Rough Neighborhood: A Note About Facebook, Comments, and Social Media Manner

Rough Neighborhood: A Note About Facebook, Comments, and Social Media Manner November 26, 2014


It’s been a rough week in America — and that means it’s been a rough week on social media as well.

Yesterday, I posted something on Facebook that I wanted to offer as food for thought: Mostly, the consolation of Scriptures — messages assuring us that our longing for justice will be completely fulfilled by a just and loving God.

But, knowing that emotions on the subject of justice were running high, and finding angry exchanges on almost every page I visited, I decided to ask readers to refrain from commenting on that particular post. Even though I offered it with the best intentions, I knew that somebody somewhere would take offense. I knew that I would be misunderstood — and that misunderstanding might be the reader’s fault, or it might be mine. Whatever the case, it was meant as a provocation to reflection, not as an invitation to an argument — so I asked people not to post comments there.

That upset some people, who argued that I had no right to shut down comments in a “social media” realm. (I learned this, of course, from comments.)

Frankly, I think the existence of the “Delete” and “Block” functions on Facebook suggest that there is a reasonable purpose for such functions. I believe that I have every right to shut down comments if they are counter-productive or damaging. Further, I use social media for conversations, most of the time; but sometimes, I just want to pass something along for readers to think about without immediate reactions. I want to share something that gives everyone a pause for reflection, without the instantaneous buzz. I’d rather not use punishing tactics to create that pause — I would prefer to ask, respectfully, for restraint.

But when that request inspired others to say I was being tyrannical and merely shutting down alternate views, I had to answer.

I’ve thought about it further since then, and what I think on that issue is too long for a Facebook post.

So here it is…

For the record, I have happily and civilly and profitably engaged in disagreements on Facebook today…

… which I point out only for those who claim that my occasional (rare, actually) “No Comments” Facebook posts are “trolling” or a refusal to engage opinions other than my own.

In 99% of my posts, I only use DELETE in cases of uncivil behavior, and I only use BLOCK in cases of persistent belligerence, slander, obscenity, or otherwsie hateful expressions. Still — even peace marches attract anarchists, troublemakers who don’t care much about the issues at hand, but are just looking for a way to unleash violence? That often happens on social media. And it does damage to all sides of the argument. If I get a sense that a comment thread is going to take that turn — if I sense sharks in the territory who will rush in at the faintest trace of vulnerability — I request, or even insist on, a “no comments” post. That, I hope, will prevent the damage that would otherwise be almost inevitable, the lashing-out from those who probably weren’t really listening in the first place.

Aside from “anarchists,” there are also “nuclear reactors” — people who rage against the posts that offend them without any capacity for hearing that their reaction is far more hostile and reckless and destructive than whatever set them off. Many of us, myself included, have been “nuclear reactors” before. Fires like those are hard to put out; they tend to spread.

Does my occasional “No Comments, Please” request shut down people who have good things to say? Yes. Unfortunately. And I’m sad about that.

But if I’m in a neighborhood full of vandals, I’m not going to hang an original piece of artwork in my front yard… not unless I also surround it with an electrified fence. Sure, there are some kind and civil people on my block; all the more reason to seek safe, productive ways to engage with them. The security measures are not a refusal to engage; they’re just common sense.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that my posts are “pearls” — in the post in question, I was sharing “pearls” from Scripture —  the phrase “pearls before swine” is not irrelevant here. It’s a meaningful cliché.

Think about it: How many times in your life have your opinions been changed by somebody who confronted you harshly in public (on social media)?

For me, never. Not once.

My sensibilities are in a constant state of growth and change, and they are “taught” incrementally, usually by attraction to truth (expressed with grace), reason (modeled, not shouted), and beauty (the how of what we say is just as important as the what of what we say). If I disagree with somebody, I usually keep it to myself — or I take it to them in private messages because it takes away the “People Are Watching” factor. The “People Are Watching” factor can ruin anything by heightening tensions and hypersensitizing ego. Exchanges in public tend to be more combustible.

If you’ve read much of my writing, you know I love this Madeleine L’Engle quote:

“We do not draw people to Christ by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely they want with all of their hearts to know the source of it.”

I have plenty of experience failing at this.

And I’ll fail again.

