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.

My 2016 in Review

Well, that was a digression.

Setting aside all the stuff about the imagined malice of the year and the actual malice of people who are scared of their fading grasp on the world, I should offer some reflections on the year as it relates to my personal life.  The list of major events in my private life this year is a short one.  I left my job at the special education school where I worked for five years and began a new one at a regular high school.  My grandmother died.  I had a fight with my parents over taking some time to lick my wounds after the election, and then we reconciled.  It’s a mixed bag.  On the balance, I think that I’ve spent more days feeling generally happier this year thanks in large part to my new job.  At the same time, I’ve also had some extended periods where I think I was coping with low-level depression (summer was a particular low point; the combination of processing grief while being on an extended break from work is a potent one, especially when I filled so much of my time with news of the wider world’s troubles).  If my world were small enough to only encompass my friends and family, then I’d say that 2016 was not the worst year I’ve ever had.  The problem is that 2016 is also the year where so many white liberals like myself were also forced to confront just how fragile our carefully cultivated view of the world is.  To remain innocent is to remain ignorant, and there comes a point where you have to accept that trying to hold on to innocence for yourself is an act of violence towards people who need you to see their suffering.  That’s probably the big lesson I’ve learned from this year.

On the blog, things have been generally good.  At the time of this writing, these are my top five most viewed posts of the year:

  • “On the Collective Personification of a Year and the Devil in Our Current Politics” – So, this post apparently struck a nerve, because in the weekend since I posted it, it’s become my most viewed post for the year.  It’s been really nice to see the immediate response; I didn’t really think that I was hitting on anything that novel in my analysis, but I’ve seen at least a couple people note that they hadn’t considered fear of mortality as a motivating factor in the behavior of older voters this election cycle.  That’s been an idea that has floated around in my head for a couple years, so I figured it was old news.
  • “Is Final Fantasy Anti-Religion?” – I keep getting hits on this old post from 2014, which is great (I do love getting traffic), but it feels like a throwback to a time when I was deeply concerned with different things.  I don’t especially care anymore whether Final Fantasy is anti-religion; it’s a series that holds a significant place in my childhood, but as I get older I see it more and more as a series that refuses to grow up with me.
  • Gilmore Girls is Terrible to Lane” – This one isn’t a huge surprise to me.  Gilmore Girls has been in the zeitgeist this year with the revival on Netflix coming out.  Lane’s a character that I think a lot of fans really love, and it’s frustrating to see that the writers on the show consistently under served her.  I wanted better for her in the revival too, but she didn’t really get it.
  • “This is Not a Deconversion Story” – This guest post by my wife Rachael pulled a lot of traffic early in the year.  We had these grand plans to develop a series about exploring different religious traditions outside white evangelical Christianity, but we never could follow through; there was too much other stuff that makes up a life getting in the way.  Maybe someday we’ll return to this idea.  If not, that’s okay too.
  • “Religion in Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII – Folks apparently really want to explore the religious themes of the Final Fantasy series, which I figure is the reason this post from summer of 2015 was one of my top posts this year.
  • Honorable Mention: Hamilton and Literary Terms”– [This post was originally in my top five when I first drafted my year-end reflection, but then I had a traffic explosion, so now it’s out.  I’m keeping it on the list though, because it entertains me.]  2016 happened to be the year that I discovered Hamilton: An American Musical.  I still haven’t seen it, but I’ve listened to the soundtrack endlessly, and one of the small projects I did back at the beginning of the school year was to think of some examples of lyrics from the musical that can stand in as examples of a small number of literary terms.  People love Hamilton, so there you go.  I hope my obsessive memorization of song lyrics aids teachers and students alike who just need to know what sound devices you can find in Thomas Jefferson’s verse about Hamilton being Washington’s favorite.

A fun side activity to look at as well is the variety of search terms that brought folks to my blog this year.  To those people who ended up on my little feminist blog looking for how to draw erotic superheroines, teenage girl simulators, and Nagate/gauna fanfic sex, sorry?  I mean, I get that you had to have been disappointed that you went looking for porn and ended up on a page with nothing but commentary about how terrible various depictions of women and intersex persons are.  Probably you just clicked away after you realized this was not what you wanted, but I hope you spent a moment reading my thoughts, and that you went away a little more enlightened in your quest for self love.  To all the people who searched for some version of Final Fantasy being either pro- or anti-religion (and that one special person who searched “final fantasy is anti christ”), I guess I have to say congratulations?  Those are, in fact, things that I discussed in this space in the past; thanks to you, it continues to be my most viewed topic.  To all the folks who continuously land here after searching for ideas on some catchy title to go with a particular topic, I offer my sincerest apologies.  I’m no good with titles either (you probably already figured that out though).  I want to give a special shoutout to the person who searched “catchy message titles for ten commandments”; I don’t know what post you landed on, but I suspect it was very far from what you wanted.

