Facebook and the Problem Of Overlapping Circles


Facebook is irreversibly broken, and I think I know why.

I mess around on several social media apps, although “several” might be an overstatement. I’ve long forgotten my Tumblr and Flickr logons, for example, and I still can’t figure out what Linkedin is good for beyond increasing my spam. I stick album covers on Pinterest, but I don’t really do anything there, either. I logged into Snapchat once.

My primary social media outlets are Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. For the most part I try to keep all three channels light, focusing on music and snark more than anything. My last three Instagram photos depicted an old Newsweek cover featuring Arlo Guthrie, a photo of “USA” spray painted on pavement, and a bicycle that I restored. Not exactly controversial stuff.

Over on Twitter, my last three are a link to a piece I wrote about an Ohio Players album and the following two jokes:


Granted, “jokes” might be pushing things a little bit, but you get the gist. I kind of skip across the surface of these networks, not really getting bogged down in anything. Facebook, though, that’s another story. I catch myself getting dragged into the madness, if not physically (meaning in terms of posts) at least emotionally (meaning in terms of getting irritated by what I’m reading). The platform’s combination of embedded news, long form text, and a higher percentage of real world friends and acquaintances renders Facebook more engaging for me than the staccato rhythm of Twitter or the predominantly visual content of Instagram.

In theory Facebook should be my least contentious social media outlet. While my Twitter and Instagram feeds consist primarily of Internet-only relationships, my Facebook universe is comprised mostly of people I’ve gathered from the real world. It’s a virtual cocktail party with me as the host and my digital friends as the guests. But it isn’t that all, and the reason why is best expressed via our friend the Venn diagram, which should never be confused with the Vin diagram, the image at the top of this page that visually depicts the many acting moods of gifted thespian Vin Diesel.

As we move through life, we create or are involuntarily thrust into the myriad social circles that comprise our personal Venn diagrams. Examples include:

  • Family
  • Childhood friends
  • College friends
  • Current (active, in person) friends
  • Current coworkers
  • Former coworkers from job A
  • Former coworkers from job B
  • Neighbors
  • Shared acquaintances
  • Networked acquaintances (via career, hobby, etc.)

In the real world, each of these groups is self-contained though overlapping, at least in the Venn diagram sense. I am the center circle, the Paul Lynde that connects all of these Hollywood squares. That’s just on paper, though. In the real world, my former coworkers from my stint at Hardee’s when I was 16 will never come in contact with my current neighbor. Those circles only intersect in the same manner that I’m only two degrees separated from Kevin Bacon, whom I’ve never met. (Sean Penn once glared at me at a taco truck because I smiled at his girlfriend. Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon starred in Mystic River together. Sean Penn is the center circle in my Kevin Bacon Venn diagram–a totally meaningless but defensible connection that has no bearing on reality.)

Some circles overlap fairly significantly. Some members of my family circle are mutual friends of my childhood friends and are at least acquainted with many others. Strangers from both circles share much in common beyond me: We all lived in the same area, attended schools in the same district, shopped at the same mall, etc. If I held a party and invited only my family and childhood friends, folks would have something to talk about. Remember that lady with the beehive hairdo at the DMV? What was your favorite dish at the Beacon?

But like my two degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon, other circle pairings have nothing in common but me. I live 2,500 miles from my childhood home these days. Inviting my next door neighbor to that same party would be disastrous. He could care less about skip days at Lake Bowen or Senior Week at Myrtle Beach, and my old friends wouldn’t be too interested in listening to him bitch about my lawn care apathy. While I might hold a dinner party for my neighbors or a blowout for my family and childhood friends, I’m unlikely to combine the two, but that’s essentially what Facebook does.

It’s not just my neighbor, though. In the physical world I am a member of various circles that I suspect would clash miserably. You are, too. We’ve all felt the dread of introducing a new romantic interest to our families, for example.Ā  We love our families and we love this person. What if they don’t get along? What if her opinion of me changes after she meets crazy Uncle Ray? That collision of spheres is inevitable if our new relationships are serious, but where we can we avoid these clashes by simply keeping our circles separate.

I might represent an extreme case of conflicting circles, but probably not. My childhood unfolded in a very small, very conservative, very southern, very Baptist town, but my adult life has been spent in two major California cities. That’s three geographically distinct circles right there. My writing life has led to friendships in publishing, music and, oddly, the social justice warrior worlds. My hobbies and interests have resulted in circles gathering friends from the worlds of music, writing, bicycling, visual arts, martial arts, and film. I’ve kept in touch with old flames, old coworkers, old friends, on and on.

