I understand. Here's the thing. I work with women all day, and I don't have an issue with anyone. I could've told you back then if someone had said to me, oh, you're a misogynist. You hate women. And I could say, nuh-uh, I love my mom. I love my sisters. I've loved my-- the girlfriends that I've had in my life. But you can't claim to be OK with women and then go online and insult them-- seek them out to harm them emotionally.

Lindy West

In my experience, if you call a troll a misogynist, he'll almost invariably say, oh, I don't hate women. I just hate what you're saying and what that other woman is saying and that woman and that one for totally unrelated reasons. So it was satisfying at least to hear him admit that, yeah, he hated women.

He says he doesn't troll anymore and that he's really changed. He tells me that period of time when he was trolling me for being loud and fat was a low point for him. He hated his body. His girlfriend dumped him. He spent every day in front of a computer at an unfulfilling job. A passionless life, he called it.

And then gradually, he changed. He enrolled in graduate school. He found a new relationship. He started teaching little kids. He had a purpose.

Slowly, his interest in trolling dried up. We verified nearly everything that he told us about himself. Except, did he really stop trolling? I have no way of knowing, but I believe him. It felt true. And if this was all a con, it's one that cost him a $50 charity donation.

We talked for over two hours, and I spent a lot of time trying to get him to walk me through his transgressions in detail-- the actual physical and mental steps and how he justified it all to himself. I felt like if I could just get the specifics, gather them up and hold them in my hands, then maybe I could start to understand all of the people who are still trolling me.

Lindy West

How did you even find out that my dad died? How did you--

Man

I went to my computer. I googled you-- found out you had a father who had passed. I found out that he had-- you had siblings. I forget if it was three total.

Lindy West

I have two siblings.

Man

So--

Lindy West

Did you read his obituary?

Man

I believe I did. I knew he was a musician.

Lindy West

Yeah, I wrote that. I wrote his obituary.

Man

What I did was this. I created a fake Gmail account using your father's name, created a fake Twitter account using his name. The biography was something to the effect of, my name is-- I'm sorry, I forget the name-- the first name.

Lindy West

His name was Paul West.

Man

I wrote, "My name is Paul West. I've got three kids. Two of them are great, and one of them is an idiot."

Lindy West

Yeah, you said embarrassed father of an idiot.

Man

OK.

Lindy West

Other two kids are fine, though. And then--

Man

That's much more worse.

Lindy West

And you got a picture of him.

Man

I did get a picture of him.

Lindy West

Do you remember anything about him? Did you get a sense of him as a human being?

Man

I read the obit. And I knew he was a dad that loved his kids.

Lindy West

How did that make you feel?

Man

Not good. I mean, I felt horrible almost immediately afterwards. You tweeted something along the lines of, good job today, society, or something along those lines.

Lindy West

Yeah.

Man

It just wouldn't-- for the first time, it wouldn't leave my mind. Usually, I would put out all of this internet hate, and oftentimes I would just forget about it. This one would not leave me. It would not leave me. I started thinking about you because I know you had read it. And I'm thinking how would she feel. And the next day I wrote you.

Lindy West

Yeah. [INAUDIBLE].

Man

And I truly am sorry about that.

Lindy West

Yeah, I mean, have you lost anyone? Can you imagine? Can you imagine?

Man

I can. I can. I don't know what else to say except that I'm sorry.

Lindy West

Well, you know, I get abuse all day every day. It's part of my job. And this was the meanest thing anyone's ever done to me. I mean, absolute-- I mean, it was really fresh. He had just died.

But you're also the only troll who's ever apologized. Not just to me, I've never heard of this happening before. I mean, I don't know anyone who's ever gotten an apology. And I just-- I mean, thank you.

Man

I'm glad that you have some solace.

Lindy West

Honestly, I did have some solace. I forgave him. I felt sorry for him.

It's so difficult to believe that anyone ever really changes. And he did it. I found immense comfort in that.

Toward the end of our conversation, I remembered that in his email he had confessed that he had harassed from multiple troll accounts, not just Paul West Donezo.

Did I ever write back? Was there anything I didn't know? He said, yeah, one time he'd sent something mean from his personal account, and I retweeted it to all of my 40,000 followers. He was mortified.

Man

And I'm trying to remember what it was about. I think you had mentioned a comedian. You had tweeted about a comedian who had threatened to throw his girlfriend down the stairs?

