Fall 2014: Christopher Zumski Finke’s Response to “Digital Empathy” Essay Winners

Christopher Zumski Finke responds to the winners of the Fall 2014 "Fault in Our Stars" essay competition.

Congratulations to you, Bowie, Tori, Shannon, and Ally,


You’ve won the YES! writing challenge, and I can assure each of you that the honor is well deserved. By way of congratulations I say: “You are crazy, and awesome.”


This is what Esther Earl says to John Green in one of the final videos she made before her death. She’s thanking him for the love that she’s found in the friends she made online, and she does so in the language of Nerdfighters.


What moves me most about the Nerdfighters and the success they’ve had bringing empathy to the Internet—the thing that first interested me in the story for YES! Magazine—is the language. The Nerdfighters have built an entire movement around two of our most common colloquial words: ‘suck’ and ‘awesome’. “Let’s decrease suck,” the Nerdfighters say, “by increasing awesome.”


The sincere use of the simplest phrases welcomes everyone (we all know what sucks, I think, and we likewise know what’s awesome when we see it). These words alone are of little merit— to some perhaps even vulgar (my grandmother always scolded me when I said “sucks”). But as a call to arms for improving the world, they shed their perfunctory nature and become much more.


It is not, in the community of Nerdfighters, a trite endeavor to decrease suck. It is a real, emotional, powerful activity that changes lives. It happens on a global scale, when wells are built in places of need, or schools have their libraries filled with donated books (both causes which Nerdfighters have championed). But it also happens much more intimately. We all have needs to meet  in our lives—be they emotional, physical, academic, or social—and it is these personal needs you have captured so beautifully in your essays.


Such individual needs are met through the inspiration that helps us through our middle school years. It is accepting our sexual identity, challenging everyday misogyny, surviving depression. These are challenges that hit close to home, and to meet them we need to empathy to others. This is what I will remember from your essays.


Anyone who has passed the halls of middle school understands what you mean, Bowie, when you capture the nervous anxiety of performing for an audience or coach. Whether it’s making the team or getting the job, without some inspiration and guidance—someone to remind us to worry less and “to have more fun”— I don’t know how any of us would get along.


Shannon and Ally, you both offer personal stories of how the Internet has offered you refuge in your lives, and I thank you for sharing. Shannon, I am moved by the forthright expression you put to use in finding your identity (“white middle-class straight cisgender male is not the default”) and in finding peers online who are also expressing queer identities. This directness will offer solace to others.


And Ally you write about your anxiety and depression with emotive candor and intimacy. The help and hope that you have found online in your meetings with the Literal Heart (I was happy to hear that such a group exists, and like its inspiration The Fault in our Stars, helps those who need it most) provides a path for others to realize, as you have, that “there is always a better side.”


And, finally, Tori, you’ve distilled the importance of teaching equality to all in your essay about Anita Sarkeesian and Tavi Gevinson. The “cracks of the Internet,” as you write, are riddled with ignorance and misogyny—a great turn of phrase that indicates just how deep the problem lies. We all should adopt the solution you propose: to banish misogyny from what we teach our younger and future generations, and replace it with acceptance and love.


You’ve all written something of which to be proud. You’re all finding a voice and sharing your stories without fear. You’re aiding the world to understand how communities online and offline can engage with individuals to decrease world suck. In essence, your writing understands the importance of empathy and earnest interaction, because it is these experiences that have helped you become writers.


So. You’re all awesome. Keep decreasing the suck.


Christopher Zumski Finke



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