Some of those circles are essentially historical, moments locked in amber and stuck on a dusty shelf. I left that small town in January 1986. Aside from a couple of visits since then, I’ve generated no new memories of that place for over 30 years, nor have the residents of that town generated new memories of me. I’m still a skinny 18 year-old with a bad haircut and a particular set of beliefs and interests. That is who I am in that circle.

Friends from other circles probably wouldn’t recognize that kid, nor should they. They only know me in the context of “our” circle, whatever that may be. I remember meeting one Facebook friend in person for the first time. He took one look at my car, which is a modern, growling muscle car with a V-8 that scares babies and sterilizes cattle, and he said, “I thought you were a liberal.” None of my childhood friends would be surprised by my ridiculous car, but the only context this individual had for me was our overlapping Facebook circle, a group of writers who have published work on a liberal leaning website.

But in the physical world I’m not a liberal but rather a James, and while a James certainly is concerned about the health of the planet, he also loves badass cars. How can I justify having a foot in both worlds? I don’t drive much. If I had a job that required me to drive to an office every day, I’d buy a sensible commuter car (but I’d still take the beast out on weekends). I explained that to my new friend and we had a great time hanging out together. My non-liberal car was an issue for all of about three seconds, which is how things work in reality, where people are three dimensional and social rules often remain implicit but understood.

But move that same scenario to Facebook, the cocktail party where all circles are invited all of the time, and who knows how that would have gone? We all do, because we’ve seen it a million times:

“Check out my ride!”


“Cool car!”

“I want a ride!”

“Wait, I thought you were a liberal ;)”

“Settle down now :)”

“Fucking liberals. They never met something they couldn’t suck the fun out of.”

“Well excuse me for wanting my children to have a planet to live on. Enjoy your SUV or your pickup, Trumptard!”

[link to article]


[link to another article]


Watching my friends go at each other like that gives me a stomach ache and overwhelms me with guilt. It’s my fault they’re screaming at each other because I set these two conflicting circles on a collision course with my initial post. I never should have posted a picture of my stupid car. I never should have been more than a two dimensional cutout that fits comfortably in one (and only one) specific circle.

This is all to Facebook’s advantage, by the way. Emotion increases engagement, engagement increases time on Facebook, increased time on Facebook means more opportunities to serve you advertisements. I’m not suggesting that by design the platform wants the members of my many circles to bicker, but rather that there’s no financial incentive for the company to modify that behavior.

And this is where things get interesting: On Facebook we bicker about things much more consequential than my stupid car. Those overlapping, conflicting circles of ours hold diverse political views, so flame wars abound on the platform. Inevitably it’s not the Russians who created Facebook’s power to divide us, it’s the toxic combination of its “all circles all the time” structure and our collective inability to remain decent party guests. The Russians just exploited what was already there.

Since Facebook won’t fix this, how do we fix it ourselves? I suppose there are a few solutions:

  • Minimize the number of social circles you “friend” on Facebook, and pick complementary circles. If you use the platform for business networking, don’t add your family and childhood friends, for example.
  • Keep in mind when interacting with others on Facebook that you are seeing a very small percentage of who those people really are. Mutual Friend Bob might have just posted something really obnoxious, but that obnoxious statement is no more the entirety of Mutual Friend Bob than your snappy GIF comeback is a nuanced representation of you. How would you react to Mutual Friend Bob face to face?
  • Don’t take the bait. Facebook is that weaselly kid who is trying to provoke a fight. We can be the idiots who fall for it, or we can simply shrug and walk away.

When all else fails, just turn the damned thing off. Log out. Forget it. Go take a drive in that ridiculous car of yours. Doesn’t that sound more fun than arguing with a stranger just because you both know me? Take a look at that picture of Vin above. That’s his look of agreement.




Categories: op-ed

6 replies »

  1. 1) A really great article. Spot on regarding the take on Face Book.
    2) In my opinion Arlo Guthrie really isn’t that good. I saw him back in his “City of New Orleans” days.
    3) Mystic River was a great book and a great movie
    4) I totally gave up Face Book about three months ago. I suspended my account. (Notice I didn’t say delete). But I haven’t logged back on since. I feel free. Really!


  2. Correction: Guthrie is actually kinda OK, just when I saw him I could hardly wait for the concert to be over.


  3. I have a cousin who is several years older than I am (thus, “very” old) who is a dedicated Trumpophile. We have regular disagreements but neither of us venture into flame territory. Her circle, however, was populated by, shall we say, intense individuals. After a number of unpleasant exchanges with her friends, I decided to unfriend my cousin.


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