Lindy West

Oh, no, he said he wished that I would fall down a flight of stairs.

Man

Oh, OK, and I think I said-- I don't know if I retweeted it or I-- what did I say?

Lindy West

Oh. Oh my god, I remember you.

Man

Yeah, OK.

Lindy West

Oh my god.

Man

What did I say?

Lindy West

You said something like, I wish I could be the one to push her, or something. Or--

Man

Or I thought it was, too bad Lindy isn't your girlfriend.

Lindy West

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh my god, I remember you.

Man

Yeah, that's me. I'm a dick.

Lindy West

I can't believe-- I mean, there's so many trolls. I can't believe-- I can't believe I remember you.

Man

Yeah, that was me.

Lindy West

At this point, my producer Chana, who'd been listening, couldn't stop herself from jumping in.

Chana Joffe-walt

God, hearing you guys, you sound like you're like, oh, you went to that high school? I went to that high school too. Holy cow.

Man

Yeah.

Lindy West

Well, you know, I mean it's such a normalized part of my life now. I mean, honestly-- and it's kind of a relief to talk to someone who really knows what I'm talking about, even though he's coming at it from the other direction. There's almost no one who understands--

Man

Well, you know what, as a former troll, I'd never told a single living human being until now that I did this. So it's good, in a way, to get that off my chest to get my secret life-- my old life-- I don't know. It just feels good to exercise these demons.

Lindy West

It felt really easy, comfortable even, to talk to my troll. I liked him, and I didn't know what to do with that.

It's frightening to discover that he's so normal. He has female coworkers who enjoy his company. He has a real, live girlfriend who loves him. They have no idea that he used to go online and traumatize women for fun.

Trolls live among us. I've gotten anonymous comments from people saying they met me at a movie theater and I was a bitch. Or they served me at a restaurant and my boobs aren't as big as they look in pictures.

People say it doesn't matter what happens on the internet, that it's not real life. But thanks to internet trolls, I'm perpetually reminded that the boundary between the civilized world and our worst selves is just an illusion.

Trolls still waste my time and tax my mental health on a daily basis, but honestly, I don't wish them any pain. Their pain is what got us here in the first place. That's what I learned from my troll.

If what he said is true, that he just needed to find some meaning in his life, then what a heartbreaking diagnosis for all of the people who are still at it. I can't give purpose and fulfillment to millions of anonymous strangers, but I can remember not to lose sight of their humanity the way that they lost sight of mine.

Humans can be reached. I have proof. Empathy, boldness, kindness, those are things I learned from my dad, though he never knew how much I'd need them. Or maybe he did.

He was a jazz musician. And when I was born, he wrote a song about me. And listening to it now, it feels like he wrote it for just this moment. I'll give the last word to him.

Paul West

You've got a lot of nerve, little girl-- bundles of nerve, little girl, to come here in a season full of doubt and tattered reason in a world you don't deserve. You got a lot of nerve, little girl.

(HOST) IRA GLASS: Lindy West in Seattle.

Paul West

You got a lot of stuff, little girl. I hope it's enough, little girl. Cause in a world so full of greed, it's pretty likely that you'll need it all and still have to be tough.

Act Two. Freedom Fries.

Ira Glass

Act 2, "Freedom Fries."

So the comments that we get from our listeners are usually nowhere as vicious as what Lindy West gets on a daily basis. But for a while now, the women on our staff have been getting emails like this one.

Quote, "The voice of Chana Joffe-Walt is just too much to bear. And I turn off any episode she's on. A quick bit of research, found an appropriate description, which is vocal fry. How can This American Life have this on the show? It escapes me."

If you have no idea what this is about, here's a clip of Chana.

Chana Joffe-walt

And Thompson kept hearing that term school-to-prison pipeline.

Ira Glass

OK, hear the way that her voice kind of creaks on the word pipeline? That's vocal fry.

Chana Joffe-walt

Pipeline.

Ira Glass

But it's not just Chana. A man wrote us in November. Quote, "Vocal fry is a growing fad among young American women. Miki Meek provides a vivid and grating example of this unfortunate affectation." Miki, by the way, sounds like this.

Miki Meek

She'd never experienced anything outside the church. And she basically checked out on Will and the kids.

