Writer, comedian, and podcast host, Dylan Marron, shares how hate on the internet fueled his podcast and new book, “Conversations with People Who Hate Me.”
Debbie Millman: There’s a lot of hate out there on the internet, and Dylan Marron has gotten his share of it. Not so much for playing Carlos on the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, which is how some of you podcast listeners may know him. He’s gotten a lot of hate for being a gay person of color who has drawn attention to how Hollywood marginalizes people like him. For the comedy site, Seriously TV, he created Every Single Word, a video series where the often meager lines spoken by people of color and popular movies were spliced together. He also created the video series Shutting Down Bullshit and Sitting in Bathrooms With Trans People. Funny, but not to some people. Ultimately Dylan did something creative with all the hatred sent his way. He made a podcast called Conversations With People Who Hate Me, in which he got in touch with some of the people who had written nasty comments about him. Then he turned that podcast into a book of the same name with the subtitle, 12 Things I Learned From Talking to Internet Strangers. We’re going to talk all about that today. Dylan Marron, welcome to Design Matters.
Dylan Marron: Debbie, thank you so much for having me.
Debbie Millman: My absolute, absolute pleasure. I need to know, is it true that one of the things that most inspires you is Britney Spear’s performance at the 2000 VMAs?
Dylan Marron: I can say that it lit a flame in me when I first saw that performance. I was in seventh grade. I was just starting a new school. TiVo wasn’t a thing yet. And I taped that performance. It’s Britney Spears performing a medley of her cover of Satisfaction and Oops, I did it Again. You probably know it as the performance when she strips down from a suit into a skin colored two piece. Yeah, there was something about that performance that I so lacked any confidence at that age, as many of us do. And I put all of my stock into Britney Spears, and she became a projection screen onto which I became a confident person in the hours from 4:00 PM to 5:00 PM, when I would rush home and learn that choreography for the first two months of seventh grade.
Debbie Millman: Well, speaking of learning the choreography, I wasn’t entirely sure which VMAs performance you were referring to, so I had to Google it. I wasn’t sure if it was the performance with the big boa constrictor, or snake, or whatever it was that she was holding, or if it was the performance where she sort of teetered on her heels. And then of course discovered that it was indeed the performance of her greatest hits and her transforming from this suit clad icon into this vixen. And I found on YouTube, for those listeners that might want to see this, because it’s extraordinary, a video that compares her rehearsal performance to her actual performance and the accuracy that she lands that performance. If you look at them side by side, their synchronous. It’s just amazing. You really see just how great a dancer she is.
Dylan Marron: Yeah. That’s one of these treats that YouTube allows us to pull out of the Britney vault. So many of us watched those things on the fan VHSs that were made at the time. But now they’re on YouTube and you all get to see what we all saw back in the sweet, late 90s, early aunts,
Debbie Millman: Dylan, you were born in Venezuela. Your mom is white. Your dad is Venezuelan. And you moved to New York when you were five years old. Do you have any vivid memories of that move?
Dylan Marron: I remember, of course being a little nervous to come to New York, but I had a pretty international upbringing down in Venezuela. We were living in a complex of apartment buildings that was very international. There were a lot of expat Americans. But the truth is, I don’t have much of a memory of Venezuela. I haven’t been back since I was five, largely due to the political climate down there. I think when you’re a kid you want to gravitate towards wherever and however you can belong. And so to start a new school in the states at five, you’re like, okay, my forming brain is just going to do whatever these other kids are doing. Venezuela is obviously a core part of me, but it’s this almost unexplored part of my identity because I haven’t been there in so long.
Debbie Millman: You talked about how as biracial, you often felt like you didn’t belong anywhere. You didn’t feel you were Latino enough to be Latino, not white enough to be white. You’ve also said that you never knew what crayons to use when you drew a self-portrait and you never knew which box to check on standardized tests. How did you manage then and how have you come to understand that sense of duality now?
Dylan Marron: The truth is it was, and it continues to be a challenging identity question. Race is a different thing in South America. Races regarded differently. So while I very clearly am brown up here in the United States, that’s not so defined down there and that’s not so defined when I’m around Venezuelan people. When people in the entertainment industry often talk about wanting to hear about people’s heritage, they have super clear boxes of what they mean by that. They want to hear about your South American upbringing in the way that they understand your South American upbringing should play out in their head. You’re getting such a messy answer because it’s such a messy thing in my mind. It’s been so easy to just call myself brown and kind of move along. You don’t get too many questions from that.
