Tending the Temple

Surviving the Matrix

I envy my mother. She is not on Facebook. She doesn’t know her friends’ and acquaintances subtle and not so subtle political leanings (except for the few who actually talk politics when they have lunch or a phone call), and she doesn’t care to. What a luxury.

She doesn’t receive a daily (hourly) feed of the people she loves collectively losing sanity and sensibility. She hasn’t witnessed everyone she knows become unpaid content providers for the largest news source in the world. She gets her news from TV and radio. The old fashioned way. The one sided way. She has never been trolled. She doesn’t feed trolls. She has never inadvertently become a troll. She doesn’t know what a troll is.

Oh, to be like my mother. It is too late for me. I’m too far gone to be saved. I’m in the matrix, fully aware, unable to take a pill and escape.

In the wake of Charlottesville, I’ve joined many of my friends in losing our collective shit. I’m pretty sure I’ve lost a friend or two because of how jacked up we all are. On the positive side, I’ve learned who is “safe” for me also. And it’s not who you might expect. It’s not always the people who agree with me. It’s the ones who are capable, and more importantly, WILLING, to see things from another person’s perspective. It’s the people with empathy in the face of the self-righteous nuclear fallout that is social media.

For months I’ve been using a tool which helps make the “matrix” more manageable. The “unfollow” button. It allows me to restrict content in my newsfeed from people who are temporarily toxic to me because of their smug, smoldering rage. A few years ago “blocking” and “unfriending” seemed like the only options you had when dealing with toxic posts, but neither of those options is anonymous. The person knows when they’ve been unfriended or blocked.

My experience in non-virtual life is that boundaries work best when the other person doesn’t know I’ve set them. For example, at one time there was a person in my life who liked to gossip and criticize. And for my part, I really enjoyed participating! Then I realized that I didn’t like how I felt. I couldn’t say to this person, “It’s wrong to gossip and so I can’t talk to you anymore.” That would have provoked a lot of anger and ugliness, and this person was a fairly significant part of my life, not someone I could just cut off or avoid. I had to set the boundary for myself and not tell her. I had to take responsibility for my behavior and avoid gossiping, rather than avoid her.

Initially I kept our conversations very brief. Basic information exchange, nothing more. After a few months, my gossip habit had stopped and over time I could have more intimate conversations with her, while avoiding the temptation to get into gossiping or criticizing other people. I had a few slips, but I’m happy to say this relationship is a very healthy one today because of HOW I practiced the boundary. I tended to my side of the street and didn’t treat her to my condemnation. I followed the dictates of my faith and was a person of peace.

If only there were a way for me to have that kind of boundary in Facebook! The good news is, the “unfollow” option is one such way. I can stop the flow of tempting yet toxic content, in a totally anonymous way, without certain friends and familiar members knowing I’ve unfollowed them. If I’m tired of cat pictures, unfollow. Tired of Trump posts? Unfollow. It works for the pseudo-news sites that pop up too. On the top right corner of every post there is a little arrow. Click it to see the options. Unfollow.

You can refollow friends at any time. You can still see their posts by going directly to their wall. You just won’t be barraged by their posts and opinions on your feed.

The one danger of the unfollow is that it can create an echo chamber if you unfollow everyone who has a different opinion. Thankfully not everyone with different world views is toxic; I only unfollow people whose posts make me tempted to engage or think uncharitable thoughts. If you find yourself thinking uncharitable thoughts about every post with which you disagree, then perhaps you have an anger problem yourself. That’s the time to heed Jesus’ advice and remove the log from your own eye.

The unfollow tool is great for restricting what comes in, but it doesn’t stop those same toxic people from seeing what we post, or from commenting, or from getting into online confrontations on our own postings. Some people I know deal with this by only posting innocuous photos of their pets or kids or dinner plates, or sharing funny or inspirational quotes and memes. That’s one very solid option; in fact, that was kind of the whole point of Facebook before it got warped by politics, media, fake news, and the mass manipulation of public opinion.

Most of us want to feel free to be candid about our opinions and beliefs. This generation is not private about anything. We value our ability to express ourselves. Gen-Xers like me especially value this because growing up we felt ignored and dismissed. We still do, as the media and marketing machines are focused on baby boomers and millennials. Justice is important to us. Freedom and liberty is important to us. In general we distrust authority and want to make sure the world knows why. All these traits are what make us vulnerable in the matrix of Facebook. Meanwhile the millennials have an overdeveloped sense of right and wrong, and very little resilience to the emotional upsets of life, and they more than any other group engage in a collective shaming of anyone who doesn’t submit to the prevailing narrative they are fed by their helicopter-parent media. Meanwhile baby boomers bemoan the loss of the good old days of Woodstock and civil rights protests, or Ronald Reagan. It’s a recipe for a multi-generational clash of values and perspectives.

Sitting on the sidelines isn’t possible for most of us, but even the most innocuous post sharing sadness or dismay can be met not only with sympathy, but personal attacks about why feeling that way is wrong because it’s based on a false view of things. And both sides do it to each other. I’ve done it, and you probably have too. We are human. Let’s cut ourselves some slack as we take that log out of our eye.

The tool I find most helpful for this dilemma is the “friends list.” Facebook allows us to create lists of our friends based on their relationship to us. There’s “Friends,” which is every person with whom we are connected on FB, but under that there are subcategories, like “Acquaintances” or “Family.” Maybe you’ve never used these lists before. I didn’t until just a few weeks ago. But you can change your privacy settings on any post to be seen by ONLY the people on a specific list.

The best part is, you can create your own custom list. That way I can be friends with people from work, but restrict them from seeing my political posts. I can be friends with volatile family members, but restrict them from seeing a heart-felt post about something personal in my life. I can be friends with people whose politics is completely opposite of mine, or even the same, and who feel the need to do battle on my posts. I will not tolerate my friends being ugly with each other, and the best way to set this boundary is to deny them the opportunity to sully their own dignity on my little piece of internet real estate.

I now have a “safe friends” list. This list includes people I trust to not get their nose out of joint if they disagree with me or one of my other friends. They are diplomatic and moderate and open minded and supportive. If I feel the need to share a news story with like-minded people, and can restrict the privacy to “safe friends” and feel confident that it will be accepted with respect and calm.

There are a few other people who are not in my “safe” list. People with whom I need to keep a safe distance on social media because I value their friendship too much in real life. I feel no need to make politics a wedge between us, and I do my part to keep those divisive topics out of our friendship. So while I’m sure they are, in reality, “safe,” I restrict them from seeing certain posts, in the same spirit that I restrict my children from seeing me when I’m overly emotional and reactive. I value our relationship too much.

These two tools, unfollow and friend lists, are allowing me to safely stay in the matrix of social media without losing relationships or losing my voice. If this helps you in any way, please share. Perhaps we will see a return to civility in the social media sphere. Maybe we can prevent a second civil war.