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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I Need to Recalibrate

In no particular order, here are the things I’ve been doing with my time in the last few weeks:

  • Playing down my backlog of games.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed a couple of indie titles, and I’m finding myself feeling highly averse to games that a year ago I would have been aching to jump into, like The Walking Dead: Michonne and the complete edition of Dragon Age: Inquisition.  My lack of enthusiasm for the former is a combination of just being too smitten with the mechanics of Life is Strange to feel like Michonne will feel like an equally satisfying experience and being reluctant to jump into more violent narratives; my lack of enthusiasm for the latter is entirely because I’ve played through the main story once before, and I know what a time sink that will be before I even get into the material I haven’t played yet.
  • Reading the news voraciously.  I know that I become a news junkie during presidential election seasons, and with the surprise election of that man I’m finding myself even more drawn to keeping up to date with what’s happening.  I don’t think I can overstate how anxious I feel whenever I think about national politics, and it’s become the thing I devote most of my free time to following.
  • Sharing what I read on Facebook.  Because I’m so introverted and because my interests run towards subjects that are so emotionally charged, I often don’t have access to social outlets offline.  I get really anxious discussing politics or religion in person, especially when I suspect the other person doesn’t share my perspective (I often default to assuming that not sharing my perspective is the same as being hostile; I know this isn’t necessarily true, but anxiety doesn’t operate in a totally rational way either).  Sharing is a way for me to get those thoughts out in a situation that feels much more low pressure to me.
  • Calling my Congressional representatives on the regular to urge them to take action to oppose that man’s administration.  This is the one concrete thing I’ve found that feels like real resistance.  I want to do more.  I need to do more.
  • Writing for my blog.  This one’s a struggle.  I take pride in keeping my posting schedule, but so many nights it just feels like too much to pull myself together enough to write about any one thing for a thousand words.  I’ve been doing this for over three years, and it’s tough sometimes.  Even while I’m sitting here writing, I feel a constant urge to go check social media or see what news has cropped up in the last half hour.

Since the election, I feel like I’ve been in a pretty constant fight or flight mode.  The initial shock has worn off (I’ve not felt like crying since the end of that first week), but there’s a low-level buzz always in the back of my mind saying over and over, This is not right.  It’s exhausting to listen to it, but it also feels like shutting it down would be a betrayal.  I know that I have cultural protections in place that ensure my life will only be minimally impacted by the policies that are going to be pushed for the next four years.  I’ll be fine, insofar as there isn’t a massively disruptive international incident (I still feel like that’s a big if, but I’m trying to manage my feelings).  I more fear that my friends who don’t belong to protected groups will be hurt.  This is the biggest source of my current anxiety, and I’m not sure how else to express it.  I’ve spent weeks loudly decrying everything going on with the incoming administration that sets off alarm bells; multiple people who don’t agree with my politics have said to me to stop being so panicked, to stop being divisive, that it won’t be as bad as I think, to try moderation to accomplish something, and all I want to say each time is I can’t stop being afraid for my friends; why do you not understand this?

It’s been a rough few weeks in a lot of ways.

I’m trying to figure out how I move into a space where I’m acting as a good ally, and it feels like I’m failing miserably.  Besides calling representatives, I’ve had multiple moments where I’ve had to wonder if there’s anything actually being accomplished by all my reading and sharing and discussing on social media.  It’s straining relationships with people who disagree with me, and I don’t think it’s actually doing any good for the people that I want to help.  In my most reflective moments, it feels like a lot of performance with no positive impact.

As I’m writing this post I’ve decided to take a break from regular Facebook use.  I spent a day just ignoring the social media platform after I realized that I was still obsessing over it when I was supposed to be getting ready to go to bed.  That was only a brief hiatus, but I’ve resolved that I really need to rethink how I’m approaching social media in general.  I can’t shut it off completely, but it doesn’t need to be the centerpiece of my activities outside of work.