But then to grapple with, oh, what do I do with the fact that I’m a Venezuelan who doesn’t speak Spanish? And when I’m correctly coded by someone as someone of Latin heritage, that there’s the expectation that I’ll speak Spanish back to them. And then I don’t, and then there’s always this looming feeling of feeling like a bad Venezuelan. And yeah, I think it’s something I will always battle, always battle feeling in the middle. And I think not belonging is something that just feels, so this is going to sound so sad, but fundamental to who I am. But I think that that has encouraged me to seek out belonging in whatever way I can.
Debbie Millman: You’re an only child, and you learned how to entertain yourself and create worlds and stories of games kind of on your own. What kinds of things were you making, and playing and creating?
Dylan Marron: God, I had this really long arts and crafts table. I would always drag that into the living room and turn that into a stage. And so one example is I would craft a set around that table. And after I saw Grease, I was like, nothing is better than the movie Grease. And so now I’m realizing it was a really gender queer performance of grease where I put on a leather jacket and the pink lady side handkerchief. Again, at the time, not a political statement. It was simply like, okay, I’m going to take that element from there, that element from here, put it together. So reenacting the movie musical Grease for sometimes just a babysitter or sometimes just myself.
Lots of forts, heavy on the forts. And then one day I remember I woke up, wrote a play for me and my parents to perform, and they performed it with me. It was kind of like, I wish I had that confidence now as an artist to be like, wake up, I’m going to try a totally new medium. I don’t care if it fails, and I’m going to perform it with the people I love. I’m going to do it with the people I love. I’m going to make a marble sculpture. And so, yeah, I think in the silence that comes with being an only child, you are encouraged to find a way to fill it.
Debbie Millman: I also spent a lot of my childhood making up plays and forcing my siblings to take different parts, and remember being quite aggressive in enforcing my brother in costume wearing of a whole series of my grandmother’s scarves, which I remember he really wasn’t that happy.
Dylan Marron: He wasn’t into it. But you were.
Debbie Millman: Not nearly as much as I was.
Dylan Marron: Yeah. No, but listen, it was your vision and it had to be honored.
Debbie Millman: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Dylan Marron: That’s how it goes.
Debbie Millman: When did you decide you wanted to do something professional with performing?
Dylan Marron: I think, when we’re in middle school and high school and you know that you have that creative spirit in you, you have that thing, that thing that is telling you, I have to do this. I am called to this work. I’m drawn to it. I can’t do anything else really. I was like, well, I can’t sing. I can’t draw. I really have no musical talent. And so, I think the thing I just kept following was acting, because it was the way to express myself. I think also at the time I lacked any confidence, and it was this space where I felt like I could be the most bold version of myself and I was good at it. And I think I was good at it because I loved it and I was good at it because I cared about it. And so it was really that one thing that I could do at that time and feel like I had a sense of control and a sense of ownership of something.
Debbie Millman: While you were in high school, you actually met with agents that kept telling you that they weren’t sure how many parts there were for you as a biracial man and that you’d never play a romantic male lead. How did you make sense of that determination and how did it impact what you thought was possible for yourself?
Dylan Marron: Well, at the time, it didn’t really make sense. It just didn’t make sense to me of why I was being invited into these meetings, and having the talent to be invited into these meetings, and then being told that they weren’t really that interested in representing me, because there’s probably not going to be much work out there for me. And they told me this in very clinical ways. It was just kind of matter of fact, unemotional, well, this is just something I’m telling you. You’re not going to get a lot of work. I don’t think there’s a lot of work out there for you. Obviously I have so many more tools now to unpack that and understand the larger systemic implications of what it means to tell someone that because of who you are, there are no parts out there for you in this canvas, through which humans understand each other and ourselves.
And to tell someone that they can never play the romantic lead is to say, we can’t believe you in a romantic experience. We don’t see that for you. We can’t envision that. And so I didn’t have the ability to articulate that. I didn’t even have the ability to articulate that internally. So I just accepted what they were saying, because I was a teenager and they were adults. And that changed later on.
Debbie Millman: Despite the discouragement, you earned a bachelor’s degree in theater and sociology at Wesleyan. And while you were there, you also worked at several talent management and casting companies, and assisted the casting director of the 2008 HBO film Taking Chance. Were you considering casting as a career?
Dylan Marron: I was in the sense that I know that I loved this medium so much, that I just wanted to be close to it in any way possible. I also think the casting rooms were what I was not allowed into because the agents were telling me I wouldn’t get the roles. And so I wanted to see what was happening there. What is happening in this room that you’re telling me I can’t go into? And the truth was that those came pretty organically. People who I had met through the auditions that I did get, which were always direct, and through friends, I was offered those internships. And I think it was like, it demystified the room to me.
Debbie Millman: Did you find the racial restrictions that you were warned about earlier accurate for the other actors that you were working with and trying to find parts for?
