Two years ago, I stumbled across a site called Quora, a Q&A site with a lot of thoughtful, intelligent responses to all types of questions. Within days, I’d made my own account and started writing answers. Within weeks, I’d attracted a couple of followers. Then a couple more. The number slowly rose over the months, reaching fifty, one hundred, five hundred, one thousand. Except it didn’t stop. I kept writing answers and people kept reading them, more and more of them, pouring into the site from all over the world and paying attention to what I had to say.
I was confronted with a lot of feelings regarding my newfound popularity, but one of the main ones was shock. I hadn’t expected to become popular, ever, in any manner. I tend to be an introverted person, holing up when I get overwhelmed in the company of others, retreating for breaks, cherishing my free time. My escapes are writing, reading, drawing, and similar things that make my brain happy. Don’t get me wrong; I love spending time with people. I just also love being alone.
My first experience with any type of popularity was when I was twelve and I found a site called Wattpad and wrote a chapter book on it. It was pretty awful by most standards, though good for a twelve-year-old. It got 17,000 reads, which shocked and amazed me. And that, I thought, was the end of my internet fame. After that, other stories I published got virtually no attention at all. I was essentially ignored on other internet sites. I’d had my fifteen minutes of fame—if that, considering I’d gotten few upvotes on the stories and even fewer comments—and that was that.
And then I found Quora.
It came when I needed it and left me when I was done with it, and it was one of the greatest gifts in my life but also taught me some of my hardest lessons.
When I joined, it was just around six months after my cousin had been killed in a terrorist attack, and I was pretty shaken up. I was dealing with something I was way too young to confront, reeling from the sudden loss of my childhood innocence and struggling under the burden of grief and pain that had been shoved onto my shoulders.
I felt ignored, under-appreciated, forever invisible. Some baked goods, a lasagna or two, and then I had to return to school like everything was normal, even though a boy I’d grown up with was dead and I’d been at his funeral and the whole world was weird and wrong. People shouldn’t be laughing or smiling. I shouldn’t be expected to just move on with my life. My cousin was dead. I forgot to wish him a happy eighteenth birthday, and a month later, there was a bullet in his head and he’d never move again. How could I just keep going?
And then Quora floated in.
At first, I tried not to write about him, not to burden people with the information, but I found I couldn’t restrain myself. I needed people to support me in my grief, because I was so terribly alone, and the online community rose to wrap me in the cocoon of love and support that I so desperately needed.
I can never properly thank them for that, because there are too many people to thank and too many occasions in which to thank them. However, I hold so much esteem, admiration, and gratitude for them, that huge, nameless, faceless mass that rose up to give me compassion and guidance when I was suffering and then retreated without acknowledgement or proper thank-yous, because they just wanted to help someone in need.
And this was how I started—by giving to people who needed it and taking from people willing to give me kind words, building a community of people who loved me and supported me. It was the best part of my time on Quora, but it wasn’t over yet.
Because then more people started to follow me. And now I didn’t just have people following me; I had followers, a group of people who expected thoughtful answers and appropriate guidance. I was just a sixteen-year-old kid, but already adults were asking me questions about their lives and I was doing my best to answer them.
I found other people like me, people with expectations but also so many wonderful things in common. People who, like me, loved Harry Potter and grammar and being a nerd. Suddenly I wasn’t so alone anymore. There were people like me. And here, in this backwards world, we were the ones people looked up to—the nerdy, geeky teens in the pseudo-intellectual world. It was bizarre and amazing and so wonderfully unexpected, and I loved every second of it.
I don’t know exactly when or where it went wrong. One moment, I was making so many amazing new friends, meeting people everywhere I turned, receiving love and support, and the next moment the whole dynamic was changing. The following was getting out of hand, now past five thousand, demanding “face noods” (pictures of my face) and wanting to know my height and relationship status and where I lived. I took all my pictures down and tried to share less, but they pulled me back in.
Ten thousand followers. I was making a blog post every time I reached another thousand followers, writing as many answers as always, glued to my phone in the hallways, obsessed with checking every comment and message and spending so many hours on Quora that I began neglecting my homework.
