One of the things I listen to semi-regularly is The Blabbermouth podcast sponsored by Seattle’s own snarky weekly alternative paper, The Stranger. In my most recent Friday Links post I included an article from the Stranger about former Stranger contributor Lindy West’s decision to leave Twitter, as well as linking to Lindy’s article written for the Guardian explaining why she had decided to leave Twitter. Lindy’s writings for various publications have appeared in many editions of my Friday Links over the last few years. She’s funny and insightful and writes about topics I like.
She was on the Blabbermouth podcast after writing about her decision to leave Twitter, and one of her comments there hit on a topic I’ve found myself thinking about a lot. “One of the things that makes Twitter so useful is because it’s the place everyone is.” I made a similar observation about LiveJournal last week. It was so useful for many years because it was the place everyone was. To different degrees and Facebook and Twitter have supplanted that particular aspect, but they’ve done so in very different ways.
Facebook has become, for many of us, a place we’re obligated to be on if we want to have any hope of getting news from family members. Facebook in particular has some serious drawbacks in this regard. A few years ago I missed my niece’s wedding because rather than send out invitations of any sort, my niece mentioned the date on Facebook. And she expected everyone who she wanted to be there to see it and attend. When I tried to explain later that Facebook only shows some of the things you post to some of your friends, she didn’t understand, because other people saw it and showed up. One of the professional writers I follow on Twitter recently pointed out that her official Facebook author page has 8000+ followers, and those followers have lately been sending messages asking when a particular new book is coming out. But the announcement answering the question which she put up on that page was only shown, according to Facebook’s own states, to 136 of those 8000 followers. If she wants more of them to see it, she needs to pay Facebook to promote the announcement. And maybe for something you’re trying to sell that’s a not unreasonable expectation, but the same sort of distribution algorithms are applied to people’s announcements of deaths in the family, weddings, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
And both Twitter and Facebook have issues of mixing all of our communities together, so we wind up offending each other whether intentionally or not with various political and religious comments.
Not that this is something new because of social media. We have a tendency to blame the new technology for dysfunctional behavior that are simply manifestations of human nature. For instance, two times recently things have come up that reminded me of a particular instance of dysfunctional family communication:
Back in the late 80s, when I was still mostly closeted as a queer man, I was informed by at least three relatives (one of my grandmothers, an aunt, and my mom) that one of my cousins (specifically, a first-cousin-once-removed1) who I hadn’t seen in years (but we had spent a lot of time together as kids) had died. Which was a bit upsetting on its own, more so because we were the same age, so he was in his late 20s. But the other upsetting bit was that both mom and my grandma told me, in very hushed tones, that they had heard it was from complications of AIDS, which of course we weren’t supposed to mention to anyone outside the family2. My aunt went much further, telling the lurid tale of how the cousin had been incommunicado and secretive for a few years, and then how his mother (who lived in northern California) had gotten a call from a hospital in San Francisco, and she had barely made it to his death bed before he died, and isn’t that a horrible scandal?
As if I needed more reason to be worried about how my family might take the news that I thought I might be gay, right?
Over the years, any time I happened to mention a story from my childhood involving that particular cousin, various family members would either say what a tragedy it was he had died so young, or change the subject, or in at least one case act as if they didn’t remember his existence4.
Then a few years ago this same aunt posted an old photo on Facebook of a whole bunch of us cousins from a big family get-together that happened in the 70s, and she tagged all of us that were in it with our Facebook accounts. Including D–. To say I was confused is an understatement. So I sent a friend request to this person with the same name as my supposedly dead cousin. And he accepted and the next thing I know I’m looking at photos of him and his husband, along with recent pictures of a holiday get-together with some other members of that branch of the family, including a few who had talked to me personally about his tragic death years ago.
What actually happened? (You’ve probably already guessed.) He came out of the closet back when we were both in our 20s. His immediate family did not react well, at all. At least one of his parents begged him to essentially go back into the closet. When he refused, a decision was made to disown him and treat it as if he had died, and some of the family members went along. Others thought he really had died (and since many of us lived far away and hadn’t been in touch for a while, it was easy for us to believe). He lived his life maintaining contact with those few immediate family members who were supportive.