Ira Glass

Somebody wrote us about Alix Spiegel, who's been on our show many, many times-- now co-hosts the NPR science program Invisibilia. Quote, "Perhaps Alix could cover the vocal fry epidemic. It would be really interesting to hear her take, as she is clearly a victim herself." For the record, here is Alix.

Alix Spiegel

Because Roxanne was the only one supporting her young daughter, she had to be able to work.

(HOST) IRA GLASS: Elna Baker, Mary Beth Kirchner, Starlee Kine, Yowei Shaw. When investigative reporter Susan Zalkind was on our show last year with the story of the FBI shooting a man connected to the Boston Marathon bombers, she sounded like this.

Susan Zalkind

But Ibragim also got arrested for beating a guy unconscious over a parking space at a mall in Florida.

Ira Glass

A woman wrote in, quote, "The growl in the woman's voice was so annoying that I turned it off." A man wrote, quote, "Listen, I know there's pressure to hire females, in particular young females just out of college. And besides, they're likely to work for less money. But do you have to choose the most irritating voices in the English-speaking world? I mean, are you forced to? Or maybe, as I imagine, NPR runs national contests looking for them."

The term vocal fry started to get wide usage in 2011 after a study of 34 college students at Long Island University found that 2/3 of them had it, usually at the ends of sentences. A reporter wrote a story about that study at the website of Science magazine. Gawker, Huffington Post, Boing Boing, and other sites linked to it. And within days, it became the most popular article ever published on the Science magazine website in its 15 years. Other media glommed on.

Matt Lauer

Something called vocal fry that is creeping into the speech patterns of young women. NBC'S chief medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman is here to explain. Explain--

Ira Glass

This story on The Today Show raises the possibility that talking this way harms young women's voices. Since then, many researchers have said this doesn't seem to be true. The Today Show story also says this only affects women.

Matt Lauer

But is there anything equivalent in men?

Nancy Snyderman

No, there isn't. And you know what's interesting is--

Ira Glass

There's now robust evidence that men do this too. And like a lot of the other coverage, The Today Show story pathologizes vocal fry. It says that it's some kind of problem instead of just the way that some people talk.

And it teaches viewers to spot it. Today Show host Matt Lauer starts the segment saying that he's never heard of this, and ends it saying he'd never noticed it before, and now he's going to be on the alert for it.

Nancy Snyderman

That's it.

Matt Lauer

Well, that's the first time I actually heard it in Kim Kardashian.

Nancy Snyderman

Yeah, you have to really listen. And Kim Kardashian really sort of has it.

Matt Lauer

I will start to listen--

Nancy Snyderman

You're just not going to be hip enough to be there.

Matt Lauer

I'll listen more carefully.

(HOST) IRA GLASS: The Today Show story and other stories treat vocal fry as if it's a new phenomenon, on the rise, a fad, an epidemic. But as a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, Mark Lieberman, has pointed out, there is still no evidence of that, pro or con-- no evidence that it is more common now than it's always been.

What's striking in the dozens of emails about vocal fry that we've gotten here at our radio show is how vehement people are. These are some of the angriest emails we ever get. They call these women's voices unbearable, excruciating, annoyingly adolescent, beyond annoying, difficult to pay attention, so severe as to cause discomfort, can't stand the pain, distractingly disgusting, could not get over how annoyed I was, I am so appalled, detracts from the credibility of the journalist, degrades the value of the reportage, it's a choice, very unprofessional.

Stephanie Foo

Lately, in the past year and a half maybe, every time I get together with female radio producers, it's just like comparing war stories.

Ira Glass

That's Stephanie Foo, one of the younger producers here on our show.

Stephanie Foo

It's just listing off, oh, somebody said this about me, my voice this week. Somebody said I sound like a stoner 13-year-old. Somebody said that my voice sounds like driving on gravel. Somebody said they wanted to kill themselves hearing my voice.

Ira Glass

Listeners have always complained about young women reporting on our show. They used to complain about reporters using the word like and about upspeak, which is when you put a question mark at the end of a sentence and talk like this. But we don't get many emails like that anymore. People who don't like listening to young women on the radio have moved on to vocal fry.

Chana Joffe-walt

I just feel like, my voice, really?

(HOST) IRA GLASS: This is producer Chana Joffe-Walt. Remember, I read a letter from a listener who found her voice too much to bear. Chana says that it's fine with her if somebody has a problem with her reporting or her writing or her interviewing, but her voice?

