Someone emailed to tell me she had quit following my personal Facebook account in order to save our real life friendship. Her letter was carefully, thoughtfully written. I could tell she was being as gentle and sincere as she could be.
The news took me by surprise – awful surprise. I replied, saying I was very sorry to hear it. I told her what I liked and would miss about her Facebook presence. Her feelings are what they are and I didn’t argue their validity with her. We stayed friends and signed off and I rose up with great strength of character and immediately let it go.
I tried to, anyways. The exchange was warm and civilized but troubling. I didn’t sleep well, and decided I’d better take a hard look at what I post if it’s having a negative effect on people I care about. I logged into my Facebook account and scrolled through the last four months.
My friend was already gone from my online world (it’s safe to say she won’t read this blog post) but as a consolation I had a chance to learn what’s distasteful about myself on social media. It’s important to know professionally and as a human being. I settled in for a lesson in the mysterious, sometimes counter-intuitive art of not being horrible.
Thank my sociology training for this table of all my Facebook posts between September 2014 and January 2015:
|Number of Posts||Subject of Post||Details|
|18||Family||9 posts about my kids
5 posts about my husband
4 links to articles by the press (not me) about family members’ achievements and activities
|15||Professional||7 links to press coverage and publishing announcements about my novels
4 links to blog posts and an article written by me
4 posts about my activities at school
|11||Personal||7 horrendous old photos posted by my very bad little sister
4 attempts at self-deprecating humour
What Wasn’t in the Results
Dirty Laundry As I’ve discussed elsewhere, I don’t post bad news very often, particularly when it comes to my career. For me, Facebook is mostly a good news ticker.
Dirty Dishes Facebook isn’t part of my domestic routine, meaning there are very few posts about housework, recipes, decorating, or similar topics often found on the Facebook pages of people managing busy households. I don’t fault anyone else for using the website this way. I actually find it charming in my friends. But my domestic life is not the focus of my account.
S*%t Kickin’ I purposely avoid controversial links and statements that might read as attacks on anyone else’s way of life. Polemics on politics, parenting, nutrition, public health, social justice, religion – they don’t appear in what I post. I sometimes participate in that kind of discourse on other people’s pages, but I never start it on my own.
Despite the table, I couldn’t tell what exactly was bothering my friend. Self-awareness is hard but nothing in my news feed stood out to me as particularly inflammatory. It was probably nothing and everything all at once. The effect was likely a gestalt (thanks again, sociology).
Or maybe I just missed something — careless comments made on mutual friends’ posts, repeated miscommunications of tone, a hundred little somethings here and there over years and years.
I remember an article from the Huffington Post about what makes a bad Facebook post. The author says posts used for “image crafting” are not good. He argues Facebook shouldn’t be a tool for sculpting our lives into the form that’s most pleasing to us. In his perfect Facebook, good news is out. Bad news is out. Overly specific is out. Vague is out. Sensational is out. Boring is out. Complaining is out. Gratitude is out. Love is out. Hate is out. Vapid is out. Clever is only okay if there’s no way someone might feel like we’re showing off. Essentially, any Facebook post that elicits an emotional reaction outside a narrow, neutral sense of benign, unremarkable amusement is out. Does that leave anything? Maybe really solid knock-knock jokes…
I’m not sure the Huffington writer was aware of it, but his denouncement of actual social interaction within a social network is awfully ironic. That doesn’t mean it’s not inevitable. I approach Facebook like a cocktail party where everyone is toasting each other. I suppose there must be people out there who hate that kind of party. No one tells us when we register with Facebook that all 500,000,000 users may be assuming we’re at 500,000,000 different, somewhat incompatible parties.
Here’s more irony: if I consciously craft an image middling enough for every single one my friends to like it, I’m still crafting an image — only I’m crafting an even less authentic image than the one arising naturally from my character and values. I’m not talking about whether I should behave respectfully, use good manners, and not attack people on Facebook. I’m talking about whether I’m obligated to pursue things that don’t interest me or that make me feel bad in hopes of walking a neutral, narrow, benign line that goes nowhere.
Here comes sociology again, patting me on the head, telling me not to fret. All selves are crafted, negotiated within social contexts. That’s what humans do. Everything we see of everyone we know can never be more than a complex image in our minds. Literally, that’s how the visual cortices in our brains work. Figuratively, that’s how social life works, even on the Internet. We can try to quit it, but when we turn away to look at something else, what we see there will be just an image too.