I would have thought this was obvious. But it seems not to be. So here comes the measured rant.
There’s this pattern I’ve been seeing for a while. I keep seeing people pay intense, microscopically-close attention to other people’s behavior on social media. I don’t mean “things people say on social media”: I mean their behavior. Who are they friends with? Who are they not friends with? Who did they un-friend or un-follow or block? What posts did they like or share or re-Tweet? What posts did they not like or share or re-Tweet? A lot of people pay intense, microscopically-close attention to this social media behavior — and then tie it in with a micro-analysis of the thoughts and feelings and intentions that supposedly lie behind it. People make assumptions about shifting alliances, secretly-held opinions, behind-the-scenes machinations — based entirely on this friending and unfriending, this blocking and un-blocking, these likes and dislikes. I’ve started calling it “reading the Facebook tea leaves.”
So I’m going to say this again:
Not everyone uses social media the same way.
Some people use social media more for their personal lives, to stay connected with friends and family. Some people use it more professionally, to promote their work or do research or maintain professional connections. Some people have a couple hundred friends, or fewer, mostly or entirely their actual friends. Some people have hundreds or thousands of “friends”: their actual friends, plus colleagues, neighbors, friends of friends of friends, people they met at a party or a conference that one time, people they friended because they made a funny comment on someone else’s page, pretty much anyone who sends a friend request.
Some people “like” pretty much everything they see on their feed. Some people “like” only things they feel strong agreement or affinity with. Some people “like” posts to express agreement or support. Some people “like” posts to keep track of the thread, so they’ll get notifications when new comments appear. Some people share or re-Tweet only when they agree with something. Some people share or re-Tweet to increase the visibility of ugly opinions they think people are ignoring or denying.
Some people unfriend or block because the blockee expresses opinions they find deeply objectionable or upsetting. Some people unfriend or block because the blockee keeps posting things they find upsetting, regardless of whether they agree (e.g., “Yes, I agree about animal cruelty, but I don’t need to keep seeing gruesome graphic pictures of it in my feed”). Some people unfriend or block because the blockee posts extensively about things they’re just not interested in: politics, religion, atheism, folk dancing, kids, gossip and news about people the blocker doesn’t know, pictures of food. Some people unfriend because they’re trying to keep their Facebook feed manageable, and are culling it down to people they know well. Some people unfriend because they’re stepping away from a profession or hobby or political movement. Some people continue to follow or be “friends” with people they have serious problems with, because they want to keep an eye on what they’re saying, or because they want to tag them when they criticize them. Some people friend or unfriend, follow or un-follow, block or un-block, like or don’t like, because they hit the wrong damn key and didn’t notice.
Not everyone uses social media the same way.
So it’s a really, REALLY bad idea to make assumptions about people’s thoughts and feelings and intentions, their shifting alliances and secretly-held opinions and behind-the-scenes machinations, based solely on what they like or don’t like on social media, who they are and aren’t “friends” with, who they do and don’t “follow.”
Plus, there’s often an inconsistency to this micro-analysis. I’ve seen people passionately defend the right to block or unfriend or unfollow anyone you want, for any reason — and then turn around and get outraged because someone has blocked them, or has blocked other people they think shouldn’t have been blocked. It’s like that joke about “I am confident, you are cocky, they are arrogant”: “I am curating my Internet experience; you are creating an echo chamber; they are fascist censors who are stifling free speech.”
Again, I’m not talking about the things people actually say on social media. The words that come out of people’s mouths and fingers are, I think, a pretty reasonable guide to at least some of their thoughts and feelings and intentions. But when it comes to the other ways people use social media — liking and friending and following and blocking and the rest of it — can we please quit using it to decipher hidden meanings? Can we please quit trying to read the tea leaves? They’re a crappy news source, about as reliable as the National Enquirer. And trying to read them just adds more misinformation, more paranoia, more general noise, to an Internet that seriously doesn’t need any more.
Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.