Haugen was lauded as a rare brave former employee willing to finally tell the truth about Facebook’s dereliction of corporate responsibility and willingness to prey on peoples’ insecurities for profit. Kolker’s bizarre, twisty story — about potential plagiarism, one-sided friendship and a catty writer’s group, among other things — made the word “kidney” trend on Twitter for hours.
A brief summary of the former: Dawn Dorland, an aspiring novelist, gives away a kidney via nondirected donation, meaning the organ goes to a stranger in need. She then starts a private Facebook group to share news of the unusually altruistic act, a group that includes Sonya Larson, a fellow (rather more successful) fiction writer.
Larson later writes a short story about kidney donation, featuring a character who seems to be based on Dorland. The story is unflattering, the donor portrayed as an oblivious White savior (Larson is part Chinese). Early versions use, nearly word for word, a letter Dorland wrote to the recipient of her kidney and shared with members of her Facebook group — a move that some members had privately criticized as attention-seeking.
The short story becomes a breakout hit for Larson. Dorland, hurt, alleges copyright infringement and considers filing suit. But Larson sues first, accusing Dorland of defamation. Group chats from Larson’s writing group are subpoenaed (nightmare!). More legal action. Dorland takes to haunting Larson’s online literary events. Truly no one wins, except maybe Robert Kolker.
The moments that set the story on an extremely uncomfortable course are those when Dorland not-so-subtly asks Larson why she didn’t acknowledge Dorland’s posts describing the donation — and later, prodded by yet another Facebook interaction, asks to read Larson’s story.
The missteps are clear, and painful: Dorland thought that her Facebook friends were her real friends, and took their likes — or lack thereof — as a referendum on her value. “Do writers not care about my kidney donation?” she asks at one point, a query plaintive and wincingly petty.
Larson, in turn, seemed to believe that Dorland wouldn’t read her story — or somehow not object to it — even though it was readily available online. She thought that her jibes would remain confidential, and that her own “friends” wouldn’t rat her out — clearly not the case on a platform built, supposedly, for “sharing.”
Haugen’s most memorable testimony related to Facebook’s effects on teenage girls — the self-comparison, the depression, the bullying. But it’s clear that it facilitates similar drama among adults. Could “bad art friends” exist without Facebook’s help? Of course — gossip, backbiting, one-sided friendships are the unfortunate stuff of human existence. But the mass of weak connections multiplies the fallout.
We all want to be seen and known and loved, but these aren’t the same things, and never have been. Social media has made it easier to confuse them. And this, as the saga of Dorland and Larson ably illustrates, can be dangerous.
It’s a weird trick that Facebook plays, especially on those who, like Dorland, aren’t exactly digital natives, nor the savviest social actors. We are “friends” with everyone from our siblings to our third-grade classmates to our current and former colleagues. But few of these online relationships come with the responsibilities a real-world friendship might entail: care, tact, knowledge of the other.
“Community” is encouraged, but common goals and a commitment to resolving conflict are clearly not. Instead, boundaries are nonexistent or false (is a private group ever really private?). Oversharing is encouraged. Envy — or mockery — is the obvious outcome. Trauma inevitably ensues.
Kolker’s story was a vivid illustration of Facebook’s flaws, a cherry on top of the company’s week. The takeaways from Haugen’s testimony and the cringe-inducing tale of warring writers are the same: Your “friends” are not your friends. “Connection” without consideration may have less-than-positive results. And, yet again, we have further evidence that Facebook may be the site of more harm than good.