This post is based on a conversation I saw on Facebook the other day; it got me thinking a little bit about this topic.
The gist of the conversation went like this: some people make a point of announcing to their Facebook friends that they don’t want to be exposed to political opinions with which they don’t agree, and so if anyone wants to post these opinions they should unfriend the person making the post. It was the opinion of the original poster that it’s a petty thing to end a friendship over a political disagreement, and they were saddened by the prospect of losing friends because of politics.
This argument bothered me on the face of it for a couple of reasons, so let’s walk through and break down the assumptions that I think were being made.
The first assumption is that a person cannot be distressed enough by political differences to have a valid reason for not wanting to be exposed to such things in their social media. We know that exposure to differing opinions is a mentally taxing activity; it literally exhausts us to think about things with which we don’t already agree. Choosing to eliminate such stresses from one’s social media experience is a valid decision, especially if things like Facebook are being used by a person as a de-stressor. Beyond that simple acknowledgment of a person’s right to use social media as they like, it’s also fair to point out that political discourse has become especially vitriolic in recent years, and it’s particularly nasty right now in America because of the presidential election. My opinion is that Donald Trump has debased the level of conversation so that overt racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry are treated as normal, and it should go without saying that if a person wants to escape that kind of discourse, then they have a right to manage their friends list and cull people who post personally distressing things. I also think that people who believe differently have a right to cultivate their own spaces where they don’t have to be bothered by liberal and leftist rhetoric. It’s social media, not the Agora (that’s to say that yes, there should be a place for public discourse on these topics, but no one is required to make Facebook that place regardless of what Mark Zuckerberg might want).
Now, the other thing about the original argument that bothered me is the way it leans on this concept of “unfriending.” Pause for a moment and recognize that the category of Facebook “friend” is not perfectly aligned with the category of real life friends. I have on my “friend” list people ranging from close and extended family to people I knew in high school to people I knew in college to former coworkers to my actual close friends. Many of the folks I interact with on a regular basis in my current life aren’t even connected to me through Facebook; this one social media platform is not the nexus of my social life.
Given that, it’s important to remember that we can (and do) maintain relationships outside of Facebook. It’s a tool that we use to streamline the work of maintaining those relationships, but it isn’t essential, and with the system’s flaws it’s not hard to justify wanting to walk away from it in certain situations. Facebook may have branded its version of social connections as “friending,” but we have to be cognizant of the difference between this phenomenon and the traditional meaning of the word.
Now, contrast the “friend” concept with Twitter’s version: followers. I don’t use that term in quotes because the word is an accurate descriptor of what Twitter means when it calls its users that. I follow a handful of people on my Twitter feed, and many of them do not follow me back. There’s no expectation of reciprocity in the Twitterverse (I know this because as much as I would like to have more followers myself, I accept that I’m just not very adept at using the platform), and that’s okay. You can build friendships through interactions on Twitter, but they aren’t bound by a mutual exposure to one another’s feed activity. When you consider the way Facebook doesn’t give you explicit control over what shows up in your feed there, Twitter’s model shines as an eminently sensible way of doing things.
I’m not trying to suggest here that Twitter’s social media model is inherently better. There are problems with harassment, and the one hundred forty character limit tends to chafe for someone like me who’s inclined to be particularly wordy (and, of course, there’s the old saw about the necessary brevity of the format inhibiting nuanced conversation). Like I already noted, Twitter’s refusal to enforce reciprocity means that you have to have some skill at navigating the platform if your goal is to amass an audience. Still, on the point of creating a false equivocation between your followers and your close friendships, Twitter is far superior that Facebook.