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Return of the Aunties: What online volunteers have learned about abortion access post-Roe

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People march through downtown Amarillo to protest a lawsuit in federal court to ban the abortion drug mifepristone Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023. (Justin Rex/AP)
People march through downtown Amarillo to protest a lawsuit in federal court to ban the abortion drug mifepristone Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023. (Justin Rex/AP)

When we first talked to the moderators of r/auntienetwork — a Reddit community devoted to abortion access — people could only speculate how the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade would affect abortion care across the country. Now, 13 and states and counting have banned abortion. The gaps in access are wider than ever, and more and more people are relying on Reddit for help.

This week, we catch up with some "Aunties" who are back online after pausing the Reddit community's work in the wake of the Supreme Court decision last year, and look at another online community committed to providing people seeking abortion with the information they need — even when that information is constantly changing.

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Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.

Grace: Hey, Ben.

Ben: Who is this?

Grace: It’s me, it’s Grace.

Ben: Oh hey. New phone, who dis, Grace?

Grace: As you well know, I’m a producer on Endless Thread. And last summer, I worked with you and Amory on an episode about a subreddit called the Auntie Network.

Ben: That feels like a million years ago, even though I remember it well. People – aunties – offer to help people who need abortions.

Grace: Exactly, yeah. We looked at how the group’s membership had exploded after the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe, triggering abortion bans across the country.

Ben: And then, as we were about to publish the episode, we got ourselves a little update, I remember.

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Grace: Yep, right before we clicked publish. In the harried climate after the Supreme Court Decision, the moderators of the Auntie Network decided they needed to stop and think about exactly HOW they wanted to help. They shut r/auntie network down.

Ben: And now r/auntienetwork is back… and the abortion landscape already looks a whole lot different than it did a while back now. Which is part of the reason why we wanted to talk about this again, right?

Grace: Yeah. Since that episode aired, 13 states and counting have banned abortion.

Ben: And last time, we talked about how, when things seem dire it can be heartening to look at the helpers. Now, the gaps the helpers are trying to fill are a whole lot wider.

Grace: Yeah, and online communities are playing a more important role than ever in how people access abortion. The internet is where people are figuring out their options, where they're getting medical advice because if you live in a state where it's banned, you can't go to a doctor. They're pretty much where people are going for everything.

Ben: Back in July, we could only speculate about the role that subreddits and other online communities would play in abortion access after it became illegal or severely restricted in so much of the country. Now, we’re living it.

[Waterfall of news reports:

Three more states have now officially banned abortion services as trigger laws take effect.

Tonight,  Mississippi, one of several states with these trigger laws looking to ban abortions immediately.

Utah, one of 26 states either moving to ban abortion outright or severely restricting abortion rights.

Yesterday, West Virginia's legislature passed a sweeping abortion ban with few exceptions. 

(protest sound) Whose bodies, our bodies…]

Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson

Grace: I’m Grace Tatter.

Ben: And you’re listening to Endless Thread.

Grace: We’re coming to you from WBUR… Boston’s NPR station.

Ben: Today… an auntie update.

Grace: When the Auntie Network came back online in September, one of the moderators emailed me to let me know, and I was curious if there was any difference in the types of posts they were seeing than before the Supreme Court decision.

Ben: And?

Grace: So, I thought that there would be more requests for help from places like Texas, where abortion is now banned. But the posts were still coming from all over the country, and were still mainly people offering assistance, not asking for it.

Ben: Okay. So how often are people actually taking them up on those offers?

Grace: It’s hard to say, since a lot of times that happens via direct or personal message. But I talked to one auntie who did have someone reach out to her, with pretty serious needs. This auntie is called Cat. That’s a nickname based on her initials.

Ben: Yeah, and just a quick note to listeners – most of the people in this episode asked for us to not use their full names, because of safety and legal concerns around this issue.

Grace: Yeah. So Cat lives in Ohio.

Ben: Where abortion is still, at the moment, legal.

Grace: For now. It’s been in pretty continuous flux since last summer. For a few months, they had a so-called heartbeat bill in place that limited abortion to a time period before most women even know they’re pregnant. A court blocked that, though, so abortion is legal in Ohio until up to 22 weeks of pregnancy.

