Facebook Fracas

Illustration by Kate Feiffer

Dear Nicole,
I am a member of a large Vineyard-based Facebook group, which by default means there are a lot of people expressing a lot of opinions.  Someone posted seeking a service provider. (To keep speculation to a minimum, I won’t say which service.) People posted some suggestions, one of them was a friend of mine, let’s call him John. Stay with me if you can, cause this gets a little complicated, because someone else — a total stranger to me — posted a disparaging comment against John. If this happens again, should I post a defense of my friend and risk launching a posting war? Should I stay mute and post nothing? Should I tell John of the libelous post?
Confidentially yours,

Dear Poster,

I think the best choice is one you didn’t propose as an option: state your experience/opinion/truth to the person asking the question (who is seeking information), not to the badmouther (who isn’t). You can disagree with someone without arguing with them. No really, try it. (Unless you’re a teenager, in which case it might be hormonally impossible … but if you’re a teenager, why are you reading an advice column when you already know everything? Don’t you have better things to do with your time, like snapchatting?)

Social media in intended to be just that — social. It’s a “virtual society,” and as such, should reflect the dynamics of the actual society on which it’s based (although sadly it often doesn’t). What does that society look like? If you’re talking about the national political scene, then pull the gloves off and strap yourself in … but this is civilian life on Martha’s Vineyard. We can’t afford to indulge in such shenanigans, because here we have to answer to a higher authority: ourselves and each other. In February. And April. And then next February. And so on.

So if you’re stepping into the social media fray, try to handle yourself as if it were a real conversation happening in real life, maybe at the post office or the fish market or Five Corners (for Edgartonians: “Five Corners” = Up-Islandese for “The Triangle”). Act with integrity and common sense. If you heard someone describe a friend of yours as being professionally incompetent, would you walk up to them and smack them in the face, or immediately start yelling at them? Unless you are in a chemically altered state, or gave a long speech in Cleveland a couple of weeks ago, probably not. You would probably say some reasonable variation of, “Hey, excuse me, I know that person and I vouch for their professionalism.” You could say it to the insulter, but you might as well just say it right to the person who was asking, since they’re the one interested in new information. Don’t say, “You’re lying about John,” or “He/she is lying about John.” Don’t even waste time saying “You/he/she is mistaken about John.” Instead try, “Speaking from personal experience, here is the truth I know about John.” If you get a belligerent response, back off. The person who asked the question will see the bad-mouther’s belligerence just as clearly as you do. The bad-mouther will lose points in their esteem, because belligerence is not attractive to civilians. (It is necessary in certain circumstances, but this isn’t one of them.)

You could certainly also alert John to the fact that he is being bad-mouthed, but there is something vaguely dweeby about doing that if you yourself have not stepped up to do the right thing. It’s better than doing nothing, but it’s not as righteous as honoring a friend’s good name. Be righteous. Without being belligerent.
That’s my take.

Bemused readers ask novelist Nicole Galland for her take on navigating the precarious social landscape that comes with living on the Vineyard. Nicole, who grew up in West Tisbury, is known locally as the co-founder of Shakespeare for the Masses at the Vineyard Playhouse and is the author of “I, Iago.” Her combined knowledge of both this Island and the world’s greatest melodramas compels her to help prevent unnecessary tragedy wherever possible. Trying to untangle a messy Island ethics or etiquette question? Send it to OnIsland@mvtimes.com.