I don’t know about you, but just about every day on Facebook I see at least one of these things happen:
Scenario A – Two or more people are engaged in a back-and-forth on an issue on which they disagree. Though they debate vigorously, they make an effort to follow the “rules” of civil discourse, sincerely trying to get the other person to accept their view as more correct. Uninvited, a third party enters the conversation with a reductive meme or a hashtag and derails the whole exchange.
Scenario B – Someone posts a meme or a hashtag or some other amusing reduction of a more complex issue. Others who share their perspective chime in to approve or to laugh or to share their own experience, and the group builds community around the original sentiment. Then, again uninvited, a third party jumps in to accuse the post of being misleading or unfair, attempts to start discourse, and derails.
With both, in the best-case scenario, the interruption in flow is ignored, and the interruptor takes a hint and a hike. In the worst, things escalate, explode, and everyone walks away unhappier, less connected, and less willing to engage in the future. Somewhere in the middle, the thread just quietly dies.
What is it about the weird, quasi-public nature of Facebook that makes it so hazardous to address difficult issues? And given the risk, is it even worth trying to have them?
Plenty of people have already written about the double-edged sword of connectivity and isolation that Facebook enables, but I think it has also generated a secondary social snarl — the conflation of venting and discourse.
At the risk of oversimplifying, it seems to me that most of the explicitly political stuff I see on Facebook, whether it’s detailed analysis of campaign finance legislation or Notorious R.B.G. memes, can be divided into two basic categories. There’s the stuff we post for everyone, hoping to educate or sway, and there’s the stuff we post for the folks we know are on our side already. The goals of posting one or the other are totally separate – sometimes we’re trying to have a conversation to change hearts and minds, and sometimes we’re letting off steam, drawing strength in connecting with people who don’t need us to explain every nuance. Both are important, but they necessitate different approaches, and on Facebook, drawing a distinction between them is a bit of a logistical nightmare.
Obviously in “real” life, we employ totally different rhetoric when discussing sensitive topics with people who share our views than we do with those who don’t. When I sigh an “I hate men” to my male roommates, I don’t have to explain that I don’t mean them (in case you were worried, guys, 99% of the time I don’t). But if I’ve just met a friend’s boyfriend, and I’m trying to convince him that misogyny in the gaming community is real, pervasive and harmful, then I probably shouldn’t start with that. Online, though, it’s tough to signal our intended audience, or to remember that when a friend posts that we might not be part of it.
Some people may argue, at this point, that Facebook is ill-suited to political engagement of either flavor (conversion- or solidarity-goaled). I know some people who shy away from tough conversations on the platform because they think Facebook is useless for “real” dialogue, and I know some people who think that publicly posting anything inflammatory or simplistic is contributing to the downfall of civil society. I disagree with both camps. I have seen (and had) productive, challenging conversations on Facebook that have changed my point of view. I have also experienced firsthand the relief of seeing something pithy and reductive resonate with others, of feeling a little less alone.
(As an aside, to those who would suggest that all “venting” posts should be kept in private threads, I’d argue that one of the most important functions of Facebook is its ability to help us discover sympathy and solidarity in our personal community. A “like” on an LGTB rights post from an old classmate whose view I didn’t know, or whose view I once knew to be anti-queer, can be incredibly encouraging.)
In short, I don’t think it’s practical to insist we only post perfectly polished, reasoned arguments, or to limit our Facebook politicking to memes and personal experience. I don’t think it’s selling out to try to reason with people whose views I think are deeply wrong (though I don’t think anyone is obligated to), and I also don’t think it’s inherently destructive to vent in a semi-public forum. In fact, I think we can learn a lot from being privy to the “venting” of communities we don’t understand as well — but we have to remember that those words aren’t for us, aren’t written with the aim of changing our minds.
I do think, though, that it’s worthwhile each time we write or read a Facebook post to consider its goal: preaching to the choir, or arguing before a court? If it’s not your thread and you’re not sure, consider shooting the original poster a note before you find yourself singing an inappropriately timed solo.
Katie Bent wrote this piece for Flux, a forum for those of us encountering adulthood. Katie is just another person trying to figure out how the world works and should work. She lives in the Bay Area, where she sings a lot of choir music, plays a lot of board games, and rides a lot of buses.