Author and Music Star Simon Tam: “Here are 5 things we can each do to make social media and the internet a kinder and more tolerant place”

Yitzi Weiner
Aug 9, 2019 · 16 min read

Rather than thinking about technology as a tool, we should think of it as a symbol. How does it represent society? I often like to think that social media is like the world’s biggest cocktail party — and obviously, some of the patrons act like they’ve had too much to drink. Changing the dynamics of the party won’t actually change the people. We need to develop a new protocol — one that is based in compassion and empathy. And we need to first begin with ourselves by learning to engage with those who we disagree with on a regular basis out of compassion. This is an opportunity to practice patience, to be instantly connected with a variety of perspectives. Many of us assume that Americans are divided on our values — right vs. left, conservative or liberal, urban mentality against rural. The reality is that we don’t have different values, we simply have different interpretations and experience a different emphasis of values we already share. But how can you learn that if you don’t see how others see or hear about their experiences, even if they’re shared in a distasteful fashion? The standard for progress shouldn’t be if you win a debate or argument, but rather, if you find new ways of developing compassion in the face of opposition.


a part of my interview series about the things we can each do to make social media and the internet a kinder and more tolerant place, I had the pleasure to interview Simon Tam. Simon is an author, musician, activist, and troublemaker. Tam is best known as the founder and bassist of The Slants, the world’s first and only all-Asian American dance rock band. He is the founder of The Slants Foundation, an organization dedicated to providing scholarships and mentorship to artist-activists of color. Tam has been a keynote speaker, performer, and presenter at TEDx, SXSW, Comic-Con, The Department of Defense, Stanford University, and over 1,200 events across four continents. He has set a world record by appearing on the TEDx stage 13 times. His work has been highlighted in over 3,000 media features across 150 countries including The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, NPR, BBC, New York Times, and Rolling Stone. In 2016, Simon joined President Barack Obama, George Takei, Jeremy Lin, and other celebrities in the #ActToChange campaign to fight bullying. He recently helped expand civil liberties through winning a unanimous victory at the Supreme Court of the United States for a landmark case, Matal v. Tam, in 2017. Tam designed one of the first college-accredited social media and digital marketing certificates in the United States. His approach to cultural competency in marketing has been taught to hundreds of Fortune 500 companies. Bloomberg Businessweek called him a “Social Media Rockstar.” Forbes says his resume is a “paragon of completeness.” He has received many accolades for his work, including: The Mark T. Banner award from the American Bar Association, the Hugh M Hefner First Amendment Award, Milestone Case of the Year from Managing IP Magazine, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ovation Gala, and Distinguished Alum Award from Marylhurst University. In 2019, he published his memoir, “Slanted: How an Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court.” You can find Simon’s appearances and writing at www.simontam.org


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I’m probably best known as the founder and bassist of an Asian American band called The Slants. We recently won a landmark case at the United States Supreme Court on freedom of expression and I published a memoir about the story this year. But in addition to being an author and musician, I’ve actually spent a lot of my time working in technology and communications.

I started using the Internet in the early 1990s as a way to build community and launch projects, including my own recording label and promotions company. As social media entered the horizon, it became even more relevant to my work as an artist since it allowed me to reach audiences in a totally different way. However, I could see a strong contrast in how people would communicate online in ways that they never would with face to face interactions — sometimes, it led to problematic behavior such as trolling and bullying. Over the last ten years, I started working on issues like online bullying and cybercide as well as have led trainings to help others have healthier, more productive ways of addressing hate on and offline. Of course, this also included using my band (The Slants) as a platform to reach others with these ideas.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Most people know me for my trademark case. It was a legal battle that spanned eight years, taking me all the way to the U.S Supreme Court. It began as a simple procedure of trying to register The Slants as a trademark, something that the U.S Trademark Office denied under an archaic and fairly obscure bit of law that alleged our band name was disparaging to Asians — despite the fact that our band was comprised entirely of Asian Americans and engaged in anti-racism work in our community. We appealed using academics, executive directors of numerous social justice organizations, dictionary and language experts, and independent national surveys but Trademark Office continued their denial, using sources like UrbanDictionary.com to do so. Eventually, we argued that the law was unconstitutional — and every single justice of the Supreme Court agreed.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first had the idea for The Slants, I saw all kinds of unique opportunities that I thought would be perfect for the band, including performing at anime conventions, opportunities that I didn’t want to miss. The problem was that it was taking me much longer to get a lineup of musicians together than I wanted. So I put together a website that just used photos of actors from Hong Kong to represent “the band” and began contacting these events. Much to my surprise, I started getting gigs a year out even though I didn’t have any band members — they were just so excited about having an Asian band involved that they didn’t need to hear any songs or know anything else about us.

