Web Hostess Live: The latest from the Web

Aug 14, 2014

Join in at 2 p.m. when we shall discuss all of the Internet.

Afternoon, everyone, and thanks for stopping by. We'll get started at 2.

I already have a few questions in the queue relating to the tragic death of Robin Williams.

Many of you might have seen this tweet posted immediately after the announcement by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:


Genie, you're free. pic.twitter.com/WjA9QuuldD

— The Academy (@TheAcademy) August 12, 2014

A lot of controversy arose around that Tweet. Some argued it was a touching and emotional tribute. Some -- particularly workers in the mental health field -- argued that it glorified suicide, by making it seem like a release, or a positive option.

What do you think?


Related: I wrote this a few years ago, but I've been thinking about it again after Williams's death:  a story on how social media has shaped the way we mourn online.


Second: If you hadn't explored the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, it's fascinating. In response to the Ferguson shooting of an African American teenager, people are using social media to post two pictures of themselves: a "clean cut" one and one in which they look "dangerous."


It raises really important questions about representation online, and how we cherrypick the stories we tell.

Someone put two innocuous photos of herself side by side and argued that people who don't have pictures of themselves doing questionable things don't have to worry about how they'd be portrayed afterwards. I wanted to smack her.

Yes, that person could not have missed the point harder if she were participating in some sort of point-missing contest. And many of the "bad" pictures used in this hashtag aren't bad at all -- they're just kids goofing around.


That being said, my Puritanical self always cringes whenever I see someone posting a photo of themselves staggering around with a beer, half-clad, or whatnot. Please, feel free to beer-stagger in your private life. Please, do not make that photo publicly accessible. It will only hurt you.

As an author of YA fiction, I'm wondering if you have a special affection for The Giver. If so, what are your thoughts on the movie adaptation? Will you see it in theaters or avoid it like the plague?

The Giver is such a beloved book, and has been for a couple of decades. Unlike Harry Potter, which had only a span of four years separating the book and movie, The Giver has more than 20. That's a long time to settle into expectations of what you think the movie should be.

Still, I'll see it. It can't cause me any more fretting than the adaptation of Ender's Game did.



Which should it be? I'm visiting this weekend.

The Holocaust Museum. You have to get tickets in advance. It's worth it. Washington has lots of great art/science/history museums -- but so do lots of other cities. The Holocaust Museum is unique and very, very moving. Schedule something quiet for after -- you'll want some time to reflect.

The WAPO website says that you are live now. Well! Get on with it!


In a way, I think both are right. My first reaction was that it was touching. But then I saw an article that made the point that famous suicides are often followed by waves of "copycats," so the message could be damaging. I think it's one of those things that might not be intuitive to people who don't deal directly with issues of mental illness and suicide. (On the other hand, I first saw the message shared by someone on FB, and didn't realize it had come from an organization that maybe should have checked it out with someone in-the-know before posting it.) I don't think it "glorifies" suicide, so much as that it tries (albeit hamhandedly) to express some kind of sympathy for what had been lifelong torment.

I like that last sentence of yours. It's a tremendously difficult emotional space to navigate. Saying something like, "He's in a better place now" might be a comfort to those who love and miss him. But at the same time, it could inadvertently spread the message, to those in pain, that suicide leads to "a better place."



Monica, I really thought I could handle any amount of obnoxiousness on Facebook, but this week with all the Robin Williams news is making me absolutely furious. I know you've talked a lot in this chat about Facebook etiquette, but this story in particular has struck a nerve in people that's out of control. The culprit (at least in my newsfeed) is people posting inflammatory articles about the "selfishness" of suicide. Inevitably, they get tons of others commenting telling them they're wrong, and then the initial poster protests that they "weren't trying to be insensitive" and the whole thing blows up. I know the obvious answer is just not look and/or block them, but since I have a personal connection to this topic, I find myself instinctively wanting to read stories about it. I am so close to sending angry messages to people telling them how offended I am by all of this (particularly their defenses of why they posted the link in the first place and how they're "just trying to start an open dialogue because everyone has different opinions"). Right -- in reality, I'm pretty sure they're just trying to stir up trouble and get attention. Please advise how I should handle this or tell me calm down!

