The Universal Notebook: The (almost) silent treatment

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After a brief flirtation with Facebook, I decided last week that the social media site was not useful to me. I deactivated my Facebook page.

It was just more aggravation than it was worth, it was wasting my time, and, frankly, I didn’t care for some of the people who popped up on “my” page.

I originally signed up for Facebook three years ago just to look at some high school reunion photographs on a friend’s page. I didn’t do anything else with it until this fall when MaineToday Media (publishers of the Portland, Augusta and Waterville daily newspapers) began requiring people who want to post comments on its website to have Facebook accounts and use their real names.

For a month or so, I tried to explain to people who wanted to “friend” me that I wasn’t really “on” Facebook, I was just registered so I could comment on Portland Press Herald news stories. Then, out of sheer curiosity, I decided a month or so ago to see whether Facebook might be useful in promoting my Universal Notebook column, my Yankee magazine art blog and the magazine articles I write. I posted a few links and “friended” a few folks I actually know.

The “friend” phenomenon is very strange. You don’t need Facebook for your real friends. You see them, you call them, you have their e-mail addresses. Once you get beyond a few dozen people (and I think I got to 182 friends before I called it quits), your “friends” are really just acquaintances, friends of friends, acquaintances of acquaintances and professional associates.

My “friend” policy was that I would just “friend” people I knew well enough to say hello to if I bumped into them on the street. Pretty soon I was feeling guilty about not confirming friend requests and feeling annoyed that I felt compelled to respond to people I didn’t really know. Minor annoyance turned to outright indignation, however, when I discovered that the comments of total strangers, people not my “friends,” were turning up on “my” Facebook page in response to comments I made online.

It gave me the creeps, so I shut my page down.

Not being on Facebook means I can no longer comment on MaineToday Media stories and editorials, but there’s nothing but bilge and bile on most comment pages, so I’m probably better off not pounding the keyboard in response to the outrage of the day.

In a related development, I have decided as my 2013 New Year’s resolution that I will no longer respond to anonymous readers who post online comments about my Universal Notebook columns.

The Forecaster uses Disqus (pronounced “discuss”) for the purposes of online comments and Disqus allows posters to hide behind phony screen names. I have long believed that if you don’t have enough courage to sign your name when you express an opinion, you’re not entitled to express it. But that’s not why I am no longer going to reply to anonymous readers.

Just as I concluded that Facebook served no useful purpose in my life, I have also concluded that there is no point in “Disqus-ing” issues with people who won’t identify themselves. Believe me, I could care less what posters say about me, but I find it unfair and unprofessional for a newspaper to allow anonymous cranks to post nasty comments about people who write signed letters to the editor. I applaud MaineToday Media for switching to an online comment system consistent with its letter to the editor policy, and I hope The Forecaster will do so eventually.

In the meantime, I’ll have my say in my columns and then readers can have theirs in letters and online comments. I’ve always had a bad habit of insisting on having the last word. Now, if you’re anonymous, you can have it.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.