Last week, for the first time, I defriended somebody on Facebook.d_silhouette

This individual, who will go nameless, posts scripture online on a daily, often hourly, basis, but tossed the seventh chapter of Matthew out the window within a few hours of Ted Kennedy’s death and launched into the sort of bitter, vile spew which has poisoned public discourse in this country.

It’s vulgar to defame someone who’s just died, whether it’s Jesse Helms, Ted Kennedy or even Saddam Hussein, but that’s not entirely the reason I defriended this person.

Others have committed this offense on Facebook and I haven’t gone and found that checkbox which removes them from my sight. Recently, when someone made a tasteless joke about Michael Jackson, I called him out about it in terms I deemed just as vulgar as he’d been.

I didn’t know the author of the Ted Kennedy invective well enough to write a defriending note, but the anonymity of the act nevertheless left me uneasy. Yet, what would I have said? It wasn’t the offensiveness of a single act that warranted excommunication, but the combination of spite, sanctimoniousness and verbosity taking up so much room on my computer screen. I was, to be frank, just tired of this person, who never posted any good links or said anything thoughtful.

I felt better about directly challenging the other “friend,” but I doubt my reproof was viewed as good form. On Facebook, where 60-year-olds send each other virtual lollipops, teddy bears and hugs, it’s not cool to be parental.

I wrestle with which of my reactions was the correct one, and indeed with a host of questions about what constitutes proper etiquette in an age of instant, yet largely impersonal, response. I care deeply about manners, even if mine are sometimes lacking. As Sam Adams wrote and John Oxendine recently posted for me and his other Facebook “friends” to be edified by, “Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.”

These questions have come up before. There’s even a Facebook etiquette group – probably more than one, if I’d looked hard enough. But these are hard questions, not given to any casual how-to. Generally, moral questions are hard because we don’t like the answer, not because we don’t know the answer. In questions of manners, we often really don’t know the answer.

There is first the question of proffering or accepting an invitation to be a “friend.” We all understand this as a term of convenience. People use social networking sites to do business and politics (in my case the two are closely intertwined) and a host of things that don’t really imply the deepest friendship. We friend people we haven’t seen since high school, and some people friend those they’d like to meet, but haven’t. Social networks are the new town square, and we speak of “friends” in the same way local boosters used to speak of some little burg being a friendly town. It’s a generality, not intended to be genuine.

If you’re in certain kinds of work that demand a lot of networking, you can’t get around Facebook anymore, though the only really good paying gig I’ve gotten from one of these sites, I got from a connection on LinkedIn. I don’t Twitter yet, although I expect before long I will have to. But how much networking is proper?

I generally accept anyone’s offer of friendship, so long as we have some legitimate connection or enough “friends” in common. I’ve got over 400 “friends,” and other people I know, those who really network for a living, have over 4,000. Others, like my daughter, view such an open policy as too promiscuous.

“I have a loose definition of ‘friend,’” she says, “but I still have one.”

My “friends,” as you might imagine, span the political spectrum, and occasionally, responding to some post of mine, they get into it with each other. Do I have an obligation to referee?

Even fairly gentle advice to those I agree with about how to improve their presentation is not, I sense, much appreciated. In the absence of any really sensible standards for how to act, only unrelenting, unthinking positive reinforcement seems to be acceptable.

There are etiquette questions which pertain to political and professional connections, and those that are purely social. If you were someone’s “friend” because they were married or going steady with a real friend, should you defriend them after they split? And should I have written a note to the person I defriended, even if I’d only met this “friend” in person once?

Some people post with astonishing frequency and vapidity, play those games and take narcissistic quizzes that take up a lot of screen room. There are filters you can use to weed these “friends” out without completely disassociating yourself from them. But when someone writes that they’re experiencing chest and neck pains (this happened yesterday), are you obliged to tell them they should get offline and go see a doctor?

Here we cross that fuzzy line between etiquette and ethics. It seems pretty obvious that some people are shilling for corporate and political interests. Ethically, it’s questionable to take money for your opinions without revealing this to your “friends.” But is it proper etiquette to challenge them, if you have no proof they’re on the take?

There are such things as stalkers, who cruise other people’s profiles to hit on their “friends,” and employers who spy on their employees or potential hires. There’s a considerable literature about this already on the web.

One “friend,” who actually is a friend, recently posted a list of ethics rules – not, appropriately enough, in sequential order – dealing with problems like these. This is a salutary effort, but as regards right and wrong, the old guideposts are as reliable online as off.

It’s the gray area between right and wrong, the zone in which most of our daily contacts are made and where manners are indispensable, that is really tricky. What we really need is a Facebook Emily Post.

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter is the South's leading political reporter. He is currently editor of the Southern Political Report and senior vice-president of its parent company, InsiderAdvantage, a media and polling firm. For more than 40 years, he has worked for newspapers in Montgomery, Ala., Columbia, Md., Charleston, S.C. and Atlanta, Ga. At the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he was a reporter, editor of the Sunday Perspective section, national editor, and for 20 years, chief political correspondent.