The Changing Face(book) of Debate

I have recently heard Facebook referred to as your “cyber living room.”  (For the purposes of brevity, Facebook will act as a stand-in for all social networking sites.)  When you sign up for Facebook, you change the carpet, paint the walls, and arrange the furniture based on what you include in your profile, the picture you choose to represent yourself, and the types of status updates or links you decide to share.  Of course, it’s not a direct comparison.  Status updates often seem fair game for threads that are certainly less civil than any dinner party I’ve ever had.

My brother-in-law, the anti-Facebook zealot, claims that social networking sites keep us from really knowing each other.  I would contend just the opposite.  I know friends, and friends of friends, and I-don’t-know-how-I-know-you-but-you’re-in-my-FB-friends’-list friends far better than I ever did before.  I may not be able to read their body language or interpret their facial expressions, but I now have far more insight into how they really think about various issues.

I know far more clearly now which friends are conservatives and which are liberals.  I know who the civil rights activists are.  I know who is passionate for the humane treatment of animals.  I know who seems more focused on work than play.  I know who likes to cook/eat/drink wine/garden/hike/write/tell jokes/talk politics, etc.,, e.g., i.e., AFL-CIO, ad nauseum.

This is a GOOD thing.  I always prefer responding to a person’s true nature rather than the social construct that we tend to wear in public.  But it is often a not-so-good thing.  People are passionately attached to their morals, ideologies, belief systems, and political positions (myself included).  When those clash in what becomes a lengthy thread, it often gets cyber-bloody.  (Has anyone else ever regretted “liking” a seemingly benign status update that resulted in 47 additional notifications because of the debate that ensued?)

How should we act on Facebook?  Is it possible to create a social-networking code of etiquette?  When is the right time to de-friend (i.e., kick someone out of our house)?  Could we really alter social-networking behavior if we tried?

The more important question, in the opinion of the rhetorician who lives in my brain, would be this: How is Facebook interaction changing the way we communicate?  I am an advocate of communication and have a natural antipathy to censorship.  Ultimately, it seems beneficial to society to have increased communication, even if that means we are sometimes subjected to statements we find offensive.

I am not afraid to enter into the fray.  I have engaged in many Facebook threads in which I have defended my position on _____________ (insert any of the following:  gay rights, civil rights, animal rights, politics, labor unions, socialism, democracy, religion, etc.,, e.g., i.e., AFL-CIO, ad nauseum).  I appreciate the opportunity to do this and consider it an exercise in my right to freedom of speech.  However, I try to maintain a tone of civility and respect for the position of others.  I try to refrain from ad hominem attacks, non sequiturs, false analogies, or red herrings, though I’m sure there have been times when I have failed.   I try to disagree without being disagreeable.

Yet, so quickly these threads sometimes seem to disintegrate into mean-spirited back-and-forths whose origins are often hotly-contested chickens and eggs.  On one hand, it’s great that we have any communication, even the prickly kind.  On the other hand, is this an indication of a general lack of civility in our society?  (Additional question to self for later pondering: And do I contribute to it in any way?)

I know plenty of people on Facebook who purposefully stay away from any kind of controversy or conflict.  I respect their decision to do so (and, frankly, sometimes envy them).  But for those of us who are out there mixing it up, I think we are perhaps part of a significant and possibly valuable shift in our society.  We are the vanguard of a fundamental change in rhetoric.

Either that, or we’re a bunch of opinionated assholes who need to find hobbies.

2 thoughts on “The Changing Face(book) of Debate

  1. LOLOL….now that you’ve given me a thought to ponder, i.e. do I tend to avoid conflict on fb because I now have the self control to not always feel like I have to “engage” with folks I just know are hopeless in their ability, and or willingness, to even consider the merits of considering someone else’s point of view/perspective….OR am I slacking in my obligation to “advocate” for what I believe is right? AND/OR could it be some of both in a way that is OK and more “balanced” for me at this point in my life?…NOW…question for you to ponder….what are the “factors” that contribute to whether facebook people are “avoiders” or “engagers” in getting involved in the fray!?!? if someone was into research wouldn’t that be an intriguing research topic? 🙂

    1. Interesting potential research. I’m not sure whether it would be an area of study for a rhetorician or a psychologist, however! I like your other questions as well. Most days I feel the need to advocate from the if-I-don’t-use-my-voice-perhaps-this-audience-will-never-hear-a-perspective-like-mine motivation. And yet, there are days when I just don’t have the energy. Balance is different for everyone, I suppose. For me, balance usually comes from speaking my piece and then letting it go. If I neglect the chance to share my position, then I often feel out of balance — like, literally, I will think about the lost opportunity for hours or even days and worry that I’ve allowed someone to keep thinking what they are thinking without having their concepts challenged. It’s a sickness. I’m sure there should be a 12-step program for it.

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