Dylan Marron: Yes and no. So legally and factually, I will tell you that they did see a diverse array of people, which is to say many colors, many races, sexualities too. But what I really learned was that the spectrum of diversity allowed within marginalized groups is very slim. Whereas the spectrum of diversity among white actors was vast and it was showing the nuances, the complexities, the character descriptions for these characters were long, and it got into their back stories, and who they were, and who they are and who they’re becoming.
And so while they did see many Latin men, for example, there was a very thin understanding of what a Latin man looked like. And if there was a gay character, you could almost be certain that he was going to be white and he was going to be a man. This was still coming off of the era of Will & Grace, when it was like, you take what you can get, you take whatever representative you get at this mythic table that we are all angling for a seat at. So what I learned was, oh, maybe I’m not the right kind of brown man. Maybe I’m not the right kind of gay man. And that feels dispiriting to put it mildly.
Debbie Millman: Yeah. While you were a freshman at Wesleyan, you joined a comedy group. And it was there that you stated you first learned how to write creatively for a community. And through that group, you met Joe Firestone and wrote a play together called Ridgefield Middle School Talent Nite. Feels like at that moment in your life, Dylan, all of your interests converged into this one sort of pinpoint in time. And you took your first semester of senior year off and went on a college tour of the play. How confident did you feel in the sort of potential of this play to go ahead and actually take time off from your senior year in school to do this?
Dylan Marron: We wrote this play that the campus really loved, but I needed to push myself to see, okay, is anyone else going to respond? Yes, I feel like a superstar in this little contained cushy college campus, but I want to do this for a living. I think I was feeling so terrified that I didn’t understand anything about the world in a practical sense. I knew how to sit around a beautiful wooden table and communicate ideas about the beautiful, complex, dense sociology text that I had just read, but I needed to know how do I get out there? How do I do this thing? How do I prove those agents wrong from high school who were telling me that I was never going to play the romantic male lead? Not that I was in Ridgefield, but in Ridgefield, Middle School Talent Nite, I got to play half of 17 roles. And so it proved them wrong in that sense.
But it was a play that we were so proud of. It was well received. And what we were pleased to find was that everywhere we did it, it continued to get that kind of reception. And so pushing myself to take the time off so that I could be with Joe, who had just graduated, it was the push I needed and the push I gave myself to be like, okay, you really want to do this? Then you need to step outside of the most comfortable place you’ve ever been to really see if you can do this.
Debbie Millman: After you came back to school, you discovered the performance group, The Neo-Futurists, where you’ve said you’ve learned that you don’t have to be funny to entertain people. And I tell that to so many of my students who take on the archetype of the jester in the classroom, and I often tell them, you don’t need to be funny to be able to stand out. What gave you that sensibility at that moment, at that time?
Dylan Marron: Well, I was certainly searching for it, because Ridgefield Middle School Talent Nite is a 17 character middle school talent show, so we were faring very well in comedy venues. It was a very funny play with a laugh a minute. It was a comedy. It was a sketch. It was a long form sketch show. What I was finding is while I certainly felt at home in my soul, in doing Ridgefield with Joe, I also knew that it wasn’t viable that I could do Ridgefield Middle School Talent Nite forever for the rest of my life. And I didn’t totally find a home in comedy theaters. And so blissfully, it was actually Joe who took me to my very first Neo Futurist show. And we saw the weekly show, which at the time was called Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.
It’s now called The Infinite Wrench. Their weekly show is 30 short plays in 60 minutes. I felt at home. I felt like I was seeing what I wanted to do. They describe their rules. We later describe our rules at the top of every show. And it’s that it’s not a losery theater. Everything you see happening on stage is happening. So if someone says I’m going to drink for the rest of the performance, they’re actually going to be drinking alcohol and not feening it. It’s to see, in acting a lot of times you talk about raising the stakes, well this was a form of theater where you just raised the stakes and you had to exist within those raised stakes. It wasn’t this thing that you concocted in your imagination. And it felt new. It felt daring. It felt terrifying. And I loved every second of it.
Two weeks in a row I did a play, and the titles were super specific. You knew exactly what you were getting. But it’s like, in which an ensemble member hears from someone they haven’t heard from in a while. And I called all of their loved ones and asked for the recommendation of someone who they just haven’t heard from in a really, really, really long time. That kind of person who just is part of you’ve just lost touch. And I would have them sit on a chair in the center of the stage, nothing, just a spotlight on them. And then in the audience, the voice recording would play from this person. And week after week, they would just sob as they heard this. And I was like, that’s what I want to do. I’m thrilled to do all this work so you can get the most real reaction from this person who is hearing from someone in front of 90 people who are sitting there. So it turned me onto that form of art.
