Goshen News, Goshen, IN

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March 13, 2014

Kindness trumps snark in rare Internet win

The Internet is often a dark and ugly place.

Like some virtual Skid Row, the Internet is packed with people peddling poison.

On social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, the most treasured goods are often snark and sarcasm.

These sites are dominated by petty people spewing vitriol at anyone who dares to disagree or be different.

A keyboard and an Internet connection are now tools for cruelty.

For me, this sort of human sludge has made using things like Facebook and Twitter less enjoyable.

However, my faith in humanity and in what the Internet can do was given a much needed boost recently.

I was browsing Facebook last month when I saw a couple of my “Friends” had liked the page “Happy Birthday Colin.”

Colin Cunningham is a now an 11-year-old kid living in Richland, Mich. He has an autism spectrum disorder similar to Asperger syndrome.

This makes it hard for Colin to make friends and he has trouble in school.

So his mother, Jennifer Cunnigham, took to Facebook and started a page.

She wrote this message on Feb. 2:

“I am Colin's mom, I created this page for my amazing, wonderful, challenging son who is about to turn 11 on March 9th. Because of Colin's disabilities, social skills are not easy for him, and he often acts out in school, and the other kids don't like him. So when I asked him if he wanted a party for his birthday, he said there wasn't a point because he has no friends. He eats lunch alone in the office everyday because no one will let him sit with them, and rather than force someone to be unhappy with his presence, he sits alone in the office. So I thought, if I could create a page where people could send him positive thoughts and encouraging words, that would be better than any birthday party. Please join me in making my very original son feel special on his day.”

Jennifer said at first she was hoping for 50 people to like the page.

Through the power of social media, the page mushroomed. It was featured on local TV stations and in newspapers.

ABC News feature on Colin

The Cunningham’s P.O. box in Richland became overloaded with cards and presents.

The Facebook page itself was littered with messages and birthday wishes for Colin.

It became harder and harder to keep it a secret.  Jennifer had to decline interviews. People were asked to stop calling the school Colin attends.

Amazingly after 2.1 million likes on Facebook, Colin was still unaware of his newfound celebrity.

This story culminated with a trip to New York City where the show “Good Morning America” held a surprise birthday party for Colin and presented him and his family with a trip to Disneyworld.

School can be a brutal place for a kid like Colin. It’s a place where differences are magnified and mocked.

It’s not unlike the atmosphere of the Internet.

Videos go viral of kids re-enacting Star Wars in their garage or kids belting out a pop sing off key. The comments left can from light-hearted ribbing to downright ugly and cruel.

These "Internet sensations" are chum in the murky water that Internet sharks feed on.

So that’s what shocked me so much about the outpouring of love and affection shown toward Colin.

The digital revolution was started by misfits like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Yet today they may not be cool or snarky enough to attend the party they started.

Maybe the page took off because whether we admit it or not we’ve all felt like Colin. We’ve all felt like we didn’t belong.

So for a brief moment in one small pocket of the World Wide Web, love, compassion and civility reigned.

I’d like to see that become more of an Internet trend.

Colin says ‘Thank You

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_6f5hxl9Vo&feature=share

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Daniel Riordan has been writing for newspapers since he was 16. Previous newspaper stops include Warsaw and Plymouth. He joined The Goshen News in March 2013 and is enjoying getting to know the city. He has up to this point been able to resist any urge to watch cat videos on YouTube.

I am a journalist for The Goshen News in Goshen, Ind. I handle regional news and am the digital content editor.

Shelly Wilfong is the director of the International Baccalaureat Degree program at Goshen High School in Goshen, Ind.

David Vantress is sports editor at The Goshen News. He is a 1994 journalism graduate of San Diego State University. David has opinions and isn't afraid to share them.

Sam Householder is the chief photographer at The Goshen News. He is a 2010 graduate of Ball State University, with a bachelor's degree in photojournalism. He lives in Goshen with his fiancee, Ashley, and their cat, Rascal.

Roger Schneider is city editor for The Goshen News. He enjoys bicycling, fishing and photography.

Scott Weisser is entertainment and emergency services editor for The Goshen News.