Anti-Social Media

I recently posted on Facebook asking people if they’d unfriended or unfollowed people this political season over their political posts. (Unfriending leads to no further contact. Unfollowing means not receiving their posts unless you go looking for them). I knew I’d get some replies – the trend has been documented in a number of places. In ancient Egypt, a defeated pharaoh might have his name chiseled off tablets, monuments and sculptures by his successor. Now, you can do it in real time with any of a number of apps that promise to block news or posts with the name “Trump” in them (Trump Trump). This approach is obviously not great for either open-mindedness or historical accuracy.

I was surprised by the number of responses I got, and the speed with which they came. I’m a regular social media user – this was easily the most responded to post I’ve done in a very long time. It seems there’s a pent-up need to communicate about unfollowing / unfriending, and the associated angst, as much as there is a pent-up need on the part of some social media users to express thoughts that make people want to unfollow them.

Social media continues to grow more inclusive – possibly as many as 95% of Americans have Facebook profiles now. As more and more people get on social, an interesting counter-trend may be the limiting of individual networks. At one time, you would friend everyone you knew and could find on Facebook. It was the start of a new party, and anyone who showed up was welcome. Now, with everyone at that party, who you’re actually interested in spending time with is becoming more exclusive.

Facebook and Twitter have been famously bad at giving you control over different levels of friendship. You can set it up, but it’s time consuming. It’s actually something the widely unused Google+ handles pretty well. But who wants a well-managed social network with no one else there?

This political season, with its encouragement of extreme opinions and its tacit, from-the-top (at least half of the top) endorsement of speaking before you think, has probably accelerated an inevitable culling. Social media is splitting into two levels – who you know (think LinkedIn), and who you actually want to talk to (texting being a prime example). In between those tools you have split level platforms like Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and Granddaddy Facebook, where users want both populations.

The folks who responded to my post fell across a spectrum, from, “Everyone is entitled to their opinion” (non de-friender and local actor Melanie Scelera), “I would not unfriend anyone because of their beliefs. If I cared about them I would try and support an awakening in their ignorance.” (theater producer and marketer Corinne Wahlberg) and “I like to have friends of varying beliefs and backgrounds to get a better understanding of the world. However, this summer, I used the unfollow button for the first time.” (local filmmaker and “Curious Escape Rooms” owner Audrey Chow) to “I only want friends who agree with me and I block everyone else” sentiments. Local musician Keefer Pez says, “I find that Donald Trump has brought out the hidden racists on my friend list. And I have totally used this election as an opportunity to weed out the douchebags.” For others, like local filmmaker Mel Dupont, unfollowing has become a matter of self-preservation. “For me, blocking is a coping mechanism. Blocking helps me keep my blood pressure down,” she explains.

Open mindedness got a lot of props. Local improv powerhouse Tim Thibideau said, ”One thing I find intriguing is that people will judge or unfriend you if you like a specific candidate’s facebook page. They see it as support. I see it as gathering information … for example I follow FOX and MSNBC to see how a specific story is discussed. Different perspectives help me decipher things. Usually I hold my feelings to myself but like to see all angles. I don’t think I will defriend anyone unless hate is suggested. Sometimes I stay friends with someone just to make sure I am never in the same place as them.”

On the other extreme you can find filmmaker Rod Weber, who may be a special case as he’s been documenting Trump rallies, including one where a supporter grabbed Rod’s camera and threw it up, over the crowd. Great for aerial footage. Not so great for the camera. “Vine, where I have the most followers, is where it is most noticeable. I have had more death threats than I can count, and I have even received a video from a KKK guy in full KKK robe…”

But almost everyone had some people they cut off. “I had to unfollow two people in my personal network,” says professional social media consultant Sarah Johnson. “It wasn’t because of what they believed or who they supported, it was because of how they said what they were saying. There was a lot of unnecessary nastiness and meanness.”

Johnson is the Director of Digital Marketing Services at RDW Group, working with a team of social strategists managing dozens of social media presences and a network of over 250,000 users. She doesn’t see the recent rise in bilious social reactions affecting what they’re doing at RDW significantly. “We focus on sectors like higher education, retail, finance and government. The political climate hasn’t really crept into those conversations in a meaningful way,” she says.

Caswell Cooke, the social marketer responsible for, among other things, the Misquamicut Tourism page (fb.com/misquamicutbeach), which boasts over 83,000 followers, says politics haven’t affected their efforts at all. “We haven’t had to deal with any political posts. If we did, I think we’d just delete them – it has nothing to do with a beach community.” If anything, he thinks the stormy waters of political discourse on the social seas may actually help Misquamicut’s efforts to connect with its community. “If anything, we’re more like an oasis. We put up beautiful shots of the beach, and people look at them to get away from everything else, everything stressful,” he explains.

“With personal networks contracting, it may take a little more effort to get the same number of ‘shares,’ but we don’t really see it having a grander impact,” agrees Johnson. “If anything, in customer relations we’re seeing people grow more reasonable. Instead of just lashing out because they’re upset with a company, they’re saying ‘I’m upset. Here’s why. Here’s what I’d like to have happen to make this right.’ Which is great, because customer service can work with that.” So it sounds like people are learning to use social media appropriately. And for some, railing against or for certain political views is considered appropriate — with friends. If that leaves you in the camp of “with friends like these, who needs enemies?” you are clearly not alone going into this November.

I did also ask on Facebook whether anyone had unfriended or unfollowed me. Not surprisingly, no one answered.

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