To suggest I have a habit of falling out with people is a wee bit of an understatement. I have both destroyed good friendships and been on the receiving end of destroyer's of good friendships. It's pretty much human nature and not something I've let bother me over the last few years. Once upon a time (and in one specific case even today) I would obsess about 'what the hell happened?' or 'how did it get here?' and then, gradually, as I got older I started to realise that it was all part of the human process and that if you can fall out with someone and never make up then there couldn't have been much there in the first place (or usually that is the case, when it comes to family the boundaries get blurred and riven with expectations and disappointments).
I'm not reformed. I still get involved in situations that could end up with people not talking, but, last year, on January 1st or thereabouts, I decided to try and not be confrontational with people, whether they were strangers or old friends. And, by and large, I succeeded and 2016 ended up being a year where I 'fell out' with very few people. This was down to me and the training of my knee-jerk reactions to sit in the corner and bite its metaphoric tongue. The reason was simple, I was wasting far too much time, energy and health on trying to convince people who didn't want convincing of the errors of their ways. A bit conceited, I know, but sometimes when you know you are right, you want others to be as fair and even as you.
Ten years ago, I fell out with one of my best friends. I can't tell you why because for ten years I have had no idea. None of our mutual friends know why; even the guy's ex-wife was puzzled as to why it happened. It was almost a 'cut-my-nose-off-to-spite-my-face' move because, essentially, he alienated himself from a chunk of the rest of his friends because of his sudden (or maybe slow burning) dislike of me. Hey, I've always been Mr Marmite so this isn't something that has ever bothered me greatly. People don't like me. I got over it, it's just never happened with someone I've known for 30 odd years.
Another friend (in 2015) fell out with me on social media; I called the daughter of a friend of his 'a stupid little girl', because without any knowledge of her age or her life I took umbrage to her apparent support of Nigel Farage based on the fact she found him amusing. I got pilloried for insulting a 16 year old. My argument was she shouldn't have attempted to trivialise a serious discussion with a stupid, naive and, without context, an inflammatory statement. My friend demanded I apologise to the kid. I thought that was way over the top, especially considering I had no idea who she was or what her family were to my friend. I refused; he got arsey; I got arse-ier; end of 15 years of friendship.
Social media might be many things but it is essentially the gateway to hate and anger. In May, a friend who many of my other friends have also known for over 30 years, 'unfriended' me (and several others) on Facebook. Not really a falling out as she fully intended to attend my 30th anniversary party, but I found out through a third party it was because she was going to vote Leave and was fed up with all my pro-Remain 'propaganda'. She has since reconnected with the other ostracised Remainers, but I wouldn't accept her friend request. I just hope her children and grandchildren don't suffer too much from her wilful ignorance.
With the exception of that first example (because there hasn't been closure on it), I'd not allowed the circumstances to bother me, so when 2016 came around I made a conscious decision to not be confrontational and to try and be rational and fair when commenting on controversial social media topics. This included definitely not getting into slanging matches with right wing wankers and walking away from threads and conversations where someone I know are, IMHO, embarrassing themselves. I did remarkably well and I could easily challenge anyone to come up with an example of where I didn't follow this 'resolution' (family rows are exempt here, because I'm quick to argue with my family because of the amount of Conservatives and UKippers there are amongst them).
I made a big deal to my fellow Remain voters that it was essential they kept clear heads when discussing the EU; that getting into rows tended to polarise people's opinions rather than change them and that using facts was the best way forward (how naive of me not to realise that 'facts' would become a burden). Obviously that approach didn't work out well for me or any of my rational friends and as a result of the referendum the levels of anger and intolerance on social media, comments sections and discussion threads were ratcheted up and it appeared that anyone was a fair target, especially if they were classed as 'hand-wringing liberals'.
We've seen and heard lots of discussion about 'bubbles' and how we tend to surround ourselves with similar-minded people, because it makes us feel better knowing we're not alone in the way we think or feel. We tend not to see bubbles where people are diametrically opposite what we believe in - why should we, unless it's to 'Know Thine Enemy'. During November and December I witnessed hate being cranked up to new and even more vile levels and I believed it was a right wing ignorance thing. I then started to see right wing arseholes justifying their shameful behaviour by suggesting that there were just as many vile and hateful left wingers out there and, you know, I thought this was just more right wing propaganda aimed at deluding the ignorant into believing that there was a certain 'honesty' about being a fascist. Freedom of speech was thrown around like a vacant sun bed in Malaga and the more I witnessed the more I started to believe that even social media was now being manipulated by fakes, frauds and people paid by a political party to just be trolls. My conspiracy theories were verging on the paranoid and delusional all because any rational explanation for the surreal direction the world had taken was way out of my reach.
