Among the contrarians, the braggarts, the enraged and the furious, the libelous, the concerned with their furrowed brows, the people who want you on their side and the people who assume you’re the enemy, the wheedlers, the passive-aggressive, the misreaders (an especially annoying group), and all the other people who can turn a pleasant conversation into a battle, you just get tired. But that’s life on Facebook.
Even, sadly, if you only post pictures of puppies. I’m a member of a group for owners of Australian Shepherds (like Border Collies but better). Let someone ask for help, especially a new owner, and an astonishing number of members jump in with contempt and condemnation. As I’ve said before, these people aren’t worthy of their dogs.
Facebook makes them worse. It seems to make almost everyone worse. Some may be good people and even friends in real life, but their Facebook personae are toxic. There’s a type of bookish person, who can’t get away from Facebook. It’s too useful and we enjoy interesting and stimulating friends.
But the cost, it’s high. My advice to bookish people who like to talk about the world is: Either flee Facebook or publish just for your friends and make sure they’re real friends. Publish for the public only when you care enough about the subject to deal with the abuse.
A friend did the second. And hard. She cut her large list of Facebook friends to 100, because she needed to save her emotional energy for better purposes than arguing with “friends” who were just jerks, and even with friends who were just being jerks at the moment. She wanted her friends to be real friends, invested in her well-being and considerate to her other friends, and able to disagree without insulting each other.
The virus and all the ways people’s lives have been restricted in response has pushed this, judging from my observation of my own Facebook friends. People find they just don’t have the energy to deal with the contrarians, the braggarts, etc. People who already feel stressed don’t need the stress of being abused. Even if they have the energy, they don’t have the interest, because what’s the point? What do you gain? If you gain anything, do you really gain more than you lose?
Even people who have hitherto made a show of their openness and bragged that they don’t unfriend anyone have started unfriending and blocking people. People who made a point of always publishing in public now publish solely for their friends. They shut door to keep the noise out. Because what’s the point of giving the contrarians, braggarts, etc., free reign? What do they bring you that’s better than not hearing them?
This makes Facebook more of a collection of clubs or ghettos or dinner parties, places that assume affection or respect or at least manners. Some of us are blessed to have interesting friends with very different points of view, and so our club will be more mixed than other people’s, but they won’t be as mixed as they were before.
People find they just don’t have the energy to deal with the contrarians, the braggarts, etc. People who already feel stressed don’t need the stress of being abused. Even if they have the energy, they don’t have the interest, because what’s the point?
Some friends to whom I suggested a strategic retreat protested that Christians must speak in public. They warned against “cocooning” and “tribalism” and hiding in “safe spaces,” and complained about how Christians spoke only to each other and didn’t engage the wider world. We were called to be a light to the world, they said, and publishing only for your friends put your light under the bushel.
Well, sort of, but basically no. That idea reflects a typical Christian confusion of calling and of context. Not everyone is called to speak out and be that kind of public witness. Relatively few are, and far fewer than think they are. Some lights shine by speaking, but most lights shine by the way they live.
And not every place is the place to speak out. This matters even more. You don’t need to treat Facebook as the public square. You can treat it like your living room. What had been like talking with friends at the bar with strangers joining in, which has pleasures but also dangers, can become more like friends sitting around your dinner table or lounging in the back yard. It’s the place you go to build up your resources for doing what you do in the wider world.
You read some posts and you can see some other readers’ eyes light up with the joy of having a reason to abuse people.
My own experience, I should say, has been mixed. I’ve learned a lot from my diverse group of friends, who range from very conservative to hard leftist. I’ve learned most from friends who show me a very different way of seeing a thing, because their life has been so different from mine. What seemed easy answers turn out to be much more complicated and ambiguous than I had ever thought.
But I’ve also seen too much depressing ugliness, most recently a rant at people in pain who are “ill-bred” and “badly brought up.” And much too much hatefulness and meanness (mostly from the culture-warring right) and, just as bad, a serenely expressed disdain and contempt (mostly from the politically committed left). Being a Christian doesn’t seem to make a great deal of difference. You read some posts and you can see some other readers’ eyes light up with the joy of having a reason to abuse people. (I know this, because I have been that person.) It wears you down, like living next to a construction site with jackhammers going all day.
Restricting what you say on Facebook and to whom you say it isn’t just a matter of lowering the emotional cost. Some people enjoy conflict, some people love arguments, some have a thicker skin than most of us do, and some can say “What I have written, I have written” and move on. And others have to publish. Writers, for example, if they want to be read by more readers. Editors and publishers expect you to push your own writing. But most people should greatly reduce the abuse they see and deal with.
Restricting what you say is a matter of stewarding your time and energy. You only have so much. And you have so much to do. So much good you can do even online, even on Facebook, to people you care for. Why waste it on a forum that encourages conflict and on people just waiting for a chance to rage?
David Mills is editor of Hour of Our Death and is finishing a book for Sophia Press titled When Catholics Die.
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