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.

Poof.

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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PLE's It’s all fun and Facebook until somebody shoots their “I” out by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.

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