Debbie Millman: While with The Neo-Futurists, you met Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor who created the podcast Welcome to Night Vale. And how did they approach you about playing the part of Carlos? And then given that you were always having to be yourself with The Neo-Futurists, how did you go about creating the persona of Carlos or finding the persona of Carlos?
Dylan Marron: It was the early days of Tumblr. And so it felt like the actors were known to the audience of Welcome to Night Vale. So the audience knew that they were both watching the actors, but also the people they were following on Instagram and the people on Twitter. And so it kind of felt like this blend of it wasn’t character work. It wasn’t like, who is Carlos and how is he walking into this scene? It’s like kind of in the way that you watch a celebrity in a rom-com, you are watching an amazing performer, but you’re also going because you want to see that performer do this role. You’re like, I watch a Julia Roberts rom-com because I want to see Julia Roberts fall in love. And I want to see Julia Roberts fall in love in these new circumstances that have been written for her. And so I feel like Welcome to Night Vale was the same experience. It was like, I felt like I got to do it as myself.
Debbie Millman: In an effort to support yourself while you were performing, I know you worked as a server at Angelica Kitchen and Peels restaurant. You also worked at Whole Foods. At what point in your trajectory as a performer were you able to stop doing that?
Dylan Marron: I’ll tell you what, it was a lucky break. I was called into audition for a TD Bank commercial. And I booked the commercial. And the commercial was picked up to air. And the residuals allowed me to leave a restaurant job and write a play. That is the crushing and sometimes beautiful thing about art making is that it’s so random. And it’s simply because of that job that I was allowed to do it.
Debbie Millman: You created every single word, a video series ultimately is something you continue to do when you got your job at Seriously TV. This was the video series, as I mentioned in my intro, where the often meager lines spoken by people of color and popular movies were put together in a YouTube super cut you did. I mean, first of all, your tech skills are out of this world. They’re so beautifully made. You also created the series Shutting Down Bullshit. You created the interview series Sitting in Bathrooms With Trans People in response to the transphobic bathroom bills being passed in the United States. And this is really when you started getting hate mail. But I want to talk first about the motivation for starting Every Single Word, and what was the first movie that gave you that sort of hit of, I need to do this?
Dylan Marron: The first movie that inspired it was the Julia Louis-Dreyfus romantic comedy Enough Said. I was watching it, loving it. And it was only because there was a Latina maid that I realized that was actually the only person of color in the entire movie. And she was a supporting character’s maid, that was her role. So in 2014, I watched this movie on a plane and I had a run with The Neo-Futurists right afterwards. And I figured, I’m looking at the roster of performers and I’m like, oh, that’s funny. I’m going to be the only person of color in this run of shows. So I wrote a play for The Neo-Futurists stage called Every Single Word Spoken by a Person of Color in the Julia Louis-Dreyfus Romantic Comedy Enough Said as Performed by the Only Performer of Color in Tonight’s Show.
And so I recited all of the words myself and the audience got a huge kick out of it. And then it was coming back from this long, epic, countrywide Night Vale tour that I really was inspired to start Every Single Word: The Video Series, where I would rather than performing the lines myself, I would edit down popular movies to only the words spoken by people of color so that in the public square, it just looked like a super cut series. That’s the most effective way to get a message out there is to disguise it as some other consumable form of internet art. And what happened when I was coming back from that tour is that I had been nominated for a Drama Desk Award for the play that I had written, the play that I had written when I was able to take time off from the TD Bank commercial. It’s all coming together.
I was like, you know what? I’m coming off of this successful tour. I was just nominated for a Drama Desk Award. It’s time to meet with agents again. And this was self-propelled. No one was necessarily contacting me, but I was pursuing it. I was like, it’s time. I need an agent. And I found that I was hearing the same things over and over again. I was hearing the same things I heard in high school. “We think you’re really talented. We don’t think it’s likely that you’re going to get work.” The difference was that when I was in high school, I accepted this as fact, because I was a teenager being told by adults this thing. And now I’m an adult who is like, wait a second. The problem is actually not me. The problem is systemic. Because if I’m walking into an office, and they’re taking a meeting with me and they’re telling me it’s unlikely that I’m going to get work, then this is actually something much bigger than me.
This is not my own trials and tribulations of finding representation. This is actually a much larger representation issue, capital R. And so that’s what really pushed me to make the Every Single Word series, where rather than performing the lines myself, I edited it down as a super cut. It was this thing I made in my bedroom on my laptop. And it blew up and it got a ton of press, and most importantly, it got people rethinking an invisible thing that they hadn’t thought about before. And I was like, I could do that from my bedroom on the internet, who needs an agent? I will just make work. And so that was the inspiration.
