After six months back on Facebook, I am feeling more disaffected than I did when I left the social network the first time.
Back then, in April 2018, Facebook was very much in the news for data breaches and exploitation and generally unsociable behavior. The primary problem, it seemed, was Facebook itself, so leaving it in those days just felt like the right thing to do.
These days, Facebook is still in the news, most recently for its determination to run targeted political advertising without any regard for its truthfulness. Let the voter beware. So again, leaving Facebook could easily be justified on general principles. Why feed the beast?
But what’s really bugging me these days is not just Mark Zuckerberg’s sprawling online empire, but how rotten its denizens — all of us — have become while interacting there.
I have a hunch that you all know what I’m talking about, because we all observe it (if not actually act it out) every day. But here’s an example: This week a former online friend of mine who refused a new friend request posted a link to an article on TheRoot.com which accused Pete Buttigieg of being “a lying MF” on the basis of comments he made as a mayoral candidate in 2011. The article was triggering to me, but even more so was a dismissive monosyllabic comment by a friend: “Yup.” I clicked Unfriend and walked away, figuring that was the end of it — another friendship fallen victim to online snark.
Well, Mayor Pete took a leap and called the author, which resulted in a conversation and a follow up article that was at least a little conciliatory. My former friends apparently took no notice of any of that. Their bias against Buttigieg had been confirmed by the harsh judgment of the first article and they moved on, secure in their own righteousness.
As luck would have it, Mayor Pete was scheduled to appear at a town hall in my city the very night that he’d been accused of being a lying motherf**ker and had called the author to talk about it. Buttigieg showed up, along with perhaps a couple hundred hardy mid-westerners who braved a November snowstorm to see another presidential candidate in a middle school commons. Pete was asked about the articles and his phone call, and he gave what I thought was a very good answer.
I posted a few things on Facebook about all this, and got some Likes, but also drew some fire. One friend took the opportunity to post a link to an article calling Mayor Pete a corporate shill. Another said “Next. We can do better.” Yet another called Pete a “false prophet.” My attempts to push back on these derogatory remarks did nothing but cause my friends to dig in and push back harder. I ended up deleting their comments.
Does one have to love Pete Buttigieg to be my online friend? Absolutely not. But they do have to show a little self control and respect. If somebody wants to take shots at a candidate they don’t like, I’d respectfully suggest they do it on their own Facebook page or start their own blog. If one doesn’t mind inflicting ads on their readers, they can do it all for free.
And if somebody think it’s easy finding an audience, by all means, give it a try.
I’ve mentioned before that some of my old Facebook friends have refused friend requests since I rejoined the service. In some cases, people thought we were already friends and had not noticed that I’d been gone for over a year. In other cases, they just didn’t want to be friends. And in yet other cases, we became online friends once again only to witness our online relationship crash and burn over irreconcilable differences.
And this, dear reader, is what’s currently bugging me the most about my social networking experience: the polarization, intolerance and incivility.
I was not surprised that some of my right-leaning friends were turned off by my center-left inclinations. One unfriended me because I disagreed with one of his anti-abortion rants. Another because I asked him a question. And I’ve unfriended supporters of Donald Trump who frequently triggered me.
But it’s not just the far right that is hard to handle. I find some Bernie Sanders supporters, including good friends, obnoxious as hell. A few of my hardcore pro-choice friends have refused friend requests, and based on what I see them posting, it’s probably for the best, because they’ve adopted some antagonistic positions and messaging. Some of my friends are going all in on one or more progressive issues while others are seemingly trying to outdo one another as the most “woke” or otherwise enlightened person in the room.
Yes, I write a blog with the word “oracle” in the title, but it’s modified by the word “blundering.” I know for damn sure that I don’t have all the answers. I have no idea whether some of my allegedly woke friends and acquaintances have any sense of their own fallibility.
Alas, who am I to tell someone how woke they are? And vice-versa.
All of which is to say what? I’m still struggling with this. Social networking is hard and it’s made harder by the shortcomings of the dominant platform — Facebook — and the polarization of our moment in time. We also know that bad actors have exploited social media to amplify differences and diminish our confidence in institutions and in one another.
There’s been no declaration of war, but we know we’re being attacked. This was one of the firm conclusions of the Mueller investigation, as well as the U.S. intelligence community, even if the White House prefers an alternate reality and the Senate refuses to act. This knowledge should provide a free society with the incentive to fight back. What we’ve been doing mostly is fighting each other.
Walking away from online engagement at this point would feel like giving up. And that really would be a stupid and futile gesture.