Facebook and the End of the World

AEI is sponsoring a debate tomorrow on whether Facebook is destroying human relationships. The debate boasts a formidable lineup: Roger Scruton, Adam Keiper, and Tyler Cowen.

It occurred to me recently that one unintended negative consequence of Facebook is the potential destruction of, not friendships, but acquaintanceships.

I have many friendly acquaintances who are my Facebook Friends but with whom I am not close enough in real life to be friends. These are people I may see from time to time—at academic conferences, say—and know well enough to have a friendly “how have you been?”-type chat. Many of these acquaintances have different, sometimes very different, political or religious worldviews from mine, but because we see each other infrequently enough, that doesn’t matter: We have plenty to chat about in those irregular brief encounters that we can avoid altogether any sticky issues or hot topics.

But that’s not the case on Facebook. There I am the recipient of their regular updates, which sometimes attack or mock people with views like mine in not-very-friendly terms, and certainly not in terms, I am sure, they would have used with me in person. Let’s face it: We sometimes have not-so-charitable thoughts about people who differ from us politically, religiously, or in other ways that matter to us. That is okay. And sometimes we confess some of those thoughts to a close circle of friends we know are sympathetic to our own view. Within reason, that is okay too.

But we also have to maintain at least friendly and civil associations with these same people who we might secretly, occasionally, even only fleetingly wish to attack or mock. And so we keep those thoughts largely to ourselves. That allows us to get along with all sorts of people, to have civil if not close relationships with people holding many kinds of views, and thus to get on with the business of social life peacably. Just think how destructive of human relationships it would be if people always knew what we sometimes think to ourselves about them.

Well, that is precisely what Facebook can do. We put our more personal thoughts in our updates, and everyone sees them—including those among our friendly acquaintances who are sympathetic to, or are part of, the group we’re targeting.

Here’s an example. One of my Facebook Friends recently linked an article with his own comment that if you did not accept what the article argued, you must belong either to “Team Evil or Team Very, Very Stupid.” Funny, I know. But then again, not so funny to someone who is not yet persuaded. Another Facebook Friend spoke recently of the “Bullshit Brigade,” which included people for whom I have a great deal of respect and whose work I think that Friend does not fully appreciate. Less remarkable examples are all the times people post things asking how anyone with half a brain can possibly think x, or suggesting that the people who disagree must be come combination of stupid, naive, or evil.

I think that these posts, while not utterly destructive in isolation, nevertheless slowly poison relationships. If the only regular things you hear from one of your Facebook Friends is his mocking of people who hold views like yours, it is hard not to be affected by that—and to be thinking about the contempt he has for people like you the next time you see him face-to-face. Whereas before you two might have been able to enjoy a long-term, perfectly friendly and civil acquaintanceship, now you might harbor a low-level anger or resentment toward him.

Now, is Facebook to blame for this? Or are people themselves to blame for posting what they do? It is the latter, of course, but Facebook has certainly made it easier.

12 thoughts on “Facebook and the End of the World

  1. This was so perfectly explained that only now do I understand why I hate so many of my acquaintances. Ha!!! This is a very interesting conversation. Makes me wonder how many potential bridges I have burned. I will have to be more careful about what I share on Facebook (or just delete the tempting thing.)

  2. I simply “hide” people who do this sort of thing. They never know, and the relationship is maintained pro forma. People are themselves to blame not only for what they post, but also for what they allow themselves to read.

    1. I do the same. But there is a broader sense in which Facebook leads to a “flattening” of the social network, in which nuances of status and “place” among one’s friends are abolished. For instance, there are some things that I would enjoy sharing with some subset of my friends, but not another subset. As a result, I end up only sharing those things that I would be content for the whole world to read, sort of a least-common-denominator approach. It’s a real limitation to the promise of the technology.

  3. I recently went through a situation with one of my dearest friends, I had been sharing some articles on FB and she had been leaving scathing replies (unbeknownst to me) and finally sent a message saying she wanted to hear from me and not just get my posts. We both learned a lesson…FB is SOCIAL only. I no longer post these things, but I can LIKE them. I just enjoy it now, for what it is.

