I wanted it so badly: for Facebook to be a place where I could banter with my friends, and argue with my—well,OK, you already see the problem. I can't even complete the sentence. Facebook is about friends. Not enemies. Maybe sometimes frenemies, but that's about as far as it goes. And when it comes to making friends, how many of us can say we hang out with like, you know, those with whom we disagree?
Actually, my circle does include a wide swath of people–from those interviewed over the years, to old high school classmates and random people whose friendship I accepted at 3am when using Facebook as my personal Ambien.
So I know there are some people I’m connected to with whom I disagree. Vehemently.
In the days before social networking brought us all together in one sweaty group hug, we could blithely go about our days ignoring that Aunt Betty was a raging right-winger who said possibly illegal things about her wishes for the president’s future, and that your friend Joe from high school believed that pro-life meant making sure rapists get to keep their babies and gun owners got to keep their ammo.
You kind of accepted them because you didn't have to really talk to them, at least regularly. And when you did talk to them, you smiled and did your best to keep from saying something socially unacceptable.
Because that's what we do. We are nice people who do nice things.
So now, on Facebook, when a friend recently posted a video showing that Obama is a Muslim, I told myself: ignore. IGNORE. UNFRIEND. But then I thought no, I will not unfriend. I will not ignore. Because that’s wrong. Don’t run away. Engage. Comment.
My response, quoting myself directly, complete with typos: "This really disappoints me. I really and truly have been hoping to engage with those with whom you disagree on actual issues. Maybe it's not possible.”
Someone else I did not know quickly replied, "well, there is the easily doctored certificate that took months to wrestle out of him …”
The birth certificate? Really? So much for adult conversation.
On Sunday night I posted this: “So my conclusion as of now: Facebook is a great place to talk people with whom you agree politically but not so much when it comes to having real conversations with those with whom you don't. Thoughts?”
It actually got more response than I had hoped for, but there certainly was no consensus.
One mid-20s friend wrote: “... think serious political discussions are better had in person because it's harder to insult someone when you're face to face with them.”
Another friend added. “I'm neither democrat or republican though I do like to hear intelligent debate. unfortunately, the post do often take a nasty turn with name calling.”
And another: “I agree that the best debates are done in person. Postings get too snippy. Plus, I think Facebook should be for light stuff.”
Maybe the problem isn’t the fact that we’re all expressing ourselves on Facebook. Maybe it’s actually just the fact that we’re all seeing each other clearly for the first time.
Before Facebook we could kind of ignore each other. We could more or less avoid political conversations and agree to disagree without quite knowing the full extent of how much we disagreed.
But now, we know it all. I know that an acquaintance from high school thinks Romney is an economic savior and gays be damned. I also know that someone I once interviewed works for Obama. This is in addition to the many thing I know things about these people that I never otherwise would have. Heck, in real life we probably wouldn’t recognize each other walking down the street, let alone engage in a political conversation.
Maybe the problem isn’t that we can’t get along. Maybe the problem is that we’re trying to get along.
Funny thing is, it is. I’ve always hoped that the Internet would become the new public square where we discussed, debated, and had Socratic exchanges about the issues of the day. Instead, it seems like we’re all standing on our virtual soap boxes and yelling. (Now that I think about it, I bet that’s what they were doing too.)
So I did the one thing you really can’t do in a virtual town square. I reacted with calm and rationality. And I did what I should have done from the start: I posted a picture of my dog, urging everyone to vote. Because damn, he’s cute. Who can argue with a shihtzu?
Janet Kornblum is a journalist, writer, media trainer and, believe it or not, has a bachelor’s degree in political science. She also does other stuff but we won’t get into that now. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photograph by Janet Kornblum