Hmm. Are these people who you think typically try to "stir up trouble and get attention?" Or are these people who you typically respect online? If it's the latter, then you might want to open yourself up to taking them at their word, and accepting that they really don't mean to be offensive. It's possible that your own personal experiences have colored your reaction to these posts.


Either way, you'd be completely within your rights to send them a private message saying, "Hey, I understand you were just trying to open a dialogue, but your post came across as insensitive to me, and here's why."

I think everyone agrees that the trolls who harassed Zelda Williams on Twitter are despicable. Is it just boredom and the anonymity of the web that creates these trolls? I'm guessing that they have loved ones in their life and would be crushed if a parent or friend committed suicide--where then is the disconnect that compels someone to doctor photos and harass a grieving daughter? I remember reading about a woman who discovered that her husband ran a depraved sub-reddit and his excuse was that this was how he unwound, it was no more real than a video game.

This is a really fascinating that I don't have the answer to: What pleasure or satisfaction do you get out of being horrid to someone online? It's easy to believe people who do it are social maladroits, but then you read stories like this letter in today's Dear Prudence, written by a woman who discovered her online harasser was someone she knew in real life, and thought she was friends with.


What purpose do we think this behavior serves? Over-compensating for feelings to powerlessness? That would be my psychological place to start.

If we're discussing social media in relation to Robin Williams's passing, we should also address the horrific abuse that drove his daughter Zelda off Twitter. She was trying to publicly honor her father's life and thank his fans for their support, and a few particularly vicious trolls started sending (fake) photos of her father with bruises around his neck, and comments along the lines of, "This is all your fault"/"Look what you did to him." News articles this morning say that Twitter is "reviewing their policies" to prevent this sort of harassment, but is that true, or just empty words to lessen the bad publicity? My understanding is that they were reported, but kept finding other ways to come back and attack this grieving daughter.

It's hard to police this sort of behavior online. Twitter can ban a particular username -- but then the troll can just create a new username. Twitter can ban a particular IP address -- but then the troll can just go to a different computer location and log on again. It's really insidious.

I am particularly horrified that workers in the mental health field, who should know what intractable depression is like, would argue this. It's insensitive of anyone to judge another's pain, but a mental health worker? That's depressing.

I'm genuinely a little confused. It seems logical to me that a mental health worker would say, "We're opposed to messages that make suicide seem like a good idea. We want people to believe they can get better."


What am I missing?

He was 63 years old and had been battling depression his entire life. He most definitely had the best mental care and addiction counseling (many MANY addictions develop as a way of self-medicating mental health issues) you can possibly get, and it still couldn't be fixed. I saw his suicide as him reaching his limit after a long struggle, so no problem with the tweet.

Thanks for this. And I think that's why his death is so eye-opening, and causing so many head-shaking discussions. Because it's our tendency to say, "But he had EVERYTHING!" And this occurrence forces people to realize that no amount of physical riches or emotional talents can "compensate" for what is inherently an illness.

It's been interesting watching the ALS ice bucket challenge--and backlash going on. I do like this more than many other Facebook memes, in that people are actually giving money to ALS research. But a large number of people seem to be railing against it.

The frustration comes from people who, like this writer, argue that in the ice bucket challenge, the "charity aspect is a postscript."

I get what he's saying, but it's sort of a weird argument: "Yeah, yeah, so more people are giving money to ALS, but they're only doing it because of this stupid meme."

I think if I had a relative suffering from ALS, I wouldn't care why they were doing it. I'd just be pretty excited about the $1.35 million that has been raised in the past two weeks.

I've had it. You don't get it because your life sucks. If your life sucks, you're sad. If life is good, you're happy. Depression is a disease that creates a biochemical imbalance in your brain and it doesn't know or care how your life is going.


Which gives us another change to post Hyperbole and a Half's exquisite, sad, funny exploration of depression.

There was a recent Reddit (I think) thread which made the rounds, from a pregnant woman who discovered that her husband (whom she's since left) was a troll, posting abusive comments all over the net, some even to vulnerable teenagers. When called on it and asked why, he said he needed time to think about it, and then finally came up with this answer: It relieves stress for him. He has a bad day, so he comes home and takes it out on these random names on the internet, and gets a kick out of the reactions. The most common justifications seem to be: 1. These aren't real people, just pixels on a screen, why should I care about them? and 2. If they're so thin-skinned as to be seriously hurt by little ol' me and my antics, then they should stay off the internet because they can't handle it. This reasoning chilled me, because I'm the kind of person who has a weird impulsive need to leave anonymous drive-by support to those who seem to need it - links to helpful resources for the financially struggling, reassurances to those struggling with an issue I've successfully weathered, that sort of thing - and it makes sense that there are people out there who have the same impulses, only they get a kick out of further driving someone to despair rather than trying to throw them a life preserver.