Of course, that means I need to figure out what to do with all that extra time.  I estimate that at least and hour and a half of my evenings have been spent reading and sharing news through Facebook; if I’m going to cut that down or try to eliminate it completely, I need to find something else to do with that time.  I want it to be spent productively.  I don’t know how to go about making that time productive.  This is the sort of thing that I know I need to figure out on my own.  I’m motivated, so I should invest my own energy into educating myself.

Part of the rationale behind all this reflection comes from this article that I came across the other day.  It discusses the psychological impact of being constantly exposed to traumatic events elsewhere in the world via social media, and the conclusion that it comes to is that for most people, the emotional cost of being exposed to these events is indistinguishable from actual trauma in their lives; you read too much depressing news, and it instills a sense of hopelessness that discourages you from trying to do anything to change the conditions that lead to the negative event.  It’s been on my mind a lot for the last few days, and I think on a personal level it relates largely to how I’ve been engaging with social media.

So, I’m going to try to change up my habits.  We’ll see how that goes.

Facebook “Friends” Vs Twitter Followers

This post is based on a conversation I saw on Facebook the other day; it got me thinking a little bit about this topic.

The gist of the conversation went like this: some people make a point of announcing to their Facebook friends that they don’t want to be exposed to political opinions with which they don’t agree, and so if anyone wants to post these opinions they should unfriend the person making the post.  It was the opinion of the original poster that it’s a petty thing to end a friendship over a political disagreement, and they were saddened by the prospect of losing friends because of politics.

This argument bothered me on the face of it for a couple of reasons, so let’s walk through and break down the assumptions that I think were being made.

The first assumption is that a person cannot be distressed enough by political differences to have a valid reason for not wanting to be exposed to such things in their social media.  We know that exposure to differing opinions is a mentally taxing activity; it literally exhausts us to think about things with which we don’t already agree.  Choosing to eliminate such stresses from one’s social media experience is a valid decision, especially if things like Facebook are being used by a person as a de-stressor.  Beyond that simple acknowledgment of a person’s right to use social media as they like, it’s also fair to point out that political discourse has become especially vitriolic in recent years, and it’s particularly nasty right now in America because of the presidential election.  My opinion is that Donald Trump has debased the level of conversation so that overt racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry are treated as normal, and it should go without saying that if a person wants to escape that kind of discourse, then they have a right to manage their friends list and cull people who post personally distressing things.  I also think that people who believe differently have a right to cultivate their own spaces where they don’t have to be bothered by liberal and leftist rhetoric.  It’s social media, not the Agora (that’s to say that yes, there should be a place for public discourse on these topics, but no one is required to make Facebook that place regardless of what Mark Zuckerberg might want).

Now, the other thing about the original argument that bothered me is the way it leans on this concept of “unfriending.”  Pause for a moment and recognize that the category of Facebook “friend” is not perfectly aligned with the category of real life friends.  I have on my “friend” list people ranging from close and extended family to people I knew in high school to people I knew in college to former coworkers to my actual close friends.  Many of the folks I interact with on a regular basis in my current life aren’t even connected to me through Facebook; this one social media platform is not the nexus of my social life.

Given that, it’s important to remember that we can (and do) maintain relationships outside of Facebook.  It’s a tool that we use to streamline the work of maintaining those relationships, but it isn’t essential, and with the system’s flaws it’s not hard to justify wanting to walk away from it in certain situations.  Facebook may have branded its version of social connections as “friending,” but we have to be cognizant of the difference between this phenomenon and the traditional meaning of the word.

Now, contrast the “friend” concept with Twitter’s version: followers.  I don’t use that term in quotes because the word is an accurate descriptor of what Twitter means when it calls its users that.  I follow a handful of people on my Twitter feed, and many of them do not follow me back.  There’s no expectation of reciprocity in the Twitterverse (I know this because as much as I would like to have more followers myself, I accept that I’m just not very adept at using the platform), and that’s okay.  You can build friendships through interactions on Twitter, but they aren’t bound by a mutual exposure to one another’s feed activity.  When you consider the way Facebook doesn’t give you explicit control over what shows up in your feed there, Twitter’s model shines as an eminently sensible way of doing things.