    My opinions and thoughts belong somewhere else, which is why I started to subscribe to Pileus and I use Twitter, where I ‘follow’ people that have the same values I do. Eventually I will start my own blog.

    Your artilce was well stated and concise, but unfortunately these are polarizing times and those of us who engage are very passionate and dedicated.

  4. In my opinion, someone will do a study soon illustrating a connection between Facebook usage and / or reality TV watching, and depression.

    My reasoning is that both of these things give one some sort of feeling of socialization and community, but neither can deliver fully on the promise. In both situations, one almost ends up as a communal voyeur, watching others seemingly interact, but almost always from the outside. Interestingly, the community which one is watching is itself composed of similar individuals, all with the feeling of watching from the outside, of being an outsider – thus, a community of semi-depressed individuals, all who are convinced that others are on the “inside”, but none of whom really are….

  5. I no longer post a status on Facebook, rarely log on, and have clicked the “X” to stop following several FB friends, and relatives, for all the reasons you mention. I also discovered that I was posting provocative things (political & social) as a way to say things to those I knew disagreed with me and which I would not say in their presence. Upon reflection it became obvious that doing so was alienating and not conducive to continuing a friendship. So I stopped.

    I have returned to using Facebook for the purposes I originally joined: to stay in touch with certain family members (my children and far flung siblings) and to post photos for sharing with family and friends.

  6. I have found that, to modify the well known adage about Las Vegas, what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook. I have a number of acquaintances with whom my relationship in person transcends petty Facebook bickering over politics and policy. Although it is true that, like many here, I have found it is best to keep politics off of Facebook, to avoid being “yelled” at by people I hardly know. As a result, my posts on Facebook tend to focus on baseball almost exclusively.

  7. Having friends of all different types, I steer clear of political or religous posts, and also don’t post the “omg this makes me so mad you should be mad too!” type of updates. Those get annoying and old very fast. I pretty quickly hide those people just like I don’t read very angry blogs anymore.

    This is actually why I don’t want a dislike button. I like how you can only “like” things, sure sometimes you want to “commiserate” or “agree” , and maybe the word “like” should be changed to reflect that.

    But I can just imagine dislike and like both being available, like it is on comment sites, and the arguments and negativity that will ensue. If Facebook becomes the typical online forum cesspool, then it will stop being useful to keeping in touch with friends.

  8. Much of what you (rightly) point out could be avoided if more people took the time and effort to learn and use Facebook’s filtering features. It’s not difficult, just slightly tedious at the outset, to create multiple (and even overlapping) subsets of friends with customized privacy profiles. Most of my very casual acquaintances are on a list with strict privacy controls, and so cannot see photos I post or status updates. Colleagues can see status updates, but not photos, etc.

    And now Facebook has developed a feature that enables one to specify privacy settings on a per-event basis, so one status update or link can be public to all friends and the next be restricted to some subset. Having previously assigned all of one’s friends to specific lists with an eye towards what one might or might not want each one to be privy to makes it relatively convenient to keep one’s Facebook activity audience-appropriate. It is a bit tedious to set up initially, but I’ve found it pretty useful and worthwhile.

    Aggressive filtering of one’s news feed helps on the receiving side, too.

  9. You’re right though, Facebook is more an acquaintance-killer than anything, Friendship is often built on mutual interest, so not only would any disparate view not be as vicious as in your example, other commonalities or mutual interests would balance it out.

    And in the case where a friend would say something in public that they know would hurt you, well, it seems that sometimes destruction is a good thing.

    Other times, it saddens me to know that people I have voted in favor of trusting children with are so… dumb. That they somehow figured out the procreation process by themselves, and will contribute more offspring to the world which they will then teach their intolerant values/lack of values.

    And I don’t mean just people that I agree with. Because it’s not the fact that other people have differing views from my own. It’s that I so often find myself in the company of people who make it a point to disagree so disagreeably. Which is an instant un-friend from me.

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