Yes, an OP mentioned the Reddit thread.

And the explanation makes sense, sort of, if you are a sociopath.

We've all had bad, stressful days, and lashed out at others because of it. Last week I found myself taking A Tone with a rental car attendant after the company messed up my reservation and charged me double. The difference is that most of us do something like that and then feel more horrible afterward, not better. And then we actively, actively try not to be jerks in the future.

Expanding question: Have any of you ever been downright nasty or mean in an online forum? Or had someone be downright mean and nasty to you? Details, please. This is anonymous, and I'm really curious to hear about your experiences.

That wasn't what I got from that post. "Arguing that it glorifies suicide" is a pretty offensive way of putting it, to me -- on a par with calling those who end it all selfish or cowardly.

Thanks for writing back in. I read it differently.

Mental health workers in this case want to educate and protect. They know that some things make it more likely that others will be inspired to attempt suicide. They talk to news anchors, reporters, news outlets about safer ways to report on and memorialize suicide victims. Not everyone who is depressed, even suicidal, will have long term struggles. It is safer for OTHERS not to present this as a great freeing act.

[[This is closer to how I read it.]]

In the wake of the unconscionable harassment of Zelda Williams, do we need to have some sort of real discussion about the value of anonymity in social media? I do understand the value of being protected from reprisal in many situations, but the way disgusting people are using that shield is really starting to make me wonder. I guess in the end we have to remember that freedom of speech does guarantee that terrible people will get to say what they want, but I really don't think freedom of speech means freedom from consequences of abusing speech.

I see tremendous value for anonymity in certain spaces (say, a supportive messageboard for victims of abuse). I also see a lot of venues (say, the comments on the Washington Post) in which requiring real names would immediately improve the tone of the discourse by 200%.

I also love the book and was worried when I first heard about the adaptation. That said, Ms. Lowry has been involved with the production and has signed off on various tweaks to the story. I'm not expecting to love it but I'm hoping to be surprised and maybe it'll sell a few more copies of a great book.

First, we all have to get past Meryl Streep's haircut. After that hurdle, I think we'll be fine.

I frequent gaming forums with a fair number of trolls. I've gone to using may actual, full name as my user name. It has cut down on attacks dramatically. I think that it reminds others that I am an actual person. I don't know if I'd have the courage to do that if I were a lady, though.

This is fascinating, thanks for sharing.

I've noticed a similar decrease in toady behavior when I suggest moving a conversation from online to the telephone -- nobody wants to say the mean things on the phone that they're totally comfortable typing on the computer.

But I hadn't really put it together that seeing someone's real name might cause you to be nicer to them. I was only thinking that using your own real name might cause you to be nicer to others.

I like what you said. I know a wonderful person who has ALS and is nearing the most debilitated stage of it. She's lost the ability to speak, move, and eat, but her brilliant mind is strong. Her friends have rallied, posting video after video on FB challenging additional friends for support. So what if it's gimmicky - it's accomplishing its goals of getting attention and money.

I'm so sorry for your friend, and glad that you've all found some joy in watching these videos.

The comment section might be more cordial but these chats would suffer. Fewer people would ask Gene Weingarten embarrassing poop questions if they were easily identifiable; a great loss indeed.

Oh, I think chats should stay anonymous. After all, I have the capability to delete, or just choose not to post, anything X-rated, meanie-meanie, or just all around icky. Which I exercise, from time to time.

We got past Sigourney's shaved head in, what was is, "Alien 3"? We'll make it.

Sigourney's shaved head was totally boss. Meryl's head appears to be wearing some sort of Afghan Hound.

He did?? How do we know this? Steve Jobs died of cancer after receiving some very ineffective holistic treatments, and was probably richer than Williams was (he also had tremendous alimony and other expenses, so likely not as rich as we think)

Posting -- I do remember reading about Williams's mental health treatment, but you're right -- none of us really know what the behind-closed-doors quality of that was.