Don't get me wrong, I also believe that the left wing are as covertly active on social media as the right wing; but because I tend to agree with these people I can't see them in the same light as someone demanding 'a hard Brexit' so we can 'take back control' and 'kick out the EU scum who steal our jobs, claim our dole and have forced the NHS to breaking point.' But they are in many way just as bad and just as nasty and hateful - and it really pains me to admit that.
The success of my year of trying not to get wound up by wankers was almost complete. I had not fallen out with anyone (apart from one of my nieces and her dad, my brother); I'd had no big arguments and I'd tried to be as fair and non-inflammatory as I could. That was until Christmas...
By the beginning of November I'd gotten to the stage where I was so disillusioned with the internet, I didn't even feel inclined to try and tell a twat he was a twat. If I could see it, then cleverer people than me would too.
Everything I used to get angry and frustrated about with social media had begun to disappear; 2016 had been such a fucked up year that getting angry at a wanker seemed futile. But just as I believed I'd got through the year, it all welled together again to form a cloud of anger that my good sense did not stop.
I watched a raft of reasonable people try, in vain, to make someone see that what they had posted was homophobic, bitter, twisted and predominantly done to attract attention. Some guy (I could tell you his name or link you to his page or website, but he doesn't deserve any more attention, at all) basically suggested within 12 hours of the death of George Michael, that the singer was a collection of heinous things: a fraud, a predatory homosexual, a danger to children and a drunk driver; he even went as far as to post the lyrics of 'Wake Me Up' to prove just what a useless fraud and con artist the singer/songwriter was (despite GM having been about 18 when he wrote this multi-million selling song).
Now the man who did this needs quantifying; he claims to be gay; he claims to be either a psychologist or a psychotherapist, working for the NHS and he runs a poetry publishing house. It would also appear that he is something of a left wing attack dog, claiming to be many things that really should have endeared him to me rather than alienate. I stumbled across this offensive man because another of my Facebook friends had made a comment, a fair and even-handed comment trying to pull the man up on his rather extreme [Read: intolerant and homophobic] views. She was just one of about 40 people trying to make this man realise that not only was he generalising a situation, he was not prepared to listen to other's points of view and was doing what he accused so many of doing, not actually reading the things that were being written to him. He was insulting them and then blocking them, indiscriminately. Childlike and priggish.
I sat for almost an hour watching this attention-seeking and self-important waste of space get more irrational and offensive to people who disagreed with him; not just that, he managed to twist everything that was said to him, in a very right wing way, to fit his agenda, which appeared to be, 'I don't like George Michael so anyone that disagrees with me is either a fake, a fraud or an idiot' and he pursued this with a tenacity that would worry wolverines. In a really unexpected twist, he started accusing anyone who didn't have their entire life history mapped out on their Facebook page of being either an MI6 or CIA spy, despite the fact that many people pointed out to him that there is this 'privacy control' setting in Facebook that allows you to determine who or what sees your personal information. Our delusional friend seemed to think that if you can't have your entire life history on show for everyone to see then you are a fraud or a fake or you must have something heinous to hide.
He went one step further; accusing people of having pornography on their pages; of being right wing infiltrators, of being employed by the government to target him, personally. And all the while, the cornerstone of his argument had stopped being about how crap George Michael was and was now focused on denigrating, besmirching and insulting anyone who either didn't agree with him, or didn't have enough of their personal information in their 'About' section and around and around it went.
I'd pretty much realised before I decided to throw my two cents worth in that it was a futile attempt and the person we were all dealing with was more likely to be a mental health outpatient than a mental health worker, but I thought (wrongly) as I had run a publishing company, that I had a Wiki entry (which he doesn't) and was reasonably well known in that field, he might take my opinion with a little more gravitas than the people he was accusing of being aliens or Tory trolls. Of course, I never thought that because I have no information 'About Me' on my Facebook page that I would ever be accused of being a fake or a fraud; I mean I have a couple of dummy Facebook accounts, but I've made no secret of the fact; and I have over 400 friends and my Facebook is pretty much full of blogs and music and politics - so to be blocked and accused of being a government plant kind of incensed me - which, of course, was exactly what this attention-seeking waste of life was trying to do. He was in charge of his page, his opinions and he could say and do anything he liked, because he was IN CONTROL.
This man was quick to point out how many thousand followers he has and a trawl through his page suggested that he is extremely opinionated and in a spiteful way (something a dear and rational gay friend of mine said is often an unpleasant trait in some - not all - gay men and, oddly enough, transsexuals), so his opinions obviously flick switches with intolerant left wingers - a statement I would have argued against 12 months ago, I mean, left wingers who are intolerant? Geddouttahere.
