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.