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Auntie SparkNotes: The Internet Says I Exploited My Prom Date

Dear Auntie,

I’m graduating high school, and I volunteer at a place where special-needs kids between ages five and eighteen are taken care of. There’s this one guy—we’ll call him Billy—who’s my age and has cerebral palsy. He told me that he would love to go to a prom. It just so happened that my prom was coming up, so I invited him. We had a grand time, and he was so happy.

I thought this moment was really precious, so I made a post on the Internet about it to share it. I got a lot of comments saying how sweet this was, but then I started getting dozens of comments like these:

“Hooray! You’re a good person! Here’s your trophy, attention seeker.”

“Billy is a person, not a prize. Take this post down.”

“Please, stop humoring us. I thought you were better than this. How is Billy gonna be rewarded for all the likes that YOU’RE getting?”

It’s not because they hate disabled people and think they don’t deserve a prom. Quite the opposite. They said that by posting a picture of myself with Billy, I was just virtue-signaling. I explained that this wasn’t my intention, but somebody replied, “That doesn’t matter. You’re exploiting Billy for likes. Nobody in this world has that much of a golden heart, and as much as you think you do, you actually don’t. That’s just being naive, as if you’re eight years old instead of eighteen. Act your age and THINK about what you do.”

I was crying after an hour of reading comments. Is it wrong to do things like invite disabled people to prom because it wouldn’t be genuine? I didn’t mean it in a bad way. Or, at least, I thought I did. It felt genuine to me, but maybe it actually wasn’t? And although I didn’t consider this before posting the picture, I can understand why a lot of self-absorbed people would post themselves going to prom with someone like Billy to get clicks. Was this wrong for me to invite Billy or make the post? Am I exploitive and don’t know it?

Oh, for the love of… well, we’ll get to that part in a second. But let’s start here, Sparkler, with the necessary framework for understanding what happened here—because what happened isn’t about you. It’s about the internet, doing what the internet does.

Because as much as Online is a weird and wonderful world full of memes and marvels, it is also, simultaneously, a gathering place for the hordes of grasping malcontents whose only pleasure in life is the malicious, meager thrill they get from dumping 280-character turds into the timelines of random strangers who seem just a little too content with their lives.

And if you happen to be one of these people—if, upon reading a story about a 17 year-old girl who went to prom with a disabled friend who wouldn’t otherwise have had a chance to attend one, your first response is an urgent and fevered desire to take that girl down a peg and make her regret what she did—then I would like to politely suggest that you remove your hands from the keyboard, make them into a pair of tight fists, and punch yourself in the face until a) you’ve had an epiphany about the pathetic wastefulness of spending your time this way, or b) you lose consciousness. Either way, you’ll have done something productive.

And as for you, sweet pea, here’s the thing: I don’t know what you were thinking and feeling when you invited Billy to prom. But you do! You are the foremost expert on your inner motivations, and you know whether you were secretly hoping to produce a piece of viral inspiration porn, or whether you just wanted to share your prom experience with someone you knew would appreciate it. But more to the point, you are the only one who knows that. And those who claim otherwise, like the jerk who suggested that you were deluding yourself because “nobody in this world” could ever do what you did out of genuine kindness? I want you to pay close attention to this next part, sweet pea. In fact, if you take only one thing away from this response, please let it be this:

That person is telling you nothing about who you are, and everything about who he is.

When he talks about the selfish nature of all humans everywhere, he’s telling you how he sees the world. And when he scolds you for being naive and juvenile, what he is actually saying is, “How dare you disabuse me of the notion that my toxic worldview is justified?” Of course he doesn’t believe in other people’s good intentions—he can’t, because he doesn’t have any himself. And when he catches sight of someone whose existence suggests that not everyone is so rotten inside, it makes him insecure and angry.

Unfortunately, the internet makes it very easy for that insecure, angry person to sling his toxic comments at anyone unlucky enough to catch his attention. And since that’s not something that’s going to change, you’ll have to decide for yourself whether sharing your life on social media is worth it, knowing that there are always going to be people out there who show up in the comments just to dump on you. Some people find it easy enough to ignore (and block) the jerks who have nothing to contribute to the conversation — and despite what those same jerks might tell you, you’re not obligated to listen to every internet rando who shows up to offer an unkind, unsolicited, and uninformed critique of your character. But you also wouldn’t be the first person to decide that the downsides outweigh the benefits, and to share your stories and experiences with a smaller circle of people who know you, whom you trust and respect.

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