It would have been a disaster if I couldn’t get the band together in time — and possibly ruin relationships for the future! Luckily, I was able to hire musicians as well as write and record an album quickly enough to make it in time for the first show. Sometimes, the adage “Fake it ’til you make it” is true — but I learned to be much more careful in the future of how I’d represent the band when looking for opportunities. It’s good to have a compelling vision, but it needs to be built on a solid foundation.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I recently started a non-profit organization, The Slants Foundation, that will provide scholarships and mentoring to artists of color who’d like to incorporate community activism into their work. It’s really important to me to help folks from marginalized communities find their voice through the arts while working to advance justice in some kind of way. I’m hoping to build sustainable systems for art and activism.

In addition to the non-profit, I’m working on an album that will feature up-and-coming Asian American talent throughout the country. I wanted to use our platform to help bring more attention to a new generation of artists.

Finally, I’m helping to compose songs on a musical that is being developed that is based on my life and the band’s journey to the Supreme Court. It’s fun and artistically stretching me in all kinds of ways but what I’m most excited about is creating more roles for actors of color on the Broadway stage.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. Have you ever been publicly shamed or embarrassed on social media? Can you share with our readers what that experience felt like?

Unfortunately, I’ve been the target of a number of campaigns online. This has included parody accounts made of me, doxing of my personal information, and death threats. It was humiliating, frustrating, and terrifying — I would never wish that upon anyone. It would cause great anxiety, loss of sleep, and paranoia for me and my loved ones. The most difficult part of the experience was worrying that it would happen to my family or close friends. I never wanted them to experience any fallout from my activism work.

What did you do to shake off that negative feeling?

When you’ve been threatened online, there’s almost always a low level feeling of stress and anxiety that seems to be aggravated with social media. The presence is constant. I’ve found that it’s can be reduced by spending less time in front of a screen and being very proactive about addressing privacy issues when doing so. For example, I regularly remove my addresses and information from any public sites. I also remove tags or connections with family members when possible and I never allow location tracking.

To be honest, I don’t know if the feeling ever gets completely lost. However, it’s important to not let that kind of thing consume you and overtake other areas of your life.

Have you ever posted a comment on social media that you regretted because you felt it was too harsh or mean?

I have definitely regretted things I’ve posted online, especially when done so out of frustrated, anger, or the heat of the moment. These things happen, especially if we don’t build a level of self-awareness to realize how comments can be interpreted differently without the same kind of context or ability to explain that one would have in person.

Can you describe the evolution of your decisions? Why did you initially write the comment, and why did you eventually regret it?

I think the worst circumstances involve a stubbornness of wanting to be right instead of conceding or approaching a heated exchange with compassion. Our egos are terrible and fragile that don’t really do much for us. In every instance of me writing something too harsh, it had to do with me being selfish, a lack of empathy, or just not taking the extra few seconds to consider how it could be interpreted — and if I wanted that particular exchange to forever captured on the Internet. The realization that I have written something that I would regret would usually come after some self-reflection or when there was anxiety and anger waiting for a response. When those kinds of feelings accompany an exchange, it’s usually best to reconsider our course of action.

When one reads the comments on Youtube or Instagram, or the trending topics on Twitter, a great percentage of them are critical, harsh, and hurtful. The people writing the comments may feel like they are simply tapping buttons on a keyboard, but to the one on the receiving end of the comment, it is very different. This may be intuitive, but I feel that it will be instructive to spell it out. Can you help illustrate to our readers what the recipient of a public online critique might be feeling?

When someone is being attacked online, it could feel like an onslaught that is aggravated every time a new notification comes. Whether the criticism is warranted or not, it’s important to realize how our words can come across, especially if the recipient is tired, frustrated, or in a state of depression. We might feel that the words are in jest or that they are deserved, but the force of language depends on intention, context, and interpretation — if any of these are broken, it could have significant unintended consequences. Over the last decade, we’ve seen an increase of suicide rates that have been caused by humiliation or bullying specifically from the Internet.

