The Problem of otherness: Facebook and Fickle Friendships

Dan Bolton



This morning I was checking out a new social networking app, and I came across an interesting post on someone’s blog. Basically, they were complaining that not only had they been unfriended by someone on Facebook, but had been blocked. As a psychotherapist I am well aware of the problems rife with self-report bias, but her assessment was that the person who blocked her had a different world view, possibly political (as she was making some allusions to political topics), and likely felt insulted by one of her posts. 


This was interesting to me, since lately I have been interacting with more people on my personal Facebook page who have drastically different world views than I do. Of course when I read a post that expresses the exact opposite of what my opinion is I am prone to an initial emotional reaction, leaping off of my couch in outrage, but once I come back to Earth I remind myself that in a world of over 6 billion people the odds are really stacked against everyone thinking exactly like me, no matter how impeccable the world would be if everyone did! As tempting as such a thought is, how good would it really be? After all, living in a world full of John Malkoviches freaked out even the purportedly self-centered John Malkovich.


I have found myself lately engaging in more discussions on Facebook with old friends of vastly different political and religious backgrounds and beliefs. Of course there have been times I have had to take a step back, but I have come to realize I how enriching it is to have my news feed filled with such diverse commentary. I feel fortunate because I get to see how the world actually is rather than only seeing it how I want it to be. This is definitely not easy as the technology of Facebook has started to learn what we like to hear (based on what discussions and friends we comment on) and “optimize” what is put onto our news feeds, leaving us more likely to live in an echo chamber surrounded strictly by our own world view, confining us to seeing only what we want to see.


Why would I go so far as to unfriend, even block somebody for having a different point of view even if it does elicit strong emotion in me? To me this seems ridiculous and petty. But it is happening all of the time. People not only seem to not want to even be bothered with the other perspective, but at times actually seem to thrive off the anger and emotion the idea that this otherness even exists evokes in them. The emotions can become so strong that an encounter with this otherness leaves only two options: convincing the other of one’s own opinion or unfriending/blocking them from Facebook. This is really trivializing the matter, as many wars and killings in the world today are the result of this inability to tolerate otherness. But, I want to start small and see if I can reach across the small radius that is my social networking circle. Why not a third option? Take that strong emotion that this other opinion elicits and use it as a point of self-exploration? I call on people to take something dramatically different, whether it be the post of a friend, a news article, or even, God forbid, turn on Fox News for the night and watch Bill O’Reilly (or CNN if you are one of my conservative counterparts). Or go to church and listen to a local sermon, do the yoga class that has always seemed weird to you... Do something different. Get out of your comfort zone! What’s the worst that could happen? You might verify that in fact it was not for you, and have wasted a minute or an hour or two, but you might be surprised at what you discover. Make a commitment to embrace difference. Maybe that which you thought was so different is not that different after all. You just might learn something about yourself.