Social networks are wonderful tools that can spark and foster friendships. They can also disable them too, especially when it comes to politics and ideology and two opposing egos get in too deep to acknowledge the commonality that joined them in life and the World Wide Web in the first place.
Such was the bitter lesson I learned in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shooting. I had made a post stating that the best place people could send contributions to benefit the victims and the town of Newtown was through the United Way of Western Connecticut. It was what the town's website had expressed and there were reports that the gifts and the hodgepodge of contributions that were pouring in through other means were choking the relief efforts.
So my 'friend,' someone I had known for over a decade through work, countered with a post that Newtown was too wealthy and that he was going to make his charitable contributions elsewhere.
The response baffled me as my post was not a solicitation or intended for discussion, so why something so seemingly abrupt and dismissive given the gravity of the subject?
I should point out that I had lived in Newtown and that my parents still live in a close-by-town, and that I had made the post over Christmas after having been to Sandy Hook where I was deeply moved by the sense of community and the coming together of people in the aftermath of such an unconscionable tragedy.
I asked my 'friend' for clarification, to which he replied he was simply playing devil's advocate as he always did.
To be fair, my 'friend' is a fairly progressive and open-minded individual who in the social networking universe seemed to take great glee in stirring debate on my page. And in general, I looked forward to his informed and envelope-pushing viewpoints, but this was different, and as I reflected on it more and more, I found his stance not only poor in taste but an affront to me and the people of Newtown.
I didn't know what to do next, so I copied the entire thread to his wall. If he could be so bold in my virtual sphere, would he stand by such incendiary rhetoric before his own 'friendship?'
As anticipated, he removed the thread and made a post on my wall suggesting that I email him should I have anything further to say on the matter.
Still wondering if I had his intent correct, I collected myself and emailed him asking if he realized that I had a personal connection to Newtown and that his posts might be seen as insensitive given that context. His response was brief saying that he understood this and that he had conducted himself fairly and appropriately.
My ire sopped this up as arrogant indignation and my response was a hasty and vitriolic one that I should have slept on, but in that moment, a zinger across the electronic galaxy was the closest I could get to the crisp uppercut I yearned to launch.
He made one last response saying that my email, which contained such churlish phrases as 'hypocritical imp of the internet' and 'bitch slap,' was abusive, and that was it, our digital connection and all traces of, was severed.
For a long while after, I thought I should attempt to make amends, but at a cocktail party shortly thereafter, several friends asked me about the person who 'dissed' Newtown. I took a tinge of vindication in that, but was still remised that someone I had once respected was now gone from my life.
Time has passed, the people of Newtown continue to grieve and heal, and, as I reflect back upon the situation, I appreciate now, more than ever, how silly little foibles in cyberspace can explode into an indignant swell of idiocy. Had I and my 'friend' done this over a cup of coffee or a beer, I'm certain I would not be writing this. Our dependence upon the Internet has sparked and an age of perpetual connection, but no matter how linked in we get, when it comes to a true human connection, there's just no virtual substitute for an old fashion face-to-face in the flesh.