Our choice of language is a primary moral choice: we can choose to uplift, to speak truth to power, to create change that is driven by compassion and an idea of justice…or we can use our words to burn bridges, end relationships, and cause great pain. Just as criticizing someone in public can significantly more embarrassing or hurtful than a private discussion, that pain can be magnified when it is being shared with an online community.

Do you think a verbal online attacks feel worse or less than a verbal argument in “real life”? How are the two different?

Verbal online attacks feel different than those offline. With the former, those attacks are often repeated and revisited every time the victim logs on or there’s an additional exchange. With the latter, individuals have the opportunity to get visual cues such as tone of voice and body language or they can simply walk away and cool off without push notifications or others being involved.

What long term effects can happen to someone who was shamed online?

Someone who is shamed online is subject to anxiety, paranoia, depression. Over time, those feelings can be detrimental to mental and emotional health. In some extreme cases, the victim creates self-harm by lashing out at others or taking their own lives. In recent years, repeated harassment (online and offline) has even driven some individuals inflict violence on others through mass-shootings.

Many people who troll others online, or who leave harsh comments, can likely be kind and sweet people in “real life”. These people would likely never publicly shout at someone in a room filled with 100 people. Yet, on social media, when you embarrass someone, you are doing it in front of thousands of even millions of people, and it is out there forever. Can you give 3 or 4 reasons why social media tends to bring out the worst in people; why people are meaner online than they are in person?

Social media trends can bring out the worst in people because that kind of behavior is rewarded online. The social currency of the Internet is attention, especially validation for our words and actions by way of likes, sharing, or other reactions. In that sense, harassment of others can become like a sport. Witty retorts, especially those that get others upset, can be shared again and again.

Some people also feel like there’s less accountability for actions online than in person because they feel like they are only interacting with a screen rather than individuals in person. They might feel safer because of the lack of physical presence from those that they are aggravating.

Finally, social media and the Internet has created filter bubbles that socially trains individuals to cluster into isolated tribes. In other words, the content you see online is meant to cater to your perspective so major world events, information, and news will be skewed towards your personal bias. That’s created more division because views become more extreme rather than balanced, nuanced, or informed. Users don’t see opinions or ideas from those that they disagree with unless the context is in an argument. We are trained to see anyone with an opposing opinion as an enemy (or at the very least, an outsider) instead of someone within the tribe who we know shared our same values.

If you had the power to influence thousands of people about how to best comment and interact online, what would you suggest to them? What are your “5 things we should each do to help make social media and the internet, a kinder and more tolerant place”? Can you give a story or an example for each?

Rather than thinking about technology as a tool, we should think of it as a symbol. How does it represent society? I often like to think that social media is like the world’s biggest cocktail party — and obviously, some of the patrons act like they’ve had too much to drink. Changing the dynamics of the party won’t actually change the people. We need to develop a new protocol — one that is based in compassion and empathy. And we need to first begin with ourselves by learning to engage with those who we disagree with on a regular basis out of compassion. This is an opportunity to practice patience, to be instantly connected with a variety of perspectives. Many of us assume that Americans are divided on our values — right vs. left, conservative or liberal, urban mentality against rural. The reality is that we don’t have different values, we simply have different interpretations and experience a different emphasis of values we already share. But how can you learn that if you don’t see how others see or hear about their experiences, even if they’re shared in a distasteful fashion? The standard for progress shouldn’t be if you win a debate or argument, but rather, if you find new ways of developing compassion in the face of opposition.

I believe that individuals should take a moment and ask questions instead of making assumptions about the person we’re in disagreement with. Before you buy into a label or stereotype about someone, even if is one that is self-imposed and especially if it is one that is in direct conflict with your own beliefs, ask questions before you make assumptions.

A few years ago, I got into a heated discussion about racism in America. It was spurred by recent news of violence against black men, most notably with Eric Garner, an unarmed New Yorker, who was strangled to death by a police officer. The person I was talking to believed that it was Garner’s fault for being killed and of course, I disagreed. The interesting thing was that when I began pointing to statistics about black Americans being disproportionately targeted by police, he didn’t disagree. But where I saw systemic issues and prejudice in our system he saw a biological disorder. You see, he was a white supremacist and he believed people of color are predisposed to committing crime.