Ben: OK, that is complicated to keep track of

Grace: Yeah. And also – Ohio is one of at least 27 states with a required 24-hour waiting period. So even though abortion is legal, you have to essentially get two appointments – one for counseling, and one for the abortion itself. And that obviously makes logistics even more complicated.

So, anyway. In December, Cat got a message from someone who lives in the same city as her. And this person told Cat that she had mobility issues. She uses a wheelchair. She had very little in the way of money. And that she needed an abortion.

Ben: Was Cat at all concerned that this person was trying to get something else from her? Like money or just maybe trolling or anything like that?

Grace: Yeah, because that actually does happen. Everyone I talk to who posts on the Auntie Network has kind of gotten kind of phishing messages. from people who are either anti-abortion or are trying to get money. But the Auntie Network actually has rules about this. They tell people using it not to give people money. It's not allowed. Still, initially Cat was wary anyway, because, you know, stranger danger.

Cat: I was a little unsure of who I was talking to and if it was real, ‘cause it seemed like such an extreme situation.

Grace: I want to back up a little here, and hear Cat explain what motivated her to post in the Auntie subreddit in the first place.

Cat: I actually grew up very conservative, and at one point I was, probably would consider myself a staunchly pro-life life, until I got pregnant and I needed an abortion.

Grace: This was about 12 years ago. Cat scheduled an appointment at a local clinic.

Cat: When I went, I went to the clinic by myself, and when I pulled up, there were protestors outside.

Grace: A man ran out of the clinic to her car. He was wearing a reflective vest.

Cat: He ran to my car with an umbrella and a jacket – and I didn't know who he was –  and he put it over my windshield and shielded me. And it was, amid the chaos and the yelling, and the barbs they were throwing at me. 

Grace: Cat remembers that the man was elderly, grandparent aged. And that he talked to her in a soothing tone.

Cat: I think he was trying to drown out as much of the noise as possible and shooing them off. And then me just saying a very brisk thank you and being on my way.

Grace: Cat says even though their interaction was short, this volunteer changed her life.

Cat: That 30 seconds that that man was next to me was so impactful that it made me want to do that for someone else.

Grace: Afterward, she started talking to her friends about abortion, and why she thought people should have that option, and word got around that she was kind of a safe person to go to.

Cat: This thing began to happen where people would start sending people to me, whether it was a conversation or they actually needed some reproductive healthcare.

Grace: Over the years, Cat helped a few acquaintances navigate this decision. When she found the Auntie sub last summer, it seemed like a good way for her to continue that work. So fast forward to December, she gets this direct message, or private message, from this person who needed help.  And she arranged a phone call.

Cat: She was terrified. Her voice was shaking at points, and you can't, you know, she'd be a rich actress in Hollywood. You can't fake that. She was terrified. It was hard to listen to, you know, knowing her fear.

Grace: So, Cat started making calls. There are only nine abortion clinics in the state of Ohio, but two of them are actually in the area that Cat and this woman live in.

Ben: Promising.

Grace: Yeah, but…when Cat called the clinics on behalf of this woman she was trying to help, neither of them had any availability.

Ben: That’s something happening more and more in states where abortion is still legal, right? Because they’re having to serve more patients from other states.

Grace: Exactly. But luckily, Cat was able to help this person find an appointment. The only problem was, it was a couple of hours away

Cat: She was even more terrified because she did not drive, she did not have a license, and she had no funds.

Ben: OK, but this is where an abortion fund could be helpful right?

Grace: Usually! But — the Abortion Fund of Ohio has had a hectic year. And around the holidays, the staff announced a couple-week break. They even took down the intake form on their website.

Cat: We had missed it by a matter of days. I believe that they were even taking hiatus from social media, so you couldn't even get, you know a little crumb of advice. 

Ben: Wow. This is, like, so complicated. You literally can't even get the most basic information to help you figure out how to do what you need to do. It's wild.

Grace: Yeah, it feels really Kafka-esque. Cat made another post on the Auntie Network, asking for help with transportation to the city with the available appointment — Dayton – and for a place to stay overnight, since there’s the 24-hour waiting period.

Cat also posted in her city’s subreddit. And someone else cross posted it in Dayton's subreddit. A woman who saw that post there reached out to Cat, saying her family could offer a wheelchair-friendly place to stay. So, lots of subreddits involved.

