Some time ago, a curious thing started happening on my Facebook. The suggested friends module basically gave up on showing me friends from the church I attended as a youth, and started showing me local area atheists instead. Not long thereafter, it started popping up with atheists from all over the place — bloggers, authors, podcast hosts, leaders of national groups. This was neither unwelcome nor a fluke, in fact, it was almost perfectly timed. I assume that someday when Skynet rules us all, the most cognisant AI’s will eventually be traced back to Facebook’s suggested friendship algorithms.
It’s no secret that the skeptical and atheist movements spend a good deal of our time online. We talk to each other on various social media, on our diverse blogs, on live chats and podcasts, and sometimes even using that most primitive of internet inventions: e-mail.
But how connected are we really? The short answer is that the authors, activists, and leaders within both skepticism and freethought are quite highly connected to each other (and usually to their fans) via social media and by real world connections as well.
Surprisingly, even those who often curse and complain about each other online are often connected by social media, and if you include connections through a mutual friend, they are almost ALL connected. There are bound to be exceptions, of course, but the general pattern is that almost everyone you’re heard of is connected to someone you already know.
What does this imply for our behaviour? If you maliciously malign (or effusively praise) someone on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, or elsewhere on the open web, don’t be surprised if it gets back to them. I’ve seen this happen to otherwise obscure people in bizarre ways often enough to suspect a general trend. Hell, I’ve had seemingly closed conversations pop up on blogs later that same day.
Anyone who grew up in a small town doesn’t require any advice on this matter, because they know instinctively that everyone will be up in everyone’s business, and to step lightly. Those of you that were raised in the cities and suburbs, consider yourselves forewarned. The skeptical and freethought community is not a place where you can slander someone and expect it not to get back to them. Don’t for a moment assume that our emphasis on logic and rationalism has put us beyond the ordinary human desire to generate and exaggerate interpersonal drama.
I don’t want to end this on a down note, so let me emphasise that this online interconnection is generally more of a blessing than a curse. It makes it easy to exchange ideas and rapidly respond to unfolding crises. When someone openly discriminates against an atheist, they are likely to face an onslaught of negative feedback while their victim will receive emotional (and possibly financial) support. Our virtual community can thus soften the blow of ostracisation from one’s real world community.
Of course real world relationships are indispensable, and I encourage everyone to get actively involved in their local skeptical and freethought groups. If you want to just dip your toes in, though, we’ve got plenty of online options available. Here is a good place to start building relationships on Facebook: Dan Fincke’s page. That guy is an atheist superconnector, and fairly friendly to boot.