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Facebook is wonderful for staying connected to people in your life, especially those who are far away. But it can be an incredibly destructive force locally.

Letting it all out

Life can be brutal and confusing. In days past, we had small communities where we could work through some of those difficulties. When something hard happened, we could decompress at the dinner table, church, or over a drink with friends.

We could work through local tragedies, news stories, and politics. If we were angry at someone, we had people close to us to help work it out. Sometimes those conversations were appropriate, and sometimes they weren’t—but at least they were somewhat contained.

In many ways, Facebook has taken natural, healthy discussions . . . and weaponized them.

3.5 degrees of separation

In his short story Láncszemek, Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy suggested that everyone in the world was connected by six degrees of separation. This concept suggests that each of us is only removed from everyone else on earth by no more than six people.

Researchers now believe that Facebook has us connected to everyone else on the planet with only 2.9–4.2 degrees of separation. Think about it, at the most, you may be only four intermediaries away from talking to anyone else on earth! Crazy, right?!

That number becomes significantly smaller in your town. Depending on the size of your city, you’re only removed from everyone else by one or two people. There’s a strong chance that everyone in your city has seen at least one of your updates, or at least a local story that you’ve commented on.

Because we don’t think about that, we post comments and updates full of sentiments that we’d never communicate directly to individuals. I wish I could say that this is always done on accident, but it isn’t.

Here are five ways that our Facebook use hurts those in our communities:

1. Posting passive-aggressive content

Everyone’s fighting their own battles, and no one gets out of life without scars. But not everyone’s equally equipped to deal with those frustrations and hurts.

Facebook provides a real temptation to express our sadness and outrage to others in covert ways. It’s easy to get hurt and just feel that pressure building up until you get on Facebook to put someone on blast. And though you might have enough sense not to go after them by name, but there’s always one or two people who know who you’re talking about.

When my kids were getting picked on in school, we had to work through it with them. No matter how angry we were, there wasn’t really an outlet to take everyone to task. (I take that back. . . . I suppose I could have printed up a flyer to put on the laundromat bulletin board.) If it was really bad, we could talk to the administration and maybe pull in the other adults.

Now everyone gets on Facebook and starts hurling accusations. I’ve seen adults go after other people’s kids because their child’s feelings were hurt. On some level, I get it. Nothing makes a person irrational like feeling that their child’s being treated poorly or unfairly. Facebook is kind of like having a baseball bat in your car when you get in angry. It’s not going to help and it’s only going to escalate things, but there are moments where one thinks, “I should really go get my bat.”

All it takes is one or two people to jump into the comments of your passive-aggressive update to tell you, “Oh, you’re wonderful. At least I love you!” to make you feel better. It’s a quick balm for that pain, and almost guarantees that you’ll do it again. . . and again. And honestly, I haven’t seen many Facebook posts so gross that at least one other person hasn’t given it a thumbs up and an “atta boy” comment.

2. Posting what’s not yours to post

There was a time when a friend of mine was stuck in traffic and realized that it was because of a fatal car accident. They snapped a picture of the wreck and posted it to Facebook with a comment about “the brevity of life” and “making each moment count.”

To my friend, this was just an anonymous accident—but many people in their friends list knew whose vehicle it was. This careless post went online and spread the terrible news before the police had a chance to inform the next of kin.

That may be a pretty extreme example of carelessness, but this problem manifests itself in other ways. I see people who give no thought to posting video or photos of others who look funny, are acting weird, or may be homeless or drunk. They never once think about the local implications or the fact that they’re probably not that far removed from that person or their family. They don’t realize the pain their mockery and scorn might cause.

3. Saying in comments what you’d never say out loud

One of my county’s largest Facebook pages is a scanner report. On this page, a number of administrators share updates from local emergency channels. I suppose it has some value. If there’s a local emergency, weather pattern, or traffic-blocking accident, it can give you a heads up.

Although the page never gives too much information, it doesn’t mean that people aren’t filling in the details, extrapolating, or commentating on the information in the comments. There’s been so many times where people in the comments have said incredibly insulting things, gave way too much personal information about the accident or domestic disturbance, or simply made up facts that weren’t true.

Pro-tip: It doesn’t matter what your privacy levels are. If you’re making comments on a public page, it’s going to show up on your friend’s Facebook walls.

It’s amazing how often I have seen people on my friends’ list make racist, violent, misogynistic, or sexually charged comments on public pages where they feel a safe because everyone on that page shares their opinion. Little do they realize, they’re destroying their carefully curated image with locals because that content gets shoved into the rest of our feeds.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

4. Heaping injury upon the grieving

In all of our lives relationships exist in concentric circles. Those closest to you are your best friends and family. In the next circle are people who are more casual friend. On the outside, you have acquaintances and people you don’t really know.

