Have you read the viral letter the CEO of Yelp? I've had at least three people send it to me. To sum it up, an entry level Customer Service employee was upset that she didn't make what she considers to be a “living wage” from her employer, Yelp, and decided to spend 2000+ words publicly calling out the Yelp's CEO, Jeremy Stoppelman, for it. You can read the whole thing here. I'm sure she felt very brave writing about how HORRIBLE it is to have to work a year somewhere before being promoted, or have the free food in the employee break room run out over the weekend, but regardless of what social justice cred she felt hitting the publish button on Medium, it came across poorly. Very poorly. Most folks I have talked to have reacted the way I did - negatively. OK, negatively is the wrong word. We lost our collective shit.
Honestly, I've rarely had a more visceral reaction to a piece of writing. I was incensed. I consider myself an incredibly liberal guy, and by the end of the piece I wanted to throw a copy of Atlas Shrugged in the direction of this girl's head. I would never do that of course. I abhor violence, almost as much as I abhor the thought of spending money on that shitty book. Still, I don’t know what I hated more, her letter or how her letter made me feel. It made me feel old. It made me want her off my lawn. The ending was nice though. She got fired, like she should have.
Still, aside from the preceding paragraphs I don’t want to pile on any more of the generational, "pull yourself up by your bootstraps and quit your complaining" rhetoric. It has already been written as well as, or better, than I could hope to.
What is more interesting to me, and what I want to explore is not the what, but the why. Why has this letter blown up so much? Why is it being shared by so many of my centrist friends as an example of how detached we are from where we were just a few years ago. Why is everyone so mad?
I’m sure there are a lot of reasons. Here are three I came up with.
This is kind of Bernie Sanders Fault
Not directly. I sincerely doubt someone from the Sanders campaign called Talia Jane and told her to torpedo her career in entry-level customer service by asking her CEO to pay her cell phone bill. I don't think the letter itself is Bernie's fault, although the social issues he champions may have had Talia feeling bold enough to write it. I do think, however, the outrage the letter has inspired is fueled a bit by Sanders.
See, according to whoever flips the switch on generation labels I’m supposedly a “millennial” too. I am at the very front of the pack, born in 1981.
I remember Bush the First and both of Clinton’s terms. I remember feeling very angry and powerless during the Bush the Second's years, and most of all I remember feeling like a part of a new world when we elected President Obama in 2008, the year after I finished college. I, like a hefty chunk of people my age, spent the next 8 years watching Obama get attacked and blocked over and over again. Sometimes we agreed with him. Sometimes we didn’t. But for the most part we liked the social change we saw. As the Engine of the Millennial Train, we felt that the center cars, all the way to the caboose were with us in shared ideology. It was so simple. We all agreed with each other on Facebook. We all looked at the divided right and laughed our way through the 2012 election. We felt a righteous indignation in our victories. Then Bernie Sanders came and mucked it all up.
Bernie exposed the divisions in our train. Suddenly those of us who felt like liberal trailblazers in 2008 and 2012 found ourselves looking at these new folks to our left and not seeing ourselves reflected back. We got confused. We got annoyed. Who were these people? We still pay our student loan debt every month. We suffered through our early 20’s, the great recession, and for the most part came came out it OK. Now there was this loud, active, and angry contingency of our friends that have communal ideas far beyond what we ever imagined, and they’re not just mad at the Right. They are mad at us!
We had spent the past five years weeding out all the Obama-hating far-right friends from our newsfeeds, and suddenly we felt like we were being out flanked by the left. Now it was coming from both sides and we're forced to sit, twiddle our centrist thumbs, and figure out at which stop we got kicked off the progressive train. Then Talia Jane wrote her letter.
It is the perfect recipe for a viral piece. It challenges or reinforces an existing belief. It challenges a majority opinion, but most importantly it challenges a majority opinion that the holders of which feel like they are in the minority. Suddenly we all had a place to focus our annoyance. Look! Look at this girl. She is why we are annoyed. She is the reason why people like us are feeling angry and left behind. People like her! She is the VOICE OF A GENERATION! A GENERATION THAT IS UPSET BY TOO MUCH FREE COCONUT WATER IN THE BREAK ROOM AND CEOs THAT WON’T PAY THEIR CELL PHONE BILLS FOR THEM!
