Zeke Smith on Internet haters, Survivor and sending support to people online
The boundaries between online and real life virtually disappeared in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to replace social platforms and video apps for human contact.
As part of our coverage of Mental Health Awareness Month in May, we chat with people about the impact of their online lives on their mental health. We hooked up with Zeke Smith, the comedy writer who was known to CBS Survivor fans as “the goofy guy with the mustache and the Hawaiian shirt” for two seasons of the show until another contestant presents Smith as a trans man. Smith suddenly found himself in the spotlight as an activist and voice of an often invisible community.
Smith told us how to think about haters online, when it’s time to go offline, and why a puppy photo is usually more useful than a hot take.
It’s been 15 months since the world stopped. How are you?
I was fully immunized for about five weeks at this point, and that was a game-changer. During the pandemic my boyfriend [actor Nico Santos (Crazy Rich Asians, Superstore)] and i slowly had friends, vaccinated friends, and just being able to see and talk to people who are not my boyfriend or who are not on a computer screen has been great. I’m probably like 60% introvert, 40% extrovert, and 40% of me are not fed at all.
Did you replace in person with online interaction?
Yes I was, and I don’t think this is a good place for anyone to have their social interaction. But it’s just me and my boyfriend the whole time and I felt lonely and I went on Twitter and I was like, okay, what are my Twitter friends doing? What are they reading? What podcasts have they just been broadcast on?
The hardest part about interacting with people online – and I’m guilty of it too – is that no one is willing to listen, everyone just wants to say their opinion and the mic goes down and away. And I want conversations where you have them in person over a coffee or a cocktail or whatever, where people listen to you and interact with you, you can’t do that online, because in my opinion , people are only looking to be validated in their current beliefs.
There is an attraction you feel in your career with your aspirations, your life, and your social media activism. Part of that you have to do, right?
There is a significant part of our culture happening online through various social media platforms and if you live in a big city, especially if you are into entertainment, it is the equivalent of reading the newspaper. You kind of have to be where the trends are and are developing, and that’s how you hold yourself up. I think, for me, midlife both sped up and clouded this conversation about “Have we reached the top of social media?” Because we’ve realized that it’s not good for anyone’s mental health.
Staring at screens all the time is bad for our eyes and bad for our sleep. And it’s created some really toxic ripples in our culture at the social and political levels.
How do you know it’s time to log out?
When [Harry Potter author] JK Rowling came out as a TERF (Trans-Exclusion Radical Feminist) this summer, I was trying to engage with her and that brought out all these trans-phobic feminists. I make a very well reasoned point and then more and more garbage comes to you, and it makes you very angry, because you feel threatened.
And when you’re at a point where all of your Twitter notifications are just someone yelling at you or saying mean things about you, or trying to undermine something very basic about you, you feel very lonely. It makes you feel very defeated.
These are times when I have to catch up because I won’t be able to focus on anything else. I’m just going to think of an answer to what that person said, and these are the times when I’m like, “Okay, we’re removing the apps from the phone. We log out of the browser. We need to take a step back and reset. “
Speaking of the fact that online interactions will never replace real, lived experience … I think this has to do with one of the things that have been on your mind lately: As far as we know, there is no trans men who work in television writers’ rooms. Why is this real life experience important?
Not that long ago, and still exists today, the only people writing on television were straight, cisgender, and white men. The reason stereotypes thrive on television is that they are written by people who have no particular experience.
In the trans context, people who don’t know trans people intimately probably think that life revolves a lot around bathrooms and the pronunciation of our pronouns.
Right. Transition mechanisms or how your family reacted.
Sure, these are all artifacts of being trans, but a lot of times when I sit down with writers, who aren’t trans but want to write a trans story and they send me their screenplay, I’m like it’s n is not true. lived experience of being trans. And they’re confused because they say they’ve done all of this research. They watched all of these movies. And I say, written by people who weren’t trans, portrayed by people who weren’t trans, directed by people who weren’t trans. This is what you believe from our real experience.
Without really being responsible for it, you have become a trans person that many people have suddenly known.
Totally, and I think that’s one of the reasons my experience as a Survivor seems to have impacted so many people. For a season and a half on Survivor, no one knew I was trans. I was just the goofy guy with the mustache and the Hawaiian shirt. And people loved me. They liked my sense of humor, they liked my passion. Hopefully this rewrites a person’s understanding of what it means to be trans.
My Pocket Joy List: Zeke Smith
You obviously experienced this on a much bigger stage. On a smaller scale though, we all maybe have moments like this if we’re passionate or vocal. Whether it’s being a trans person or being pro-something, it puts you in such a vulnerable position online. What do you think people should do in a situation where they are passionate about an issue?
I’m not sure if any issues were solved by one person with an engaging Twitter account. Unlike me, if you find a lot of joy in getting into these quarrels, it fills you with energy and it doesn’t make you feel bad about yourself, then you bicker.
But if that doesn’t bring you joy, then I think it’s worth reminding you that the weight of the world isn’t just on your shoulders. There is always a way to support a cause or people you care about without directly engaging with those people who are trying to silence them.
There are ways to donate. There are ways to volunteer. Make phone calls. On a personal level, channel your feelings into a creative endeavor. Instead of engaging with, as we would colloquially say, “the haters,” send positive messages of support.
I love what you said. If someone is in the middle of a firestorm, send them a message of support. It’s simple, but better than having a hot plug.
Exactly. Just you know, say, “Hey, I’m cheering you on.” Or send pictures of puppies.
When I was on Survivor, I got positive feedback from everyone most of the time. And then I would go to Reddit and there was a bunch of people saying nasty things about me and being critical of what I was doing, and it really shook me because it was my first time ever. saw commented publicly.
My friend Hannah [Shapiro], another competitor on Survivor (Season 33: Millennials vs Gen-X), and I was both dealing with the haters, so we decided to pretend we’re dating. I am very gay and she is very straight. We did this series of Instagram and Twitter posts that made it look like we were dating. But the legends were all musical theater lyrics and if you were over 18 you would know we were playing a prank.
But so many people fell in love and were confused and didn’t know what was going on. And what it made us realize is, oh, a lot of those people who said hateful things are college kids. It was such a deep experience to realize, “Oh, you were shocked by what 13 year olds said.“
And so, if you are looking for an exclusively online community, this isn’t a path that will necessarily lead you to self-love and self-acceptance. It is not a recipe for finding out your truth or how you can be happy in yourself.
There are millions of people for whom the Internet has been a place that has helped them find themselves, express themselves or be safe, when there is no other safe place to live.
But I believe that a busy life cannot be fully lived on the Internet. I think you have to find your chosen family at some point. You find a community and find people who can hold your hand and sing “Happy Birthday” to you.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.