Digital Empathy

How the Real Teens Behind “The Fault in Our Stars” Are Bringing Empathy to the Internet

They call themselves “nerdfighters“—and they’re unlike any movement you’ve seen before.

“I’m proud to be a Nerdfighter in part because I wish so much I could have been one in seventh grade.”

Those are the words of John Green, author of the number-one New York Times bestselling novel The Fault in Our Stars, source of the film out this weekend. John is one of the founders of the millions-strong online movement called Nerdfighters, and the author’s success (he once held four spots on the NY Times best seller list at the same time) and anticipation for the film belie not just Green’s popularity among teens, but also the desire for an earnest, emotionally gratifying Internet experience of the kind offered by the Nerdfighters.

Nerdfighters are bringing kindness and empathy to the native environment of its teenage members—the Internet.

So, what’s a “Nerdfighter” and why does Green wish he could have been one? Nerdfighters are a group of mostly teenagers who spend a lot of time on the Internet, especially Youtube, making videos and participating in their brand of social change, which includes everything from spreading anti-bullying messages to raising money for charities. They inhabit a digital neighborhood they refer to as “Nerdfighteria,” and communicate in a language that may leave the uninitiated scratching their heads.

According to the Nerdfighters, there exists a certain amount of “world suck” that can be combated with “awesome.” To this end, Nerdfighters created the Foundation to Decrease World Suck, which every year holds The Project 4 Awesome, a fundraising competition to raise money for organizations decreasing suck around the world.

This is the language of the Nerdfighters, and it is used wholly without irony. Nerdfighters are “made of awesome” and work together to “fight against world suck.” The motto is DFTBA: Don’t Forget To Be Awesome. Part of being in Nerdfighteria means understanding the language, the hand-signals, and the countless inside-references.

What does all this—suck and awesome and DFTBA—mean? Nerdfighters rarely spell things out with much clarity; “We just want to make cool stuff with people we like,” John once said of the Nerdfighters. But one can get a sense of the community by looking at their work. Last year’s Project 4 Awesome, a Youtube-based fundraiser held in December, raised more than $850,000 in two days for Doctors Without Borders, Books for Africa,, Women for Women International, and many others organizations.

But the Nerdfighters are doing more than fundraising, sharing Youtube videos, and passing along in-jokes. They are bringing kindness and empathy to the native environment of its teenage members—the Internet—a place that too often lacks both.

According to the Nerdfighters, there exists a certain amount of “world suck” that can be combated with “awesome.”

The Internet can be a rough place for anyone. But for kids who’ve lived their entire lives in the years since the invention of the Internet, whose identities are intertwined with their online life—author Devorah Heitner calls them “digital natives”—the potential dangers of the Internet are compounded. It’s easy to get lost there, where “30 kids can be one kid and no one knows it,” says Heitner. Stories of Internet bullying and harassment and isolation are common, and so too are the terrible consequences that result, including acting out in violence and suicide.

According to a PEW Study, 90 percent of teens have observed, and ignored, cruel behavior online. The cruelty is increased for users with a female-sounding name, who are 25 times more likely to receive malicious messages after putting content online.

These kinds of online behaviors have left a lot of kids searching for compassion and understanding, looking for friends who will accept them and tell them they are loved. But the Internet is not only a source of discrimination, bullying, and anonymous harassment. It also the place where a teenage girl with cancer can live her last months sharing Youtube videos with thousands of interested and responsive viewers; who could inspire a novelist and leave a legacy of support for the families of children with terminal cancer.

This is what it means to be made of awesome in Nerdfighteria. To be a part of something that gives to others,  while providing that sense of intimacy and inclusion that comes with creating and sharing a language and cultural identity with other people.

A brief history of Nerdfighteria

Nerdfighteria is the creation of John Green and his brother, the environmental blogger and musician Hank Green. In 2007, the Greens dubbed themselves “the Vlogbrothers” and started a Youtube video blogging channel called Brotherhood 2.0. The original Brother 2.0 videos are short—four minutes or less—and consist of one brother looking into the camera speaking directly to the other. Hank, a fast-talking, hand-waving science guy, made a strong contrast to John’s quieter, more pensive presence.

