When I decided to rejoin Facebook after an extended absence, I had a couple general objectives. The first was to reconnect with old friends and family online, and by extension, the broader world. Another goal was to be a good citizen of the digital world — to model better behavior.
So, I set about to create a profile and send a few friend requests. I started slowly, not wanting to get flagged for “suspicious activity” and have my account shut down. A few people were suspicious when they received a friend request and contacted me for confirmation. Many others took the request at face value and accepted.
I picked up the pace and sent a lot more requests. In so doing, I made a conscious effort to reconnect with people I actually knew and liked, but also to reach out to some folks with whom I’d had some friction. The idea was to start again with a wide variety of Facebook friends.
There were some surprises here. Some of the people I’d known pretty well simply ignored my requests. Did they think that they were being tricked? That my account had been spoofed? In one case, someone told me that he thought we were already friends, which meant that he had not noticed I’d been gone for over a year. Some of those who’d parted after disagreements decided to give us another chance.
And there were a few disappointments, if not actual surprises. Some of the family members and one-time friends with whom I’d argued in the past either ignored my requests completely or deleted them.
So, what’s it like to be back on Facebook after a hiatus? Interesting. Seeing Facebook with fresh eyes means noticing some things I’d forgotten or come to take for granted.
I am reminded that I can’t be Facebook friends with everybody. After only ten days, I’ve already unfriended a few people. The first was a good friend from high school and for several years thereafter. Our paths diverged, intersected again a few times, but then parted once more. Our irreconcilable difference online is a social issue, specifically, the way my friend’s views on abortion find expression on his Facebook page.
After pushing the Unfriend button on my old high school friend, I did the same for a couple members of my extended family, for approximately the same reason. Their views on a range of issues found expression through the extremely generous sharing of memes and opinion pieces, sometimes numbering in the dozens per day.
Facebook allows a couple of options for ignoring your online friends, one of which is to “unfollow.” Unfollowing means that a friend’s posts won’t appear in your newsfeed, but you remain friends. But are you really friends with someone you ignore? I decided that it was pointless to argue with someone who was posting an endless stream of crazy, offensive stuff, but it was also dishonest to say I was friends with someone I was ignoring. I opted for a clean break. Unfriend.
There are many behaviors that make it difficult to be friends online. I blogged about this before leaving Facebook last year and revisited that post today to make a few edits. For reference: Why Can’t We Be (Facebook) Friends?
I have to admit that I am much more inclined to overlook, ignore or tolerate bad behavior that aligns with my own views. You probably are, too, and this is a problem. If we are not holding ourselves and our friends accountable, but we’re unfriending and bullying people who disagree, we’re creating a closed (and closed-minded) society.
Isn’t that what cults and hate groups do?
I’ve noticed something else as a result of having friends and relatives with some pretty wide-ranging views and spending a couple years in a place that’s pretty mixed up politically: a lot of us are posting things that are disrespectful of and offensive to people who hold other views.
Not seeing this problem? Then there’s a good chance that you have eliminated most or all of the friends who don’t see the world as you do. You’re not even thinking about what it would be like for someone who doesn’t agree with you to see or hear what you’re posting.
Twitter and online comment sections are good examples of the unrestrained free-for-all of starkly contrasting views. One is apt to see just about anything there. But on our own Facebook feeds, we tend to eliminate the people who bug us and this can lead to a sort of curated, digital monoculture — the “echo chamber”.
How do we fix this?
For me, it means trying very hard to avoid the bad behaviors I listed in “Why Can’t We Be (Facebook) Friends?” Dial back the rhetoric. Be selective about what I “like” and share. Be considerate about what I say.
I think there is hope. I see people who are using social networks constructively and I aspire to be like them.
Facebook is just a medium, so what is our message? Facebook is a platform, so what is our purpose? Who is our audience?
I don’t want to argue pointlessly with people who will never change their views nor change mine. In that scenario, somebody is casting pearls before swine.
And preaching to the choir might get some likes, but it doesn’t change anything.
If we’re not acting with intention online, I think we’re just being used.