In June, Mike LaHaye made peace with the horrible truth.
His childhood best friend – his next-door neighbor growing up, the kid who shared Friday-night sleepovers, marathon Mario Kart games and street hockey in their Cary subdivision – was a Facebook troll.
For many post-collegiate years, LaHaye kept up ties despite a thousand clashes over politics, religion, pop culture – everything. When he was a sophomore in college, LaHaye purged 700 of his 1,000 Facebook friends, but he held onto his old buddy from Cary.
Then in June, after the Orlando shooting, he snapped.
I won’t tell you what this friend’s name is, what he posted or where he stands politically, because to me that’s not important. The crucial thing here is that the rhetoric online grew so intolerable in this historically volatile election year that a two-decade friendship could no longer endure – even electronically. So LaHaye clicked a button and hit the Internet’s equivalent of the nuclear option:
“It was hard!” said LaHaye, 26. “The guy was my best friend when I was 7.”
Curiosity gives way to distaste
At last tally, Facebook membership totaled roughly 1.7 billion people worldwide – more than five times the population of the United States. On average, a smartphone user checks Facebook 14 times a day, according to a study sponsored by the social media giant.
The Pew Research Center shows that 63 percent of all Facebook users have unfriended at least one person
Most people joined Facebook giddy with curiosity over the fate of long-lost acquaintances: first-kiss givers and homecoming dates. But most people quickly discovered they didn’t want to read daily dispatches from people they hadn’t seen since ninth grade homeroom. So they cleaned online house. The Pew Research Center shows that 63 percent of all Facebook users have unfriended at least one person. A 2014 study by the University of Colorado-Denver showed that the unfriending boom gets lowered most often on high school friends: people we met through the accident of geography.
The Pew study also notes, I can’t resist mentioning, that people who identify as liberal are far more likely to unfriend.
But until now, family members got special leeway. You tolerated political tirades from your uncle. You put up with your cousin’s babbling. But as Facebook membership grew, and the content shifted from history quizzes and dog videos to Donald Trump memes and Hillary Clinton screeds, the average Facebook feed felt like one big Thanksgiving dinner fight.
I’ll offer a personal example. In the past year, I have hidden four family members with the “unfollow” function, which is Facebook’s equivalent of Unfriending Lite. My breaking point had no political bias. Two of my hidden relatives are liberals; two conservatives. I love them all. I just can’t stomach their unending political bile.
A few days ago, I mentioned this sad development to the woman who cuts my hair, and she told me casually that she had hidden most of her own family members and her in-laws. In 2016, her feed from the world’s most popular social media site consists of her sister’s baby pictures and updates from Bon Appetit.
In that way, I think that Facebook has started to backfire as an innovation. For me, the thing that has always made it so captivating is it allows us to figure out what became of forgotten friends without the trouble of sending them a letter or, worse, enduring a lunch hour’s worth of small talk. If you’ve watched “The Social Network” about Facebook’s beginnings, the appeal for Mark Zuckerberg’s character is finding out whether girls are single without having to ask and risk embarrassment.
Neither LaHaye, who moved to California, nor his friend live in North Carolina anymore. By the time they went to college, they had migrated to different ideological planets. Without Facebook, they probably wouldn’t have interacted at all.
“I’m into weird music and don’t have any idea what I’m doing with my life,” LaHaye said. “He makes a lot of money and goes duck hunting. But you want to retain some semblance of a relationship. Nobody here has known me more than nine months.”
But social media lends us a mouthpiece large enough to fit an alphorn and a voice that can carry across oceans, so you can’t have just a little sample of your old buddy from Cary. You can’t sift out who he’s voting for, where he goes to church or whether he thinks Black, Blue or All Lives Matter. Multiply that amount of political noise by 200, the average number of Facebook friends, and nobody is safe from the unfriending ax.
“God forgive me as I unfriend my Godmother,” said one tweet I found. “Her pro-Trump insanity is driving me bonkers.”
“Kinda wanna unfriend my uncle on Facebook because he keeps posting all this nonsense about how great Hillary Clinton is ... Like ummm.”
In 2008, when I joined, Facebook felt more like a toy than a political tool. You took quizzes to find out which president, which “Star Wars” character and which wild animal best matched your character.
Unfriending on Facebook is a really big deal. It’s a personal spite when someone unfriends you.
Cara Rousseau, manager for social and digital media strategy at Duke University
But somewhere along the line, it took on far more gravitas – a vital outlet for The New York Times, ESPN and yes, The News & Observer. And as it grew in importance, getting unfriended there felt like a bigger slap in the face.
