Friends, Allies, Neighbors, and Enemies

A Framework for the Strategy of Online Intellectual Engagement

Cody Libolt
For the New Christian Intellectual
6 min readMar 28, 2020


It’s no secret: Online discussions can be frustrating.

After another round of comments with a stranger, you may begin to wonder:

  • Should I have really said what I did?
  • Will any good come of this?
  • Am I wasting my time?

Online discussions can be fruitful, if you know what you are trying to accomplish.

It helps to have a framework.

This Article Covers:

  1. Benefits of using a framework to understand people you meet online.
  2. How to save time and frustration in online discussion.
  3. When to use a soft word vs. when to criticize.
  4. Keys to building trust with your ideological allies.
  5. How to take the wider view when people let you down.
  6. Why it is sometimes loving to call someone out — and how to do it the right way.

A Framework for Online Intellectual Engagement

(Watch the video and/or see the transcript below)

You know, a topic that fascinates me is online intellectual engagement.

This is an opportunity that more people should be investing in and learning how to do.

I’m not saying I do it well all the time, but I do it enough that I have some ideas about strategy, and what works and what doesn’t work.

Here’s a framework that I’ve used; it’s way of understanding what I’m trying to accomplish: I categorize people that I encounter in the online environment by whether they are a friend, an ally, a neighbor, or an enemy.

Below I’ll explain to you why I use those categories. This is just one way of understanding things. And I’ll be sure to show you how I’m using those categories.

Let’s start with what the categories are:

  • Friend: Someone whom I personally care about over the long term
  • Ally: Someone with whom I have significant shared values
  • Neighbor: Someone with whom I have some shared values
  • Enemy: Someone trying to damage me. (I’ll explain more in the next videos.)

You’ll Save Yourself a Lot of Time…

Why would you want to distinguish between friend, ally, neighbor, and enemy? (And isn’t enemy a pretty strong word for what we’re talking about here?)

When you’re taking your time to engage with people online, to interact with their views, to talk with them directly, whatever it may be, you need to steward your time; you need to be careful with where your time goes. And frankly, you should get to the point — as quickly as possible. “Absolute candor” is a term that I heard in the Star Trek show Picard. I thought, oh, that’s a good concept.

If you can quickly identify which bucket the person is in along some framework, you’ll save yourself a lot of time. The kind of person who would publicly insult you, that might be an enemy; the kind of person who would publicly criticize you, that might be a neighbor.

How to Use the Framework

How do you use this framework when you interact with different types of people online? Here are some ideas:

The other day, someone whom I had considered a friend — an actual friend — jumped three categories (maybe two categories — we’ll see).

He interacted with something I said publicly and he basically told me, you’re not answering my question right now on my timeframe so you’re cowardly.

If I never talk to him again, it might be too soon, because nobody does that if they want to consider you a friend.

So it’s a pretty big change from friend to maybe just neighbor. Maybe even worse than that.

The kind of person who would publicly insult you is an enemy. The kind of person who would publicly criticize you, that might just be a neighbor.

We Are All in a Battle. Look to Your Left and Right.

The step of personal relationship and trust that is closer than a neighbor would be an ally.

That’s the kind of person who is not going to publicly criticize me. He takes it to me in private because he sees the value of my overall platform and he doesn’t want to undermine it.

And then a step even closer, even more trust, that would be a friend. To call someone a friend, here’s what I’m going to expect from them. If someone attacks me, my friend will go and tell that person they’re wrong, and will publicly criticize them.

I’m not saying they’re going to publicly insult them, but criticize.

You see how this works? There’s a logic here.

A lot of people don’t understand this logic. They see me criticizing people; they see me sometimes insulting people (which I do) and they think, oh, well then I guess everything’s fair game… I guess I can criticize Cody… I guess I can insult Cody.

Not if you care about my trust.

To some extent we are all in a battle. Look to your left and right. Guard the men you intend to fight alongside. If you fail to do that, they will not choose again to stand beside you on that line of battle.

There Is a Friend Who Sticks Closer than a Brother.

The Bible talks about one who sticks closer than a brother. And there is one who is born for adversity.

In the last months, there have been times when I thought someone was a friend. It turned out they were merely an ally; or I thought they were an ally and it turned out they were merely a neighbor.

That’s rough. You think, oh man, I would fight for this person, and you realize, they would not fight for me. It’s too bad. It’s a disappointment.

But if you have this framework in your mind, it will help you to realize none of this means they’re wicked, or even wrong. That just means you don’t have the relationship you thought you did.

When that happens, that changes your perspective on the degree to which you might be willing to publicly criticize them. Absolute candor cuts both ways.

It doesn’t mean you have to insult them, but you might be willing to criticize them.

In the next video, I’ll explain more.

Here’s Where It Gets Real

There have been times when I’ve taken somebody and moved them from one bucket to another and criticized them.

A lot of people don’t know what to make of that. They think, man, if you’re willing to criticize that person, then you must hate them.

I’ve been accused by certain random strangers on the internet of not being able to get along with anyone.

I don’t think they realized what I’m doing. They didn’t realize I was thinking in terms of gradients — or in terms of those 4 buckets.

There are times when I’m willing to expend some relational capital in order to say “no” and to caution someone and put up a big roadblock.

If I see they’re going in a direction they shouldn’t go, I care enough about that person that I’m willing to expend my capital, even if it means I lose some of my influence.

I care about the truth — and I care about that person — more than I care about whether they think highly of me.

There’s a lot of thought that goes into all this.

I hope that helps as you’re figuring out your strategy for online engagement.

A Call To Action:

It’s time to get in the game.

What one guy can do, another can do.

If I can create content and grow an audience, YOU can too.

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Cody Libolt
For the New Christian Intellectual