The amount of friends and followers appeared to make him believe that he has the right to say anything he wants - a kind of power from the people attitude that often backfires - and his refusal to engage with 'genuine' people, with full histories on display, suggested to me that he'd say anything controversial to continue getting the attention he was getting. With this kind of legitimate troll, you can only imagine it must be the sexual gratification they get from being the centre of so many peoples attention.
Mutual friends of mine and the woman who's initial response drew me to it tried in vain to make this disgusting man acknowledge the valid points made; my own attempt was to ask him if he didn't support the rehabilitation of offenders, or if he had forgiveness or could accept that someone has paid their dues and deserves another chance. He wasn't having that, especially from an obvious MI6 plant... I got blocked and for a while sat in anger bordering on apoplexy. Watching far more rational people than me try with growing futility to make this opinionated and hateful human give an inch made me realise that we were all being played for suckers. We'd been swept up by a very skillful and talented left wing troll; someone just as vile, hateful and nasty as his right wing counterparts, but hiding behind some strangely constructed moral high ground riddled with flaws...
The reason I still get bouts of puzzled melancholia regarding my old friend's sudden change towards me, that is because for 20 years there had barely been a raised word between us and his change was sudden and unexpected. It might have been my fault for that change, but even my biggest critics don't think so. While I struggle at times, even today, to accept that my life no longer has this great person in it, I have had to, because there is nothing I can do or say that will make the situation better and confronting him would make it exponentially worse.
The people whose friendships have been lost through social media is something entirely different. Social media isn't about real friendship, it's about connections. The people I see and socialise with in real life, I also have social media connections with, but the majority of our interaction is away from the computer or phone. I think there's an unwritten law between me and one of my other best friends that we'll just be surreal on line with each other, because we both know how even the most innocuous sentence can be misconstrued, by the bestest of friends.
Many people stop being personal friends and become Facebook friends; people you used to see regularly are now just an ever-changing profile picture, that you interact with when they are deemed worthy by Mark Zuckerberg of appearing in your timeline. Therefore should you really waste your time with things that will probably end up giving you a tension headache than resolving someone's issues? You might have a deep sentimental 'love' for many old friends, but if the only contact you now have is through the computer, or at the few and far between actual social events that are held, then is their absence from your life that important?
I say that my old best friend's absence from my life bugs me; but the truth is it only bugs me when I'm struck by melancholia or I write something that reminds me of the absurd evening when our friendship ended. I've managed to get on with life, without him, the same way I've managed to get on with life by no longer being a party animal, or no longer smoking, or no longer doing the things that people 30 years my junior still do. That is the art of disassociation - the ability to let the things that once affected you no longer have any effect.
When was the last time you bumped into so-and-so? It's been over a year!? We must get together soon. Yes, life has a way of getting involved. Doesn't time fly? Even people you want to socialise with don't get seen as much as you might once have; and its nothing to do with kids or dogs, or jobs or anything; it's because we learn to subconsciously disassociate ourselves from the lives we used to live; which is why we can slip back into that mode when we're reunited with friends and act like you were all together yesterday rather than the last barbecue.
Think about this: we can subconsciously disassociate ourselves from the things we love; so how come we find it so hard for things we hate or don't even know? Is it because it disturbs some dark passion inside some of us? What I did to try and not get wound up by wankers began with writing a response and then deleting it - a lot tougher for me than you can imagine - then formulating a response in my head and then just metaphorically waving an arm at the screen and moving on. Like any addict, temptation sometimes got the better of me, but I kept 'be civil' as my mantra (and even the falling out with my niece was not because I got emotional and insulting). With the psychotic poet, I allowed my emotions to get the better of me, ironically over - George Michael - someone I was pretty much as ambivalent about as you can possibly be and I broke the first rule of Voltaire's secretary's law by not defending the right of a wanker to say something I didn't agree with. He won. I, along with many others, got conned and it was all because clever bastards like this guy know that there are enough idiots out there who will take his bait.
Whether you are an insidious troll under an assumed name or a overt troll with no fear of recriminations, you are still a troll and the best way to deal with trolls is to ignore them and the most likely outcome is for people to do exactly the opposite. Whether it's because they can't see what is happening or they think they can change the person saying it.
We do not live in a world where trolls are ignored and once you understand that you can ignore it more easily. I don't keep scores, but I'd say that in 2015 I probably had 50 on-line 'exchanges' that ended up with words like 'fascist', 'Nazi' and 'Tory Twat' being used, with abundance. In 2016, I had ONE exchange where I lost my cool (and that was with someone who purports to be more left wing than me...). What I've learned is, apart from the very odd slip up, I have more self-control than I thought and maybe I can go through 2017 with even less involvement with social media and therefore be happier and less stressed, regardless of what other shit life throws at me.