How do you de-friend someone who was never really your friend to begin with? That was the dilemma this week when I was called a stupid, ill-informed moron by someone I’ve never met. But irony of ironies, this person is publicly billed as my friend for all the world to see and knows at least 57 of almost 500 other people who know me.
Of course, I’m talking about Facebook . One of my oldest friends looked me in the face and said “friend to the friendless” several decades ago as she observed the unusually large number of good, real-life friends in my life. What can I say – I like people? I’m a people pleaser? I don’t like to be alone? I need approval, an audience or a way to focus on others rather than my own needs? Or maybe, well – I’m just a really nice guy who likes being around different kinds of people that I really like. Of course, in the same vein I can also really hate being around an awful lot of awful people that I really don’t like. So there is that.
(One of the perks of getting older, by the way, is that you don’t have the patience for the latter and, as you age, there is even less expectation for you to tolerate nimrods than there is when you’re in your twenties and thirties. So – that’s one good thing about the disintegration of the body to look forward to – that is aside from Social Security and Medicare while it lasts).
Which brings me back to the subject of de-friending. (Think about it, as you ponder why corporations aren’t people). As I found out this week, it’s a lot easier to de-friend someone virtually (just a couple of clicks on your mouse) than it is when you’re operating in any sort of physical reality.
When you truly have a REAL friend you’re done with there is often the inevitable unpleasant conversation/fight or the ignoring/freezing out of another human being that at some point is likely to unearth a gnawing kind of guilt in your soul (assuming you have one and that souls indeed exist) that will likely do some sort of damage to you in some other area of life (e.g. karma or retribution). Live human feelings, good or bad, are like that. They can make you feel things. But in turn, your real life and real life friends, if they are truly such, have a way touching you (again good or bad) in places you had never dreamt possible. That’s what makes, through the ages, the in-person, old-fashioned version of friends and friendships both so agelessly cool, difficult and impossible to quantify or categorize. It’s a sort of a long-term love affair without the sex (well, most of the time) but with many of the same perks, benefits, shorthands and, yes, responsibilities. Who needs it, you might say? Well, as Woody Allen once brilliantly observed of himself (and us) in relationships – “I (we) need the eggs” and I concur.
I’d also stretch that observation to include not only flesh and blood love affairs but also flesh and blood real-life friends.
A lot of us now spend as much or even more time in the virtual world where the connections, feelings and costs are not the same as they are in real time/life. Or are they? Well, let’s say they’re different. The fact that I’m even writing about an online de-friending event would seem evidence enough to make the case that “de-friending” even a virtual pal means something emotionally, though perhaps nowhere near as much as it would if any of us actually knew that person we’re consistently hanging out with via our social media page.
This distance is perhaps one of the key benefits of online life because a virtual way of living lets you say and do things you might never consider in the flesh (or even in the same room, city or neighborhood). For a writer, or anyone who fancies themselves a bit clever with words, there is something addictingly delectable about this, about all things online, web-based, immersive or virtual. I know it’s cool to be down on Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg and, and, and… but you won’t hear any of that from me. I thoroughly enjoy being able to spout my opinions (surprise!) on any subject I choose, connect with people who a decade ago I’d have surely lost touch with, and spy on and share any number of photos, articles and clips of pop culture that I or you would have missed in the simpler decades before most of my college aged students were even born.
My personal fall out (and perhaps yours) from all of this is that it’s emboldened me (us?) to a consistently much bigger and more diverse audience of followers, nee friends, than even before. So, for instance, when I, a devout liberal, post my concern that the Republican party is about to nominate someone who exhibits severe sociopathic behavior, it’s not just me speaking up and arguing at a dinner party. For one thing, at a dinner party you don’t get to play, as evidence, a clip of a lesbian mother relating that when she asked then Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney about what to tell her daughter when her daughter asks why one of her “Moms” can’t visit the other at the hospital, he icily replied “I don’t really care what you tell your daughter. But I suppose you can tell her whatever you already tell her.”
In addition, you also don’t have your significant other, or best friend, kicking you in the shin or under the table before you start that particular argument or play that clip.
Not that it would have made a difference in my case, trust me. Because, truth be told, I like a good argument and believe one of the biggest problems about contemporary life is that there are not enough of them. HUH???? Yeah, there are not enough GOOD arguments nowadays. Meaning it’s important that people challenge each other’s opinions with evidence, discourse, facts and even real and dangerously personal emotions. How else can we better understand opposing views and move forward even just a little bit, if we don’t? I look for these kinds of exchanges in the classroom all the time but they happen all too infrequently. I look for them at family gatherings but usually no one wants to hurt each other’s feelings and they stay silent. I look for them in journalism – print, TV and radio – but mostly people seem to be shouting or speechifying each other with planned talking points on both sides rather than engaging in any kind of meaningful way.
Enter the Internet – a sort of a wild west existence where every so often you can really get a raw exchange of views among “friends” that you might not ever get in real life. It’s crazy, to be sure, but it’s also pretty uncensored and true when it’s working right. That’s one reason why I enjoy posting about political issues and welcome reading posts from others who are trying to share something they’ve thought and read about regarding the issues of the day. I mean, if we’re not going to get enough of an exchange going in real life, perhaps we can at least begin virtually, where we can seethe and breathe fire and curse out our opposition within the confines or our own little megabytes. To put it another way – some reaction is better than no reaction. Isn’t it?
The upshot, of course, is being ranted at and being called a stupid idiot by those who oppose you – people you might have thought twice of engaging or who might have thought three times of engaging you face-to-face due to some mental defect on either one of your parts. In the case of my “former friend,” let’s just say in the last year or so I’ve heard him rant and rave in half-crazed ways on the pages of many other mutual friends. I chalked it up to his passion and general manner and the fact that he seemed so much more shrill to me because I so disagreed with pretty much everything he had to say. And given that, I was determined NOT to de-friend (un-friend?) him.
But I learned this week, as my former friend’s words got very personal, nasty and more than a little troubling, virtual friendships can signal some of the same warning bells that we encounter in real life ones. Just like you don’t stay with an abusive, insulting mate, friend or even boss. — the same applies to any kind of online engagement.
I tell my students all the time – there is NO JOB in show business (or any other business, for that matter) worth staying at where one needs to be consistently insulted and abused.
Well, the same goes for public discourse. No one EVER gets to call you stupid, or a moron, or even worse in the course of your day. No matter how controversial they might see your viewpoint. Online, as in real life, certain rules apply.
Even Especially for friends. And if they can’t play by those simple human rules, they are no real or virtual friend of yours at all.