Monday, December 31, 2012

The Fun and Frustrations of Facebook

Facebook is a treacherous place sometimes.

I follow about a dozen blogs, but I don't do anything with my Twitter account (other than occasionally check in on Horse eBooks because it's hilarious), and I put up three lizard related images on Pinterest and I was done with that.  I'm online most of the day with email and Hulu as I work, but it's more in the background.  I can't even imagine how many other social media things there are that I've never even heard of that I'm not doing.  Then there's Facebook.

Initially I joined Facebook simply to see what my brother's page looked like.  He has a vast network of friends and colleagues spread across the globe and it made sense to me why he would use it.  But I didn't think I had any use for such a thing and decided it would be funny to have a Facebook page with just one 'friend' on it.

But anyone who has ever used Facebook knows that's not how it works.  Everyone else who might know you is instantly alerted you are there, and there are friend requests that seem impolite to turn down, and Facebook scours the far reaches of itself even for people with names like yours to offer up as potential 'friends' you should connect with.  Eventually you end up with weird strangers in your news feed who you can't imagine how they got there, and on occasion post in a language you don't even recognize.  It's bizarre.

And beyond that there are moments when Facebook is downright creepy.

I started paying attention to my Facebook account with my growing and slightly unnerving list of 'friends' when I was at Babble and they told me I was responsible for all my own blog promotion.  When I started writing at the site there were helpful contacts there who were good about monitoring the half a dozen personal bloggers and making sure our work was visible and occasionally promoted on the homepage.  But then there was a lot of turnover and suddenly there were dozens of personal bloggers that were impossible to keep track of and then the site was sold to Disney, and by then literally my own mother couldn't find my blog anymore.  Our original little band of personal bloggers were told that it was not possible for Babble to post any of our work on their Facebook page, we'd have to start our own.  (Because, you know, it's expensive to type a link onto Facebook.  Or something.  I have no idea.  Anyway....)

So I started promoting my new posts on my Facebook page, and here's the creepy thing:  The thumbnail picture that goes along with my post?  I never pick that.  I can block it if I don't like it, but Facebook chooses it.  And once it picked a picture for a post about Mona that I had never posted anywhere.  It wasn't an embarrassing picture or problematic in any way, but I wanted to know where in the hell did Facebook find that photo?  It took me a while, but eventually I figured out I had uploaded it to the pre-WordPress photo library where I connected to Babble to write, and it was an untagged picture I had considered using but never put on a post.  And Facebook found it.  Yeah.

I have come to rely on Facebook for certain things regarding my business and to promote my writing.  I'm a sucker for all the baby photos and cute animal posts, and enjoy the silly ecards, and I like feeling in touch with old friends I never would get to keep up with in real life, and being alerted to local things I might otherwise miss.  That all comes at some unknowable price because I don't really trust Facebook, finder of unposted Mona photos.  And I always keep in the back of my mind the phrase, "If the service is free you are not the customer, you are the product."  That said, I have come to enjoy Facebook, and it's unusual now for a day to go by without my checking it.

So, to get back to the treacherous nature of Facebook, I'm feeling conflicted about how to handle some of the more heated discussions that take place there.

I'm not a confrontational person, but I love a good debate and like having my positions challenged because I try to be open minded and I enjoy the chance to think through what I believe and decide if it's really worth believing.  If you lay out an intelligent argument I will not ignore it, because it's good to think about things in a new way and learn something.

However, it's really easy in a text medium like Facebook to have people read inflections or emotional content into your words that are unintended.  Or to take things personally and then sling back responses in kind.  And things can go off the rails really fast.

I did not have contentious family gatherings when I was growing up.  I know for a lot of people the holidays mean political arguments with crazy uncles or far left or right wing cousins, but we didn't do that.  We just had fun.  Once a cousin threw up during a family photo and that was exciting, but for the most part we just played games and ate cookies and it was really all about as nice as you could want it to be.

So I am woefully unprepared for how heated and odd the discussions can get on Facebook.  And now I am trying really hard to follow a mantra of "Do Not Take the Bait."

It's tricky, because even though I know people writing on their own walls are not specifically addressing me, when I'm reading it on my page with my laptop in my home it feels like it's in my space.  And if someone says something borderline offensive or seems misinformed my instinct is to pipe up because some things I don't want to appear to condone with silence.  Some things are hard to let slip idly by.  But just because I disagree with you doesn't mean I want to hurt your feelings.

I never comment on people's religious posts.  I'll debate about religion if you want to, but friends saying something nice about Jesus or mentioning Yom Kippur are not doing any harm or trying to incite anything, and I accept that people have different religious beliefs.  I have nothing to add to any commentary about sports or statements about animal rights or pictures of your lunch.  I won't challenge anyone on their emotional response to something like an election.  There were lots of reactions on my Facebook feed after the failed recall here in Wisconsin as well as the recent presidential election, and people are entitled to their feelings on either side.  No need for sour grapes or to rub salt in any wounds.  I don't even get lured into responding when people put up those guilt inducing blurbs that say things like "If you don't repost this then you don't hate cancer!" which drive me crazy.

No, the moments I have trouble biting my tongue are when a statement presented as fact is flat out false, a vulnerable segment of our society is being in some way attacked or smeared, or if someone presents such a narrow view of what it means to be American that I feel misrepresented.

For example, periodically someone posts a rant about how one of the problems with kids today is that they go to public schools where the pledge of allegiance has been banned and they really should be forced to say it.  This always grabs my attention because, first of all, it's simply not true.  My kids go to public school and they say the pledge of allegiance.  And secondly, freedom in America means you aren't forced to say a pledge.  The Jehovah's Witnesses in my class as a kid never stood up for the anthem or said the pledge because they were exercising their freedom of religion.  The right to exercise that freedom is fundamentally American.  (I choose to leave out the "under God" part, and my husband chooses not to say it at all feeling it's an empty jingoistic display and if his two tours of duty in Iraq and willingness to die for the constitution isn't patriotic enough for you that's your problem.  My kids can decide for themselves whether or not they want to say it.)