Chana Joffe-walt

I'm just trying to speak. Literally the way that the voice comes out of my mouth bothers you? What am I supposed to do about that? And even now as we're speaking about it, I am noticing every single time I do it, and then hating every single time I do it, and trying not to do it. But trying not to do it is impossible because it's the way that I talk, because it's my actual voice. It's crazy making.

Ira Glass

It's funny. Until we started talking about it for this story, I never even noticed it in your voice.

Chana Joffe-walt

And now you notice it every single--

Ira Glass

Yeah. Have you noticed that I do it too?

Chana Joffe-walt

Not until right now.

Ira Glass

Yeah, yeah, even as I say these words.

Chana Joffe-walt

And I didn't notice it when other women do it either until I started to read about the phenomenon of vocal fry. And then I did notice it. And I find it annoying now when other people do it. I mean, I don't notice it all of the time. But if I am thinking about it and hear other people do it-- other women do it especially-- I become like a woman who hates women.

Ira Glass

Wow, it's like you've absorbed the messages of your oppressor.

Chana Joffe-walt

I hear it in you now.

Ira Glass

Yeah. I get criticized for a lot of things in the emails to the show. No one has ever pointed this out.

Chana Joffe-walt

That's completely unsurprising.

Ira Glass

Oh, do you think it's just sexism?

Chana Joffe-walt

Yes. I think it taps into some deep part of people's selves where they don't want to hear young women, including me. It taps into that in me.

Ira Glass

A few years ago, a linguist named Penny Eckert from Stanford University heard a young woman on NPR and was surprised to hear somebody speaking in such a casual style with so much vocal fry about serious news. And she thought, well, she shouldn't be on NPR. She doesn't sound authoritative.

Penny Eckert

When I played it for my students and asked them how they thought she sounded, they said she sounded great. And they thought she sounded authoritative. Then I knew that I was behind the curve.

Ira Glass

So she did a little study-- a preliminary study. She played clips of a Marketplace reporter named Sally Herships for 584 people, and she asked them to rate how authoritative the reporter sounded. The results, people under 40 heard it very differently than people over 40.

Penny Eckert

The younger people found that quite authoritative, and the older people did not.

Ira Glass

So if people are having a problem with these reporters on the radio, what it means is they're old.

Penny Eckert

Yeah, I think old people tend to get cranky about this stuff anyway. But the media are just all over it. I mean, I'm constantly getting requests from media. And they want to talk about the crazy ways that young women are speaking. And the first thing they do is attribute it to young women, even though young men are doing it too. So it's a policing of young people, but I think most particularly young women.

Ira Glass

She says the same thing happened with upspeak and with the word like. Reporters would call her about these things. They'd point to them as a problem with young women when young men do all that also.

She says people get worked up about this stuff, but it's just part of life. As we age, we fall out of touch with how younger people speak. Her advice to everybody, including herself-- get over it.

Coming up, know what people really love on the internet? Little baby animals. So why would they be yelling at each other about that? That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Three. Words of Prey.

Ira Glass

This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show-- and are you only listening to the vocal fry in my voice right now and not the actual words that I'm saying? Today's show-- "If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS," stories about internet commenters. We have arrived at Act 3 of our program. Act 3, "Words of Prey."

So every few months it seems there's some study that gets released saying there's something like 15% of the internet is just cats-- cat videos, cat pictures-- or maybe it's 1% is cats, or maybe it's some other number that really just seems crazy. My point is the internet loves animals. With that in mind, here's Jonathan Menjivar.

Jonathan Menjivar

In the world of wildlife animal cams, the Woods Hole Osprey Cam is a bit player. It's certainly no panda cam. All over the earth there are webcams trained on bison, penguins. I just watch the jellyfish one. That's useful if you want to feel stoned at your desk.

But until last summer, the osprey cam at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution-- most people just call it WHOI. Their camera didn't get much traffic. The cam was started about a decade ago as a kind of pet project of a woman who worked at WHOI. She died in 2009.

Jeffrey Brodeur

Her name was Sheri. And she was deeply involved in the osprey-- loved animals.

Jonathan Menjivar

This is Jeffrey Brodeur. He works at WHOI.

Jeffrey Brodeur

And, in fact, we named one of the osprey after her, which one of the worst parts was that the bird we named got hit by a car. The bird died. And then that winter, she died.

