I try to keep my identity vague in most of my online accounts. Most profiles that I have open to public viewing uses a pseudonym and only generic details: Twenty-something. Female. Educated. Employed. It’s simply a matter of protecting my privacy and safety, and it allows me to feel comfortable interacting with people I don’t know and might have nothing in common with other than the same film and book obsessions.
But on Facebook, it’s the opposite. I am only Facebook-friends with people that I have met and know in real life. I love seeing pictures of my family and friends’ babies, I like being able to see what people that I haven’t talked to lately are up to, I enjoy “liking” the big announcements like engagements, weddings, graduations, new jobs, or even new hairstyles. But aside from being able to share pictures and news with family, I think the biggest benefit I draw from my Facebook feed is a continually-updated understanding of people and issues.
You often hear about the polarizing nature of the American public today. Politics divide sharply down partisan lines, religion is treated as something that must either be fervently and legalistically clung to, or entirely rejected. There is no room for a middle ground. We like to talk about ourselves as an ever-progressive and tolerant society, but we venomously despise the views that oppose our own. We belittle those that we do not agree with and label them as everything “wrong with this country”, blaming the other side for “holding us back” or “calling judgment upon this nation.” Above all, we use labels. Those who don’t agree with us are not people, they’re not respectable fellow humans with convictions; they’re Homophobes, Liberals, Fundamentalists, Feminists, etc.
That’s where I think Facebook comes in handy. I see posts on multiple sides of almost every issue or current news story in my feed. I know some people block or un-friend people who post stances they don’t agree with or that annoy them, creating smaller and smaller circles of increasingly exclusive and homogeneous acquaintances. Everyone is certainly free to control access to their own Facebook account as they see fit, but it’s often these Facebook friends who are the most extreme and outspoken that I value the most. When I see a potentially polarizing post, I also have a context to put it in; I’ve seen the same person post about her bad day at work, or the movie he’s recently enjoyed. I’ve seen the pictures of a family visit, and I know something about their education and career. It forces me to see the poster as a complex individual, not a faceless label.
Forcing myself to see the person posting as complex and not a label is actually the very opposite of what many of those memes aim to do. They often include partial facts or deliberately re-frame arguments to make them sound more compelling. And the juxtaposition of ideas and perspectives propels me to continually try to see things from someone else’s point of view. It’s what keeps me a moderate. (It helps that at different points in my life I have lived in very conservative and very liberal communities; I’ve accumulated Facebook friends with a wide range of backgrounds, lifestyles, and opinions.)
It’s not the same thing as interacting with a diverse mix of people in real life, since people may be more conscious of the persona they cultivate online, and it may not reflect everything about the real person. I have to confess that I am a bit stealthy myself on Facebook, rarely posting the types of political or religious commentaries that I scrutinize so carefully on others’ walls. Perhaps I am too much of a silent coward, perhaps I should speak up more.
And I’m not saying that every post is ultimately valid–sometimes people’s views really are just spewing unfiltered hatred, ignorance, or misinformation, but if I conclude that about a post on Facebook, at least I can hope that my rejection of the post isn’t a knee-jerk reaction in my own disagreement to the stated opinion. There are only a few people that I’ve observed display a consistent pattern of cold-heartedness; most people, on every side of every issue, are compassionate and concerned for people who are hurting, or at risk, or disadvantaged, unlike they are often portrayed by their opposition. They just have different convictions on what the solution should be.
Constantly trying to contextualize Facebook posts is more than just putting a face on a particular position, it’s dismantling the idea that you could ever even have one person that represents an entire segment of society. I wish more people could learn to take the time to discern the realities behind the rhetoric, to realize that saying you understand someone’s position doesn’t have to mean that you agree with it, to adopt a way of declaring their convictions without denigrating everyone else’s. Think about it–the path to a more compassionate and civil society could lie through a cultivating a diverse Facebook feed.