It’s all fun and Facebook until somebody shoots their “I” out

Damn you, Joseph Kony.

I swear, the man is everywhere. Except for Uganda.

Right now, there is a lot of fuss about Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign. I don’t want to discuss the particulars but I want to discuss friendship, values, and how we use Facebook.

A quick story:

I was de-friended on Facebook after a thick debate regarding the credibility of Joseph Kony propoganda. The argument came to blows once the conversation shifted from a contestation of opinions to a critique of values. Suggesting that my friend was drawing from poor sources, I questioned his judgment when I told him that his evidence was garbage and that he shouldn’t post things like that on my thread. Albeit much tamer than the “flaming” of yesterday’s Internet, the remark didn’t go over so well.

The next day, we were no longer friends.

I wanted to apologize. I searched everywhere, scouring the depths of Facebook. He was gone. No relationship page; no shared interests; no mutual friends; disappeared from members lists of mutually affiliated groups.


I’ve never really noticed being de-friended before, so you can imagine that after 7 years of Facebooking, it came as a bit of a shock.

This person wasn’t just a Facebook friend. I would consider them a real friend—a person I’ve known for years, whose relationship I cherished. Like so many relationships that give-way to time and distance, we remained friends because of Facebook. We took advantage of the channel, kept it open and stayed connected. Without Facebook, the knot of our relationship would have come unraveled long ago. At least that’s the way I see it.

It was more than a “weak tie”— he was someone I respect and appreciated; a fraternity brother, a mentor, a person worth seeing again. But because our email addresses, cell phone numbers, and mailing addresses have most likely changed since we last saw each other, Facebook was the direct tether between us.

Since when did we start losing friends because of Facebook?

While I’m new to it, I know that it happens a lot to others. As people get more comfortable with digital communication, they become less aware that they’re playing with technologies of the self, fluid identity, slippery traditions, and social values. As danah boyd (2007) observes, social network sites give us the ability to “write [our]selves and [our] community into being” (p. 120) as we post and comment, friend and de-friend.

And it’s all fun and Facebook until somebody shoots their “I” out. Politics are especially challenging.

Theoretically, Facebook is complicated and paradoxical by nature. It is a utility for self-expression—what Clifford Geertz (1973) might call a venue for “serious play.” The type of communication that occurs isn’t just something done for fun and it’s no longer a novelty of youth culture. In the past few years, it’s become a significant arena for performances of all kinds, where “facework” is learned and done (Goffman, 1959), information is churned over until it becomes meaningful, and relationships are held in tension that sustain and maintain bonds (Baxter, 2006). Put another way, it’s an important place where life is lived and culture is formed.

Also, it’s not going away anytime soon.

The lesson that I learned from being de-friended is a lesson that all Facebookians might consider. What’s at stake when we’re so free to make connections wherever we see them is further weakening a tradition of social connection that’s been thinned by American individualism for some time (see Bellah et al., 1985). If we can choose to connect so easily, friending whomever, whilly-nilly, than we can choose to disconnect in the same way, without thinking about why we value friendships, what’s gained, and what’s lost. The very idea of friendship is cheapened when we fall in and out of relationships so easy.

The abstract, contingent, and discrete nature of reality in an increasingly digital world, which allows us to tinker with the meaning of social institutions, is something that Kevin Kelly (1994) describes in his book Out of Control. What he calls the “rising flow” (p. 404) is a wave of life that implicates each of us as architects of boundless, yet uncontrollable symbolic systems. We all cope in our own small ways with the inevitability of entropy by making sense of our lives through logic, reason, and the ordered coding of social construction.

The way we communicate with new media can lead to dismay, disarray, and isolation, not to mention desire, affinity and what some might call addiction. As individuals are caught up in the rising flow, they’re swamped under a sea of moral turmoil and ethical chaos, like surfers tumbling under a “sustainable crest always falling upon itself, forever in the state of almost-toppled” (p. 405). Communication turns ugly quick in a digital world. Kelly’s metaphor is one that forewarns the present, as de-friending becomes a practicable reality. Especially during times of high political tension, when movements like Kony 2012 come to the fore of Facebook newsfeeds and timelines, a wider sense of order can be shattered, logic and structure can be quickly abandoned, and conversations may end in easier dismissal. People begin to opt for disconnection when mis-information is too much to bear, and they vanish into the virtual ether.

As my friend posted before he dropped out of my network, “This is a subject that makes my blood boil, I have zero sense of humor, and very little patience on the subject, so I’m done. Do what your conscience tells you.”