Jonathan Menjivar

Sheri was only 41. After her death, Jeffrey took over responsibility for the camera. And for three years, no birds showed up.

Jeffrey Brodeur

This empty pallor hung over this nest for a while, where season after season we didn't have anything.

Jonathan Menjivar

One year, a male and female showed up, but they didn't breed. They returned a year later. And on April 19, 2014 at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, the first egg arrived-- at least that's according to one account on a message board.

Excitement around the nest grew on the internet. And then a second egg arrived, and then a third.

Jeffrey Brodeur

Right, which is amazing. So people were really starting to sit up and pay attention that the Woods Hole osprey nest is back.

Jonathan Menjivar

Featherheads-- that's apparently what some osprey addicts call themselves-- they started putting videos on YouTube and posting play-by-play action of everything that was happening in the nest. 5:44 AM, two minutes into fourth video, and it's looking very much like a normal feeding. 5:45 AM, all three are clustered around, and I think at least two are being fed. I also think the one on the left isn't getting as much now as the one that was fed more earlier. 5:46 AM, adult paused for a second and looked around.

On the message boards, people started posting screenshots of things they were seeing-- when the nestlings ate, when they pooped. So all of these eyes were on the nest. People were excited. And then--

Jeffrey Brodeur

It was almost immediate that people started noticing that things were not quite normal in this nest.

Jonathan Menjivar

The mom, she'd bring fish to the nest, but she seemed to be hoarding them, not sharing with the nestlings.

Jeffrey Brodeur

And then they're starting to ask about the mother and what kind of behavior is the mother displaying. She seems not to be feeding as much. And she's not interacting with the babies. And then it all blew up when she started attacking the young.

I heard from someone that she was, quote unquote, "ripping apart the young." She was pecking-- pecking at their heads. She was using her talons. So imagine almost like a helicopter, so she's hovered over these three young, who are putting their heads down, tucking their necks down to protect themselves from her as she just starts clawing away and pecking at them-- going for the eyes.

Jonathan Menjivar

Now if this happened in a forest, it's just another day for nature. But it wasn't happening in a forest. It was happening on the internet.

Jeffrey Brodeur

And from that point on, it was momzilla. That was the name they gave her.

Jonathan Menjivar

I've watched the videos, and they are hard to take. It's not a lion taking down a gazelle because he's hungry. This is a mother attacking her kids, seemingly for no reason. And not just attacking them, starving them. When the dad brings fish to the nest, the mother often eats most of the fish before she offers the nestlings anything.

By the end of the summer, a message board devoted to the cam that had been quiet for years, suddenly had hundreds of pages of posts. There are at least 40 osprey cams around the US, and now Jeffrey was sitting on the Real Housewives of osprey cams. Woods Hole had the train wreck that everyone wanted to watch.

People on the message boards clearly knew a ton about osprey, but they couldn't help themselves from attaching human motives to the mother's actions. One person wrote, note how she looks at them at times, almost like daring them to move.

Jeffrey Brodeur

So here's one from a little bit later in July. "Please, I just watched a YouTube video that's showing this mom osprey attacking all of her babies-- one very viciously. This is not normal.

I have seen normal osprey moms to be loving and worry for their babies. Please remove these babies now. Give them a chance to know that this is not normal. Please get these babies off this nest. Please."

Jonathan Menjivar

That's a lot of pleases in there.

Jeffrey Brodeur

Yeah, and I got a lot similar to that.

Jonathan Menjivar

A poster on July 10 wrote, "I wish someone would listen to me already. I think this is not their parent. That is why she is attacking them and there has been no food delivery.

The same thing happened with a bald eagle nest in Shepherdtown, Virginia." They mean Shepherdstown, West Virginia. "The intruder does not want them. So someone needs to contact Cape Cod Wildlife and give them a heads up, or you may have three chicks that perish. If you guys won't, I will."

Jeffrey Brodeur

And that became the question that everyone was asking, are you going to somehow remove these birds from their nest?

Jonathan Menjivar

Jeffrey is not an osprey expert. He does outreach for WHOI. And at WHOI, they study ocean life, not birds.

So Jeffrey consulted osprey experts around the country. And they all told him two things. One, they'd never seen an osprey behave this way before. And two, the experts agreed that Jeffrey and WHOI should not intervene.

