Dialogue in the Age of Unfriending

“Turns out over the last few days some people have unfriended me on Facebook,” I told my wife, partly out of disbelief and anger, but mostly out of hurt and disappointment. I’d never been unfriended before, and certainly not by multiple people within a short span of time.

I’ve been more “political” on Facebook in recent weeks, for obvious reasons, though certainly not what most would think of as aggressive or confrontational. I’ve shared a news article here and there, maybe a few pithy political thoughts of my own on occasion, and not much more. I’d even say I’ve tended to lean toward being conciliatory to those who might not share my particular views on things.

But even my mildly stated political leanings proved too much for some who would disagree with me, and I found myself suddenly and mysteriously unable to locate them on Facebook. And I’m not talking about bottom–of–the–barrel, I’ll–accept–your–friend–request–only–to–be–polite friends. These are individuals with whom I’ve shared meaningful life moments—people I’ve known very deeply, prayed with, cried with.

There were no explanations, no messages—“Hey, I just can’t stand to listen to you right now, we can reconnect after the election.” Just a silent, swift, and seemingly final digital severing of anything we may have shared, a disavowal of any thread of a connection we’d been able to find in more peaceful times.

Even more disconcerting, my own experiences are not anomalies; they in fact appear to be quite normal. Others elsewhere have written on this trend of unfriending, and after hearing similar stories from friends, I’ve come to believe this has been a fairly widespread phenomenon this election season. If we don’t like what someone has to say, or we become tired of seeing incessant posts on things that make us upset or uncomfortable—particularly in what is a progressively polarized and heated American political climate—it’s far too easy to disengage and walk away with the click of a button.

En masse, it seems, we are undergoing an effortless digital sorting, discarding those with whom we disagree on things that deeply matter to us, effectively ensuring our social media lists are comprised of people who sound like us and will never say anything that challenges our own ways of thinking and being in the world.

And this is far more than a fleeting social trend or amusing election season anecdote, in my view. It is a phenomenon that promises lasting effects on our capacity to build community and live together. It threatens to upend democratic values of difference and debate—political, religious, or otherwise—sending us careening down a slippery slope toward a universalizing and insulating future that will have no room for healthy conflict.

Some would chide that I got precisely I was asking for, that this is why they never post anything political on Facebook and why they stick to posting pictures of their cat or talking about what they’re having for dinner. But such a position ultimately leaves me unsatisfied. Relegating our daily digital interactions to the mundane and inoffensive I think far underutilizes the social and political potentialities of social media and, worse still, helps stunt our capacities to critically think about important social, political, and religious issues. What does it say about our society, and our future, if no one wants to talk about difficult things that also happen to really matter?

I’m reminded here of an arresting statement, from Charles Kimball in When Religion Becomes Evil:

“Although many of us have been taught it is not polite to discuss religion and politics in public, we must quickly unlearn that lesson. Our collective failure to challenge presuppositions, think anew, and openly debate central religious [and I would add ‘political’] concerns affecting society is a recipe for disaster.”

So, until I am convinced otherwise or am unfriended to the point of no longer having any friends, I’ll keep with my mildly stated posts and resist the urge to talk about my cat or my dinner, even at the risk of upsetting some who may not share my particular views. The alternative, to me, seems far more dangerous.

How, then, do we proceed when the democratic process seems imperiled by trap–door, quick–escape technology, and by friends who perhaps too readily use such technology to disconnect and walk away rather than continuing to engage and struggle along with us? Surely this is a question that will only increase in importance as social media and other such devices more and more come to fully comprise our daily social interactions.

For my part, I have sought to find and reconnect with each person who has unfriended me in the past several weeks, despite my urges to be done with them and let them go. I’ve sent each of them personal messages (through Facebook, ironically enough), not out of anger, but out of sadness and disappointment, and hope. Sadness that they’ve chosen to disconnect from what I’d found to be a meaningful relationship, and hope that we could reconnect again soon.

This may be an imperfect solution, with much more required moving forward, and time will tell how my friends respond. Either way, I am convinced that being unfriended should not necessarily be an occasion to unfriend in return. Friends may one day return, and meaningful dialogue may one day resume, if we are committed to chasing after them. After all, if I submit so readily to dismissal it perhaps says as much about my own investment in these friends and in the democratic process as it does about theirs.

No one ever said difference and dialogue would always be easy, and indeed these things rarely ever are. But social media is beckoning, promising rich and meaningful—and challenging—engagement for those committed to working for it and, if need be, chasing after it.

Image by scott swigart, via Flickr Creative Commons.

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3 thoughts on “Dialogue in the Age of Unfriending

  1. Thanks for this post. I agree–this fragmentation of social & political life is dangerous. We urgently need more people willing to be bridge builders, and more communities willing to create intentionally safe spaces for real communication about difficult topics. Another good reason to be involved in interfaith work…

  2. Many thanks for this Mark. I empathise although my experience is more with twitter. I think there is an increasing trend of not having a space for discerning and different views. we have grown so used to hearing similar voices. this is a problem, because this means we do not allow intellectual progress to take place. it is as if by asking difficult questions, you are somehow painted as the traitor. this is even more true when we look at discussions within dialogue.
    i am not sure what the answer is except to perservere

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