But I share this with gratitude for those who have understood those “No Comment, Please” posts in the past, and in hopes people will understand it in the future.

And, as usual, I hope Facebook eventually offers us a “Post Without Comments” option the way that Google Plus does — it’s the one thing that I think Google Plus does better than Facebook.

Anyway… feel free to comment freely on this blog post.

[Just remember my blog’s comment policy.]

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6 responses to “Rough Neighborhood: A Note About Facebook, Comments, and Social Media Manner”

  1. Since everyone has the ability to set up a Facebook account or blog page for that matter, I don’t have any problem with any expectations from a page you manage. There are plenty of places for people to go toxic. Even if people don’t understand why I’ve made a specific rule or suggestion, they are not the ones left running my social media presence. It’s my presence and I have to live with the consequences. Certainly limiting discussion in some areas will turn some people away. However, it will also draw other people closer. It’s not censorship, it’s personal preference based on the fact that you ultimately have live with your own social media presence. You are not a forum or a discussion thread….you are a person communicating in various forms….some spoken, some written, all ultimately to be expressed within your own comfort zone and communication goals. Thanks for the post and for expressing some of the considerations you use for your decisions.

  2. Hi Jeff.
    I am tempted to say, “long-time reader, first-time commenter!” but that would only be partly true (I have commented on your Facebook page, but not on your blog).
    I was intrigued when I first saw you post something on Facebook that asked people not to comment. The idea that a person’s Facebook page could be used as a news aggregate had not occurred to me, and it struck me as a bit odd. Then I realized that I do tend to “use” my friend’s Facebook pages as news aggregates, in addition to a place for dialogue/conversation.
    I do find it interesting that you equated your Facebook posts with the biblical admonition about throwing pearls before swine. Isn’t posting an article on Facebook, to use your analogy, precisely that? Throwing a pearl out there then asking people not to trample it. Wouldn’t it be better not to throw it out?
    As someone who regularly posts provocative and potentially divisive content, I know it is incredibly exhausting to deal with dissenters, nuclear fire-starters, and anarchists/trollers. However, I also regularly experience powerful ideas and provocative thoughts from intelligent/creative folks who differ from me in opinion, yet can share their thoughts respectfully and tactfully.
    I wish there was a way to get at one without dealing with the other, but I do think that is the price of social dialogue, especially on a forum like Facebook. I’ve never blocked folks on Facebook for being belligerent, but I suspect that is because I have a much lower public profile than you. Were I put in that position, I think I would rather keep comments open, and then sift out those folks who were belligerent, anarchist, et al. But that can be extremely time- & energy consuming. I believe the nuggets of genuine dialogue are worth the tares of banal belligerency. Yet I understand if others do not feel this is a fare trade.
    I might suggest that you simply name those posts for what they are: news aggregates. You might even make a joke of it. Dub them the lastest finds of the “Overstreet Press”, or some such.
    In any case, I am thrilled by the versatility of your posts, and I would encourage you to sally forth.

    • Thanks, Scott. I really appreciate your post.

      I suppose I could go to the extreme of saying that any FB post is “throwing pearls before swine,” but then, most people who have “swine-like” tendencies aren’t at all interested in my FB posts. They aren’t following, aren’t paying attention. I’m grateful that almost every comment comes from an intelligent, respectful reader.

      In my experience, one belligerent person can kill a conversation. I would never stoop to calling anybody I encounter “a pig,” but there is a trace of truth in George Bernard Shaw said: “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.” There are people who seem strangely compelled to throw fuel on destructive fires of conversation, people for whom emotion overpowers reason… and when that happens, no carefully crafted response is likely to shut them down. Maybe I’m oversensitive … I know that sometimes I am. But when a conversation that has the potential for goodness ends up burning most of those involved because of one aggressor, and when it sends us back to our immediate, in-person relationships drained and injured and even contentious, then, well… I need to give some thought to the concept of hospitality. If I am serving dinner to my neighbors, and one comes in and starts spitting in everyone’s food, what is the best thing to do? Shrug and say, “Well, that’s the risk you take when you invite the neighbors”? I hope not. I hope I have some room to say, “Sir, when I host a conversation, it is a conversation, not an invitation for abuse.”

      There is no easy solution, that’s for sure. Maybe I’ll find a better way in the future. I’m certainly open to, and thankful for, suggestions.