It used to be that when tragedy struck, someone’s closest friends and family would create a support system and a barrier to those outside circles. If you lost a child or spouse, those loved ones would take care of you and help to protect you from painful and energy-depleting interference from those outside. This allowed people to grieve in private. When someone’s loved ones updated others on their situation and how things were going, it was by phone or in private discussions that everyone wasn’t privy to.

Facebook doesn’t really allow for that. All of our “friends” lists are made up of family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers. When any of us go through a crisis, all of these “friends” have the same amount of access and visibility. So when it comes to grieving, Facebook creates three big problems:

  1. Everyone feels entitled to know what’s going on.
  2. The tool (Facebook) that close friends and family use to give updates is visible to everyone.
  3. All information is shared with the world—in plain view of the person grieving.

Grief is extremely private and mysterious. It’s different for every individual and people walk through it in their own way, at their own pace. I can’t imagine losing someone close to me and having to deal with social media. It would be hard enough having my news feed full of my close friends posting their memorials and updates when I am at my rawest and just trying to take care of funeral arrangements. On top of that, I have to watch acquaintances post updates about my lost loved one—even when the loss wasn’t significant to them.

What makes it infinitely more painful is having to see the comments. Between watching complete strangers apologize to my acquaintances about their loss (which is really my loss) and seeing strangers making comments and asking for details about an event that has nothing to do with them, it would be too much.

(And don’t even get me started on the private messages from people who I haven’t talked to in years who expect me to divulge details to them.)

One can say, “It’s best that those grieving people just stay off Facebook.” But you know as well as I do that Facebook is the number one way to touch base with people as you’re putting together an event like, say, a funeral. The onus really shouldn’t be on the person who’s suffered loss to protect themselves from others.

We need to give people the space to mourn. Maybe someone grieving would love a bunch of Facebook attention, but we shouldn’t assume that’s the case. Everyone’s different and they respond to pain in their own way, and we can’t let our good intentions create pain for them. Just because you mean well doesn’t mean that what you do is okay.

If someone you know is going through something horrendous, figure out where you are on the relational circle. If you’re a close friend or family member, reach out to them directly. If you’re a casual friend or acquaintance, give it space and time. No one really needs a Facebook update from you about someone else’s tragedy.

Lastly, if someone goes through something traumatic and they post an update about it, this isn’t permission for you to post about it or share it. It’s not always necessary for you to post about everything. If you feel you need to, then get permission. If it seems invasive to ask for permission, it’s probably invasive to post about it, too.

5. Weighing in when it’s harmful and unnecessary

Every town walks through its share of trauma that includes a moral element:

  1. A teen dies from a heroin overdose
  2. A father gets arrested for solicitation
  3. A child takes their own life because of bullying
  4. A mother and child are killed by a drunk driver

Time and time again I see people use a local story as an opportunity to passionately rant about an issue. They don’t seem to remember or care that this is a real family walking through hell, or that they don’t have enough information to make educated comments about the situation. They’re simply grasping onto a local issue that everyone’s aware of as an opportunity to play theologian, philosopher, or social critic. Ultimately, it may be an important discussion that needs to happen locally—but that doesn’t mean that you need to capitalize on this crisis to have it—or that Facebook is the appropriate venue.

There was a crime in my town a while ago that was sensational because it involved local law enforcement. Every news story that was released about it was shared over and over again by people with comments like, “This dirtbag needs to be locked up. What a piece of garbage.” And every time someone liked or commented on it, it showed up in the news feed of his wife and high-school aged kids. They didn’t do anything wrong, but they were getting re-victimized by a bunch of local yahoos who felt a mandate to voice their opinion.

What makes this behavior extremely hard to correct is that the people who do this get so many likes, comments, and shares for waxing philosophic about someone else’s tragedy. And as we all know, “likes” trump good taste or appropriateness.

Just because you have an opinion or can comment on a local story or issue doesn’t mean that you have to. You might have an angle that you feel is going to make a difference, you might be looking for attention, or this story might create an opportunity to give voice to feelings you already had, it doesn’t matter. Think twice about the people at the center of this issue and if your comments are actually doing them a favor.

You don’t post in a vacuum

Social media is here to stay, and that’s good. It’s become part of all our lives. But we all live in communities and our carelessness can have an incredibly negative impact on those around us. When it comes to posting on Facebook, we’re too focused on “could I” rather than “should I?” In the end, maybe loving our neighbor means keeping some of that stuff to ourselves.