Cyberbullying and Aaron Carter: Q&A with TWLOHA’s Jamie Tworkowski
Last week, Jamie Tworkowski, the founder of To Write Love On Her Arms, happened to sit in front of Aaron Carter on a plane to California. Carter had recently posted a tweet that caused an internet storm—thousands of replies were coming at Carter, tearing him down in every aspect. To Tworkowski, Carter was no longer a name on a computer screen—he was just like anyone else, a real, live human being who has the ability to feel and be hurt when his words are misconstrued. Tworkowski chose to reach out to Carter: first in a tweet, and then in a hand-passed note. Carter ended up tweeting about that interaction, as well as the blog post Tworkowski eventually wrote about it, “To the Guy in 15F,” saying it was one of things he was was most thankful for this year. We caught up with Jamie Tworkowski to ask him about this experience and what we as a scene can do going forward to help eliminate internet hate.
You recently posted a blog post titled "To the Guy in 15F" about what happened when you ended up sharing a flight with Aaron Carter. What happened on the plane that made you want to reach out in this instance?
The blog tells the story pretty well. When I was getting on the plane I noticed a guy on the phone and he looked like he was having a hard time. He seemed upset. I didn't know who he was. I didn't recognize him. He looked somewhat familiar, and it crossed my mind that maybe it was Aaron Carter who I hadn't really thought about or seen a picture of in a while. I looked him up on my phone and sure enough it was him, and he ended up sitting two rows behind me. I looked at his Twitter, I think just out of curiosity, and you could tell that he was having kind of a hard time. You could see it on Twitter as well. He was tweeting a lot and sharing things and defending himself and it went on for a while. I tweeted at him and he didn't respond. Maybe an hour went by and it kept going. I felt really bad for him so I decided to write a note and hand it to him. A little while later, maybe 45 minutes or so he tapped me on the shoulder and we went and talked in the back of the plane.
After your post went up Aaron tweeted referring to you as "this random ass guy on a plane." What was your reaction to that?
That was funny. It made me laugh. As much as it made me laugh though, I was grateful because that was his Thanksgiving tweet—things he was thankful for. It was cool, he tweets a lot and shares a lot and he's posted the blog several times. It was best-case scenario for me. I had hoped he might be able to read it and that if he did read it he would like it and be encouraged by it. I think the fact that he's sharing it and even considering it something that he's thankful for—that meant a lot to me. I felt like he was having a really hard night, and I hoped that he could feel a little bit less alone. I think that's the takeaway and part of why I wanted to share it. As a blog it really doesn't have much to do with him being a celebrity—it was kind of just trying to stand up for someone, reach out to someone who was hurting. In this case it just happened to be Aaron Carter. We all relate, whether you’re a kid in school or an adult and thinking about where you live and where you work. We all relate to people feeling left out, alone or getting picked on. It wasn't very hard to do the right thing. I just wrote a note and then it was up to him if he wanted to talk or not. It was really simple.
You started to touch on it, but why do you feel that blog post has such an important message?
So many people are hurting. Life is really hard for a lot of people. A lot of people feel alone, feel left out, like they’re an outsider. Specifically, there are people who struggle with depression. Aaron talked about struggling with anxiety. It's just the idea that with a little bit of effort we can help people. And I think part of what we're talking about is that we can use the internet to make people feel like shit or we can use the internet to make people feel good and we can do that with our lives as well. I was just a dude on an airplane that obviously had time. We weren't going anywhere. And I thought, man, this guy is having a tough night, maybe I can talk to him and let him know that he's not alone. My hope is it maybe inspires or encourages other people on either side of it. I think most of us relate to both. We relate to being someone who wants to help at times and also being someone who needs help at times.
It's not uncommon for Facebook comments to become negative and critical very quickly. However, Carter had to deal with having all of those hateful comments directed at him personally.
I said it in my blog. I had friends that I respect and consider really good guys who were tweeting about it and making fun of him. I actually messaged both of them. I don't remember exactly what I said but basically, “Hey I'm actually two rows in front of him, he's a real person.” Certainly that surprised them. what are the chances of that. But I think when it comes to celebrities or people in pop-culture, it's easy to forget that they're real. I turned around and it's a 27-year-old dude, staring at his phone, typing constantly. I think if people could see that, I would like to think that some people would have been a bit nicer. He's just a dude with a phone like the rest of us. He's just had a really unique life. We've kind of watched him grow up from a distance. But he's still a dude that struggles and has questions and looks at Twitter and social media just like most of us do.
