Fall 2014: “Digital Empathy” High School Winner Ally S.

Read Ally's essay, "The Literal Heart Sustains an Ailing Body," that tells how she found the strength to cope with mental illness through the support of the same Nerdfighter online community.

Ally S., a student at a high school in northern Virginia, read and responded to the YES! Magazine article “The Real Teens Behind ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ Are Bringing Empathy to the Internet” by Christopher Zumski Finke, a story about the now-millions strong Nerdfighter movement and its dedication to “increase awesome and decrease world suck.” Finke shares how the first-ever, safe, inclusive Internet community mobilizes acts of kindness and empathy toward others.

Writing Prompt: Parents often label the Internet as a hotbed for cruelty and bullying. Nerdfighters prove the Internet can be used for good, that it can be a place to create community that combats negativity—or “world suck”—with “awesome.” What are some ways—digital or otherwise—that you get strength and support to fight world suck with awesome?




The Literal Heart Sustains an Ailing Body


I have been a nerd since I was very young. At the library, you’d find me mesmerized in the Greek mythology section. I sat on the floor in front of the shelf and went through each book, savoring each picture and memorizing each story. Athena and Odysseus quickly became my favorites, so the librarian, Ms. Rojas, always notified me whenever a new version of The Odyssey came. As I grew up, I was fascinated by esoteric topics, like Ancient Greek religion and art, linguistics, and analysis of the Harry Potter series. I didn’t know people who were interested in those things at my school, but Nerdfighteria was a safe space where I could share those kinds of interests with others. John and Hank Green’s videos discussed topics I cared about, from history and science to pop culture and lame puns. My main goal in life was—and is—to become as informed about the world and other people as possible, which the Vlogbrothers made almost stupidly easy. A wealth of information was in a convenient playlist of exciting new videos, each under four minutes long.  I couldn’t ask for more.


Of course, many things in my life have changed in the three years since I discovered the Vlogbrothers’ channel. I started high school, began to take on the responsibilities of young adulthood, and developed depression and generalized anxiety disorder.


I go to an extremely rigorous school, and it is one of the most consistent pressures in my life. My school system offers services to help students with mental illness, but I can’t expect the same support from teachers and friends without telling them about my personal struggles. My depression and anxiety drag me down by playing on my fears and worries. By definition, anxiety is my brain going into panic mode over commonplace things. Depression feels like a weight, a burden that will never stop dragging me down. I don’t want to tell anyone about how tired and scared I am, afraid that they will dislike me as much as I dislike myself.


The Internet, on the other hand, is a place where expectations don’t overwhelm me. When I go online, I know that I can find others who will support me, without judgment. The Internet is not at my school, telling my teacher that I couldn’t get through all of my work, or at my house, telling my mother that I went another week without even making an effort to clean my room. The Internet, specifically Nerdfighteria, is a place where I can be myself. In Christopher Zumski Finke’s YES! Magazine article, “How the Real Teens Behind ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ Are Bringing Empathy to the Internet,” he described “the unblinking idealism and empathy of the Nerdfighters.”


For most of us, the empathy Finke speaks of comes from personal experience with world suck, in big or small ways.  The Nerdfighter community is extremely supportive of mental illness, especially because so many video bloggers struggle with the same issues. John Green has depression and anxiety and touches on those subjects in his books, especially The Fault in Our Stars. In fact, there is a Nerdfighter group on Facebook, called the Literal Heart, for Nerdfighters with chronic illnesses. It is named after the support group in The Fault in Our Stars and is meant to serve a similar role.


Many adults think online communities are arenas for cruelty and bullying, but the Literal Heart has welcomed me in a way I don’t feel elsewhere. Nerdfighters with both physical and mental illnesses vent about the bad times and celebrate the good. Since it is expressly for those with chronic diseases, there is no stigma against having a bad day or bad month. It’s as easy as searching the group on Facebook and requesting to join, no questions asked. I have had weeks where I’m not sure how I’ll make it through, but posting in the Literal Heart group and receiving comments where people voice their belief in me helps. Knowing that there is someone who believes in me comforts me so much. Even though no one can actually give me a hug through our computers, their comments feel like the real thing. Little words, like telling me they’re proud that I went to the psychiatrist or that they’re sorry that I was feeling bad, help me to know that I’m not alone, that I have support, and that things will get better.


I believe that Internet friendships are just as valuable as face-to-face friendships because I know that, without the support of my friends in the Literal Heart, I might have stayed undiagnosed—living with the brutal fatigue of mental illness. People whom I’ve never seen in person have supported me through extreme emotional difficulty, never taking advantage of me or expecting anything in return. The impersonality of the Internet can be a breeding ground for hate and terrible unkindness, but there’s another side— a better side. I know that out there, there are Nerdfighters battling world suck. And those people inspire and support me while I fight my own personal demons.



Inspiration in Your Inbox

Get the free daily newsletter from YES! Magazine:
Stories of people creating a better world to inspire you and your students.

Sign Up