For the next week, we continued to communicate, publicly, by taking that conversation online. But unlike many internet disagreements that are usually just comprised of personal attacks or sometimes worse, the endless links to articles of questionable sources that no one reads, I decided to take a different approach: I listened. I asked questions. I said, “Hey, I’ve never met such an outspoken racist before. What do you actually believe? Send me some things.” Then, I actually read the materials.

He let me point out things that were overtly racist or incorrect. For example, he argued that race was rooted in biology but I showed him how it was actually a social construct. I even used some of the articles he sent me and showed how they led to different conclusions than what he was arguing. Along the way, I wasn’t sure if I would change his mind but I thought for those listening or watching, perhaps it would provide them with some additional resources to help fight racism.

As long as we treat debates as battles where one side wins and another loses, the people who we disagree with won’t be interested in conceding or moving their position. Very few people like to admit that they are wrong — many dig into their position more deeply. Often, we care more about being right than doing what is right. Instead of saying you’re wrong or you’re a racist, you’re a sinner, you’re an illegal, and so on, we should learn to say, “I disagree.” The difference is subtle but the outcome can be significant. It can shift an argument into a discussion. Attacking someone’s identity will only undermine your own position. In my conversation with the white supremacist, I could have written the person off as a racist but that would have put an immediate stop to any kind of conversation.

Did I change his mind? He didn’t renounce white supremacy at that moment — but he did begin to see some of the cracks in his own armor and admitted that perhaps he could be wrong about people of color. You see, the very act of me asking questions helped tear down some of the assumptions he made about me as well. When I began treating him as a person, he began seeing me as one.

Freedom of speech prohibits censorship in the public square. Do you think that applies to social media? Do American citizens have a right to say whatever they want within the confines of a social media platform owned by a private enterprise?

Freedom of speech prohibits government retaliation — not private companies or individuals. That being said, I think that companies should follow the First Amendment by respecting difference of opinion while also maintaining the same standards that the government is supposed to adhere to — such as removing true, imminent threats. We would do well to remember that condemning speech is not the same as suppressing it. Private companies should be able to better articulate how and why certain comments and posts violate community standards.

If you had full control over Facebook or Twitter, which specific changes would you make to limit harmful or hurtful attacks?

Right now, the community standards for most social media companies are unclear at best. For example, many of the companies say that they don’t allow “hate speech” but that blanket ban on words have often made marginalized communities who reappropriate language targets as well. Traditionally laws on social media companies and how they approach speech is usually framed in one of a few ways: to either treat them as state actors, as common carriers or broadcast media, or to treat them as news editors making editorial decisions. However, the challenge is that none of these frameworks is completely appropriate. What might be more useful is creating policy that targets a social media company’s (and user’s) conduct rather than the speech itself. Companies also face a unique challenge in that laws differ from country to country so that filters for content language may be inconsistent across the platform.

That being said, I think it’s important to reconsider what we classify as ham or violence-inducing speech. Companies should reflect the categories of narrow, unprotected speech such as true threats, incitement to imminent lawless action, and fighting words. It might mean finding ways to creative alternative incentives to social validation through negative behaviors like trolling and bullying. Realistically though, these are companies that prioritize profits and financial gains over constitutional or community goals.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is an adage that I have printed on all of my cards: apathy is not compatible with love. It’s easier to assume that things will get better on their own or that we should ignore major social problems that don’t directly affect us, but the moral arc of the universe does not bend towards justice on its own. It requires patience, persistence, and people willing to fight for a more just world. I found that fighting for principles such as anti-racism and freedom of expression as well as finding ways to better expression compassion in all of the ways that we communicate to be the best way to articulate that lesson.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

Arian Hamilton, Colin Kapernick, Damien Lillard, Killer Mike, Chance the Rapper,

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Facebook.com/simonthetam

Twitter.com/simonthetam

Instagram.com/simonthetam

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!


About the author:

Yitzi Weiner is a journalist, author, and the founder of Medium’s Authority Magazine. He is also the CEO of Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator, which guides leaders to become prolific content creators. A trained Rabbi, Yitzi is also a dynamic educator, teacher and orator. He currently lives in Maryland with his wife and children.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Yitzi Weiner

Written by

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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