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We have all heard the old adage, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But in recent times the world of Facebook has caused me to ponder what could become a kind of corollary adage: the friend of my friend may just be my enemy. Or at the very least the friend of my friend seems to be very often no friend of mine.
In the last year or so I have had several experiences like the one I had last week. I commented on a friend’s Facebook link to an article promoting a revisionist history conference in London in which the lead speaker is going to make the case that Jesus never existed but was a phantasm invented by the Romans to quiet the messianic expectations of the Jewish population. Nothing new there, really, so I made a comment about how this looks to be of a piece with other efforts to concoct conspiracy theories (like Holocaust deniers or those who think the government brought down the Twin Towers on 9/11) that blithely fly in the face of mountains of evidence that point a different direction.
Within hours I was attacked by friends of my friend and I was foolish enough to counter-comment a bit, finally getting to the point of defending my belief in what some called the “far-fetched” claims of Jesus’ rising from the dead and such. I said that if embracing that far-fetched stuff as part of my faith made me a fool in some people’s eyes, I’d gladly accept the title. This led one friend of my friend to assure me that I was indeed a fool and that only his (faux) politeness kept him from assigning to me the title he thought would be a better fit for one such as I.
But here’s the thing: the friends of my friend don’t know me nor do I know them. Not even a little bit. If we did know each other, we’d address one another in very different ways. I am quite certain that is true. There’d be a little love in the mix, a little deference, a willingness to extend one another a line of moral credit (as friends tend to do). Lacking that, the postings on Facebook rapidly devolve into the kinds of Reader Comments that you can see under any article on most any website (and if you’ve ever looked at those, then you know that they tend to disintegrate pretty quickly into all kinds of back-and-forth name-calling and just general nastiness, replete with foul language at times). There seems to be a directly proportional relationship between the web’s providing everyone with a forum in which to sound off their opinions and a decline in basic civility.
Actually there is one website that recently unplugged its Comments section and that is Popular Science. According to news articles, in addition to growing weary of ignorant and rude comments left by readers, the editors determined that there are people out there who troll websites in order to leave comments on various articles that advance a certain agenda. In the case of this magazine/website, the trolls were out to trash science and/or certain scientific claims in order to advance some other point of view. Being a scientific journal, they also investigated studies that showed how Reader Comments of a certain tone retrospectively skew people’s opinions of the original article—those who had been positively disposed toward an article can be flipped in case Reader Comments are shrill or harsh enough. Rather than allow the Reader Comments to trump the cause of Popular Science (which is in part to promulgate a proper and accurate understanding of science), the editors no longer allow comments at all.
One wonders if this will become a trend with other websites—if so, it would be a trend I’d cheer on. Probably when it comes to Facebook there is no way to keep the friends of a friend from glomming on to comment and render opinions on the posts of people they do not personally know. I just know that since life is too short to be bandying opinions with people who neither know me nor care for me (and who apparently do not care what their harsher comments may mean to me emotionally), I am increasingly less likely to comment on much of anything. It actually makes me wonder how long I’ll stick with Facebook but there’s still enough good news and vital updates I get from people—not to mention some really funny videos I’d never see otherwise—that I will likely stay on board for now.
I just won’t comment much because the friend of my friend . . .
Dare I comment? Great article. Thanks, Scott.
The funny videos alone make it worth it 🙂
This seems to be something of a generational thing. My 20-something kids and their "friends" seem to have no hesitation in putting their opinions out there to be shot at by all and sundry. I, on the other hand, press the submit button on this rather innocuous post with some hesitation.
I really love that you addressed this topic. I truly think that the trolling, name calling behavior is indicative of our our culture communicates right now – we, as a culture, are learning from our media, which promotes entitlement and a shame-based way of presenting opinions. We may also be carrying, and exposing an underlying shame that we've learned from family, religion, politics, as well as media, which is about power, not ideas, solving problems or relationship. After all, it is easier to blame and diminish another's humanity with name calling, than to think or reason, or accept some sort of healthy discussion. And I'm not sure we remember how to have a healthy discussion anymore. why do you think that is?
Scott,I appreciate your comments. I have had similar experiences on Facebook. I am ashamed to say that as one who was a reader of the very exchanges you participated in, I did not pick up on the hostility you perceived, which points to another important Facebook phenomenon: for lack of a better description, I will call it empathy deprivation. Am I (Are we) becoming so accustomed to bitter retort that I/we fail to see it unless we ourselves are attacked?
Let's look for the special opportunities that Facebook provides by being alert (more alert than I was) to the hurtful comments leveled at friends and even friends of friends and then applying a few soft words as prescribed in Proverbs 15:1.
@Elisabeth: I wonder if we don't have many healthy conversations anymore because we too seldom see them modeled. As Neil Postman pointed out many years ago, healthy, thoughtful conversations make for lousy TV–split-screen shouting matches on the other hand . . . Postman also pointed out that THINKING itself does not play well on TV. Who wants to watch someone say "Good point, my friend, so let me ponder that a few minutes . . ."? @Ron: Facebook and email share the common trait of not being nuanced in terms of intended tone. This becomes all-the-more glaring when the back-and-forth is between two people who do not know each other and cannot, therefore, tell when the other person is being characteristically snarky in a good-natured way. Good-natured snarky can read like shoot-to-kill insult. And both email and Facebook have that other fatal characteristic: you can hit the "Send" button really quickly. Back in the day when people wrote handwritten letters that got stuffed into envelopes and mailed, it still happened that wounding correspondence got sent but if I had to guess, it was less frequent because of the inherent amount of time and thought it takes to compose a letter as opposed to an email reply or a FB comment posting.