Debbie Millman: I want to share with our listeners some of the facts that I learned in my research about some of these movies. So the entire 558 minute Lord of the Ring’s trilogy was cut down. Your super cut for that trilogy was 46 seconds of dialogue of people of color. Maleficent, the live action Disney spinoff of Sleeping Beauty with Angelina Jolie featured an unnamed captain who spoke for 18 seconds. The popular movie musical Into the Woods featured no speaking roles for actors of color at all. Neither did the movie Noah with Russell Crowe. These movies that were supposedly telling universal stories were cast as white, as you say, by default. None of the movies were about race per se, nor were these stories inherently white, yet they were told with all white actors. So a minute or two of dialogue from people of color in two hour movies really telegraphs the inequity in a much more profound way than any diversity study might. Do you feel like things are changing? Or do you feel like if you did this again with the most popular movies right now, it might be a little bit more encouraging?
Dylan Marron: I think they are. I think people are aware of this and I don’t think Every Single Word is solely responsible. In fact, the year I created Every Single Word, April Reign had started the hashtag Oscar so white. Franklin Leonard has been doing amazing work in this space for a long time. But I do think that Every Single Word as a project got to join the conversation. I do think it offered an accessible way to see it empirically right before your eyes. Do I think it’s gotten better? I do, when you’re in a TV production office and you see posters of old TV shows that they’ve worked on. When you’re looking even like in the 2010s, you’ll see an all white cast. And you think to yourself, oh, this would never happen today. You just wouldn’t see an all white cast.
That being said, a lot of our protagonists are still white. Spider-Man is a great example. You have Zendaya and you have Peter Parker’s best friend, and it feels like, oh, diversity, but there’s still this thing of, well, Spider-Man will always be white. Yes, the side players are getting to be not white. They’re getting to be not straight. In many thrilling cases, they’re getting to be not CIS. It’s all happening. But I think sometimes we’re still dealing with a white protagonist problem.
Debbie Millman: Dylan, all of your work up until this point in your trajectory, the Tumblr post that you wrote to Night Vale fans about coming out of the closet, navigating your biracial identity on stage, the Every Single Word speeches you gave about racial representation on screen, they all reflected your voice, your authentic voice, which you’ve described as deeply earnest and sincere. But you’ve also said that you’ve learned that this deeply earnest sincerity was a Cardinal sin on the wider internet. Why is that?
Dylan Marron: That’s a question I’m still exploring myself, to be honest. I think sincerity can come off as insincere online in this really vexing way. Sometimes when you get on to say what you are actually feeling as you actually feel it, it feels like you are not speaking the language of the internet. Because I also think that the internet rewards the most hyperbolic thing. It rewards the most extreme thing you can say. So this is why I think we’re now operating in this larger problem where everyone is either iconic the goat queen king, or they are the absolute worst piece of trash person that you’ve ever seen on the entire internet. Because to express something in the middle of like, oh, I mostly like this person’s work, but I found fault in this, just is a boring phrase to share out there onto the world.
And so I think the structure of the internet and what travels best online has shaped how we speak. And so I think earnestness sometimes doesn’t have a place in that, because earnestness is often about expressing something as honestly and as emotionally as possible. And that doesn’t play well. So I think I had to, as I started making digital videos for seriously.tv, I kind of took it upon myself to figure out how I could traffic in this world, how I would be able to succeed in this world.
Debbie Millman: So would you say that apathy, and snark and sarcasm are really the vernacular of the internet?
Dylan Marron: I think so. I think largely because they’re the most extreme way to say something. And that’s typically the take that wins is not necessarily the most nuanced, but the one that cuts right in. And I also think that there are a lot of very legitimate reasons for this. I mean, what a time to be alive, to witness it as all of the things are being reported constantly to us. So there is certainly cause for cynicism. There is certainly cause for the apathy is understandable when there’s just so much going on, that all we can do is shut down. But I do think that is part and parcel to the language of the internet.
Debbie Millman: You then had to make a decision about how you wanted to be portrayed on the internet. You had to figure out how to maintain your success on a platform that would shun you for, as you put it, daring to express your true self. How did you go about navigating that and how did you go about making a decision to begin to change your persona at that time?
Dylan Marron: Well, so my early work at seriously.tv felt in line with my voice. Sitting in Bathrooms With Trans People is a sweet, sincere interview series. What I wanted to really kind of dive into was the more directly politically charged work. Obviously Sitting in Bathrooms With trans People is politically charged in that I’m saying these laws are about human beings. Let us meet these human beings that these laws are about. And Every Single Word is about the lack of representation on screen and what it means when we are not even exercising our empathy for people of color. But I think there was something that I saw being rewarded, which was the sharper take, the sharper jab at someone. And so I found that opportunity when I came across this video of a young conservative woman who her video is called Dear Millennials.