The brothers cover all kinds of subjects, with an emphasis on the personal and the geeky. John would discuss the progress of his latest novel just as often as he would go on a rant about the economic waste involved in keeping the penny in circulation. Hank wrote songs about Harry Potter and discussed the nutritional information of Peeps candy.

What made the Vlogbrothers special was not the subject matter, but the commitment Hank and John gave to the project, and, by extension, to each other. Hank and John laid their relationship bare for all viewers who wanted to observe, and it wasn’t hard, right from the start, to see that this was something special.

Esther made videos through the last month of her life; she blogged with grace and humor and remarkable wit.

The show quickly attracted a group of devoted online fans, who aided the creation of Vlogbrothers videos by participating in book clubs and challenges the Greens offered. Some even became “secret siblings,” by creating their own videos. After John found an arcade game he mistakenly believed to be called Nerdfighters (it was called Aero Fighters), the name was adopted. Brotherhood 2.0 had found its rallying cry.

Today the Vlogbrothers Youtube channel has more than 2 million followers, and the educational channel the brothers started, Crash Course, has another 2 million. On Twitter, the Greens together have almost 3 million followers.

It’s not an overstatement to say the Greens are the leaders of a global online movement of millions of teenagers dedicated to the noble goal of “decreasing world suck.” And given John Green’s popularity and the Vlogbrothers’ success building a devoted online following, it’s little surprise to see such high levels of anticipation (the film sold more advanced tickets than any drama in the history of the ticket-selling service Fandango) accompanying the release of The Fault in Our Stars.

Esther Earl and The Fault in our Stars

The Fault in our Stars is the story of a teenage girl named Hazel Grace Lancaster, her relationship with a boy named Augustus Waters, and her life with thyroid cancer. The book was also, at least in part, inspired by John Green’s mostly online friendship with a girl named Esther Earl.

Esther was a teenager and video blogger. In 2010, when she was 16, she died of thyroid cancer. She was an early member of the Nerdfighters, and her presence is still felt strongly across the Internet. Watching her videos, one quickly gets a sense of Esther’s personality. She made silly videos where she listed the objects in her bedroom, or celebrated Archie Comics, or explained her time-traveling experiences as the smoke-monster from the television show Lost. She was a goofy and warm and vibrant teenager, fluent in the language of the Internet.

(Esther’s videos are available on the Youtube Channel HELLO THERE, where she posted videos under the name Cookie4Monster4).

Esther’s videos detailed her experience with thyroid cancer, but it’s clear her cancer did not define her. She talked about her family often and with reverence. After her diagnosis they moved back to the U.S. from France because she could receive better treatment here. She detailed life with an oxygen tube running into her nostrils, “which are in your nose;” she named her oxygen machine “Denmark,” and explained how her pain medication was delivered via “PICC line” (a tube running directly to her heart through a vein in her arm), which “makes it feel like I can breathe. Which is a really good feeling.”

“When I put myself back in time to when I was being bullied, none of those things would have helped me.”

Esther made videos through the last month of her life; she blogged with grace and humor and remarkable wit.

John Green has contact with millions of teenagers, but he developed an especially close friendship with Esther, whom he met in 2008 at a Harry Potter Conference. Though John and Esther made only a handful of videos in which they spoke directly to one another, the effect they had upon each other is clear.

With the release of The Fault in our Stars, John has spoken in more detail about their relationship.

We stayed in touch after the [Harry Potter] conference, but I never really understood how sick she was. But we were talking one day when she was in the ICU, and it slowly came out. After that we were much closer because I was much more conscious of how little time I might have with her. She was just a great friend. You know that creator-fan relationship that often emerges? It wasn’t like that. It was just a friendship.

Before she died, John asked Esther what she wanted the Nerdfighters to do to remember her on her birthday, August 3—now a Nerdfighter holiday called “Esther Day.” She said she wanted her day to be about “family and love,” and telling loved ones you love them.

