Saturday, November 19, 2016

6 Lessons Learned from Facebook During this Election

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Love ‘em or hate ‘em. It looks like you’re stuck with them.

No, I’m not talking about the winners of the tortuous election cycle the US has just gone through. I’m talking about your Facebook friends.

Facebook, for me at least, has been an enlightening social experiment: a way of getting to know some friends in a different context, exploring issues and ideas, and, of course, sharing the ubiquitous silly memes. Over time, FB evolved for me into a means of keeping in contact with others and promoting myself as a writer. Mostly, though, it’s been a convenient excuse for social contact. It’s like sitting down in front of a computer with a large group of friends from all over the world and seeing what happens.

But, like any gathering of large groups of people, FB exchanges often take on a life of their own and gravitate toward certain issues or themes. For much of the last year, the dominating theme on my FB feed has been politics.

I have FB friends on both sides of the political divide—liberals and conservatives—as well as some in between, and some who favor third-party candidates. One would think (hope) that such variety of views would enrich conversations and provide enlightening glimpses into how other people think.

However, that’s rarely been the case.

Most political exchanges on FB have been brief—usually condensed into a Willy Wonka meme intended to show how stupid the other side is. Even the few in-depth conversations I’ve participated in have left me feeling frustrated and more alone than ever. Sometimes a meeting of the minds is not a good thing.

Herewith are six lessons I’ve learned on FB during this political season:

1. Everybody wants to be “heard.”

Being heard is not a bad thing, but FB creates the impression of being trapped at the bottom of a well and crying out for help against the political rainstorms: “Help! I’m a liberal! Save our same-sex marriage!” “Help! I’m a conservative! Save our guns!” FB creates the impression that the world is falling apart, and only you and your side can save it.

2. Social networking is a lazy way to have a relationship.

I confess I’m guilty of this. Rather than going out to events and interacting with “real” people, I find it more expedient to get on FB and see what people have to say. I post my bits—usually short quips intended to be humorous—before going on to the next post.

This is the Internet equivalent of speed dating: Make snap judgments and then move on.

3. Some relationships outlive their usefulness.

Sad but true. Some people were not meant to be friends forever. There’s a wonderful saying that some friends are yours for "a reason, a season, or a lifetime." FB makes it possible for everyone to be “friends” for life. However, this is not always a good thing.

People change as different experiences shape them. Hanging onto an old relationship can prevent you from moving on and making new friends.

4. “Friends” may have their own agendas.

One of my FB friends shared a meme that was patently and historically false. I took it upon myself to respond with a thoughtful correction. My friend replied with a “thank you.” He explained that he knew I would set people straight and that he was just waiting for me to do so.

I did not feel honored to be put in that position. I felt used and even baited.

The experience led me to wonder just how many messages are posted not because they truly reflect what the other person believes, but to get a rise out of someone.

5. It’s not always a good thing to know what your friends are thinking.

As adults, we develop a social filter for a reason. There’s a lot going on in our minds that, frankly, is indefensible. Yet FB seems to encourage people to “put it all out there,” which can lead to some silly, illogical, and even hurtful exchanges. 

One of my FB friends argued that Trump should win because, when he is impeached and forced to resign, it would be good for third-party candidates. (As someone who lived through the Watergate scandal, I don’t want to see the country go through another period of disillusion and distrust brought on by the resignation of a president.) 

A dear relative posted a meme which said anyone who favored any form of gun control could defriend this person immediately. (As someone who favors background checks and a ban on assault rifles, I was tempted to do so.)

FB polarizes people perhaps even more so than the real election did.

6. People of every political stripe can be unreasonable.

Nothing new here. Politics provoke extreme reactions from people on all sides. But FB creates the impression that there are two sides: OUR side and the WRONG side.

In the past, I’ve considered myself an independent and a moderate. I’ve always been wary of political parties. Yet I understand that the way to get things done is to ally with people who share the same positions and ways of looking at the world as you do, and to work toward making changes you agree with. For this reason, I’ve found myself leaning more and more toward the left—the side that promotes equality, inclusiveness, and a way of looking at the world through the guarded lens of hope instead of fear. 

Yet some of my liberal FB friends go to extremes in mischaracterizing conservatives, just as some of my conservative friends have gone to extremes in characterizing liberals. If one is on either side of the divide, it’s easy to find “evidence” that the other side is stupid, corrupt, or lying hypocrites.

FB has allowed users to take mudslinging to new lows.

It can be argued with justification that FB is only a platform. What users do with it is up to them. This is true, which is why it is up to users to regulate the messages and the people we allow into our circle of FB “friends.” I’ve been wary of doing this because I don’t want to be the person who shuts out contrary opinions.

Yet the recent exchanges have left me feeling more and more isolated from deep, meaningful conversations. Perhaps it’s because FB, in its straight-to-the-point simplicity encourages us to categorize each other and ourselves in the most convenient terms: liberal, progressive, conservative, atheist, Christian, Muslim, Jew, veteran, non-veteran. 

Perhaps it’s because everyone feels they have to have the last word—after all, others are watching, even if they don’t participate or “like” our post.

Perhaps liberals and conservatives do see the world in such widely different terms that no true coming together is possible. But if such a meeting of the minds were to happen, it will not be facilitated by the sharp comments, cartoonish memes, and one-upping arguments on Facebook.

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