Facebook is a remarkable virtual place for people to share an almost infinite array of information about themselves, their families, their friends, their activities, opinions, wishes, hopes, dreams, beliefs, fears, faith, political views . . . the list is almost endless. However, if we are looking for a balanced snapshot of how the world is “supposed to be,” or if we’re even expecting accuracy as far as news and information is concerned, we really need to look elsewhere (and good luck finding those ANYWHERE). In that respect, the most we can hope for with Facebook is the flavor of the day — the issue or story that has captured the imagination of a lot of people for a brief moment. This week it may be a dead lion, last week it may have been the death of a jailed black woman, the week before that it may have been photos from a spacecraft leaving the solar system, and before that it may have been Planned Parenthood, and before that it may have been a battle flag from a lost war a long time ago. A year ago, Facebook was filled with folks pouring ice and water on their heads as a fundraising challenge. Five years ago it was all about the World Cup. I think we just have to take Facebook for what it really is: the dominant social media platform on the planet (I suppose) — sometimes a landfill, but sometimes a treasure chest. And those of us who have Facebook profiles can never lose sight of the fact that the advertisers are Facebook’s customers — we are the product.
There are now close to a billion daily active users on Facebook, which represents about 15% of the world’s total population. All age groups are represented, along with just about every race, socio-economic level, political persuasion, sexual preference, religious affiliation, and geographic location on the planet. Facebook users are a fair cross-section of the developed world. Without a great deal of effort, this star of social media sites allows us all to have a personal website that is dynamic, entertaining, informative, and intimate. One of the most attractive features of Facebook is how it encourages us to be spontaneous, quickly posting photos, videos, memes, quotations, and links, along with our own commentary, with just a few clicks. Because we have these capabilities with our mobile devices, we can practically broadcast our lives to the Facebook world if we choose on a minute-by-minute basis (extremely annoying to many of our Facebook “Friends” perhaps, but nevertheless most easily accomplished).
Another aspect of the Facebook community is the significant impact the platform has on social discourse. We are able to post opinions, either our own or those with which we agree, and launch discussions that can go on for hours, even days, and involve dozens of people from around the world if our Facebook “family” reaches that far. I find it interesting how Facebook provides us with a perceived sense of anonymity when we engage other people, especially about controversial issues, and how so many of us become bold and even aggressive in defending our positions, most likely with an intensity that we would not exhibit in person or in a letter or even in an email. Our reactions through Facebook posts seem more immediate, urgent even. We write sentences that we would be hesitant to say if we were looking into the face of the listener(s).
While I’m certain that many Facebook users present a persona on their page that merely masks their true identity, I think more often than not Facebook users reveal who they truly are in their posts, how they feel, what they hate, love, fear, and desire. Facebook removes the filters that we employ under most other circumstances of human interaction. At the same time, at least from my own experience, this type of filterless forum clearly illustrates to me how deeply divided our society is on so many issues.
All my Facebook Friends are in the U.S., so my experience is limited to political, social, and religious hot buttons in this country. I have intentionally kept Facebook Friends whose opinions differ from my own, sometimes rather heatedly, to specifically remind me of these deep divisions and to help me understand why they exist. While I do see plenty of extreme posts from the left and the right that are intended to do nothing more than incite anger and protest, I also see thought-provoking posts that warrant serious consideration and discussion. Even posts that are reactionary in their origin can lead to productive exploration of the underlying issues. The political climate in America seems to have lost its center altogether, and the raw nature of Facebook often provides evidence of the fact. Perhaps it is also establishing a forum that can lead us away from the outer limits and back to a place where we can all find some common ground.