In a video he made shortly after her death, John remembered Esther as an inspiration and a friend:

She wasn’t an angel, or a model of perfection or anything. She was a person. She was a teenager … And though Esther has died we will continue to do projects with her, because it will be when we work to decrease world suck and when we share our love with others that Esther will be with us most.

I highlight the story of Esther Earl and her relationship with John Green because it captures beautifully the unblinking idealism and empathy of the Nerdfighters. It’s easy for a digital foreigner like me—I, like the Greens, grew up before the age of the Internet—to mistake this sincerity for something else, something trite, shallow, or insincere. But such concerns fade once you realize how deeply committed the Nerdfighters are to being compassionate and earnest and empathetic.

If empathy is the capacity to understand and share the feelings and emotions of someone else, a relationship like that of John Green and Esther Earl demonstrates its digital form. As Heitner puts it, digital empathy is expressed toward the people one encounters online.

Digital empathy includes “empathy for the person you’re writing about,” Heitner said, “for the person that reads your post, for the person who sees the picture, for the person featured in the picture you’re sharing.” It means extending one’s empathy not only to the individual you’re interacting with, but for everyone else who might be affected by the life you put online.

Digital empathy can look like two brothers, who, by speaking to one another on Youtube, create a community capable of raising $850,000 dollars for charity in two days. It’s a teenage girl, who in the weeks before her death, made a video thanking a world-famous novelist for a short but powerful friendship and telling him: “Saying you love someone is a good thing. And I love you, John.”

The Fault in our Stars, John Green’s novel inspired by and dedicated to Esther Earl, is a memento of the digital empathy embodied in Nerdfighteria. This weekend, millions of teenagers and other people will see it, and it almost doesn’t matter if it is good or bad; it is clearly made of awesome.

Nerdfighters create safe spaces online

Stories like Earl’s attract teens deeply because they’re about creating, by choice, online spaces, like the customized Nerdfighters social network, where people who are bullied or otherwise in need of support can safely express their emotions and take care of each other.

It’s not a perfect environment, and not all Nerdfighters are committed to the anti-bullying cause. But in its origins the Nerdfighter community was a place for outcasts and awkward kids; those who are most likely to be bullied physically and online. Both John and Hank have made videos about their own experiences being bullied in their youth, and offering support for others in similar situations.

In one video, Hank describes the kind of advice kids often hear from adults. “There was lots of shouts of ‘It gets better,’ and ‘Stay strong’ and ‘We love you,’” Hank says. “But when I put myself back in time to when I was being bullied, none of those things would have helped me. Here’s how I dealt with bullying. I cried. I hated myself. I hated my life. I didn’t deal with it. I survived it. But I never dealt with it.”

John tells his own story of “Middle School Misery,” of his school days as not merely a nerd, “but a stupid nerd, the worst kind of combo,” and how scared and powerless he felt, and how he fantasized about revenge.

These words are reminiscent of things that Heitner says happen too often online, where the cruelty that exists in real life may be extended, documented, and shared. Kids feel powerless and scared and are looking for someone to share with, someone who understands what they’re experiencing. Someone to empathize.

It’s truly rare and radical, especially as teenagers’ identities become more intertwined with the Internet: an empathetic, meaningful online community.

Which is why John Green wishes he could have been a Nerdfighter in his youth. “I’ve found that sometimes, often even, kids are capable of tremendous kindness and generosity,” John Green says. “In fact that’s been the hallmark of the Nerdfighter Community for over seven years now. There are always Nerdfighters who will listen to you if you will listen back. And that is truly awesome.”

More than the fundraising campaigns and the secret language and fawning teenage fans, this is what Nerdfighters bring to the world. It’s something truly rare and radical, especially as teenagers’ identities become more intertwined with the Internet: an empathetic, meaningful online community. Nerdfighteria isn’t perfect and it certainly is not for everyone, but it gives teenagers the chance to find other teenagers and to build something special.