My Evolving Relationship with Facebook: A Brief History

Like many folks my age, I first joined Facebook when I was in college.  Back then it was just a website where you could learn a bit about people that you met in class and at other campus activities.  This was before news feeds or embedded advertising (I think the consensus at the time among my friends was that it was quaint to think that anyone would pay to advertise on Facebook) when the most significant interaction you could have with others was by way of pokes and wall posts (you had to actively check a person’s wall to see what was going on with them).  One of the coolest features I remember (and which didn’t last for very long) was a program that would create a visualization of your friend network that showed how folks you knew were interconnected.  I especially liked how it highlighted who among your friends were social hubs and how much overlap you had between different social circles.  For whatever reason that feature didn’t stick around.  This was more or less the extent of my interaction with Facebook in its early days.

At some point there was the big opening of Facebook’s roles to people who didn’t have a valid college email address; given the site’s mission of constantly expanding until it consumes all intelligent thought in the universe, this was a necessary step.  I think that like most college students who had enjoyed the privilege of having an exclusive online club I was slightly concerned about Facebook opening up to my family.  I wasn’t a hard partying college kid though, so there really wasn’t much about my life that would be embarrassing for my parents and other relatives to see.  I never feared the possibility of employers refusing to hire me over stupid college hijinks (I had no hijinks of which to speak).  I was just a kid who enjoyed actually having the capacity to keep some things private from my family.  Still, on the whole I don’t recall caring that much, especially since I didn’t yet maintain much of a presence of Facebook anyway.

The introduction of the newsfeed mostly blew by me unnoticed.  I saw all the college paper op-eds worrying over the loss of privacy as a social networking site was suddenly choosing to tell our friends what we were up to without first asking us about it.  That hullabaloo seems kind of quaint nowadays (the newsfeed is the main event of Facebook now).

Once the newsfeed took over as the primary attraction of Facebook, I think I started to engage with it more actively.  I remember having more than a few conversations through the platform many years ago when I was still an evangelical.  One conversation that stands out starkly in my mind was about the question of how sexuality could be an innate, naturally occurring part of someone’s identity and still be considered sinful by Christians.  I argued that this was possible because in a fallen world with utter depravity it would naturally follow that parts of human nature would be predisposed to sinful acts.  It really annoyed someone else in the conversation who was much more progressive at the time.

I cringe when I remember that exchange these days, especially now that I’ve found myself more and more on the “don’t dehumanize people because of your abstract ideological hangups” side of online conversations.  It didn’t occur to me at the time, but in hindsight I can see just how upsetting what I said was and what a mental toll it must have taken on the other person to engage with my ignorant opinion in good faith.  It’s hard to argue with people suffering from epistemic closure about the humanity of others, not the least because their ideological bubbles allow them not to feel emotionally invested in the argument.

I learned this lesson slowly over the years I spent disentangling myself from evangelicalism and embracing intersectional feminism (and, because someone is bound to willfully misunderstand, this doesn’t mean I quit Christianity).  When I was first learning to be progressive, I had the thought in my head that I had an obligation to have conversations wherever I could, that these efforts would be drops in the bucket towards improving the world.  A lot of conversations still happened on Facebook.

Then there was the month that I spent arguing back and forth with a guy through private messages over evangelical Christianity.  That was hard.  I’d spend hours writing a response, send it off, and then silently dread the reply.  This conversation wasn’t like previous ones I’d had where I was speaking at a remove about a topic that I was ostensibly allied with but had no personal stake.  My identity as a Christian came under attack in that exchange, and it wrecked me.  I stopped enjoying confrontational online conversations after that.

This event probably marks the end of my first really major mode of engagement with Facebook since I joined the platform.  I drifted away from seeking out arguments to simply sharing articles on things that I found interesting.  I shared as much casual stuff as political, mostly with the hope of inviting conversation.  Facebook transitioned from being a place to look for an argument to being a place where I was going to voice my opinions, preferably in a mild enough way to invite good faith discussion.  This approach ended up being benignly uninteresting.  I felt like I was communicating with people, but in hindsight I suspect most of it was just passing by unnoticed by anyone.  I probably would have continued using Facebook in this capacity indefinitely.

Then 2016 came along and I got caught up in the election frenzy.

The events of the 2016 campaign season were really difficult to process (I don’t think anyone disputes this).  A candidate with no experience in government, a history of casual bigotry and misogyny, and a total disregard for the rule of law rode a wave of sexism and white resentment into the White House.  I spent a lot of time posting stuff on Facebook that was intended to directly confront the glaring problems with that man, but I assumed throughout most of the campaign season that things would turn out for the best with Hillary Clinton winning.  I was horrified by her opponent, but that only came out viscerally a couple of times in the lead up to Election Day.

After the election, the way I used Facebook shifted dramatically.  I ranted; I railed against the injustice and absurdity of that man’s victory and the coming fallout from his presidency.  Not once, not twice, but thrice was I told by people through the platform that I was being divisive and unnecessarily hostile (keep in mind that I’d garnered not so much as a peep of opposition from anyone for years prior to this).  This was a weird period in my Facebook use; I’d been ambivalent towards the platform for some time, but in the weeks after the election I was consumed by it.  It got so bad that I forced myself to drop off Facebook for a while.  I switched over to Twitter as my primary social media (overall I think this was a good decision).

Most recently, as the roller coaster has finally crested the hill and begun its first drop, I’ve come back to Facebook.  My approach to it has shifted a little bit in the new climate.  I don’t see a purpose anymore in trying to have conversations with people on the red feed.  There have been too many incidents where I’ve seen bad actors operating to trust that the platform can be a real forum for two-way discourse.  Now, Facebook serves as a sort of shadow of my Twitter activity.  Things that I tweet about, if I care about them enough, get recycled on Facebook for others to see.  I don’t try to launch discussions of current events anymore; it’s better to just report on what I’m doing to help resist the awfulness and move on.  It’s a nice place to catch up on what others are doing in their own lives.  There’s more than a small amount of fluffy content, but that’s easy enough to wade through.  In a lot of ways, I think Facebook’s beginning to turn into something like what it was in its earlier days for me: a thing that I’m connected to, but which less and less seems to have any real impact on what I want to do with my time and energy.

I think that’s for the best.

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