I imagine that the crash of sensibility on Facebook is a reason why many choose not to use social media. Dissmissivness is a caveat of digital living, often framed as an unhealthy replacement for analogue communication (Turkle, 2011). While  replacement is hardly the right word—in fact, communication is hardly ever purely analogue or purely digital (Bateson, 1972)—Facebooking, like all mediums involves some sort of risk, some kind of uncertainty, and some degree of necessary vulnerability for it to be worthwhile. This sort of exchange value puts the “capital” in “social capital.”

Talk about politics in a public forum, risk losing a friend. Question a person’s intellectual integrity in front of others, you’ll probably get burned. Cite a phony source, take a chance of being called out. The safe way to cope with this system is to drop out of it all together. On Facebook, de-friending is just as good.

That’s not a reason to either abandon or blame Facebook. It’s a reason to be more aware of ourselves as digital beings. It’s a call for a new tradition that doesn’t value disconnection in the same way.

At least not disconnection at the drop of a hat.

The key to sensible communication in the digital age is to be careful with fragmentation. I value Facebook because it allows me to hold onto relationships. Some of those relationships have fallen quite dormant, true, but others have been lively all along. In fact, I can only think of 3 instances when I’ve de-friended anyone, ever. The ability to stay connected with desperate others, despite estrangement, is a technological privilege, not a right. As a privilege, we can recognize that negative perceptions, which frame digital communication as contributing to disquiet, concern, and (perhaps) pathology, lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. We’d benefit by keeping conversations going—even if others rub us the wrong way—so that channels remain open between differently minded people, keeping communicative possibilities open and available if necessary.

Maybe then we can ride the crest of the wave for just a little longer. Maybe experience the next paradigmatic sea-change, together.

If, as political beings who use global communication networks, we decide to abandon relationships in the face of cyberspace disagreement, than we reify David Bohm’s (1996) fear of a contemporary society where “people’s self interest and assumptions take over … against the best of intentions — they produce their own intentions” (p. 14). In this scenario, the world is more fragmented, and continues at the speed of Moore’s Law. The digital risk of Facebook friendship is that, one day, de-friending could become more common than friending. If this was to be the case, the value of friendship rests on the mere contingency of disconnecting from others.

To use a common metaphor, Facebook is a technology of the self and a matter of the heart. It’s a place where values are negotiated as logic is tested. When social media—and social media campaigns—become a reason to end relationships, we can say that our collective orientation to the social world, values and to “the good” has shifted.

We’re in need of a digital ethics—some sort of tradition of digital communication that allows it to flow freely, slows down the crashes, and keeps channels open. Without some sort of guide—some fault line drawn collectively between social good and social ill—friendship may start to be defined by de-friendship. If we want to hold on to the worthwhile moral sensibilities of the past, we have to put connection over disconnection. We have to work on establishing the fault line together.

As Alexis de Tocqueville observed 150 years ago, the American sense of individualism threatens social disillusionment and despotism. As Bellah et al. (1985) argued about the American worldview over 25 years ago, “What we find hard to see is that it is the extreme fragmentation of the modern world that really threatens our individuation … our sense of dignity and autonomy” (p. 286). When being digital begins to retrain our habits, redefining friendship and blurring ethical boundaries, it becomes more and more crucial that we pay attention to the ways we relate—if, for no other reason, than to redraw the boundaries of our moral horizons, so that culture itself isn’t so “loosely bounded” in lieu of easy isolation.

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6 thoughts on “It’s all fun and Facebook until somebody shoots their “I” out

  1. I think you’ve on to something provocative here, if I may summarize…

    The digital chaos (or “rising wave”) in which Facebook is enmeshed renders the relationships it mediates fundamentally precarious; Facebook’s interactive form means that even strong ties contain incipient weaknesses (even if the exposure of those weaknesses is delayed by Facebook itself), and a project in digital ethics (or return to the “moral sensibilities” of the past) may permit a realization of Facebook’s potential to connect us out of a problematic (and enduring) sense of individualism. Hopefully that’s a fair synopsis, and if it is, I’d say that I see your point. Though I am not on Facebook, I see how others use it, and I’d wager that your experience isn’t the only one of its kind.

