Tal Abbady :
Shortly after Israel invaded the Gaza Strip in 2009, a close Muslim friend I’d known since elementary school suddenly disappeared from my Facebook feed. She’d been excoriating Israel in her posts, and I’d said nothing. Then I posted a statistic showing the number of Hamas-fired missiles landing in southern Israel, where my husband has family. That same day, I noticed my friend had written “OMG!!” under my post. And then she was gone.
With a couple of cool, obliterating keystrokes and no questions asked (or at least posted), she’d apparently banished me from her online world. Years of friendship ended with a wordless, virtual severing.
That’s the way things work in social media.
When my husband posted a video with a Zionist interpretation of the founding of Israel (this in response to an animated video advertising the Palestinian version of events), a Christian cousin of his, whom he’d hosted in our home years ago, posted a rant rife with anti-Semitic slurs on his wall.
“He’s finished!” my husband called out to his iPad. He was still shaken from a phone conversation with his sister in Ashdod. A missile had landed on her terrace. The cousin got an explanation before he was deleted, but he was nevertheless gone from my husband’s “friend” list.
And the next day, my husband discovered how it felt. After a heated exchange on the conflict with a close Jewish friend sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, he was the one unceremoniously dumped.
Perhaps it’s time to accept that Facebook is a lousy medium for political debate. People seem to be much more interested in making statements rather than asking questions or seeking out diverse opinions. As much as we might like to think we enjoy pluralistic feeds with multiple views, our “friends” tend to be those with whom we agree. The rest, we shed. A recent study from the University of Colorado Denver found that “polarizing posts” are one of the most frequently cited reasons for unfriending someone on Facebook.
Before logging on to Facebook during the latest Gaza conflict, I braced myself for the warring opinions I’d find. And that was a good thing.
But for me, the initial fantasy of being restored to my 1983 history class with my favorite teacher, surrounded by a clutch of passionate and competitive students – Christians, Muslims and Jews – debating issues with goodwill and youthful enthusiasm is gone. I’m determined to settle for the measured graces of online communing – the annual birthday greetings, the “likes” on photos of our children, the collective agreement to witness each other move tentatively from one year to another in this online hall of mirrors.
Then war will erupt again, and, in the quiet of our wounded hearts, we’ll mutter to ourselves, “Off with her head!” and hit the unfriend button.
(Tal Abbady is a freelance writer. This originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times. Talk back at [email protected].)