My last post about awkward conversations, civil discourse and this new phenomenon of silencing those we disagree with generated a lot of conversations – awkward and otherwise. So many interesting ideas came out of those conversations that I decided a few of them should be investigated further.

One of the most interesting concepts that I discussed with respondents was that of friendship. The official (from the dictionary) definition of a friend is someone we know, like and trust, and this definition has always worked well for us.

Then enter social media.

My own social media is full of friends that I’ve never met. I can’t truthfully say that I know them, but as we’ve communicated and shared, I feel like I do. But for most of us – as was pointed out to me – we have tons of “friends” on social media who we made contact with only for a single, specific purpose. It may be business, volunteer work, a shared interest in a hobby, etc. We are “friends” therefore for just one issue: hiking, cooking, wanting updates on our town, saving the environment, having attended the same school or the like. We aren’t “friends” because we necessarily like and trust one another. If a huge amount of our virtual social contact is with “friends” who aren’t really friends, does that change how we think about the concept of friendship in general? Does it change specifically how we think about our actual friends in the real world who we know, like and trust (supposedly)? I think it might.

My original post was making the point that we shouldn’t treat our friends worse online than we would in normal day to day life, but what if our online friends are friends in name only? Are we obligated to treat not quite friends like real friends during our online discourses? When you consider that these may be people that we don’t really care about or agree with or even really have any curiosity in their opinions anyway….what is our obligation towards them?

Do they, for instance, get to say whatever they want to us or about us? Do they get to share any opinion they want about the world at large, politicians, Jesus, celebrities, ad nauseum? Do you have to allow that in the name of free speech? Should you? Should good manners still apply to obnoxious strangers?

All interesting questions.

What about the opposite? If your “friend” list includes every person who has every crossed your path – at the PTA, church, the neighborhood block party, the town council meeting, work, not to mention your elementary basketball coach and a smattering of relatives – will that cause you to edit your online content? Of course it will. Most of my “friends” don’t post anything that really has much of anything to do with their actual lives anymore. Most online discourse is only social and no longer personal. That may be for the best; I’m not really sure. A steady diet of meme’s satisfies no one, after all.

So if our online behavior tends to be less revelatory about ourselves, and if we no longer need to allow everyone to express their opinions because, after all, we aren’t truly friends……what’s the point of even being in these virtual hangout spots? Is it just to hear about the greatest hiking trail or the agenda for the next town board meeting?

If we don’t really care about anyone else’s opinion, why are we bothering to discuss anything? I could just go look in the mirror and tell myself all the things I’m comfortable hearing.

Good manners have always dictated that we avoid politics and religion in general conversation, and yet, I’ll be in a group dedicated to cooking and be awash with someone’s opinion of the President. Do good manners go out the window in the virtual world? I think we all know that answer.

I’m obviously not opposed to discussing religion, politics, social justice movements or really much of anything online, but I’m an anomaly – for a couple key reasons. First, my friend list is small and under constant revision. If you are my “friend” on my personal page, it’s because I’m actually interested in your life, willing to share bits of my own and won’t be offended to hear your opinion – even if I disagree with it. Disagreements happen frequently – even with my most beloved people….mostly because we’re just different. And thank God for it.

I often find myself in an awkward dialogue with an online friend who is obviously different from me. We may believe in different gods, have wildly different ideas about the ideal sexual partner or – gasp – have voted for different politicians, but somehow, we can discuss a variety of topics without anybody getting butt-hurt over it. It isn’t personal. They’re just opinions – constantly changing (hopefully) as we learn and experience more. But what is shocking is how many of my friendly opponents are surprised that, first of all, I’ll hear them out even when I disagree and then secondly, that I don’t feel the need to demean, name call or harass them because they hold different beliefs.

Their shock births my shock. Who the heck are you all talking to online who would treat you thusly?!? I have never had a friend be rude. I’ve had them think I was 100% wrong, but they didn’t feel the need to make a personal attack.

However, I’ve definitely had friends of friends go for the jugular if I happened to comment on our mutual friend’s page. I’ve been name called; I’ve been insulted; and on at least two occasions, I was told that I deserved to die….over an opinion. When these things happen, I do tend to think twice about my friends – particularly if they don’t defend me during the dialogue. Hear me clearly here: I think friends should defend me – not my idea – ME as well as my right to think and express whatever I’d like. And I really think that courtesy should extend across the board – even to strangers. No one deserves to die because of an opinion.

If one of my friends told another they deserved to die because of who they voted for in the last election or who they choose to pray to, I’d have something to say about it. Here’s just a general PSA: nobody gets to call my friend a bitch either – not in real life and not online. When did we learn as a society to stand silently and watch bullying? Is it okay if we agree with the ideology of the bully? Here’s a hint: the correct answer is still no.

But in every single circumstance when I was name called or threatened, my friends were, to a person, silent. That will definitely change how you think about your friends.

Will these examples of negative online behavior and attitudes towards “friends” begin to warp our behavior and attitude towards humans in the real world? Will we be less polite in general conversations? Will be quick to “unfriend” in our non-virtual reality over a differing opinion? Will we be more cowardly – both in our lack of defense for the bullied and in our willingness to pipe up only when we find our opinion among the majority? Who are we becoming? And is social media helping or hurting us?

Another major topic that was brought up over and over was that no one felt obligated to be friends with or hear out someone who denied basic human rights to others – whether referring to race or sexual identity or anything else. Human rights was the great non-negotiable.  And I both agree and disagree with them.

In a public forum – say the town square – people have the right to mount their soapbox or join a protest for whatever cause they wish. That cause may be noble, such as equal rights, or heinous, such as the racial superiority of just one race. They get to do it. I get to engage or walk away. That’s my right. Theirs is to raise their signs, flags and voices, and that right I will defend.

But while I defend their right to voice their opinion, I’m probably not going to invite them over for dinner. That’s called boundaries. They are very healthy to have.

In the virtual world, our boundaries are severely skewed. Go back to our social media friends list – everybody is on there. EVERYBODY. It’s like mounting a banner in the town square saying “Welcome to my virtual living room. Make yourself at home.” Is that healthy? I don’t think so.

Do I think friend lists should be selective? You betcha. My living room and the town square are vastly different locales meant for vastly different activities. My friend list reflects that. How about yours? Do the people you have selected as friends change your own content (or your willingness to post it) and/or impact your life (perhaps in a negative way) because of their content? It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? Are we inviting people into our virtual living rooms who just aren’t good for us? Why would we do that in a virtual world when we wouldn’t do it in the real one?

Again I ask: who are we becoming? We do get to choose, you know.

So…….choose.

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