Cat: I vetted them. It felt like I hardly needed to just because we talked on the phone, I think for I think like it was like an hour and a half. I talked to this person and she was equally as passionate and driven as I was about this. And then I got another message from someone else willing to transport her to Dayton, whatever day she needed. And I got a lot of offers eventually when I had posted it separately on my local group.

 I'm sure a lot of people are thinking, “Well, that's risky.” And unfortunately, that's the position that we're in.

Ben: So — at this point, it sounds like we have three Redditors on this abortion plan. Someone to stay with in Dayton. A driver. And Cat, who seems like she is kind of acting as a coordinator.

Grace: Exactly. And Cat felt really solid about all of them and their plan. But…

Ben: Uh-oh. Another but?

Grace: There’s always another but. The clinic was running behind schedule. So by the time they could see her for her first appointment, it was not enough time to honor the mandatory 24-hour waiting period. The procedure had to be rescheduled for the following week.

Ben: Oh my god.

Grace: Yeah. Cat heard this and at first, her stomach dropped. This adds a whole other layer of complications. But, fortunately, the team she'd assembled from Reddit was on it.

Cat: The person that drove her up was like, “Don't even find someone else. She's comfortable with me. We really bonded. I'm gonna take her back.” This was an entire day she took out of her workday and her life to take her up there and then she was gonna do the same thing next week.

Grace: And so, after all of that ... this woman was able to get the abortion she needed.

Cat: She sent me a couple of messages afterwards. She was relieved and grateful and I think it was all a bit surreal because there was so much, um, a lot of hustle and bustle getting it done. And then it was over and I think she is just sort of just relaxing and appreciating, that, you know, she's out of the waters for now.

Ben: It sounds like it turns out, without the help from strangers on the internet, this woman wouldn't have been able to get an abortion in time, even in a state where it's technically legal. Is that right?

Grace: Yeah, and clearly, there are a lot of people willing to help people like this woman. But at the same time...I understand why there are so many safety concerns about the Auntie Network way of doing things. What if any one of these people had been a bad actor, or just promised more than they could actually deliver?

Ben: Yeah. This seems like potential, like Catfish Central, and like really bad Catfish Central. Not a great system for healthcare. I would say

Grace: Not at all. And Cat says the same thing.

Cat: Nobody wants to turn to Reddit. You want to call your doctor's office and say, “Hi, this is what's going on. Can you help me?” And they would say, “Yes, come in. Yes, this is covered by your insurance.” 

We don't get any of that. This is a network of people that are there. And, I mean, we wanna be there, but we don't want to be there doing that.

Ben: So that brings us back to the Auntie Network, and the changes that they underwent during their hiatus, right?

Grace: The moderators wanted to take time to address a lot of concerns they’ve heard– mainly surrounding safety and the fact that it is so hard to vet anonymous volunteers on the internet. They used to manually go through every potential auntie’s post history before approving them. Now,  they have a bot to help them do that.

Ben: This is one of the moderators of the Auntie Network. Her name is Kyana.

Kyana: With the bot, it can let us know if there are any sort of words such as the n-word or something like that, that would immediately flag and we'll say like, you know, we don't think you're a good fit to be an auntie or a helper.

Ben: The moderators also wanted a way to make their role in the abortion access ecosystem crystal clear.  A common critique we talked about last summer was that the Auntie Network was copying the work that abortion funds had already been doing for years – but less effectively, according to those funds, because the volunteers posting in the sub-reddit weren’t as trained or as vetted as volunteers for more established organizations.

Grace: Yeah. So in their new iteration they doubled down on their messaging that they are a last resort – a stopgap if no other help from established organizations is available. Here’s another one of the moderators. Her username is LallybrachSassenach – or Lally, for short.

Lally: We've reworded our initial response to every post. So now it says, “Hey, um, please be aware that these groups are available, and these people are available and they're vetted. 

And if that is what you choose, that's great. If for some reason they can't fulfill all of your needs, we are here to back them up and we will help you out.” So we made sure that we were promoting that better.

Ben: The Auntie Network isn’t the only way people are using Reddit. There’s one subreddit in particular that A LOT of people are going to for answers. It is aptly titled…r/abortion.