Don't give the nestlings food. Don't remove them. WHOI didn't have any place to put them anyhow. And ospreys do terribly in captivity. Jeffrey let the message boards know all of this, but some featherheads still called for WHOI to intervene, especially once the nestlings got hungry enough that they started attacking each other, fighting over food.

People wanted answers and they started theorizing. There had been big storms in the area that could've made it hard to find fish. Maybe three nestlings was just too much for the mom to handle, and she was stressed out. Maybe it was the dad. Maybe he was stepping out on momzilla and working another nest on the side.

Jeffrey Brodeur

Well, I mean, the funny thing is that when I took some of the theories to the osprey experts, they were like, well, that's a possibility. Throw it in the mix, because it certainly can't be ruled out. And it was everything from bad DNA to toxicology. Had she maybe somehow ingested toxins somewhere along the way?

Jonathan Menjivar

Now imagine being Jeffrey. You're a communications guy at this place that doesn't even specialize in birds. Then your co-worker dies, and you take over this bird cam that was dear to her. And before you know it, people from all over the world are mad at you and demanding action.

Jeffrey, he's a nice guy, diplomatic. The most I could get out of him was that he was frustrated over all of this. But at the time, Jeffrey phoned one of the webcam viewers, who then posted this on the message board.

Quote, "Jeff Brodeur just called me-- called, not emailed. He is furious. He's been getting tons of nasty, threatening emails from cam viewers demanding the chicks or female be removed from the nest. Someone sent out an email to the entire staff saying they are inhumane. Jeff is going to shut the cam off if the emails don't stop."

Jeffrey didn't shut the cam off, but he posted a warning to viewers that they might see behavior they'd find upsetting. If they don't like it, he thought, they could just stop watching.

Jeffrey Brodeur

I mean, not only did people not stop watching it when things got rough, they kind of encouraged others to start watching.

Jonathan Menjivar

And then things really blew up when one of the nestlings got its talon caught on a balloon string that was in the nest. Now the nestling was even more vulnerable to the mother's attacks.

Jeffrey Brodeur

Every single email I got, I tried for a while to answer back personally and respond, but then it just got so overwhelming that I couldn't even really begin to-- and it even went over to my vacation in late July.

Jonathan Menjivar

Jeffrey was with his whole family on Martha's Vineyard when his phone rang.

Jeffrey Brodeur

And I stepped outside on the front lawn. The person on the other end, they told me I was evil because I hadn't done anything. And I slipped for-- I had a momentary lapse of reason, which I said to this person, I said, ma'am, I'm on vacation with my family. And there was this pause. And that's pretty much when she just laid into me.

Jonathan Menjivar

The woman told him, osprey in need don't get vacations.

Jeffrey Brodeur

Finally someone wrote me an email that just-- that was the last straw.

Jonathan Menjivar

So this happens at the end of July. And can you just read that email for me?

Jeffrey Brodeur

Sure. "I am witnessing an ongoing attack by the female osprey. It is intensely disturbing. The proper authorities need to take immediate action. I believe this female osprey has a serious problem and should be humanely and permanently removed from the gene pool."

And so I got that email, and I remember taking a minute to digest that. I just couldn't believe what I thought someone was asking me in that email, telling me to basically go up and wring its little osprey neck, euthanize the bird.

Jonathan Menjivar

So later that same day, you post something--

Jeffrey Brodeur

Yeah, so that afternoon I posted what I call the final word on intervention.

Jonathan Menjivar

And then if you can just read a little bit of this for me.

Jeffrey Brodeur

"Where do I even begin? I guess with the obvious. We're not going to do any osprey executions anytime soon. This person said it was intensely disturbing to watch the attacks, and I couldn't agree more.

Try having it happen right outside your window with sound. Even if the windows are closed, it can reach disturbing decibels. They're at it right now, in fact.

I literally turn to my left and see the nest. And I count that as a blessing, not a curse. But I get it. Really. I also understand that you get attached to the birds. Want to get attached--"

Jonathan Menjivar

Jeffrey wrote that he was attached to them too, partly because he misses the woman who helped start the cam and who ran it until she died at 41. Every time he sees the birds, he wrote, he thinks of her.

Jeffrey Brodeur

"I know she would be upset at what's going on. And, trust me, no one misses her more during this deluge of emails, calls, tweets et cetera, than me. But she certainly wouldn't even consider what was suggested, and neither will we.

