Facebook on a Cloudy Day

I had to take a 24-hour break from Facebook last weekend. I was involved in a vigorous discussion about the Ferguson case with two friends (and I’m pretty sure they’re both still my friends) when a woman I’ve never met jumped in to say, “David Rice needs to STFU.” (If you need to ask, it’s an acronym for a less polite way to say, “Be quiet, please.")

Once I calmed down, I recalled something I read when email was the disruptive technology of the day. In a column about using it to trash the boss or converse with your office lover, the author advised users of this then-new technology to think of an email not as a sealed letter but as a post-it note tacked to the bulletin board in the break room. (If you need to ask, letters were how lovers plighted their troth in the several centuries preceding this one.)

I’m not sure what is the proper analogy for Facebook – think of it as drinking with twitchy-fingered outlaws in a Western saloon instead of with friends in your living room? As showering with strangers? Tossing a stink-bomb into the break room? – but I’m sure I’m not the only one surprised to find a typographical broken chair flying in my direction, flung by a stranger I didn’t realize I had offended, didn’t even stop to think was listening in

Maybe Facebook is more like a polyamorous wedding in which the guests include family members, childhood friends, your high school and college friends, your wife’s high school and college friends, your old coworkers (and your wife’s old coworkers), guys you played softball with two decades ago, parents of kids who played in sports leagues with your kids, and everyone that all of them ever knew. You start a line from an old Marx Brothers movie or “Animal House” and your brother or best friend jumps in to finish it and you all laugh uproariously – while the stranger who just joined you stares at you like you’re mad.

Or maybe it’s more like a bathroom stall, where the graffiti careens from Zen-lite observations to clever non-sequiturs to Jenny’s phone number to the inevitable crudely drawn genitalia.  Some are funny (I’m partial to “Things I hate: 1. Vandalism 2. Irony 3. Lists”), while others make you ashamed to share a gender with the guy who wrote it. (If you need to ask, it’s 867-5309.)

And that’s where Facebook gets tricky. I can happily argue with any number of friends on any number of topics. Sometimes they surprise me with their wit, sometimes with their sheer stupidity (i.e., they disagree with me when I’m sure I’m right). But only on the rarest of occasions, at the rawest of times does anyone go away angry or with bruised feelings. Usually we give up trying to convince each other and promise to reconvene over a beer with a new set of nonsense to jaw about.

Not so when a stranger strikes out in anger. I’m a sensitive enough soul to need a Facebook timeout after that.  Even worse is when I lash out over something and am almost instantly horrified to realize I have been way too personal with someone who might actually be a delight, if you talked about the right things. There is an excess of anger in the air these days and it doesn’t take much to set some of us off.

Facebook can be educational. Not long ago I reconnected with an African-American friend from church youth group days. The week of the Ferguson non-indictment he described in horrifying detail being pulled over by two cops in Harlem, allegedly for having a clear plastic cover over his license plate. Two other cops appeared on the sidewalk when he pulled over. I’ve never seen a cop reach for a gun while I reached for my registration, but Dexter has. Some anger is justified.

Facebook can be wonderful. Twice recently I have had instant-messaging chats with old friends, one from high school and one from college. They’ve both turned into wonderful, caring adults. Another college friend reached out to ask me if her daughter, a college senior, could interview me about the Moral Monday rallies I’ve attended in Raleigh. I keep up with my own kid at college as he rides bikes and hikes and, we hope, studies. I see the fish my friend Joel has caught and converse with his siblings, all of us fellow formerly rebellious preacher’s kids. And I read a lot of good stuff I wouldn’t have found without my Facebook friends.

But fighting with strangers is futile. I won’t convince them that we’re still fighting our way to the surface of a sea of racism, and they won’t convince me that it’s not as simple as a good cops encountering bad people. As my friend Tim Tyson commented on Facebook the other day, we need to keep protesting no matter how tired and frustrated we get. And we need to be prepared to lose some friends if we can’t keep quiet. But losing friends we haven’t yet made is pointless.

I’ve been reading a lot of westernized Buddhism as I discover where my own personal journey will take me next. All those quotes you see on Facebook about anger are right. Outbursts always have two victims, the deliverer as well as the recipient. When you’ve been on social media too long, you can feel it, from the top of your head down to your fingertips, like bad electricity. We are all interconnected, and we were put here to love one another. And to turn off the computer and read a good book every once in a while.