That obviously isn’t the case. I know plenty of ridiculously smart millennials that care deeply about social issues like income inequality and don’t operate under the assumption that breakdowns in the social contract began the second they stepped off their college campuses. But feelings, especially outragey feelings, are rarely about actual reality. They are like liquid. They flow to the easiest spot, and Talia Jane’s article, which honestly read like it was a satirical piece written for The Onion to make fun of Millennials, wasn’t just an easy spot for our rage to flow. It was a rage funnel.
For that, I feel bad for her. Yes, she should have lost her job. Words have meaning and often have consequences, but no one deserves the rage hive that is the internet. Which brings me to reason number two why her post has blown up.
The degree to which she is being attacked, at least partially, is because she is a woman.
I’ve been doing this writing thing for a while, and I have seen my fair share of hive mind blow ups on the internet. My evidence is anecdotal, but I am very confident that even a small amount of research would support the following statement. Women get the digital shit kicked out of them on the internet FAR more than men do. I’m not being flippant, and I’m using violent language there for a reason. The internet is horrible to women. I have written some controversial things in the past and I have never once been threatened physically or sexually. And yet, I have a strong suspicion that if I went tumbling through the comments and the tweets directed at Talia Jane over the past week I would find plenty of horrific examples of humans behaving like anonymous excrement.
These turd covered trolls wait in the shadows of the internet for any woman to say something controversial, and then they are instantly a three-inch layer of butter-shit frosting on any rage cake that comes their way.
And it’s not just them! I think the general population feels more justified criticizing women's opinions than they do men. Again, anecdotal evidence, but I get the general sense that my opinionated, strong, female writer friends are rebutted far more often than my male writer friends. That’s not to say that the non-troll related rebuttals are without substance, just that perhaps people feel a bit more at ease sharing them when the recipient has ovaries. Privilege is hard to spot, but when you see it, it is like the invisible bridge in Indiana Jones and Last Crusade… which we will now cross to the last reason why the letter has gone viral.
She is a good writer that used the wrong tools from her tool box.
I love humor and I love snark. I dine on sarcasm. I spent the first half of my 20’s embarrassingly identifying myself as a "Daily Show Liberal". The problem with snark and sarcasm is this: It’s really only good for getting people who already agree with you to laugh and nod their heads. Trust me. I know. A few of the most popular pieces I've written have been snark-filled diatribes aimed at taking an opinion or a person down a notch. I didn't change any minds. I just made people laugh and nod.
The problem with the letter written by Talia Jane is that it was written for the Daily Show and delivered to her CEO... and me, and millions of others who are feeling very on edge right now for reasons I outlined in the first section. When we read snark and sarcasm on a topic we don’t see ourselves in, we don’t laugh. We feel attacked. Our first instinct is to start finding the places in the article that we can pick apart. That is what I did. These aren’t the first words I’ve written about Talia Jane's letter. My first piece was very delete-able.
If Talia Jane’s goal was to get fired and start a career asking people to Paypal her money, then she accomplished her goal. If she wanted to affect change by using her personal narrative to get people who don’t already agree with her to feel empathy and compassion, than she failed at it about as miserably as Yelp fails at fairly representing small businesses.
ALL OF THAT SAID, Talia Jane has got skills. Read objectively, and after calming down a bit, I found the letter well-paced and the repetitive referencing of the rice was funny. Talia Jane has a voice in her writing that will serve her, and whoever employs her as a writer in the future well. I hope she gets a second chance to use her tools. I’m confident she will. Hell, I’m always looking for freelancers, although I probably can’t pay her enough to live in San Francisco. Relocation? Salt Lake is beautiful this time of year. Talia Jane, e-mail me.
That’s all I’ve got. Feel free to tell me why I am wrong in the comments below. You can also find me writing about things I think I know about on Facebook. All nice people are welcome, even those who disagree with me. I don’t have a monopoly on the truth. I do have the board game though!