I’m not trying to suggest here that Twitter’s social media model is inherently better.  There are problems with harassment, and the one hundred forty character limit tends to chafe for someone like me who’s inclined to be particularly wordy (and, of course, there’s the old saw about the necessary brevity of the format inhibiting nuanced conversation).  Like I already noted, Twitter’s refusal to enforce reciprocity means that you have to have some skill at navigating the platform if your goal is to amass an audience.  Still, on the point of creating a false equivocation between your followers and your close friendships, Twitter is far superior that Facebook.

I Don’t Really Like Using Facebook

The other day John Scalzi wrote some musings on how the personal blog works in the current internet ecosystem.  Seeing as I am one of those people who maintains a personal blog (for three years now, folks!), I found his thoughts interesting and worthwhile.  If you happen to also be one of those people who likes to carve out a personal space on the internet that’s not hosted on social media, you may find them interesting too.

For the folks who prefer not to click through (that’s okay; I don’t click through on random stuff outside of link roundups very often either), the basic gist of Scalzi’s post is that the personal blog has shifted from being an outlet for regular conversation on various topics to being more a permanent anchor point in a person’s overall online presence (you know how pretty much every place on the internet that requires an account has a section where you can list your website?  There you go).  The things that we want to discuss with the people who take the time to keep up with us have been displaced to social media sites (think about every site you frequent; they all have embedded functionality to share with people via Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc.).  The good news here is that social media isn’t yet a fully closed ecosystem that wants to host your content so you never leave; the bad news is that it’s moving in that direction, especially on Facebook, where they’ve been optimizing the site for years to deliver content to your stream without requiring you to click through (think of all the videos you see in your feed that load automatically when they’re in frame; think of how the trend now is to include subtitles on those videos so you can engage them without even having to click on the sound).  More time on Facebook is more money for Facebook via ad revenue; it’s important to note that it’s not the only social media site that does this so much as it’s simply the most visible (See, for example, this article discussing the proposed Twitter character limit increase from the beginning of this year; Twitter backed off of that idea, but they’re still playing with ways to achieve a similar effect).

And all of this got me thinking about the way I use Facebook, which isn’t that dissimilar from many other people.  I have my personal account, and I use it to see what’s going on with friends and family, and to see what kind of things they’re interested in via the content they link to.  I don’t interact much beyond liking things that I find agreeable (I’m indifferent to the range of response buttons recently implemented; I only use anything other than the ‘like’ very rarely).  Occasionally I’ll engage in conversation through the comments; this is usually a fraught exercise that has more than once resulted in me getting into an argument with a stranger instead of actually sharing thoughts with my friends.  Then there’s the passive cultivation that Facebook does with content.  I do think that there’s a place for weeding your feed of content that you know you’ll find annoying, offensive, or distressing, but I think that should be a decision I get to make with my feed rather than something that an algorithm inexpertly and invisibly manages.

I’ve recently toyed around with the idea of leaving Facebook, but I don’t think anything would realistically come of it.  It’s so heavily embedded in the social infrastructure of the internet these days (my family and many of my friends are only connected to me online through Facebook) that leaving the site behind feels like a self-imposed exile from my social sphere.

I don’t know what to do with these thoughts, by the way.  So often in writing essays you feel like you have to finish with some kind of culminating point, but on this subject I don’t have any strong conclusions.  I don’t enjoy having so much of my online life embedded in Facebook, but at this point I can’t imagine how I’d go about shifting away from it.

Hooray for Blogs!

The other day I came across this article by Rian Van Der Merwe thanks to the regular Friday link roundup at Natalie Luhrs’s site Pretty Terrible.  It’s a short, thoughtful piece about the importance of maintaining your web presence in a place that isn’t walled off in the way that social media platforms like Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter typically are.  Those places are designed in a way that they want to keep you within their network rather than branching out and exploring other interesting places on the web.  The general motivation behind this design is, naturally, profit.  Big social media platforms get revenue from native advertising and their ability to mine user data for information that’s valuable to marketers, and the more users stay within a given ecosystem for their web browsing, the easier these companies can get that data.

