It really bothers me how toxic the Internet has become. It has such power to connect people with such positive results — a power I’ve been the beneficiary of — and yet, we default, too often, for the opposite. The Internet should be a tool for kindness and empathy; of late, in particular, it seems to be neither. I want to change that. In December of last year, I decided to do a little bit about it. I used my newsletter (with my birthday as an anchor) to raise money for the Sesame Street Yellow Feather Fund, which brings education to children in need. On Twitter, I’ve been posing the question “how can I help?” to anyone who sees those tweets. I figure the least I can do is lead by doing.
Which is why, moments ago, I put $60 in the mail and sent it to a woman from Lancaster, Pennsylvania that I’ve never met and likely never will. She’s a secretary at a public school there and that $60 will cover her Costco membership for the year. That’s a big deal for her and I’m glad I could help.
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“Paul Ryan Deletes Tweet Lauding a $1.50 Benefit From the New Tax Law”
That’s an actual headline from an actual New York Times article. The short version: The Associated Press ran an article titled “Tax bill beginning to deliver bigger paychecks to workers.” It quotes a handful of people who talked about the extra money in their paychecks, each a result of lower withheld federal income taxes from their paychecks. House Speaker Ryan, hoping to show the positive effects of the GOP tax bill he championed, decided to highlight many of those quoted via Twitter. Here’s one of his tweets — the since-deleted one:
As one would expect — and as he should have expected — Twitter exploded in a fiery rage at the Speaker. No matter what you think of the changes to the U.S. income tax system, it’s rather tone deaf to cite this example as an exemplar of its success. Thousands of thousands of Twitter users chastized the Speaker, and he ultimately thought better of it, deleting the tweet. (Of course, the damage is already done.)
My reaction wasn’t just a stunned disbelief at Ryan’s comment. Ryan’s tweet was strikingly lacking in empathy, hence the obvious backlash. I’m not one to often engage in Internet political pile-ons anyway, and this wasn’t going to be an exception. It can be cathartic, sure, but it typically just adds another voice to an already crowded and tribalist echo-chamber. Or, in other words, the backlash also lacked empathy. Having your finances be the butt of everyone’s joke must suck. Hearing thousands of people say “a buck fifty? who cares?!” and thinking “well, I care” — that’s got to be awful. I wanted to make the “Internet dumpster fire,” as she’d later call it in our conversation, a positive experience for her.
Then I noticed this tweet from CBS reporter David Begnaud.
Begnaud caught her on Facetime — while on a school field trip (on a Saturday!) — and asked her “were you happy about that? were you like, this is progress? Or did you kind of laugh like, you know, who cares? It’s a dollar fifty.” Her reply — and you should watch it to get the emotion behind it — was this:
“A dollar fifty is a dollar fifty; I’m not going to — I noticed it. I watch my finances and I noticed it. So, it [her paycheck] didn’t go down, so that was good. I was pleasantly surprised because it went up; it did not go down.”
Honestly: if my paycheck went up $1.50, I’d not notice. Or if I did, I would have kind of laughed — you know, who cares! It’s a dollar fifty. But: It mattered to her. It mattered so much that she knew exactly how she’d be spending it; she’d be using it to offset her $60 per year Costco membership. If I could not notice the $1.50, and if it meant so much to her, well, maybe I should give her my unnoticed $1.50.
So, I replied to Begnaud’s tweet with the following:
“I’d like to buy her a one-year Costco membership. I can afford to and if it can make her life appreciably better, I’m glad to. Can you connect her with me?”
He didn’t, but a few dozen people liked the tweet and three retweeted it… and then the secretary from Lancaster, PA herself replied. We connected via Twitter, she graciously took me up on my offer, and gave me permission to publish my thoughts on why — just a few moments ago — I put $60 in an envelope, to cover that Costco membership, and mailed it to her.
The Internet helped me help make the world a kinder, more empathetic place, I hope.
Originally published on February 5, 2018