    But, that last gesture to Toqueville has me wondering, both about the extent to which your argument operates as a critique of Facebook uniquely and the way that individualism poisons the search for a digital ethic from the start. After all, Tocqueville’s snapshot of American society is now over 170 years old, and a digital ethic doesn’t emerge from nowhere. And if you’re right about what you say here, it ought not emerge from Facebook! If it is American individualism that structures Facebook’s relational norms, then the problem you’ve identified — the easy dismissal of social connection — is shaped by an ethic that precedes the digitization of social life, and a return to the moral sensibilities of the past isn’t something we ought to welcome with much enthusiasm. We may need a new ethic, but it isn’t a “digital” ethic, and I really don’t think it can be found by searching pre-1840s America.

    It seems to me that the real weight of your argument has little to do with Facebook itself (or even other forms of digital social media). Instead, you’ve offered a compelling critique of public subjectivity. You lost a friend. But it wasn’t because of Facebook. You found yourself in a clash of opinions in public view that required the enforcement of a relational norm found ONLY under conditions of public subjectivity. Consider your response: “he shouldn’t post things like that on my thread.” The invocation of such a rule is simply incoherent in an interactional setting that refuses the attention of others.

    Moreover, I’m not sure how easy it is to lose friends on Facebook. At least, I’m not sure that what you’ve described here is an instance of losing connection “at the drop of a hat.” It may have taken simply a few clicks (unless your interlocutor here really did place himself entirely from your communicative reach – something that takes surprisingly massive amounts of effort), but it was hardly an event that can be classified as “cheap.” Consider that it took: (1) an entire apparatus of public identity, (2) a mutual consciousness of the surveillance that public discourse entails, (3) a serious act of political offense that for you demanded the enforcement of rhetorical (“don’t ‘say’ things like that here”) norms, (4) the consequent perception of personal offense, and (5) the active decision to terminate a relationship of many years. When you saw the poof cloud, it may have felt like your relationship was cheapened, but for him, even if the decision to de-friend you was made in haste, the decision was considered, deliberate, detailed, and complete. This doesn’t sound like a relationship that was cheap, but (to make use of your “social capital” metaphor) it sounds like a relationship that had become quite expensive under its particular conditions.

    We haven’t started losing friends because of Facebook, we’ve started losing friends (in the sense that I think you mean here) by something I’d describe as more along the lines of the celebritization of social life. (Now if you’d argue that Facebook is responsible for the celebritization of social life, then you really should rethink your reluctance to “blame” Facebook!). Here’s what I mean: Warhol has half right and half wrong. We don’t each get 15 minutes of fame, we are all famous all the time, but what’s meant by “fame” is much narrower than Warhol meant when he said it. How many Facebook friends do you have? Let’s say for the sake of argument that you have 500. Surely, if we equate “friend” with friend, then you’re right that Facebook cheapens the notion. (But that problem is a simple matter of terminology – if we changed the term “friend” to “people who may potentially care to know what I have to show and say” – perhaps what we used to call an “acquaintance” – then Facebook connections are simply what the phrase says they are). But, if you have 500 friends, you have a PUBLIC of 500, in the same way that Britney Spears has a public measured by the scope of her circulation (selling music, appearing on Entertainment Tonight, People Magazine, and the like). But when the logic of publicity governs the nature of social interaction, its surveillance function inserts the attention of others into the scene of communicative activity. Is it fair to say that Britney Spears social life (the one that exists inside her head) has been shaped by the public mediation of her life? You’re not just interacting with your friend, you’re interacting with your friend while 500 people are watching. That strikes me as a far more influential factor in losing friends than the shattering of culture in a digital age. How many friends would we keep if 500 other friends composed an audience of our offline interactions?

    Perhaps what I’m getting at is that your experience of being de-friended on Facebook isn’t a consequence of some unpredictable, rhizomatic digital environment, but is instead of function of the way that public subjectivity urges us to order social space. Here’s what I mean. You write: “when movements like Kony 2012 come to the fore of Facebook newsfeeds and timelines, a wider sense of order can be shattered, logic and structure can be quickly abandoned, and conversations may end in easier dismissal. People begin to opt for disconnection when mis-information is too much to bear, and they vanish into the virtual ether.” What you’re saying is not just that Facebook quickens the pace of social and political life in dizzying ways, but that this fact brings with it the constant attempt to produce order. I’m going to mention Foucault in a second here, so I’ll prefigure with a metaphor: Power does not exist apart from the conditions and exercise of resistance. Similarly, order cannot be recognized as order apart from the conditions and acts that disturb it, and disorder cannot be recognized apart from the conditions and acts that aim to erase it. Facebook is not symptomatic of a fragmented culture, it is a space in which each social agent produces order out of chaos. What, after all, motivated you to say, “don’t say things like that on my thread?” What, after all, motivate him to disconnect completely? An exigency of social disorder that invited, as good old Lloyd Bitzer might call, “a fitting response” to a “rhetorical situation.” And Bitzer wrote that shit in 1967. Furthermore, total withdrawal is nothing new in the face of social anxiety. Armchair psychiatrists have a name for it: passive aggression. And it’s as old as the hills.