Grace: More about how volunteers are making sure that everyone who goes to r/abortion for help gets a good answer… after the break.

[SPONSOR BREAK]

Ben: R/abortion has existed since November of 2008. But Ariella Messing came across it in 2019.

Ariella: I am an abortion researcher and activist. I'm a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins, and I am the founding director of OARs, the Online Abortion Resource Squad.

Grace: Back in 2019, Ariella was looking at r/abortion, and she realized that a lot of the information on it was...imperfect.

Ben: So she sent a direct message to an acquaintance who also works on reproductive issues.

Ariella: I was just telling her like, “This is such a gap. Like, there's a need here. I really think organizations should have people  answering these questions.” And she said, “Well, couldn't we?” And so within 24 hours, we had a slack up that had the Reddit feed coming in, and we just said, let's invite some friends or other activists who know their stuff and commit to answering every question or to making sure that every question has a good answer. 

Grace:  Ariella was organizing OARS volunteers when the pandemic started, in 2020. And she noticed a huge uptick in posts on the subreddit.

Ben: This was before the Supreme Court overturned Roe, so abortion was still legal everywhere. But in many states, there was mass confusion about whether or not abortion clinics were "essential services" and thus allowed to stay open.

Ariella: And that was the beginning of the chaos.

[Waterfall of news footage

The Ohio Attorney General is ordering a Cleveland Women's Clinic to stop performing elective surgical abortions, calling it a violation of the health department's orders.

The governor there signed an executive order banning non-essential procedures, so that includes abortions during this pandemic. 

West Virginia, Ohio, Iowa, Alabama, and Oklahoma have also put either considers or put out abortions on hold altogether, some abortion providers...]

Ariella: People would say like, call the clinic and find out if they're open. And in Texas they open and close the clinics during a span of a month, something like 15 times because of court decisions and [the] clinic doesn't have time to answer the phone and tell each person if they're open or closed. Right? It's just not realistic and it doesn't really make sense for people to have to do that. And also people hate making phone calls. So that was when I first decided to make a website that helped people with the instructions. Like it really just said like, deep breath. Like, you are allowed to get an abortion. You have a right to get it, and it doesn't matter if there's a pandemic or not, and here's how you should do that.

Ben: During the pandemic, telehealth became a lot more common. Which meant it was now possible for a lot more people to manage their own abortions totally at home.

Grace: And after the bans went into effect last summer, at-home medication abortions became the best option for even more people. Even if you live in a state where abortion is banned, there are pharmacies that will mail you the necessary pills – mifepristone and misoprostol.

Ben: More than half of abortions are done via this two-pill regimen. And the FDA has said this combination of medications is really safe –  but it can be stressful. People don’t know what to expect.

Ariella: People want to read and to hear sort of like the unfiltered and uncensored stories of abortion, particularly for medication abortion, but really for both. I think that there are a lot of stories online where people say like, you know, there are great efforts that are being made to share more abortion stories, but they rarely get into the details, right? But on Reddit, because it's anonymous and because people know that they want this information, they provide every detail of the experience. And I think it's so funny because people are constantly writing like, “sorry, TMI, TMI” but like then they just are going for it. But like, people want the TMI, right?

Ben: Ariella strongly recommends that users go through a verified online pharmacy…but there have been plenty of reports about people using Reddit to get the necessary medication through other means.

Grace: If you post on any subreddit asking for help with abortion, you might get a private message from someone offering to mail you the pills directly.

Ben: Sometimes, the messages are from people who procured pills from a doctor and then ended up not needing them.

Grace: There are also volunteer distribution networks sourcing the pills from Mexico and other countries. And there are people selling the pills, trying to make a buck.

Ariella: We immediately as moderators would remove those posts and basically explain to people that this is illegal.

Ben: While the mods of r/abortion can’t control private messages… these posts are definitely not allowed on the subreddit, even if they’re well-intentioned.

Ariella: And a lot of times people just didn't know that. Like they had no idea. And we were like, yes, sharing or selling prescription medication is illegal, so we can't allow this here. And it's against Reddit terms of service, which puts our whole Reddit sub in jeopardy. And this resource is really important.

Grace: It's impossible to know exactly how many people are connecting to the resources they need from r/abortion — but we know it's a lot.