As time went on and attitudes shifted, less effort was made to maintain the ruse. Until now another form of denial has set in, where almost none of the family members (who are still alive, anyway) who went along with the original ruse wants to even admit it happened.
I came out of the closet in my early 30s, and so far as I know no one on this side of the family told people I had died5. But there was a period of about six years or so when I was estranged from most of my closer family members. The main parallel to my cousin’s situation is that a narrative has been adopted with a bunch of the family that I’m the one who cut everyone off for reasons none of them could fathom, and it was only after my first husband died and I became involved with Michael—who many of them now adore6—that I came back.
Cousin D– and I have had some interesting conversations since all this. It’s been particularly weird this last year during all the election hype where some family members have been saying and sharing extremely homophobic things, while expressing shock and dismay that we don’t feel loved or safe around them because of it8.
All of which is to say: it isn’t just social media algorithms that hide information. It isn’t social media that makes humans react irrationally to news or opinions or decisions we don’t agree with. It isn’t social media that makes some people gaslight others by insisting something we experienced together never happened, or didn’t happen the way we remember it. It isn’t merely because of social media that we put ourselves in bubbles where we never see information that challenges our assumptions. Social media and modern communication in general can make some of that happen faster and have further reach. But our tools have these sorts of functions (hiding information, proliferating misinformation, et cetera) because those are things that we humans sometime chose to do to ourselves and to each other.
And when I say “we” I am very intentionally including myself. There’s more to say on this topic, but I think I’ll try to tackle that in a separate post.
1. I was lucky enough to have all four of my great-grandmothers live until I was at least in my teens (one actually lived until I was in my 30s!). And all of my great-grandparents had rather large families that tended to try to keep in communication. So I knew most of the siblings of all of my grandparents, as well as their kids and their grandchildren. Some family gatherings when I was a child were huge!
2. The reasoning being that because dying of AIDS meant that he was probably queer, and having a queer family member was something to be deeply ashamed of. There was also an uncle who died of complication of AIDS in this same time period, but anytime that Uncle B– was mentioned after that, someone was quick to point out that he had contracted the virus through intravenous drug use3, which was also a shame and a tragedy, but clearly, since we were allowed to talk about Uncle B–‘s death and the drug use, but not this cousin, not nearly as shameful.
3. At least that’s the family story. Uncle B– served time in prison more than once in his tragically short life, and he was a much smaller than average man, and if you know anything about prison rape culture, you know there was more than one probable vector for B–‘s infection.
4. There was one particularly weird moment about 15 years back when we were going through great-grandma’s photo albums that had been in storage for a long time. We happened upon a picture of the cousin and someone asked who that was, and I said, “so-and-so’s youngest son, D–” and my aunt listed off the names of all of the cousin’s siblings and said, “That’s the only kids they had! They never had a son named D–.”
5. On that side of the family. On my dad’s side of the family people weren’t allowed to mention my name within earshot of several family members. I had this confirmed by multiple sources, but mostly just ignored it for a variety of reasons, not the least being that I was already persona non grata long before I came out for the incredible betrayal of telling the judge overseeing my parents’ divorce that I didn’t want to live with my physically abusive father.
6. I honestly don’t understand why their brains don’t explode from the cognitive dissonance. They do genuinely seem to love my husband, and claim to love me, but they actively pray that we’ll somehow magically be cured of our queerness and leave each other to marry nice christian girls. They also mention us by name as proof they aren’t homophobic while explaining how we’re going going to burn in hell for eternity and deserve any hate crimes that might befall us7
7. That was literally the last post I saw on Facebook from one relative before I blocked her in November—not even being metaphorical.
8. I understand the concept that we can disagree about things and still be friends. But that depends entirely on the nature of the disagreement. When the disagreement is whether I get equal protection under the law, or whether I’m allowed to get health care or any other service, or whether it is okay for me to be the victim of hate crimes, or even whether I have a right to live9, then no, you aren’t my friend.
9. When you post or endorse statements that homosexuals are deserving of death, or if you claim that merely allowing us to live openly and enjoy some legal rights is going to cause god to destroy the nation, you are giving encouragement to gay-bashers to kill us. And then when juries refuse to convict our murderers (which happens a lot) on various flimsy grounds, that just proves my point.