The great Emma Thompson was hilarious in an interview describing the awful perm she got for "Saving Mr. Banks." "People recoiled from me in the street! I didn't have sex for six months!"

The awful perm seemed sort of appropriate for what was, when it came down to it, a fairly awful movie.

I can understand the concern with "copycat suicides," but what's the alternative? Hiding the means of death? HIding the fact that clinical depression is serious? Really, what other choice is there but to publicize the dreadfulness of depression?

Right, but I think what people are saying is, there's a difference between saying, "Depression is a horrible disease. We need to work on understanding it, provide compassion for those who suffer from it, and work to find treatments to solve it." And saying, "You're free from your depression, Mr. Williams, because you were a victim of suicide."

Neither message ignores the disease, but do you see how the second could cause people suffering from the disease to see suicide as more of an appealing option?

According to some tweets I'm seeing now, his wife has said he was also in early stages of Parkinson's. That's a whammy someone with a precarious mental situation doesn't need....

Several people have now written this in, so I'm posting just to post.

I started a blog once to detail me (a video game n00b) trying out various video games on various levels... my friends thought it would be funny since I love video games but am horrible at them. Within about 3 days I started getting comments that began as benign - "you're stupid" and "you have no idea what you're doing" (obviously... point of blog. haha). A few days after that came the typical misogyny - "this is why women should be in the kitchen and not on a video game console." Within two weeks I was told that I was probably "too fat and ugly to be raped." I have been raped, and it is triggering, so I stopped blogging. These comments were outliers; my friends thought the posts were funny and "fought back" against the troll. (I think it was just one.) To be clear, the blog was not controversial at all... it was like, I tried a game, and explain what I did and how bad I was at it, and I posted a couple videos of the screen so people could see how bad I was. It was also sort of a review of the video games, because I'd talk about what I liked and didn't. But seriously, I started it and closed it within three weeks, so I probably only had maybe 20 people who even looked at it.

What an incredibly disturbing and sad story. Especially because it sounds like this blog was fabulous, and I would have loved to follow it.

A friend of mine's therapist refers to suicide as the result of "terminal mental illness." I think he probably struggled/self-medicated/tried for as long as he could, until he just couldn't do it any more. The Genie thing was actually probably pretty apt, in this case.

"Terminal mental illness" -- thanks, I think I've heard this before.

You thought that was an awful movie? Please do say why. I thought it was at least decent and I despise everything Disney for the most part. I thought the story was interesting and the acting was predictably wonderful. On the other hand, my wife and I stopped watching FROZEN after about 45 minutes. We don't have kids but with adult friends raving about it we gave it a go. Wow was it uninspired and silly.

I couldn't even tell you why I didn't like it now. All the hallmarks of a good movie and it just didn't seem to gel.

Here's my issue with the ice buckets (which is admittedly moot, since no one's challenged me): I have two children with special needs (they're doing great and are a total joy to everyone who meets them, so you don't worry) so if anyone did challenge me, I would probably say something along the lines of "I already have causes that I hold near & dear and I will be contributing to and focusing on those, thank you." (Although, now that I read that over, hopefully it wouldn't sound quite so snippy.) I don't begrudge the ALS folks the attention they're getting, but it would almost feel like being bullied into contributing if someone did challenge me. It's brilliant marketing (not sure that's the right word) for the ALS folks, tho. If on the other hand you'd like to support or learn about spina bifida, there's lots of stuff to google! ;)

Well -- I don't think anyone would judge you if you said just that. Or maybe more in the lighthearted manner that the rest of the challenge is couched in. I don't know, something like, "Challenge denied! I'm supporting different causes right now, but keep up the good work."

I take your point, but people suffering from the disease have such a totally distorted view of reality, thanks to their brain chemistry, that I really disagree that someone else's suicide is going to influence them.

You might disagree with it -- reasonable minds might disagree with a lot of things -- but the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention does take the position, with research to back it, that copycat suicides can be a real thing.

Whoopsie-daisy -- I didn't see that it was 3 pm now, and I need to sign off. I'll be traveling next week, but it shouldn't prevent me from chatting just be prepared for another out-of-state chat login.


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Monica Hesse
Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.

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