More than 25 million. That’s how many people saw my joke on Twitter: “I once taught an 8 a.m. college class. So many grandparents died that semester. I then moved my class to 3 p.m. No more deaths. And that, my friends, is how I save lives.”
I expected a few likes from fellow professors on my sleepy Twitter account with barely 60 followers. Instead, the tweet went viral, with more than 920,000 retweets and likes. It crossed platforms to Instagram, where it became a meme, with many more millions of views. Reddit, Facebook — suddenly, it was everywhere. Thousands of comments and direct messages poured in. Most thought it was funny. Many tweeted pithy replies. The Daily Mail wrote an article about it and Twitter spotlighted the tweet.
The internet seemed to be having a collective laugh. It was heartwarming to see young and old alike all over the world relate across countries, languages, cultures, generations.
As a scientist, I’ve written hundreds of research articles over the years. Yet, if you combine all I have ever written it still would not reach as many eyes as this one tweet.
The backlash, however, was just as swift. A Chronicle of Higher Education piece took aim at the tweet. Critics wrote that the tweet trivialized the challenges students face in college, lacked empathy for those who were facing hardships.
And although I posted a response to clarify that students who have extenuating circumstances are accommodated, it wasn’t long before the name-calling and threats began.
Such pushback not only demonstrates our collective tendency to find fault with, well, everything, but is also a symptom of our increasing inability as a society to engage in conversation with those with whom we disagree.
The result is an online culture divided into “snowflakes” and “bullies,” where it is increasingly hard to find the middle ground between extremes. The dichotomy is spilling into everyday life.
The same good judgment we must use in our day-to-day lives is also required in our online lives. Because while social media can give rise and power to entire social movements, it can also facilitate professional suicide and single-handedly end careers.
This culture of volatile discourse can have a disproportionate effect across genders and groups. Those more sensitive to the opinions of others may become less likely to speak up. And when voices that are more measured, more thoughtful, more tentative or from a different walk of life don’t participate in public discourse, what is lost is an accurate reflection of society. The narrative skews in favor of those who are more extreme, more belligerent.
I received so many hostile messages, insults and threats that at one point I considered deleting the tweet. But stifling my voice was the very opposite of what I believe in.
As it is, not all voices are equally represented in public discourse. Social media provides a way to shift the balance to increase the representation of women and underrepresented groups. And the public discourse of the present becomes the history of tomorrow. Which means those who have a voice write history.
And while tweeting a joke does not change the world, this joke is part of my voice. It may have a little bite to it, as jokes often do; but as far as bites go, this was barely a nibble.
The repercussions of this one tweet and of more people from all walks of life now following my Twitter account is that my voice can reach more people, and more diverse people, than ever before.
As a result, I can now use my voice to talk about things I have spent hundreds of thousands of hours studying — about language science and science in general. About education and equal rights.
Which is precisely why I believe in the upside of social media. In using it to learn, connect, laugh, share, commiserate. To join our individual voices so their message is stronger and heard further.
My individual voice is that of a woman. A scientist. A teacher. A parent. An immigrant. Contrary to what the critics of my tweet may think, I understand hardship. I came to the United States alone, as a teenager, with $2.41 in my pocket, and worked multiple jobs to put myself through college and graduate school. And my beloved grandfather passed away while I was in college. I get it. I do.
A sense of humor was at times the only thing I felt I had.
At a time in which trolling is the norm and the choice is to suffer through it or opt out, a change is needed in how we interact with each other. It’s time to shift how we engage with those we don’t agree with.
Yes, it can be scary to speak up in a public forum. But for every person who does not do it, someone else has the floor. So speak we must.
Viorica Marian is a professor of communication sciences at Northwestern University. She wrote this article for the Chicago Tribune.