Reading Los Angeles: Join The Times' new book club
Opinion Op-Ed

How to lose friends on Facebook

On Facebook, years of friendship can end with a wordless, virtual severing
Perhaps it's time to accept that Facebook is a lousy medium for political debate
Our 'friends' tend to be those with whom we agree; the rest, we shed

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.

I hadn't expected those posts.

When I joined Facebook six years ago, it was as though someone had lit up a social Christmas tree in my desolate living room. I giddily accrued friendships — primarily with colleagues but also and most enthusiastically with old schoolmates. We'd all been part of a tightly knit expat community in Caracas, Venezuela, and I immediately envisioned Facebook as an Eden of reconnection with that past, where my former BFF from fifth grade would follow our brief exchange of mutually posted pleasantries with solid plans for a tearful reunion.

Needless to say, this didn't happen with any of my old acquaintances. Without the dimension of live contact, we were simply apparitions beaming at one another from flattering photographs. It took me a while to absorb the obvious — we weren't the same children enthralled by our teachers and blood-pledged friendships. We were parents and professionals, married and divorced. And some of us were unrecognizably political, particularly whenever events surrounding Israel flared up.

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. There were the usual Holocaust-referenced condemnations of Israel. There were my sister's harrowing photographs of the destruction in Gaza. There was a Venezuelan childhood friend defending the Israel Defense Forces.

I added to the cacophony with my own posts, which revealed my stake in Israel — my father's country, where I spent summers listening to Simon and Garfunkel in my aunt's Jerusalem apartment. That same aunt had suffered a permanent eye injury decades ago when a grenade exploded under her restaurant table in East Jerusalem.

The woman who defriended me was someone I once cared deeply about. We used to sprawl in each other's bedrooms after school in the late 1980s, laughing over the quirks of teachers and students. Her mother made the best kibbe in Caracas. Our fathers — both businessmen, one Israeli, the other Lebanese — would occasionally chat in Hebrew. Personal and political differences sometimes flared between us, and as adults we took separate paths, but a mutual affection had always bound us.

Facebook seems to have ended that. When she kicked me off her friend list (a conciliatory card I mailed a year later got no reply), I vowed never to post a political word again. I have broken that vow in the last two weeks, but to no fruitful end.

The Israel-Hamas quagmire won't be solved with posts meant for a narrowly self-selected crowd of people who share our views. In times like these, Facebook becomes a bizarre, cultural Rorschach test, where subjects are bombarded with endless YouTube videos sent by people hoping for a "like."

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 who lives in Madrid.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • 4 things Princess Charlotte should keep in mind growing up in Britain's royal family
    4 things Princess Charlotte should keep in mind growing up in Britain's royal family

    I have some words of advice for the newborn Princess Charlotte (Elizabeth Diana) of Cambridge, the first of which -- get a good first name -- her parents have already taken on her behalf. So she’s off to a fine start.

  • How deep are the problems in Baltimore's police department?
    How deep are the problems in Baltimore's police department?

    The decision by Baltimore State's Atty. Marilyn J. Mosby to bring murder, manslaughter and other criminal charges against six police officers in the death of Freddie Gray brought cheer to protesters in that embattled city and their counterparts in other cities where civilians have long complained...

  • Trust issues at DWP, and City Hall
    Trust issues at DWP, and City Hall

    After a year and a half of political fights, lawsuits and protests, City Controller Ron Galperin was finally able to open the books of two nonprofit trusts associated with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and reveal, at least partially, how managers spent millions of dollars in ratepayer...

  • The other Mayweather-Pacquiao fight
    The other Mayweather-Pacquiao fight

    Saturday's championship bout between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao generated an estimated $475 million in ticket sales and pay-per-view fees, a tribute to the promoters' ability to frame the long-delayed fight between two past-their-prime welterweights as an epic event. So masterful was...

  • Fracking: Jerry Brown's environmental blind spot
    Fracking: Jerry Brown's environmental blind spot

    Gov. Jerry Brown may prove to be the greenest government official in American history — emphasis on "may."

  • Will traffic NIMBYs ruin Waze?
    Will traffic NIMBYs ruin Waze?

    Twenty-five years ago, before GPS and smartphones, Richard Schwadel and I co-wrote a book called "L.A. Shortcuts: The Guidebook for Drivers Who Hate to Wait," born out of a bet as to the fastest route to LAX. You could say we were the original Wazers. We had our 15 minutes of fame, made a little...