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.