I unfriended (Facebook) a family member in December over the poisonous speech of her friends in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. We’ve since re-friended (if that’s a thing), but the episode taught me something about social media and meaningful speech.
Here’s what happened:
Only hours after the shooting, the family member in question posted something to their Facebook wall that amounted to, “Don’t start talking about gun control. Guns don’t kill people . . . ” Now, no one learning the news from Connecticut was in any kind of emotional state to engage in rational conversation about it, yours truly included. I felt compelled to respond, though, so I hastily commented, “How can you defend guns right now? Seriously, how?”
The next several hours unleashed an increasingly abusive stream of comments directed at me. I was accused of insulting this family member. My Christian faith was questioned. I was told to “SHUT THE HELL UP!” All of this came from people I don’t know but who are part of my family member’s social network. As the thread of comments grew, I defended myself. Finally, though, I stopped, and I unfriended my family member. I wanted no part of this network of people.
If you insert yourself into controversial conversations on Facebook, people are going to attack you, probably with more vitriol than they would if you were in the same room. Everybody knows that. Something else has occurred to me as I’ve thought about this incident, though, and that is the notion of pizza. Facebook conversations are less like democratic exchanges of ideas and more like pizza parties.
When we share something on Facebook, whether we compose it ourselves or post it from another source, we’re offering a hot steamy pizza to our social network. Some of our friends will gobble it up, liking it and commenting, “Amen!” and “Thanks for sharing.” Others, though, won’t like it. And their comments effectively throw tofu on the pizza. And nobody likes tofu. Especially on pizza.
It’s as if I showed up to my family member’s pizza party, looked at what she was offering to her social network, and announced, “How can you eat that?!” and then tried to correct its flaws by adding healthier ingredients to it. That was a very unwelcome move to the vast majority of the network. It rendered people unable to assess the nutritional merit of the tofu I’d sprinkled on top of the pepperoni because they were so angry it was even there. I’d ruined their pizza.
I’m friends with my family member again. Only now, when she serves up one her contentious pizzas, I politely decline and move on. Her social network likes pizza that I think is unhealthy. My social network’s pizza tastes are different, and she wonders about them, “How can you eat that?!” But, for my part, I’m done trying to improve other peoples’ pizzas.