I take great solace in the wisdom of others involved in the world of osprey cam, and I'm happy to count the good folks at Montana Osprey Project in Missoula among those. Here, in part, is what they've posted about their cam.

'Ospreys are wild birds. They are not pets. And this is not a Disney movie. What comes with this is the good, and sometimes the sad. To put things in perspective, it is estimated that about 50% to 60% of all osprey chicks do not survive their first year at life.'

We will strive to keep you informed. We will strive to keep things on the nest positive. What we won't do is take nature into our own hands because some people find it tough to watch."

Jonathan Menjivar

That sort of worked. Most of the featherheads stopped their chirping. The mother kept attacking the nestlings, and they continued to attack each other.

By the end of the summer, all three learned to fly and left the nest. One was found dead underneath a nearby tree. He was malnourished.

An osprey expert told me, nature is not cruel. That implies intent. It is harsh, unforgiving, and often random. Most of the osprey cam viewers knew all that, but still it's hard not to view animals-- any animals-- through a human lens.

As one person posted, "Well, I'm one to humanize. And I admit it. I don't think there's anything wrong with it. I have human sympathies for the little one, fledgling number three. And I don't mind sharing that.

Some have expressed their feelings about mom's attacks. We are humans after all. I've seen fledgling two go after fledgling three many times, and would like to reach in and slap him upside the head.

That is me humanizing the situation as it happens. Obviously I can't do that. But I sure feel it. Yes, my posts have lots of humanizing. I'm human, and not afraid to show it."

Ira Glass

Jonathan Menjivar is one of the producers of our program.

So osprey tend to return to the same nest, so chances are momzilla may be back in Woods Hole this spring with a new bunch of nestlings to abuse. If you want to see what happens, you can google your way to the Woods Hole Osprey Cam. And we'll have a link at our website at thisamericanlife.org.

Act Four. Mailer Demon.

Ira Glass

Well, this hour, we've been hearing stories of people getting insulted and harassed in various ways on the internet. But can internet hate ever be helpful to a person? There's a new podcast called Reply All that spends a lot of time living among the haters and the liars and the dirty, dirty cheats of the world on the internet. And one of the hosts of the podcast Reply All, PJ Vogt, has this story.

Pj Vogt

Paul Ford is an anxious person. There's a voice in his head, a chittering little gremlin that's constantly telling him, hey, ignore whatever good things seem to be going on in your life. You're lousy. You're an impostor. And everybody in your life knows it.

Paul Ford

I mean, it's the same little voice all of the time. This little guy just sitting there going, like, god, you're garbage. You're garbage. You're garbage. I don't know why he sounds like a Brooklyn construction worker, but he does right now today.

Pj Vogt

That voice told Paul that his life, which looked, from the outside, pretty normal, was teetering on the edge of a huge disaster.

Paul Ford

Actually, I had two little children screaming at home. And they were making me worried in just all the regular ways that kids make you worried. And I was not finishing a bunch of projects. I was feeling really at loose end.

And I was stressed. And I was anxious and overweight and terrified. And I was just like, holy [BLEEP]-- kind of like, I got to do better. And then the anxiety would be like, oh, hey, wow, I'm dying. No, wait, I'm covered with worms. No, I'm never going to get anything done. I'm a bad person. I'm a failure.

Pj Vogt

Paul programs software. And so he decided what he needed to do about his anxiety was to treat it like an IT problem that needed troubleshooting.

Paul Ford

For me, it was just like, what is this weird force that is now running a chunk of my life and making me feel weird and bad all of the time? And so I went off, and I made this thing called AnxietyBox.

Pj Vogt

AnxietyBox, it's a website-- Paul's technological solution to the self-doubting criticisms swirling around in his head.

Paul Ford

So the way it works, if we look at the website, you go to the website and you put in your name and your email, and then you put in what your anxiety is. So it's like, I'm really anxious about finishing my book. I'm really anxious about losing weight. And you can keep adding anxieties. And it saves all of that to a database. And then like 12 times a day, but kind of random, it just sends you these emails from your anxiety.

Pj Vogt

Not emails soothing you about your anxiety, emails that were actually sent from a personified version of your anxiety that lived on a website. Paul coded in all of these tiny sentence fragments that the website could use to automatically construct emails.

Paul Ford

All of these various pseudo parts of speech like, the upshot is, tell me, drop a line, keep me in the loop, I don't want to doubt you but, or I doubt it can ever work.