And she was talking about all the ways that her generation and mine, the millennials were not living up to yesterday’s standards. And she was espousing pretty standard conservative views. And I decided that it was time to make a biting response video. And so I wrote a video where I used all of her lines as setups to my punch lines, kind of bit back. And I adopted this snarkier voice, snarkier than is natural for me to kind of bite back at her. I posted the video and it posted through Seriously, and it blew up. It just blew up. It was the first video of the network to get a million views. And I was just enamored. There’s that scene in Aladdin where Aby, you see the dollar signs in his eyes, his eyes become dollar signs.
Debbie Millman: Bugs bunny does that too. It’s so good.
Dylan Marron: It’s so good. But that was me with the likes, with the view count. And I was just like, inject this right into my veins. This is what I want. I took the success of that video as a kind of set of rules that I would apply to future videos, like, oh, this succeeded so much. Me stepping out of my comfort zone, and being snarky and making jokes at the expense of someone else who I disagree with ideologically is good for me. And I think there was also a nobility to it too that I thought of at the time, or I thought there was a nobility, because in attacking someone who was espousing conservative points, I thought I was a warrior for my side. I thought I was doing something big for my people. When you’re getting that many coins from the internet praising you for this, it’s really hard to see it differently.
Debbie Millman: When did you begin to realize that you were actually helping to amplify this vitriol?
Dylan Marron: It was less that I felt that I was amplifying the vitriol, but the troubling realization was more that I wasn’t changing the world. That I was in fact only snarkely speaking to the choir by giving these biting talking points to the choir who was already there. And I was speaking only to people who were already agreeing with me. We were in an echo chamber and not this wider internet. And this sounds so cliche now, but I really felt like it was the 2016 election that was this big wake up call for me that, oh my God, here I was closely monitoring my political tweets as if they were bellwethers for the national election. And then I learned, oh, I don’t know this country at all. And I feel like I’m still understanding what happened. And throughout my whole time at Seriously, while I was getting more followers and more likes, I was also getting more hate. And that’s just what happens when you make something big online.
And so I started collecting all of those pieces of hate, be they comments or messages in a hate folder, or what I called my hate folder, all caps. And I think I kind of realized, I was like, oh, most of this is coming from conservative people. I wonder if I actually don’t understand this country and maybe this hate folder is a better representation of this country than I thought. So it was then that I was like, I need to do something, because the reason I got into this game in the first place, even more important than my eyes going gaga for the metrics rolling in, was I wanted to say something and I wanted to start conversations in the way that every single word allowed people to see a problem that they didn’t know was a problem before, I wanted to continue that work. Same with Sitting in Bathrooms With Trans People from my earlier time at Seriously.
Those were really successful ways of getting messages across. And that’s all I ever wanted to do was to get those messages across in ways that would actually reach people. And I was wondering if the snarky take down, the epic take downs were not the way.
Debbie Millman: When did you realize that you wanted, rather than take down the haters, that you actually wanted to dialogue with them and talk about the hate?
Dylan Marron: Yeah. Well, at comedy shows when I was invited to do a comedy show, I would kind of scroll through a cross section of the hate from pieces in the hate folder and I would make jokes at their expense. And I posted one of those videos online and someone recognized himself in that video. And he’s chosen to go by the name Josh for all of our conversations. So Josh saw himself in the video, and he messaged me and he seemed really hurt by the fact that I was making fun of his message.
Debbie Millman: Which was making fun of you.
Dylan Marron: Yeah. Making fun of me. He reached out and he was like, “listen, you brought up some valid points there. I’m wondering if you want to talk?” And so he sent me his number. My mind was reeling, in film you know when they do the zoom in shot while they’re pulling away? That’s exactly what that moment felt like. And I was so terrified, but at the same time, I had been trying to figure out this way to create conversations with my work. And I was like, oh, that was the light bulb moment of like, oh, maybe these conversations are possible with the hate folder residents that I already have here. And so I took him up on his offer and I called him the next day. And that phone call was this beautiful moment of connection where I felt like all of these lofty goals that I had had of communicating with people was in fact possible by simply calling someone. It was this very, very, very simple solution to this very complex problem.