Ben: There are about 50 posts a day, mostly people asking for advice, or sharing their own stories or experiences.

Grace: And way more people are visiting the sub. Ariella says that it gets about 60,000 individual visitors monthly, and 800,000 page views.

Ben: In some cases, people aren’t turning to r/abortion for answers for themselves. They’re trying to help their loved ones. Like another person we talked to, named Stephanie.

Stephanie: I'm 30-ish something years old. and I live in central Texas.

Grace: A little more about Stephanie: She lives on a military base with her children and two partners. They're polyamorous.

Ben: Like Cat, Stephanie didn’t always think that abortion should be legal.

Stephanie: I was one of those people standing outside the abortion clinics with the signs, making people feel shitty for making this very personal decision. 

Ben: Really? 

Stephanie: I was, yeah, at, at 16, that was me.

Grace: Stephanie began to change her mind as she became an adult. But she really became convinced that abortion should be a option when she had her own children

Stephanie: I had three pregnancies that made me really sick the whole time. And, I was glad to make those sacrifices because I chose those pregnancies, all three of them. And I never for a moment wanted, wanted to end any of those pregnancies. But they were sacrifices, they were deep sacrifices that I made. And it took over my entire body for a long period of time. And I don't think that I just, I finally came to a place in my maturity, I think honestly, where I realized the only reason anyone should ever go through that is because they choose to.

Grace: Stephanie was very aware of the news when Texas’s ban went into effect last summer, after the Supreme Court decision.

Stephanie: We thought we were being careful. I think, you know, we thought we were all using protection and, and that the courts would kick in and, and it was kind of one of those cross your fingers, hope it doesn't happen to you while this is going on, that it eventually, you know, things will be righted by the government, hopefully.

Ben: A few months after Texas’s ban went into effect, one of Stephanie's partners discovered that she was pregnant.

Stephanie: The idea of having another kid in the house wasn't a problem. It was that this wasn't what she wanted and it wasn't the right time and she also has mental health issues, and she's still in the process of getting her medications correct for that. And that's just not a good time to bring a baby into the world, you know, when you're not stable. And so, I just kind of went into take-care-of-my-person mode.

Grace: At first, they thought they had a loophole in the ban.

Ben: Stephanie’s partner’s husband is in the military. He was overseas at the time. And they live on a military base – so, in Texas, but in a federally controlled area.

Stephanie: Actually the first thing we did was, because she's a military spouse, we called the base, ‘cause you know, Biden had made these promises that military families would still have access. And so we were like, well, maybe she has access on base.

Grace: Biden actually didn’t promise that specifically. As is often the case with abortion, there was a lot of conflicting and really confusing messaging. But eventually, the Pentagon did announce it would pay for service members and their families to travel out-of-state for abortion. But that didn’t happen until later.

Ben: So Stephanie turned to, where else? — Reddit. She posted this on both the r/auntienetwork and r/abortion subreddit.

Stephanie: My girlfriend who doesn't have Reddit just realized she needs immediate assistance. She's nine weeks, five days. So some  options are already not available to her. What is the fastest way she can get help? And then I put an update later that said, we have a plan at the moment. There's a chance of this plan taking too long, and we may need to create a backup plan involving travel. She would want to travel with her boyfriend. They may need help. I'll be working on the backup plan. 

Grace: The r/abortion sub delivered. Stephanie was directed to a website called aidaccess. It connects patients in places where abortion is illegal with European doctors, who then fill their prescriptions through a pharmacy based in India. According to the website, it costs $105, and shipping takes 1-3 weeks.

Ben: AidAccess was started by a physician and is a trusted resource by people in the reproductive justice space.

Grace: Still. It felt pretty risky. They needed the pills to arrive in no more than two weeks, or it would be too late for medical abortion to be a safe option, and they’d need to travel out of state, introducing a whole host of other complications. And these pills had a long way to go.

Ben: Uh, what was the first country? I can't remember. 

Stephanie: Oh, yeah.  England. In the UK. England to India to Texas. 

Ben: Yeah, it's a mail journey that I would not have a lot of –

Stephanie: Faith in. Yeah, exactly. And, and they even said in this thing that there is a chance that this won't even arrive, and if it doesn't, just contact us and we'll give you a refund. And I was like, "Oh, great."