In terms of overall traffic, I’m closing out the year with nearly a thousand more total views than I had at the end of 2015.  My blog’s a low-traffic affair, so this difference comes mostly from a couple of special events that happened this year, including “This is not a Deconversion Story” and its follow-up posts, the death of Jack Chick (which precipitated a bit of renewed interest in my old posts discussing the theology of various Chick tracts), and now the first part of my 2016 reflection (many thanks to Rachael for boosting that one).  I often find myself playing the game of wondering what my traffic would look like without these unique events, but I suppose that falls into speculation about things that didn’t come to pass, and, well, that’s not a terribly productive use of time, is it?

Outside the blog, I’ve begun branching out and trying to build more of a presence on Twitter.  It’s hard; I still don’t fully understand the platform’s etiquette, and I’m regularly intimidated by the prospect of tweeting at folks who don’t know me.  We’ll see how I can improve on that in the coming year (as I’m writing this, my phone is blowing up with new Twitter follows; thanks again, Rachael).

And that’s my year in a nutshell.  How was everyone else’s?

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.

Nicolas Cage Match: Pay the Ghost

Because Twitter is such an ephemeral thing, and I don’t have a wealth of followers (shameless plug: follow me on Twitter), I’m archiving my livetweet of the objectively terrible 2015 Nic Cage movie Pay the Ghost on my blog for posterity.

For anyone who hasn’t seen the movie or wants some context for my ramblings, this film’s the story of a guy who loses his son at a Halloween festival in New York, and then a year later pesters the cops about it while gradually uncovering the dark secret that every year the ghost of a woman who was burned as a witch abducts three children and traps them in the netherworld on the following Halloween.

It is not a good movie.

No joke, the character I referenced in that last tweet died while I was writing the tweet.

Same for that character too.

He was introduced back in the homeless den from way earlier in the movie.

Nic Cage Match: Twitter Edition

So I just saw Outcast, a 2014 period adventure movie starring Nicolas Cage and Hayden Christensen.  It was quite bad, and I tried out livetweeting the experience.  This is the result.

Victory Lap!

So, after last week’s extremely glum post about my feelings of inadequacy as a writer, I had a really good weekend to completely upend all that and leave me feeling like things are going pretty well.

First off, I wrote a drabble.  It was a simple piece done in a fit of creative anxiety at the encouragement of Rachael, and it turned out alright.  I was happy with it, and I posted it here on the blog on Sunday morning as well as over at the Drabblecast forums.  Then I more or less went on about my day, until I was fiddling on the internet and I got a message from Norm Sherman.

I do not know Norm Sherman, so Rachael and I briefly considered what the message might be about, and we came to the same conclusion: he wanted to run my drabble on his podcast.  Then I opened the message to find it was true.

So now, I can say that I’m a published author, and that doesn’t just include stuff that I put up on my blog.

If you’d like to listen to my story done in delightful audio, then go check out Drabblecast Episode 296 – Five Ways To Fall In Love On Planet Porcelain.  My story opens for Cat Rambo‘s, whom Rachael assures me is a really big deal in the fiction community (sorry, Cat, I’ve never actually read any of your work, but I promise I will very, very soon!).

On the nonfiction side of things, my most recent post about the Justice League study that I participated in over the summer exploded my view count after I linked it on Rachel Held Evans’s Sunday Superlatives, and she liked it so much that she retweeted it.  As someone who has a grand Twitter following of three (including my wife), this resulted in a little bit more of a bump than I was hoping for from dropping a link over at RHE’s blog.  It was a pleasant boost in my confidence, and I sincerely hope that everyone who stopped by to read about Deborah enjoyed my thoughts, no matter how simple they might be.

The fact that these two separate events happened pretty much within an hour of each other on Sunday night was great, and to celebrate, I’m going to try to renovate my blog a little bit with some static directory pages for my various series.  I’ve tried to be consistent with my tagging, but the whole blogging thing is still relatively new to me (just over three months I’ve been at this now!) and I’m feeling it might be easier for new readers to see my old stuff if I have something that’s not going to drop to the bottom of my home page as it gets older.  That’ll be something to look out for, though I’m not going to set any specific schedule for when those new pages will go live, since I’m a horrible procrastinator who’s just trying to keep up with his daily posting schedule right now.

Anyway, thanks to my regular readers, however few of you there may be, and big thanks to Norm and Rachel for enjoying my work enough to share it with other folks.