08 May 2011

On Facebook, Lunch Rooms, and a Bazaar

[There's a bit to say about this post, originally a Facebook note from 25 October 2010. Originally a private stew, I built it after talking to quite a few people. In this, I have also changed names and other identifying information to reflect privacy, and to protect the innocent...]

Amidst some of the controversial notes, I've been thinking not just on what was said, or even of the topics discussed. No, I've been mulling an idea that has stuck upon me for the last while, and one that seems to grow more and more relevant as time goes on.  One only needs to observe the growth of social medias like Facebook and Twitter over the last several years. Twitter has grown explosively to the point where most people and groups in the public eye have Twitter pages that they urge their fans/customers/groupies to follow. Facebook likewise has in the past four years transformed itself from a way for college co-eds to hook together, trade notes, share pictures of, ahem, fun nights on campus to a giant with well over 500 million tentacles that reach a global audience.

Some would say this is generally a good thing. In particular, such people suggest that the world is somehow shrinking and that humanity is coming together and adapting to the digital age. Others suggest the privacy concerns of a global company having control to the personal data and habits of nearly 1 in 14 people worldwide. Still others say that Facebook and Twitter are a combination of these, a philosophy I myself tend to agree with.

In the end, Facebook and Twitter today serve many purposes, but I find that chief among these is the idea of the "marketplace of ideas." With Facebook, it is arguably easier to spread one's opinions, ideas, hopes, dreams, fears, etc. ad infinitum to just about anyone else with literally instant uptake. This of course is a reflection of the traditional American value of having a free forum in which to express one's thoughts without fear of (government) reprisal, and like the right of free speech is in our country is not absolute (e.g. Facebook has limits as to what you can post--no porn, nothing that can incite hatred or violence, nothing that can be legally construed as harassing, etc. and limits the customisation of profiles). Those limits aside, what one posts or fills in--or for that matter doesn't is completely up to them...

...which brings me to my first point: People are going to post stuff you don't like.

It's a fact of life. With 500 million people, it is guaranteed that no two users are going to have the same set of opinions, likes, dislikes, etc. There WILL be varying degrees of dissent. This, of course, can also be seen among two people who are friends. But, here are the two little dirty secrets that people seem to forget:

a.) like TV choices, you don't have to view or read what other people post. Nobody is forcing you or I, or anyone else to read, like, comment, etc. on people's profiles, posts, Wall pages, etc. If you don't like something, the obvious answer is to not even acknowledge it--and by that I mean: don't read it, don't "Like" it, and don't comment on it. It's akin to turning off the TV if you find something that patently offending. There are tons of Pages, Notes, etc. that I think are incredibly stupid and pointless. For example, I think a lot of people in the music and entertainment businesses are absolute morons or Nazis. Guess what I do? I ignore them and move on. Problem solved...

b.) Inasmuch as someone has the reasonable right to post their own thoughts, ideas, photos, personal data, etc. (provided it falls under the site terms), so you also have that right. So, if you disagree about something, you have the right to make an equal post (again, provided you play by the rules).

This is the cornerstone of the "marketplace of ideas" wherein those that are popular and/or able to win over support from other people will survive and the others will simply be heard by some and then (figuratively speaking) die.

Unfortunately, instead of being a relatively civil forum or bazaar wherein people open for public display, sharing, business, romance, discourse, debate, etc. it has turned into a veritable shouting match/"food fight"/all-out-electronic-free-for-all where people, shielded by the Internet, resort to a relative lack of public civility that if done in "meatspace," that is, in real life, would be incredibly embarrassing to many people.

A friend of mine made a very astute point along these lines, to which I quote:

Furthermore, I got to thinking about this and I can't help but wonder if Facebook/Twitter's become the equivalent of the middle school lunchroom. You and I saw this in middle school:

A. "You talked to me when I didn't want you to--I don't like you any more!"
B. "I heard you say something about him to her and then he told me and well we can't be friends any more!"
C. "You like a band I don't like; you're gay!"

And now we see the twenty-something analogs:

A. "I may be posting a plethora of cries for help on Facebook because I crave attention, but I don't want it from you." [Christine]
B. "He showed me a something you wrote me on Facebook. You're mean!" [Pete and Holly]
C. "You have an opinion I disagree with. Instead of respecting your opinion, or even engaging in friendly debate, I'm never going to talk to you or write to you again." [Kathleen]

Amazing, no? I heard that stuff in middle school. But now, it's ten years later and we've all managed to overcome our supposed mature adult selves and return to the lunch room. Sad.

Indeed it has become like a middle-school lunchroom.

Further, one can easily extrapolate what happens on Twitter, Facebook, and other such sites and visualise it as a school cafeteria. To start, you've got the so-called "popular" girls in one corner sharing photos of them on their nights out and often drunk and half-naked. Then, you've got the jocks and the nerds both ogling said pictures and trying to hook up with said females in ways that appear to be rather awkward. Somewhere in another area, you've got a few company employees who are busy listening to another group of people whining about "HE SAID THIS!" and "SHE SAID THAT!" Next, you've got a few loudmouths (like myself) that are just out blasting everybody and everything, and while some are passionately spreading their views, others are simply looking to get a rise out of everybody else. Oh, and finally, there's a few old people in another corner that are trying to stay out of this mess but nevertheless want to watch because, oh hell, everyone else is.

So, let's just consider this: civility is key. People will post their stuff, and you know what? If you don't like it, don't subscribe to it. Let's put this back to where it should be: a bazaar teeming with ideas and not a bloody middle-school lunchroom with adults acting like veritable children...

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