And we found that we had a lot in common. He was a senior in high school at the time and he was being bullied. And I was like, I was bullied in high school too. And I think it’s important to note, a lot of people are heart warmed by that common ground we found. And it’s like, it is both true that we found that common ground, and that common ground doesn’t absolve the hurtful thing he said to me, but we can accept and move forward with both. And I think I started to internalize that on this call. And the success of that call with Josh showed me that maybe this kind of communication was possible with more people who were in my hate folder.
Debbie Millman: So you decided to start a show, which became a podcast, titled Conversations With People Who Hate Me. This is also the title of your brand new book. Why the word hate?
Dylan Marron: As I started recording the early episodes of Conversations With People Who Hate Me, it didn’t feel fair. And so many of the people, and what I always say is, on Conversations With People Who Hate Me, I’m only speaking to people who I feel safe talking to. That means I’m not talking to people who are threatening to kill me. And so, so many of the people who I spoke to were expressing, oh, I don’t hate you. I’m shocked that you would think that. And some of them was like, well, you said a really cruel thing to me, so that’s why I think you hate me. But then some of the people, in the light of day you’re like, I don’t know that this extreme word is fair to what you’ve written me. And so I had to kind of wrestle with how fair it was to label all of the negativity hate, as I think many of us do.
Debbie Millman: You also very intentionally did not use or describe the people you were speaking to as trolls. Talk about that decision.
Dylan Marron: The word troll lulls us into a fantasy. It makes us think that it is this problem enacted by those people over there. They are the trolls. We are the good villagers and they are this unsightly being that lives under a bridge that torments us. And I think what I kept finding in my conversations was that actually they weren’t these human anomalies, they were us. And it was also the structure of social media that enabled for all this hate to be sent to me, which is not to negate how ferociously some of them and I disagree on things. But in this space where the sharpest, zingiest, sometimes most hurtful take is what cuts through, and a space where you mix that in where everyone can feel so insignificant. Where I can message you and be like, oh, Debbie’s never going to see it. I’ll message anything I want.
Those two things, the accessibility to someone and the constant feeling of insignificance merged to make the hate messages being sent a sadly normal thing. That’s why I no longer felt comfortable using the word trolls. It was also a bad production technique. If you’re telling people to come on a show where you talk to trolls, then you’re inviting them on, no one’s going to say yes.
Debbie Millman: Yeah. It’s so interesting. No matter who you talk with in your conversations and how much hate or unkindness they’ve hurled at you online in this sort of almost anonymous manner, you’re always sympathetic to the people that you talked with. And it seems to me that most people wanted to backtrack from that hate quite a bit once they understood more about where you were coming from. I mean, I think one of the most startling things for me in really understanding the back stories to a lot of the podcast episodes was, even understanding that Josh was a high school student, we sort of villainize and really demonize the people that hate us so that they’re all bad. And I was the victim of some bullying back in the early 2000s when it was a very foreign concept.
At that point, I really thought I had to quit the internet, quit my job, quit everything because I was so humiliated by the vitriol, until I actually participated in the conversation, and then suddenly everybody began to backtrack. And Paula Scher actually did a great visual around that time as well as blogging became much more popular and people were so interested in taking people down with a blog post, about this sort of cycle where you have all of this mutual hate, and then as soon as somebody gets involved, there’s a pile on. And as soon as the person being piled on pokes their head through the pile, everybody sort of retreats. I wonder why that is. I wonder why people don’t double down on it. I mean, now I think more politicians tend to, like Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Green, they sort of are fueled by the responses.
Dylan Marron: Yeah. I think the large crux of it comes from the fact that the internet, as it currently exists now, social media as it currently exists now is a largely dehumanizing space. And it’s very easy to say something absolutely horrendous to a thing you don’t see as human. If you think that you’re talking to a grainy profile picture, it’s easy to call them the worst thing possible. If you don’t think that that grainy profile picture is ever going to respond, that amps it up even more. The dehumanization kind of happens on both sides, as I just talked about the word troll. On the one hand, the dehumanization is coming from the person writing the comment. They are not understanding that they’re sending this to a thinking, feeling human being. And then complicatedly when we’re on the receiving end of it, we forget, and this is the more complicated part, we forget that that’s a thinking, feeling, breathing human being who’s sending that too, and that’s where it gets really, really murky.
We’re in a dehumanization crisis right now where the main public square where we communicate with each other is devoid of ways to see each other as human beings. And instead, I worry more, and this has a lot to do with pile ons, but targets on which we can score points and advance our own position in the human stock exchange, the constantly fluctuating human stock exchange of social media.
Debbie Millman: You detail how some people believe that if you can’t change somebody’s mind, there’s no point in talking to them. And you say, this is because for a lot of people, a conversation is a gamified debate. How do we break that cycle? How do we begin to change people’s minds when people’s minds don’t want to be changed?