Ben: The medication got there in time. And Stephanie was able to support her partner through the process by gathering more information from another post on r/abortion.

Grace: We talked to Stephanie a few months after this all happened.

Stephanie: Physically she's doing fine. She's still processing it mentally, ‘cause you know, even if it's by choice, it's a miscarriage. And, and that has emotional and hormonal side effects. That's another thing I wish people who were trying to ban abortion understood is that even people who make this choice, they may have to mourn.

Grace: For the foreseeable future, abortion is going to be illegal in large parts of this country…and the gaps that these online communities are trying to fill are going to get wider and wider. As we're recording, we don't know what's going to happen with a Texas court decision that could ban one of the pills used for medication abortions nationwide, so that would mean that even if you live in a state where abortion is legal it would be a lot harder to get one.

Ben: In our last episode about the Auntie Network, we talked about how, when things look bleak, it can be heartening to look at the helpers. But we are putting a lot on the helpers.

Grace: I checked in with Erin Smith, who we talked to last summer. They’re the director of the Kentucky Health Justice Network, whose work includes funding abortion for Kentuckians – all of whom now have to go out of state for abortion care. Erin works with a lot of volunteers, who go through extensive training and vetting.

Erin: It is not something that is for everybody. It's very much you're coming in kind of like a social worker or a caseworker. And as we know, those are very high, intense, stressful jobs, which is why it's important for us to have as many volunteers as we can. ‘Cause sometimes people can do this for a couple months. It's like, I need a mental break. 

Grace: Erin is always training more volunteers, and encourages them to rotate out. But sometimes, helpers don’t have reserves.

Ben: Take Kyana, one of the moderators of the Auntie Network. She works on reproductive issues as part of her day job. And Reddit used to be an escape. She used it to talk about the Real Housewives.

Grace: And don’t worry – Kyana is still enjoying and posting about Real Housewives.

Ben: Woo. Thank goodness.

Grace: But now she’s thinking about reproductive justice ALL of the time. Not just at work.

Kyana: Now that I am a mod, it's still a very fun app, but I still have to make sure that I'm doing my mod duties, and sometimes I will casually be on Reddit and scrolling, and I'll forget that. I'll be like, oh, I need to just check in and make sure that, you know, no one's posted anything or things like that.

Grace: And then there’s r/abortion, where there’s just a constant flow of posts, with really urgent questions.

Ben: Ariella feels pressure to moderate the sub pretty much 24/7, so people can get their questions answered in a timely manner, and so she can make sure they’re getting good information.

Grace: Reddit moderators aren’t paid, which Ariella is OK with. But she’d like to have funding for OARS, so she could train more volunteers to help her make sure people can get the answers they need, when they need them.

Ben: The helpers need help!

Grace: And this kind of reminds me of the reason, one of the reasons, we wanted to go back to the Auntie Network in the first place. This summer, there was this flood of attention to abortion access.  A lot of people volunteered, or donated to funds – but then life moved on. People dropped off, and living in the Northeast, I kind of got the feeling that people thought of this as a problem for people living in the South, or the Midwest, where restrictions are harsher and more common.

Ben: And the headlines about all of the barriers to abortion access are constant. I get how they start to blur together for people. People are just getting used to the idea that accessing abortion care is really, really hard.

Grace: But, absent different laws and a more robust health care system – for people all over the country…there’s a lot riding on people continuing to care.

[Credits] 

Ben: Endless Thread is a production of WBUR in Boston.

Grace: This episode was produced and co-hosted by me, Grace Tatter and…

Ben: Me, Ben Brock Johnson. Mix and sound design by Matt Reed.

Grace: The rest of our team is Amory Sivertson, Quincy Walters. Dean Russell, Nora Saks, Amy Gorel, Emily Jankowski and Paul Vaitkus.

Ben: Endless Thread is a show about the blurred lines between digital communities and real life, today’s episode a perfect example of that. If you’ve got an untold history, an unsolved mystery, or a wild story from the internet that you want us to tell, hit us up. Email Endless Thread at WBUR dot ORG.

Headshot of Grace Tatter

Grace Tatter Producer, WBUR Podcasts
Grace Tatter is a producer for WBUR Podcasts.

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