It doesn't matter how politely I may refute these claims.  I always mistakenly think the poster of the rant will be pleased to discover this tradition has not been lost, but this is never the case.  When presented with evidence their original 'fact' is incorrect they just ignore that part and focus on some other angle, but with nowhere logical to turn the attacks just get personal.  And as the back and forth continues I always wonder what I was thinking when I took the stupid bait.

I am sensitive to when people complain about anyone on welfare or food stamps, as if that is some wonderful prize.  Of course there are people receiving assistance who probably don't deserve to be, but no system is perfect and I'm willing to subsidize a few unfortunate moochers (whom I still would not trade places with) in order to insure the needy don't fall through the cracks.  Corporate welfare is a far more costly problem and if we have to attack moochers I'd rather we start there than at the more vulnerable end of society.

I don't like it when people suggest speaking a language other than English is somehow anti-American.  I have unfriended people who step over the line of attacking our president for his policies into not-so-thinly-veiled racism.  I don't need that kind of ugliness in my home or on my homepage.

The recent discussion on guns has gotten painful for me on Facebook.  I've encountered a few conservative voices who ask decent questions and have made me stop and examine my own (quite different) thoughts more closely.  But too many address my concerns as if I'm ignorant, scared, or both, and don't engage in a real discussion.  They just default to their own experience with recreational use of firearms in ways that aren't relevant, and I don't know how to respond yet to people who seem to literally be saying that the tragedy in Newtown is an acceptable sacrifice to make for the current interpretation of the second amendment.

I genuinely like some of the people I disagree with.  I am interested in having a reasonable discussion on certain issues because I don't think my friends are crazy and I would love to understand their side.  If we really listen to each other and can address our basic concerns I do think there is a chance for compromise.  Compromise means each of us accepting things we don't like, but that's easier to do when we can respect the other point of view.

Unfortunately Facebook doesn't seem to be a place to do that.  We react too quickly and are too easily misunderstood.  It ends up being soundbites and recycled slogans instead of original ideas.  I've been engaged in discussions where I thought things were going reasonably, only to have someone I like turn on me in a way that's downright rude and realize they probably thought the same of me.  Those of us who want to maintain real friendships wind up retreating rather than continuing to stand by our positions because there doesn't seem to be a way to do both in that space.

But then, Facebook is just an extension of the real world in many ways.  We don't generally find spaces to have such discussions safely.  We complain among people who already agree so we can feel bolstered in our opinions and shy away from such topics among those who we know do not share our views to keep things civil.  We let loudmouthed proxies voice our side in the media and allow that to pass for discussion.  It isn't.  And it's a shame, because I really think we do need to talk more honestly about a variety of important issues.

Maybe we need a Facebook with a referee.  (And that comes with fewer ads reminding me I'm overweight and getting old.)


  1. I tried Facebook twice, and I found the experience empty both times. There are people who will ONLY communicate through Facebook, and therefore my absence from the "place" is as absent as it would be if I were to move to a hut in the Amazon. They could email me, but very few do. Like you, I prefer to communicate in larger chunks of prose, and tend to enjoy going beyond the superficial the purely visual

  2. Blogger wouldn't let me edit that last comment, which should have proper punctuation and the word "and" in between "superficial" and "and."

  3. I don't engage.

  4. You bring up many valid points and much of my dissatisfaction with FB. I deactivated my account about two years ago and I've never been happier.

    I'm a VERY non-confrontational individual and I was always horrified at my "friends" who would post such over-the-top statements (such as you mentioned above) and then close ranks when you tried to put forth an opposing view. I would never do so--see the "non-confrontational" comment--but others would try, and it's terrifying to me that in today's day and age that even with presented with cold hard FACTS, these people will deny them and dig in deeper to defend their view.

    On top of that I had family and "friends" who were continually posting things that made me want to scream (attention grabbers and such) and I found I was taking on too much and it was stressing me out.

    It took me about two weeks to get over the FB withdrawl, and I've not been back on since. Sure, there are definitely events I miss out on, but, I have many friends who know I'm not on and they'll go out of their way to contact me another way.

    It's very difficult to communicate solely via internet as so much is lost with regards to facial expression, intonation and inflection and more. Everyone puts their own spin on what they think they have read and it may be something that the poster never intended.

    There's a wonderful saying I have picked up in recent years, "Don't feed the trolls". It's a mantra I try to remember anytime I read something that utterly infuriates me or leaves me shaking my head. I know I'm not going to change somebody's mind through an online debate so I just let it go and assume they were trolling for attention.

  5. This was a wonderful read. I feel the same way. I find myself trying really hard to "not take the bait" and have made a more conscious effort to only start a discussion with people who are able to discuss without demeaning. Though, lately on FB, that's hard. I'd love to share this widely if you're ok with it...

    1. Please do.

      Actually, in that thread with a mutual friend where he was willing to lay some of the blame with the victim in that domestic violence case you brought up, it was your moving post about your experiences in that area that made me remind him he needed to be careful. And then he made a quip about my wanting to strip him of his freedom of speech. So, oh well. I appreciate it when people let me know I've stepped over a line by mistake and may be hurting others, but some people assume anyone who is hurt is not giving them the right benefit of the doubt to begin with. It's hard.

  6. Not taking the bait can be so hard. After the recall, someone came and gloated on my page. It was the first time I ever unfriended someone -- I really lean towards the "let many flowers bloom" view of life and opinions. But it was the last straw for me.