Every time I finished checking my notifications, another would pop up—another comment I’d feel obligated to check, another message, another answer mentioning me, my name. People checking up on me. People writing about me—writing about me—because I was no longer a person. I was a public figure, a thing to be either praised like a god or insulted like devil spawn.
People called me the “Grammar Queen,” talked about me as if I was some unreachable princess, unattainable, indestructible, godlike. I was no god. I was a sixteen-year-old girl writing answers in my pajamas at one in the morning, pretending to be an adult but I wasn’t and I’m still not.
People called me a bitch, a whore, a dirty Jewish insect. They told me I should be gassed in Auschwitz, they called me a stupid teen who knew nothing about the world, naïve, inherently flawed. They said disgusting things about me and tried their best to tear me down.
Sometimes these people battled it out in comment sections. Sometimes I got tangled up in them, and the more I did, the more attention Quora’s moderation was paying me.
All of a sudden they were flagging me for violating their “Be Nice, Be Respectful” policy left and right. People were reporting me for violating policies I hadn’t violated, mass-reporting and downvoting every single answer I pumped out, which was sometimes one answer in a day and sometimes twenty in two hours. I got a BNBR (Be Nice, Be Respectful violation) on an answer calling Voldemort (as in, from Harry Potter) an idiot; a BNBR for saying that men and women were biologically different (because apparently, to be equal, your anatomies need to be the same?); a BNBR for saying I didn’t support the Black Lives Matter movement because I don’t support their endorsement of BDS. I was getting BNBRs on anything that could, in any manner, be construed as anything less than angel-perfect.
Twenty thousand followers. My answers were routinely getting several thousand views, sometimes ten thousand, sometimes thirty, one hundred thousand, half a million, and one or two almost reaching a million. A popular answer meant a thousand upvotes, then five thousand, then ten, then thirty. The attention was so far out of hand that I started telling people I couldn’t check all of my comments anymore, but I still did because I couldn’t bear to miss out on anything.
I was so obsessed with keeping up with the online community that I missed out on my real life. I didn’t even remember what it felt like to actually walk down the hallways at school, because I was always so engrossed in my phone. My grades were suffering. My whole life was being devoured by this online community that demanded so much, too much, of my time. People begging me for advice, a deluge of questions descending from everywhere and nowhere, more expectations, more love, more hate. I was living a double life, but most of my attention and time was being devoted to the one that wasn’t real.
Twenty-eight thousand followers. I got tangled up with the wrong person. People started to harass me constantly, endlessly. Disgusting things were written about me, more disgusting than ever before. I’d made a mistake again, but this time, there were too many people to see it and criticize me without knowing the full story, too much attention, publicity. It couldn’t be ignored or glossed over, no matter how many times I apologized, and each time I tried to address it, I seemed to make it worse. More messages pouring in, more hate mail. I was seventeen now, confused, angry, and alone despite all of the people claiming they would support me always. Perhaps they did, but it didn’t feel like it when I was that far into the madness.
Eventually, I just tried my best to ignore the people trying so hard to tear me down. And when that didn’t work, I reported it to moderation. Once, twice, three times. Finally, I was noticed. The issue would be addressed. This would all be over, and then things could go back to normal.
We were both banned.
I lost my friends. My community. The people who’d sworn to stick by me always, my family, some people whom I’d actually met in real life. I had some of their cell phone numbers, email addresses, but it wasn’t like before when we were all together and interacting almost daily in comment sections, when we were catching up on each others’ lives and reading one another’s answers.
On the other hand, I was happier. I could enjoy things I’d missed out on for so long. I became more involved in my life. I reminded myself what it was like to look at the sky, close my eyes, and take a deep breath. I didn’t have to deal with constant criticism, eyes on me everywhere, people either hating me or worshiping me but never treating me like a real human being with flesh and blood and a beating heart. I could just be me, free to make mistakes, say and do stupid things, without a crowd constantly watching and judging my every movement, every stroke of the keyboard.
Now I’m happy to be obscure again. I understand my worth, my place in the world. I have more friends than I used to, friends I met on Quora, friends I can trust with my life and know that they’ll always be there for me. Sure, I don’t have twenty-eight thousand followers anymore. But the truth is, I don’t need thousands of people rooting for me to know I’m worth something. I just need a few good friends. I found them in that twenty-eight thousand, and I know enough now not to let them go.