Pj Vogt

Those sentence fragments were meant to give his robot the perfect voice-- the voice of a ruthlessly cheerful underminer-- an underminder who knew his specific anxieties, the work deadlines he was blowing, the weight he couldn't seem to lose, and could taunt him about them.

Paul Ford

So let's imagine that I'm standing on the train. I'm about to go down into the train platform. And I look at my phone, and I have an email. And it's from my anxiety.

I mean, here's an email from June 2 in the afternoon. Now here's the subject-- history will forget you because history forgets people who are unable to finish anything. "Dear Paul, so you're probably used to being at the front of the class, and this is a wake-up call that you're not even in the middle. Inform me, are you ready? Sincerely, Your Anxiety."

Pj Vogt

Remember, Paul set it up so that he'd get these messages on average 12 times a day. 12 times a day, his phone would ping, and there'd be a new attack waiting. While he was eating breakfast, ping.

Paul Ford

The simple reason you're not happy is that you're unworthy of saving.

Pj Vogt

When he was at work, ping.

Paul Ford

I respect that you just live your life and don't care if people think you are childish and disgusting.

Pj Vogt

While he was watching his kids, ping.

Paul Ford

Your mom and dad would never say anything, but they so want to know why you would choose to be unlovable and not smart.

Pj Vogt

When he was getting ready for bed, ping.

Paul Ford

People on Facebook look at your picture and think, in possession of a weird nose.

Pj Vogt

And you made this to make yourself feel less anxious and better?

Paul Ford

Well, that's the thing. So the thing I'm trying to do here is externalize the anxiety and actually simulate it.

Pj Vogt

So what do you mean?

Paul Ford

Well, anxiety, it turns out, like building this little emulator, this anxiety simulator, made me go, oh, this part of me is incredibly stupid. It says the same things over and over again. And it really is like that is what my anxiety looks like. It's not smart. At some level, it's like a little robot that just screams. What this let me do is look at the robot.

Pj Vogt

Seeing the voice in his head, seeing its opinion of him actually written out, it seemed crazy that he'd ever believe that what it was saying about him was true.

Paul Ford

It was immediately effective. And seeing it actually externalized as 20 messages in a Gmail inbox, it was so much like what my brain was producing. Seeing it was really funny. It turns your entire emotional freak-out into this relentless form of comedy.

Pj Vogt

Right.

Paul Ford

Yeah, it turns out that you're not as important as you think you are, nowhere near as terrible as you think you are, and actually fairly ridiculous. It's just so ridiculous to scream at yourself all day long, and yet there it was. There was the evidence of it. And so it was like, oh my god, I've been wasting a lot of time with this little son of a bitch.

Pj Vogt

I feel like something about having it in an email let's you fight back against it.

Paul Ford

You can actually reply, right? I would reply and be like, go fuck yourself, over and over again. So the ability to actually yell back at something, which I think is something that we usually associate with being terrible on the internet, in this case, it's wonderful, because you can yell at the robot and tell it to shut the fuck up.

Pj Vogt

The notion that you can cure your anxiety without therapy, without drugs, just by trolling yourself, who would've thought?

Paul Ford

I think it doesn't necessarily get solved. You just get more aware of it. It's still there. It's still moving. It's still part of me. I'm sure it'll be there until I die. But it doesn't have as much control.

Pj Vogt

Paul found that when he took the nasty voices inside of his head and gave them a home outside of it, a home on the internet where tens of millions of other nasty voices live, they couldn't hurt him anymore.

(HOST) IRA GLASS: PJ Vogt is one of the hosts of the podcast Reply All. If you are ready to make it your new favorite podcast, you can get it for free wherever it is you get your podcasts.

[MUSIC - "GIVE A HATER A HUG" BY WATSKY FT. WAX"

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Stephanie Foo and myself with Sean Cole, Chana Joffe-Walt, Sarah Koenig, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Brain Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike.

Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Editing help from Joel Lovell and Joe Richman. Production help from Simon Adler. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon is our production manager. Elise Bergerson is our office manager.

Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Elna Baker scouts stories for our show. Research help from Michelle Harris and Christopher Swetala. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's cofounder Mr. Torey Malatia, whose latest hobby-- teaching hot yoga in hell.

Man

I don't know. It just feels good to exercise these demons.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.