For the content creator, this model means that it’s highly lucrative to base yourself on one of these platforms.  On Facebook you have the built in audience of your entire friends list, and the number one thing that creators want is eyes on their work.  Going to a platform where you’re starting at more than zero is really tempting, especially when it’s so hard to build an audience (I’ve been blogging for two and a half years now, and though my site metrics say that I’ve gradually increased average traffic, it often feels like I’ve yet to build a consistent audience; I can’t shake the feeling that increased pageviews for me is tied to a growing library of content, though timeless posts are a lot harder to come by than timely stuff).  Nonetheless, the point that Van Der Merwe makes about how valuable personal blogs are for getting to know other people in a way that the curated, algorithm derived feeds of social media don’t really allow is a good one.  If I stuck to just Facebook and Twitter (and in this case Twitter is a still a superior platform, though we’ll see what happens when the extended character limit rolls out), then my exposure to interesting things and thoughts from other people would be relatively limited (my Facebook feed especially feels like it’s mostly just people sharing things they’ve read without offering their own particular thoughts, and it comes across as pretty isolating sometimes).

So I’m on board with Van Der Merwe’s idea.  The joy of personal blogs is that they help you get to know people in strange, quirky, sometimes roundabout ways.  The topics they cover helps you learn about what they think is important; the arguments they make help you see how they think about things.  And, of course, their sites help you get away from the curated platforms and dig around the more open web.

In the vein of that last, point, I was thinking I’d just share some links to blogs that I enjoy following on a regular basis.  Many of these I’ve mentioned at one point or another in the past, but not everyone’s seen everything I’ve put out, so here’s a collected set.

  • Slacktivist – I discovered Fred Clark’s blog a few years ago by way of his ongoing review of the Left Behind series, which he started about a decade ago (he’s recently been able to pick it back up with the help of his Patreon supporters).  I don’t think I can overstate how instrumental Clark’s blog has been in helping reshape my faith away from the conservative evangelicalism I was steeped in for most of the last decade.
  • Samantha Field – Samantha’s primary focus is on exploring the ways growing up in Christian fundamentalism has affected her life as an adult and working through the damage in order to find healing.  If Slacktivist helped me see the problems inherent in conservative evangelicalism and grapple with them, Samantha’s blog helped me recognize just how abusive the subculture can be.
  • Love, Joy, Feminism – Libby Anne’s blog is similar in subject to Samantha’s but Libby Anne writes from the perspective of an atheist who left the Christian faith altogether after her experiences with the fundamentalist subculture.  Libby Anne’s experiences as a parent trying to navigate child rearing while dealing with her past exposure to abuses by the home school subculture are interesting and help provide focus on an aspect of American Christianity that I’ve not seen elsewhere.
  • Pretty Terrible – Though I’m not hugely engaged with the literary community at large, I do hear about a lot of major things that go on by way of my wife, Rachael.  She turned me on to Natalie Luhrs’s blog back when it was still called Radish Reviews because her Friday link roundups are always full of interesting articles related to social justice and issues in the fiction world, and now it’s a regular part of my weekly perusal.
  • Whatever – Though John Scalzi’s best known for his sci-fi writing, I’ve actually never read any of his novels (I do have copies of Lock In and Redshirts sitting in my bookcase waiting to be read, whenever I get around to them).  Instead, I started following his blog a few years ago when I heard that he’d announced that he wouldn’t be attending any conventions that didn’t have an explicit and thorough anti-harassment policy.  Like the name of his blog implies, Scalzi writes about whatever strikes his fancy, from issues in publishing to politics to Twitter absurdity.  I follow him because he consistently offers his thoughts in a cogent way that’s entertaining and easy to follow.
  • Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men – I’m primarily a fan of Jay Edidin and Miles Stokes’s weekly podcast, but their companion blog feels like essential reading for the visual companion that they put out to go with each episode.  Since comics are such a visual medium, being able to see precisely what it is they’re talking about is always interesting and informative.  Besides that, pretty much everything supplemental that Jay posts on the site, like guest essays and reviews of X-Men: Evolution episodes, is well worth a read.

And that’s it for the major stops in my blog rotation.  If there are any blogs you particularly like yourself, feel free to drop them in the comments with an explanation of why you like them.