Dylan Marron: Well, I think another thing that social media has trained us to need is immediate gratification. We think that when we yell at someone and demand an apology that they should change. We think that the crueler we are to someone, the better they’ll be. We think that tweeting do better will in fact bring about that better behavior that we crave. So however we can practice patience is, I think the way forward, because change, as I found, change takes so much time. And it can’t even be captured in a long form, conversational podcast. It has to happen privately oftentimes in kind of messy stops and starts. And it’s not clean as every TV, and TV series, and movie and limited series wants to make us think. And I think we’re wrestling with the very legitimate question, and a question that dogs me quite often is, what’s the point of this?
If you can’t change someone’s mind, what’s the point of even having it? And what I feel that we are suffering from is thinking that if you cannot immediately see the point of something, then there is none. If you cannot immediately see the change in someone, then why even try to change them? Well, of course we should try, because I’ve evolved because of people who were kind enough when I was coming of age to be like, oh, you can’t say that. Oh, that’s not funny. Oh, that hurts me, because when you joke about that, that’s actually a joke about me. All of these things I was blessed to do and learn offline. There is no record of what I have said and done. And so many of the people in my generation, we were the last generation to not have Facebook in high school. And thank God for that.
So when I think it’s like, what’s the point of having these conversations when some people just can’t change? I both think of how I’ve seen change happen slowly over time with my guests when I follow up with them, but then I put myself in that position. And it’s like, well, I don’t change immediately. When I’m told I’m doing something wrong, I’m so defensive at first. And I’m ashamed that maybe someone is right, maybe they’re right that I’m doing something wrong. And shame makes you do wild things where you suddenly retreat. And you’re like, do it harder than you did it before, and then you realize, oh, this is not good. And everything I just described happens in the course of, at the speediest, months, but realistically years and sometimes decades. And I think we need to give more room and space for people to grow, and the grace to know that the growth is happening, even if we don’t see it.
Debbie Millman: You end your book with this quote someone once shared with you. To do a project like this, you must have a lot of love in your life. So two questions. Who told you that? And why do you feel that way?
Dylan Marron: I was doing an event in the summer of 2020, and a moderator of the talk back after my talk, they told me that. And it clarified, something I’ve long said, is I’m so privileged to be able to do this project. I really love having these conversations. Not everyone is this lucky. And in fact, many of my closest friends, especially my closest friends who are women, and people of color and black women especially, don’t have the energy necessarily to be like, oh, yep. I want to talk to my worst attractors, because that is in fact how online hate breaks down, and they’re the people who are most targeted by online hate. So it’s a privilege that I have to be able to be like, this is something I want to do. And I had to release myself when I started moderating conversations between strangers who got into it with each other online on the podcast.
And so many of my friends who are women of color, queer women didn’t want to do this. They were like, we don’t want to go anywhere near this thing. You realize it’s a privilege? And so I think that’s one part of it. But in terms of the love, I have this really profound system of support from my husband, Todd. He is my home base. I can know that I can record what could be a truly challenging conversation with someone who has said something so vicious to me and know that I’m returning to my home base of Todd. And I think that affords me the ability to make this project and to move towards conflict. And of course, I have a lot of love in my life and I have a lot of love from my dad.
But I dedicate my book to my mom, because she’s a therapist, and for all of my life she really encouraged me to always see conflict, whether it was our conflict that we had with each other, the natural mother, son fights that happen, as like, oh, this could be a really cool launching point to understand what we just fought about. And so she always invited me to look at conflict head on. And her support and her teaching me that is, I think what allowed me to do this.
Debbie Millman: Dylan, the last thing I want to ask you about is a brand new gig you have. You recently joined the writing staff of the television show, Ted Lasso. What has that been like for you?
Dylan Marron: It’s been amazing. I mean, my work on it on the writing side is, I think effectively wrapped as of this recording. I always want to say there was an amazing, talented staff of writers who helped create this show before I came on. So I was simply lucky to come on board to this thing. But that I was invited to join what I’ve always thought of as this truly incredible show has been an honor, and an honor to experience and practice a new art form.
Debbie Millman: Well, I can’t wait to see what you’ve done with this TV show and can’t wait to watch season three.
Dylan Marron: Well, I can’t wait.
Debbie Millman: Dylan Marron, thank you so much for making so much work that matters. And thank you so much for joining me today on Design Matters.
Dylan Marron: Thank you so much for having me.
Debbie Millman: Dylan Marron’s book is Conversations With People Who Hate Me: 12 Things I Learned From Talking to Internet Strangers. And you could read more about all of his amazing work at dylanmarron.com. This is the 18th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters, and I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.