The whole thing is pretty wild. What're the chances that I would get to be there, that I would be sat that close to him, I would write a blog, he would read it? All these dots that had to connect. I'm really thankful for how the whole thing went. It was a cool story to get to live and I wasn't sure about writing it. That's how I'm wired. Maybe that's how you’re wired. I'm a writer and that's how I process things. I just hoped other people could be inspired. That's true for so much of TWLOHA. So much of how we started, what we talk about, what we want to be about, it's all really simple stuff. It's basically just trying to care about people even when you're not sure how. It was just cool to get to share that.
I think it's important to be reminded that our words have weight. We can use them in ways that are positive and encouraging or we can tear people down. I live and work in a space where I see the consequences of it. Now and then we all do. You read headlines every time a person dies by suicide and you wonder what led up to that and what could have been done to prevent that. I'm aware that words are powerful. To me what was so cool is what started out as a really crappy night for this guy, somehow ended up being something he was thankful for. That meant a lot to me that something positive could come from the negative. We all have that power. I didn't say anything brilliant or anything that I invented. We all have the power to meet people and say things and care about people.
What can other people be doing to stop the spread of hate and curb the hate culture?
It's sort of as simple as being intentional about what we say. The hard thing is that you can't control what everyone else says. There are always going to be bullies. There were bullies when our parents were growing up, there were bullies when our grandparents were growing up. People make choices and for whatever reason some people love to be mean. There were a lot more people being mean that night, and I was one person who decided to be kind. Obviously instead of online I happened to be five feet away—so that was different. You never know, even as one person, to say something different, to do something different, what an affect it can have. I think just knowing that our actions have power and our words have power and whether that's on Facebook comments or the AltPress website. In my situation it was offline, it was physically being on an airplane near another person. Some of it is just being aware of people around us and trying to notice when someone is lonely or having a hard time. I think I wrote three sentences. I don't think it's super complicated. I know people are experts in bullying and cyber bullying, I'm not one of those people, but I know that our words have power. Even with Aaron, my hope for him was that he would put his phone away. I felt like he couldn't win, he was just putting fuel on the fire. Sometimes I think there is a place for just walking away. We can all get sucked into these arguments, whether its about a band or politics. There's a million things to disagree on. I think some of it is knowing when to turn it off, or leave the page, or let go. The other side is if you're going to say something, try to say something that builds people up, that's encouraging. You never know either way, you never know how much damage a negative thing can do, and you never know how much good a positive comment can do.
What do you hope people will take away from you sharing this story?
I don't know why this is so common. I don't know why people love to hate. I don't know why people love to tear things down. I'm just thankful I got to live that experience and I got to share it. It inspires me to want to live that way. Honestly I don't usually talk to people on planes. I'm usually pretty quiet, I slip my headphones on and pass the time—I'm an introvert. It encouraged me to remember how a small gesture or a comment or conversation can go a long way. I don't know how to solve the problem of bullying, cyber bullying, hate culture but I know we all get to choose what comes out of our mouth, the words we type as a comment or tweet. I'm just really interested in trying to encourage people. Where I started with that blog was that famous quote, "Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle." I think if we could see that, I'd love to believe we would be nicer to each other. I think we forget that we're all just people, we're all trying to figure it out, we all make mistakes. Life is so much more interesting, I feel so much more alive, when I get to use my words for good. Some of it that night was just saying, “Hey man I see you, I'm sorry, I'm here for you.” Those are all things we can say to other people and those are all things we need to hear at times.
Do you have any advice for people dealing with hate online?
Aaron actually did an interview with Cosmopolitan, and he shared some of his journey as it relates to his anxiety. He talked about going to therapy, and I think seeing a counselor and even seeing a psychiatrist. Based on what I do and based on TWLOHA, I want to mention that as well. For people who feel alone, feel bullied, it's one thing for us to talk about how to change that but especially for people who are struggling, I think it's so important to point out that it's a great place to start to know that we can ask for help. There are people who want to help, not just friends, not just good people, not just our support system, but there are professionals who wake up and five days a week help people through the hardest parts of their stories. So much of our work is trying to be a bridge that points people in that direction. So if someone is reading this and they relate to feeling bullied or feeling left out or simply feeling lonely or sad, I love to point to counseling as a great first step.
I think this is definitely true for AP and the scene that you guys represent and TWLOHA gets to be a part of, which I'm really thankful for and proud of. I think people spend so much time worrying about what's cool and what's successful. Some people felt the need to point out that Aaron Carter's career has been drastically different from Michael Jackson’s. That’s obvious, but he's still a dude who feels things. Who cares how cool he is. What does that even mean? Who cares if he ever writes another song that we hear on the radio? He matters just like we all matter and want to matter. I feel like that's the take away for the music scene. We're so quick to say what band is cool, what band is no longer cool, there is so much drama. It felt important for me to say he's a human being like the rest of us. And every band that you love or don't love is made up of real people with real pain, real dreams, real insecurities, real issues at home. They're just like you and me. And we all need to keep that in mind.