Of Social Networks: Is Real Dialogue Possible?

First off, I offer my apologies, to anyone who’s actually following this blog, for my lengthy absence from the sphere. It was August the last time I penned anything for this venue, and that’s been weighing on me pretty heavily during this most difficult first few months of the school year—over 200 high school students on my caseload, new curriculum again, new standards again, and very little in the way of additional support. So, I come home feeling hit by a bus and pour myself a glass, listen to music, play with my boy as much as I can, work on fiction maybe a couple hours once a week, and sleep.

I decide today to break the dry spell, in the wake of the last week’s horrors, to ask a question regarding the social network we call facebook and the degree to which it is a viable avenue for social discourse of any consequence.

Let me give some brief context. I’ve got friends who aren’t really friends (an interesting commentary on the way this particular social network has really morphed the meaning of that word). You know, we all probably have them—ghosts from our past who friend-request us, people who, decades after our initial acquaintance, likely old high school haunts, we would not even recognize if we saw them on the street. We vaguely recognize their names, find out they were ex-students, or we were classmates or neighbors or something, and we say, of course, why the hell not? Let’s be “friends.” And over the course of this precarious “friendship”, we end up learning a little bit about these people, most disconcertingly perhaps, that they do not share our politics. Now, that, on the surface, is no big deal. I have real friends, ones I see in the flesh every day, whose politics are very different from mine—and yet, we get on just swimmingly.

But let’s say for example, after last week’s mass murder of children, and in my own neck of the woods a mall shooting, when you’re exploring these issues around security, school safety, gun control, media responsibility, and mental health, trying your level best, liberal as you might be, to make sense, to figure out some stuff, to come to terms, while taking care as best you can of your loved ones—you’re checking out your news feed on facebook and this is what you see. It’s one of those quote graphics, words of “wisdom” against a pretty and sometimes appropriately themed backdrop. And this one concludes with this: “The problem is not guns. It is a Godless society.”

So, now that you’re squarely in my shoes, I’ll speak in the first person. Immediately, I’m enraged. My heart pounds, my blood boils. I cannot help but respond. And the exchange that ensues, sometimes reasonable, but mostly not, mostly frustrating, mostly talk at cross-purposes, some name calling, a lot of misunderstanding and dismissiveness, consumes practically my whole day. I try to stop. I can’t. I walk away and say that I’m done. A half an hour later I’m checking my notifications to see what new idiocy appears there. Part of me says, dude, you can defriend the guy; this is swallowing up too much of your psychic energies. Defriend. Problem solved. The other part of me says, no, I must not remain silent. I must not allow people to explain away an extremely complex and urgent social problem with a supernatural, pre-modern, anti-intellectual, fairy story. If they’re facebook friends of mine and they say things publicly I disagree with on some deep, important issue, I have an obligation to speak up.

So I keep at it. The last post in the thread, mine, appears at 1:30 in the morning. I’m in the process of letting it go now, perhaps, only because the friend in question and a couple of other voices that chimed in on his behalf have been silent. If they were to keep at it, who knows how long I would have pursued the argument—and finally, for what effect, to what end? And I’m sure these other folks felt the same way about what they perceived as my bleeding heart stupidity. Why was I doing this? Did I think I would change their minds? Doubtful. Did I derive any pleasure from the contest? On the contrary: it stressed me out. Was anything accomplished? Thus far, only that I had the last word. I don’t find that terribly satisfying. So, rather than saying anything specific about the issue we were arguing about (the simplification of complex social problems around gun violence to the SINFULNESS of our nation), I just want to pose these questions and offer some possible answers:

What are the benefits of facebook participation? I enjoy hearing from people I care about from time to time, dropping in on their lives for a moment to find out what’s going on. I enjoy readings or images and audio posted by these people I care about. I enjoy articles posted by on-line publications, artists, writers, musicians I subscribe to or “like.” And I enjoy the benefits in the opposite direction: letting friends know what I’m up to or thinking about, telling people about my writings, my blog, or my musical endeavors. For the most part, I enjoy political or philosophical posts made by real friends of mine; and because we have certain sympathies in common, these posts rarely make me uncomfortable and often confirm what I already think. And this may or may not be a benefit of facebook: that most often, people are preaching (or posting) to the choir. No change occurs, just people patting each other on the back. That’s the sort of cozy community aspect of facebook, which, while it may not be all that earth shattering, passes the time somewhat pleasantly. Ultimately it’s just another kind of television.

Can facebook be a place to conduct meaningful social discourse? Generally speaking, I hate to see people airing their dirty laundry or their personal squabbles on facebook. That’s unseemly to me, embarrassing. By contrast, also generally speaking, I get more interested when people argue politics and big ideas, but find, like I found with my own experiences with this, that it’s impossible for people to really reach each other this way, in part, because there’s so much less accountability when you’re typing something from a distant place on the web-o-sphere and not speaking face to face, there’s a tendency toward nastiness and attack, and as a result, nothing changes. There’s a part of me that wants facebook to be a way to decompress and “be with” friends. That part of me advises against becoming friends with people I don’t know well, or people whose world view will make me angry and upset; it’s hard enough navigating the interpersonal relationships with the people I encounter every day in the flesh. But then, there’s another part of me; (there are often, I must confess, on any number of issues and occasions, more than one part of me). This part of me says SPEAK UP. Be like Gandalf in the Fellowship film, faced with the big fire monster; when ignorance rears its head, say, “You cannot pass!” And stand your ground. If I do this, as a practice, I’ve got to approach it in way that results in less hand wringing, less blood boiling, less anxiety. That’s hard for me. To those fears, those emotions that threaten to twist up my insides, and to those who believe God is punishing us by killing our kids, I must again borrow Gandalf’s words: “Fly, you fools,” and continue to argue for sanity.

Published by michaeljarmer

I'm a public high school English teacher, fiction writer, poet, and musician in Portland, Oregon

2 thoughts on “Of Social Networks: Is Real Dialogue Possible?

  1. I agree with you, Michael. Nothing that happened on Friday had anything to do with God. I have no patience with cheap theology in situations like this. Self-righteousness does nothing to alter circumstances so that it becomes more difficult for a killing like this to happen again. How easy to pass the buck to divine judgment, rather than engage in the hard work of promoting legislative change.

  2. I, too, have no patience with cheap theological pronouncements in circumstances like this. Far easier to pass the buck to divine retribution than to engage in the hard work of enacting social & legislative change.

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