The Virtual Village
Published on October 24, 2011 by Sara Foss

I find social networks fascinating, and Facebook particularly fascinating. I know people who manage their accounts carefully, and think long and hard about whether they want certain people to be their Facebook friends.Teachers can be especially careful, as they don't necessarily want pesky students and parents snooping around their Facebook page and digging up dirt. Other people are simply wary of dredging up painful high school memories, or cluttering up their feed with comments from people they barely know or haven't seen in years.

My attitude is quite different. I'll basically be friends with anyone, as long as they're not a serial killer, and even then I might think long and hard about unfriending them, especially if I've known them since I was a kid. This is partly because Facebook is good for networking - I've used it for work, to track down sources and set up interviews, and sometimes comments and articles posted to Facebook alert me to interesting events and possible story topics. But it's also because I view Facebook as a virtual village, where people from every phase of my life gather together and gab. Sometimes the gabbing is interesting, and sometimes it's not. But I like seeing what people are talking about, and the variety of opinions and ideas is refreshing. Of course, sometimes people say things I don't like. This is something I'm OK with, because I feel it reflects the diversity of beliefs out there in the world.

But that's just me. Some people find it difficult to tolerate comments they find distasteful, and often their reasons for unfriending people are perfectly valid. A gay friend of mine, for instance, decided to unfriend a classmate from high school because he was actively lobbying on Facebook to overturn California's gay marriage law. My friend said, "It's OK if people are conservative. But if they're actively anti-gay, I don't see why I should have to read what they say." This seemed logical, and I briefly considered unfriending my anti-gay high school classmate. But I couldn't bring myself to do it. He remains in the virtual village, writing comments I often find offensive. At some point, I might get sick of him. But for right now, I'm leaving him alone, because he's just one voice among many.

Over on Salon, Kim Brooks wonders whether her Facebook page has become a liberal echo chamber, after an anti-president Obama comment caused her to unfriend an old high school classmate. She writes:

"A few months ago, for reasons I don’t quite understand, I thought it would be a good idea to become Facebook friends with some people I knew in high school. Nostalgic, bored, procrastinating, emotionally unguarded after wrestling the kids into bed, Facebook’s algorithmic magic produced these old classmates’ names and before I knew it, I’d reached out to them with a click.

Why? I wondered almost immediately. These were people to whom I hadn’t spoken in more than 15 years, people I hadn’t much liked at the time, people with whom I’d had little in common besides geographic proximity and attendance at the same underperforming high school in central Virginia. I regretted it instantly, but tried not to worry. After all, I’m Facebook friends with plenty of people I don’t know well or like much, second cousins in south Florida, random playgroup moms, people I’ve met on planes or at Starbucks. What did it really matter — having a few more virtual strangers in my life. That was what I thought. Then, a day or two later, I read one of their posts.

President Obama had just given a televised speech on the economy, and this particular gentleman, someone I’d never known well but with whom I’d shared a neighborhood and a classroom for most of kindergarten through 12th grade, a fellow I remember as being pleasant, a bit on the quiet side, a member of the marching band, certainly not a bully or a jerk, had written, 'Just turned off the t.v. More lies from B. Hussein Obama.' Within a few minutes, 10 people had 'liked' this comment. Within a few more minutes, others had begun to add comments of their own, nearly all of which made reference to the president’s skin color, 'questionable' national origin, or socialist death-panel agenda. I nearly fell out of my chair. My heart was racing. I squinted at the screen. I read the comments again and again. This was the real deal, not on Fox News but right here on MY computer, on MY Facebook page. I’d invited it in, that horrible place I’d left the day I graduated from high school. I looked down at my keyboard and saw that my hands were shaking. I decided to add a comment of my own: 'Don’t like! Boy, am I glad I don’t live in Richmond anymore. You are un-friended!'

Trying to distract myself, I browsed the status of my other Facebook friends, listened to a little NPR, and yet I kept returning to that moment of profound disorientation, that feeling of having slipped into some alternate political universe. Where am I? I’d felt like asking. Who are these people? Am I truly that out of touch with the place I grew up? Have I actually constructed an enclave of liberal, secular, urban-dwelling, like-minded 30-somethings so sealed off from the rest of the world that a tiny breach in the form of a Facebook post could so thoroughly floor me?"

I don't have a lot of patience for racially-tinged birther nonsense, but the types of comments that sent Brooks into a rage probably wouldn't cause me to do much beyond roll my eyes and shake my head. My theory is that I expect people to disagree with me, and so I'm not surprised or put out when they do. And comments are fleeting. Just wait a moment, and something else will appear. Such is the way of life in the virtual village, and I'm always intrigued by what people have to say.

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