One of the great selling points of social media when it was getting started—for Facebook in particular—was that it would help us stay in touch with people with whom we’d normally lose contact. We could see what they were up to, how they were and what their lives were like. It would essentially be like a continuous high school reunion, a virtuous utopia where no one ever has to say goodbye again. It’s certainly a nice thought but, as with any such idea, reality rears its ugly head.
I’m sure you’re more than familiar with the person I call the “crusader for a cause” on Facebook. No, not social justice warriors, but people who have a very strong stance on whatever topic—politics, veganism, feminism, or just about anything that inspires polarized views. The crusader shares articles and captions them with “this,” “I’ll just leave this here,” or “this is so true,” as though whatever they are putting up describes said problem perfectly and all arguments against it are moot.
For our inner circles, such things aren’t a problem. We see the crusader face-to-face regularly, have great conversations with them, and love them as our friends or family. We have the luxury of knowing who they are and that even if we disagree with them, we can move past that and focus on all the things we have in common. This is how friendships have worked for our for 99.9 percent of our existence.
But what happens when we don’t have that luxury? What happens if it’s someone we know from school, who we haven’t seen in two decades—or a former co-worker? Before social media, we’d lose contact with someone while going about our lives and probably remember them quite fondly. In my case, I’m ex-military and I’ve been out for almost five years now, and I haven’t seen the vast majority of the great friends I made while I was serving since then. I noticed recently that one of them, whom I respect greatly and had a very good friendship with, had unfriended me. Now, I’m not a super crusader and I don’t share stuff on any one consistent topic generally, but I have been guilty—just like most of us—of perhaps putting my opinion out there a little too forcefully.
Did this person unfriend me because of a disagreement we had over veganism? I’d say that’s highly likely, though I don’t know because Facebook doesn’t tell us when someone has unfriended us. I think it’s a pretty good bet, though, and it has saddened me greatly. It saddens me because I valued this person’s friendship, but also because had we had the conversation in person, I’m sure it would have been not only friendly, but an intellectually stimulating debate. I know at the end of it we would have found common ground and walked away as friends.
Unfortunately, on the text-based medium of Facebook and other social media, so much is lost in translation. What happens when a crusader keeps sharing things we disagree with? When we don’t have the luxury of seeing that person in the flesh, we define them by what they are sharing. Suddenly, we don’t see them as friends anymore, but as that annoying person forcing their beliefs upon us. Where once we would sit down and discuss the ins and outs over coffee or dinner, before moving onto other topics where we have common ground, we now focus on that sole difference and forget about all the other wonderful things that made us friends in the first place.
Soon enough, it becomes a case of the unfollow, or, if you’ve grown to dislike them enough, the unfriend. When this happens with a friend who you haven’t seen in years, there’s probably no going back. When the action is discovered, the recipient is likely to think, “Well fuck them if they want to be like that.” And, just like that, a friendship is dissolved. If we happen to see them again in person, it’s an awkward greeting from both sides—because the one who unfriended is wondering if the person knows they unfriended them, and the one who was unfriended is probably hurt.
If we value our relationships—especially those that aren’t as active as we would like them to be—it would do us all well to consider very carefully what we are posting on social media. It’s not about whether we are trying to offend people or not, but about whether we really want to be the preacher. Because that’s what this kind of sharing is: it’s preaching to a choir that may or may not be receptive. When we feel strongly about something, it’s a far better idea to share it in a private message or email. Otherwise you might find that not everyone shares your views, and, rather than talking to you about it, they hit the mute button and stop listening to everything you say.
I haven’t even mentioned the arguments that people get into on social media. With facial gestures, body language and tone of voice lost, and a minor disagreement very quickly escalates because we can’t parse those important things through words alone. In person, we have what are known as “softeners” in our language that help convey that, although I disagree with you, I still care about you and I’m not attacking you. Those kinds of softeners don’t exist in Facebook comments. Not to mention that when you argue with someone on social media, it’s public. In the Western world, we don’t have the same emphasis on saving face as many Asian cultures do, but online is one place where this rule is absolutely paramount: cut down someone’s argument on social media, and you’ve just (in their eyes) embarrassed them in front of all their family and friends.
It’s dangerous to define someone by a singular belief they have, no matter how much you might disagree with it. After all, we are what we do in this world, not what we believe in a single moment or even over the course of a year or two, during which we might go through a phase of vehement beliefs. We would fare better by picking up the phone or talking over a cup of coffee about a contentious subject with someone—in other words, making a human connection. Out of that human conversation, we’re likely going to find greater understanding, common ground and renewed appreciation for that person’s unique perspective on the world.
This is regardless of whether you voted for Trump or Hillary, believe in climate change, are for or against feminism, Christian or atheist, vegan or meat eater. It’s never a good idea to define someone solely by a belief they hold. Increasingly, we don’t even bother to consider the other person’s point of view—because being right is more important than being open minded. I know people who have different views on all manners of topics. If you took all my friends on social media and put them into a chat room, it would probably turn into a horrible, hate-filled argument.
However, if you were to put them physically in the same room, that’s unlikely to happen. Our shared humanity forces us to practice restraint and to listen. Most of us are averse enough to conflict that we won’t just start arguing the moment a view arises that we disagree with, and that’s a good thing.
Unfortunately, as soon as we go online—even when we know the person—the connection is lost and all we see is cold, unfeeling text on a screen. It’s easy to say that that’s a good thing, because now their arguments are divorced from the person and can be scrutinized on logic and reason alone, but that’s a brutal way of conversing and is part of the reason for the current divisiveness.
So, whether you play the preacher on social media or you’re the recipient of the preaching, take a step back, breathe and consider your actions. If you’re the preacher, you aren’t going to change people’s minds by posting an article. If you’re the recipient of such preaching, remember that this a person with whom you have—or at some point—a personal connection. So, reach out to them, talk, and and gain a better understanding of why they feel so strongly.
If there’s one thing that the world needs more of right now, it’s tolerance and understanding. Social media is unfortunately not the place to find it.
Pete Ross deconstructs the psychology and philosophy of the business world, careers and everyday life. You can follow him on Twitter @prometheandrive.