Multiple times each day, Dylan Marron opens his phone and reads a hate message. It might be about his voice, or his support for Black Lives Matter, or his sexual orientation. No matter the subject, a personal attack from a stranger always feels terrible. “You feel like total shit, that a human thinks this about you,” says Dylan Marron, creator of videos like “Every Single Word”, which cuts movies down to the words spoken by actors of color, and “Sitting in Bathrooms With Trans People”. “A message like, ‘You’re the reason this country is dividing itself’—you start thinking, what if they’re right?” Given the perennial watchword “don’t feed the trolls”, most people don’t even respond to their harasser, let alone call them on the phone—but that’s exactly what Marron did.
After receiving that Facebook private message in October 2016, he spent an hour on the phone with Josh, an 18-year-old who had also written that Marron’s opinions were “awful” and that “being gay is a sin”. The call was transformative for them both: They talked about their backgrounds, their beliefs, their similar experiences of being bullied in high school. “I thought, whoa, this is the voice of a human,” says Marron. “I wished I had recorded that conversation.”
A few months later, he called Josh back—this time, recording the conversation for his new podcast, Conversations With People Who Hate Me, which launches today. The show, the first nonfiction podcast from the Night Vale Presents network, features Marron (who voices Carlos on Welcome to Night Vale) in half-hour Skype calls with people who have sent him hateful messages online. “I wanted to put in the world an example of two people talking, without the goal of agreeing with each other, but also without the goal of shutting each other down,” he says.
The brave—or foolhardy—may try to engage with trolls in online forums, but it rarely stays civil for long. That’s exactly why Marron uses the phone: to strip away the safe veneer of online anonymity and make it a discussion between people rather than handles. “There’s a lot of humanity in a comments section, but it’s all into microphones, shouting out words,” says Marron. “I wanted to take those topics and turn them into conversations.”
For the 10 episodes of Conversations With People Who Hate Me, Marron reached out to about 20 people, and has spent hours on the phone with people who have criticized everything from his work to his beliefs, to his sexual orientation. He has found the conversations surprisingly pleasant—and empowering. “People are disarmed, de-fanged,” he says of the calls. “When you get people to tell you why they see the world how they do, and you can disagree with them in the moment rather than yelling at them, they’ll consider it more.”
His goal isn’t to change anyone’s mind, but rather to understand where people are coming from. “If we keep retreating into these chambers where we’re just with people we agree with, then we’ll only know how to catapult cannons over the wall,” he says. “We’ll never know how to walk to the line and shake hands and have a conversation.”
Conversations isn’t the first time a podcast has confronted harassment in this way. In “Ask Not For Whom The Bell Trolls; It Trolls for Thee”, a 2015 segment on This American Life, writer and critic Lindy West calls a man who has been impersonating her dead father on Twitter. It’s hard to listen to the terrible tweets written under the @PaulWestDonezo account, but encouraging to hear the conversation between them: It’s tense and emotional, and shockingly productive.
Unlike West’s conversation with her now-reformed troll, Conversations With People Who Hate Me doesn’t bring such easy resolution; by the end of a given episode, neither Marron nor his guest have changed their beliefs. But they have acknowledged the humanity of the other side. Personal, thoughtful podcasts can remind online commenters that the recipient is a real person—and can even remind listeners that trolls are people, too.