“Unfriending on Facebook is a really big deal,” said Cara Rousseau, manager for social and digital media strategy at Duke University. “It’s a personal spite when someone unfriends you. And you don’t happen to know right away because you don’t get a notification. You’re missing something – not seeing something you’re used to seeing.”
As the former opinion editor for The Technician at N.C. State University, Ishan Raval is well-accustomed to unfriending. He keeps an eye on his friends total and notes that since late 2015, the unfriending has come at a faster clip – a trend he attributes to election-year politics. As a self-described left-of-Bernie-Sanders voter, he often got into spats with an active campus Democrat who backs Clinton. But it took a Facebook fight to set their disputes to boiling. In a book-length response, Raval began by calling his frequent foil’s post “a load of B.S.” The response: “Do you purposely write comments so long that no one cares enough to read it/argue with you? Because it’s working.”
Raval found himself unfriended. Cut off.
“The thing to be noted is that we were perfectly friendly whenever we saw each other at the bar/parties till then,” Raval, a twentysomething, told me in an e-mail. “As for my post, that was the final straw.”
Hold on to humanity
To illustrate how personal this has become, I’d like to introduce you to Steven Grumbine, my best friend from the sixth grade. We grew up in what was then a rural and conservative county in the otherwise liberal state of Maryland, and like LaHaye in Cary, we enjoyed the sort of friendship that’s harder to find in this era of magnet schools, traveling sports teams and helicopter parents.
We played football in the street until the score topped 100 and the sun went down. We played Atari until our eyeballs fell out. We played Army games in the woods, taking neighbor kids hostage. His father was my baseball coach, and though I haven’t seen her since 1987, his mom is still my Facebook friend.
Steve and I last saw each other when we shared the lead roles in “Oklahoma,” me as Curly and Steve as Jud, in high school. We happily migrated out of our hometown, me to North Carolina and Steve to Pennsylvania. We hadn’t spoken in any form at all until 2008, when I discovered that he had become a minor celebrity on Facebook as the leader of something called Grumbine’s Political Mosh Pit.
What fascinated me about him then and now is the dizzying change his political views have taken. In the past decade, his views have evolved from Republican to Democrat to Never-Hillary, Bernie-or-Bust. Earlier this year, now leading the Facebook page Real Progressives with roughly 70,000 likes, my old friend was interviewed by the Christian Science Monitor.
“Hillary is everything we stand against,” he told a reporter. “How could I vote for her?”
Echoing the Pew research, he took heaviest abuse from snubbed Democrats. He got called an entitled parasite. People created fake Facebook pages in his name. People photoshopped pictures of his family. But the worst of it came from a close member of his own family, whom I’ve promised to describe in vague terms. The rancor between the two of them over Steve’s political prominence on Facebook grew so bad that they nearly came to blows. In the end, Steve, who has 5,000 personal Facebook friends, had to block this member of his immediate family.
I don’t need this thing that’s going to make me angry three times a week.
But that’s not why I’m bringing him up. I’m bringing him up because I unfriended Steve myself.
It was around 2009 and Facebook was relatively new. I wasn’t used to the viciousness, the thoughtless memes that get passed around like poisonous candy or the trashy behavior that few would ever exhibit face-to-face. I won’t describe the post because I’d start another Facebook fight. Suffice it to say I just couldn’t scroll past it casually.
So I hit unfriend.
“I appreciate your candor,” Steve told me this week, when I explained.
I can’t remember the exact circumstances, but I got over my little huff. Maybe I only hid Steve rather than hit unfriend, but whatever the case, we’ve been re-friended Facebook pals for a long time.
LaHaye summed up what a lot of us feel about Facebook when he told me, “I don’t need this thing that’s going to make me angry three times a week.”
And while I agree, I think the whole point of social media is gaining easy access to the richness of our own lives. We’ve collected such a vastness of humanity along our way: liberals, conservatives, lovers, haters, geniuses and even some idiots. Whatever category they fall in, I want to hold on to as many as I can.
What to do
A guide to extracting Facebook friends:
▪ Unfollow. With this function, you remain friends but are spared seeing the posts. Also, there’s no way for your friend to know they’ve been hidden. Go to your friend’s profile, hover over Follow and scroll down to Unfollow.
▪ Unfriend. The big guns. With this function, you’re cut off. Go to your friend’s profile, click friends, think about it carefully and then scroll down to Unfriend.
▪ Ever start a discussion on Facebook that rages out of control? Want to stop it? Click that little gray arrow in the right hand corner and hit delete.