Sarah Spain is a working journalist. She’s busy with podcasts and radio shows and writing stories for ESPN.
Last Sunday, she took part in a video shoot with less-than-pleasant subject matter, and afterward, she rushed to her next appointment—to take engagement photos with her fiance. It was a whirlwind Sunday, filled with vitriol and happiness, people showing the worst sides of themselves and people preparing to share their happiness together.
Even though Twitter users have been sending Spain hateful messages most of her professional life, she didn’t have much time to think about the impact of the #MoreThanMean video when she filmed her part last Sunday. But on Tuesday, the video of random men reading real, vile tweets to Spain and sports journalist Julie DiCaro directly to their faces debuted on the Just Not Sports YouTube channel.
And it went viral, with more than 1.1 million views in 24 hours.
The video is uncomfortable and heartbreaking and enraging—and might make you want to close your eyes and shut your ears—but that wasn’t the point. The point was to open people’s eyes and make them listen.
“The reaction is almost universally positive, as far as people getting a different perspective,” Spain told the Daily Dot on Wednesday afternoon. “I think people who knew [the harassment] went on—even my friends who I’ve commiserated to—didn’t really get it. They didn’t realize how awful the comments were. The expectation was that people would see it in a different way after visually seeing it, with these men struggling to get the words out.”
Since Spain gets harassing tweets so often, she rarely stops to think about the wickedness of the words that creep across her Twitter feed. But when the Just Not Sports video was released, she was taken aback by how many people were shocked.
And they should be. When anonymous Twitter users send messages to a rape survivor saying they hope she gets raped again, or that her dog gets killed, it’s impossible to believe anybody on earth could write something like that. But for a number of female sports writers, reading that rage is their everyday existence.
“It’s really unfortunate that we’ve become so accustomed to this type of thing,” Bloomberg sports writer Kavitha Davidson told the Daily Dot in 2015 in a story about the online harassment of female sports journalists. “It’s just kind of normalized when it comes from fans.”
But what’s not normal is for men to sit in front of a hate-tweet recipient and read the hate directly to her face. At first, Brad Burke—one of the hosts of the Just Not Sports podcast—thought the men believed the tweets they were going to read were in the style of Jimmy Kimmel’s humorous “Mean Tweets” segment.
“The first three or four tweets on the page were funny,” Burke told Forbes. “Then it takes a turn and the air gets sucked out of the room. Seeing it in person was unbelievable—the way they moved in the chair, the way they paused and couldn’t make eye contact anymore. It was crazy.”
Said one man to Spain: “I’m having trouble looking at you when I’m saying these things.” Spain’s response: “Mm-hmm.”
And that was another interesting aspect of the video. Some on Twitter had sympathy for the men who were clearly so uncomfortable. It’s not an unreasonable response, because clearly, it couldn’t have been an easy task for these men to relay to a woman that some anonymous troll hopes she’s hit in the head by a hockey puck.
But Spain’s reaction to the men’s embarrassment was fascinating. When one man declares, “There’s a lot of C-words in here,” Spain’s first thought wasn’t to comfort him or tell him that it was OK and not to worry. She agrees with him and says, “There’s a lot of C words in there, yeah.”
“People don’t believe women,” Spain said. “But in this clip, instead of just hearing women read the tweets or talking about it, you’re seeing the men say it and you’re seeing their reaction. You’re seeing the power of it. The emotions of the guys are what draw so much feeling out of the clip. You need to see it emotionally affect the men.”
And from there, perhaps something will change. Maybe people will be kinder. Maybe the Twitter vitriol will give way to conversation. Maybe females on social media won’t be subject to this every day of their lives.
Or maybe we have a long way to go.