    That’s not to say that the production of order out of chaos can be plausibly disjoined (at least in this case) from the problem of public subjectivity. Facebook’s digital form may present us with limitless communicative possibilities, but not only is that not how we use it (in the sense that we don’t avail ourselves of it without limits), but it is generative of norms derived from its logic of publicity. Critics of Facebook like to invoke Foucault’s analysis of Bentham’s panopticon here, usually by pointing to things like the “endless accumulation of detail” regarding our personal preferences and the corporate surveillance that follows from data collection. That’s not exactly my point. It seems to me that panoptic function of Facebook consists in the fact that when we communicate with our friends, all of our other friends are watching. You ENFORCED the social order (“don’t say shit like that here”) because you didn’t want such language, ideas, arguments, representations, purported facts, or various forms of affect and expressivity to circulate in your public. With everyone watching, you loathed to stage such a scene. Your public was watching, so you enacted the panopticon’s disciplinary function. As Foucault told us, the panopticon is a highly efficient machine that shapes subjectivity without allowing us to feel its seams or joints. In prison, the inmates are not allowed to leave. On Facebook, should you feel the effects of discipline, you can simply drop out. “Poof!” Instead of lamenting the loss of a friend, why not marvel at the machine’s efficiency? Facebook makes for a tightly ordered social space, not a crashing, confusing digital space. Your former friend was simply a casualty of your own public subjectivity and the norms that operate in your public.

    In the end, I’m not sure that Facebook’s easy connections makes for the easy disconnections that you find so vexing. In other words, it’s not a matter of social connections whose thinning has been abetted by American individualism, but precisely the way in which publicity thickens the interactional norms of ordinary social relationships. Individualism may have something to do with it, but as each of us allows Facebook to mediate our social lives, the logic of publicity orients us toward toward our “friends” in ways that not only threaten us with precariousness, but puts us on display. They’re watching, we know, so social interaction becomes not chaotic, but a field of our vigilant normative attention and troublesome disciplinary effects.

      • The obvious answer here requires only one sentence: I was saying something that couldn’t be said in three sentences. But, you’re the guard in this tower, so I’ll give it a go (if you permit me a semicolon or two…):

        1) The insights derived from being de-friended on Facebook reveal little about Facebook or digital culture; instead they highlight the troubling social dynamics of public subjectivity, which makes a spectacle of social interaction.

        2) Public subjects are those whose discourse is shaped by the attention of a public; when others watch us talk, the fact of surveillance means that we enact disciplinary interactional norms — in this sense, public deliberation is an exercise in demonstrating (or “performing,” if you prefer) what ought to be publicly said. Digital culture is not inimical to order, it is instead constantly producing it.

        3) The search for a digital ethic from within the confines of digital communication strikes me as self-defeating; trying to undo the effects of American individualism within a context that amplifies its effects doesn’t make much sense to me. Now, if you’re suggesting that we conceive of such an ethic from a place external to digital communication, then I don’t think you’re talking about a digital ethic, but simply an ethic we hope will translate to our digital interactions.

        OK, so that’s three semicolons, a parenthetical, a dash, five sentences instead of three, and this little epilogue. I’m working on my brevity, but I’ve never been good with the norms of public interaction.

      • I can tell from your response, in both formand content, that you don’t blog much or use Facebook. That said, I think you’ve got soem great thoughts about this. However, you miss my larger point about digital ethics: It isn’t so much You or Me that I care about; it’s future genertions socialized into a world that has a digital culture, one that for us is transparent but for them is quite opaque, that we need ethical guidance. Guidance that preserves values of oppeness and sharing, like the ones Lawrence Lessig metnions at the end of his TED talk:

  2. Fair enough. You’re right that I don’t blog or Facebook much (although I am listed as co-author of I do appreciate you inviting me to take a look at what you said, though. In many ways, what I am attempting to do is take deeply felt but as-yet-unformed, misgivings about social media and communicate them in a stream of consciousness. It’s similar to the problem of expressing your reason for having a hunch. You don’t really know why you have it… that’s what makes it a hunch!

  3. Pingback: If You Had Only a Few Months « Nate Riggs Blog | Content Marketing and Social Media for Business

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