Tuesday, July 31, 2012

6 Reasons To Avoid a Debate on Facebook

There are any number of reasons to like (no pun intended) or dislike the concept of Facebook. The goal of this post is not to judge its merits one way or the other. What I am focusing on here relates more to my ill-begotten attempts to engage in a debate on Facebook. While I am a huge fan of reasoned and respectful discourse, what tends to go on seems to be something altogether different. I am no expert on matters relating to Facebook (in fact I have only joined within the last year... a remarkable feat, I know), nevertheless, sometimes a fresh pair of eyes is needed to properly assess something that has become about as normal to everyone as the air they breathe.

In any case, when I first obtained my Facebook profile, I slowly (but surely) became comfortable enough to make a few comments on the various wall postings of friends and acquaintances. While many of the these postings were memorable for their frivolity and/or whimsy (which is of course fine), I did not find a similar light-heartedness among those who were actually posting it. If I put anything but "like", or express a concurring opinion, I was immediately greeted with responses bordering on antagonism. Mind you, I never challenged the person who posted it, or even said that the post had no merit, I merely challenged some of the content. I don't know what I expected to happen, but I suppose at worst I thought I might engage in an interesting, if challenging, debate. What I got instead was something that literally soured me to the whole process. One might be tempted to ask what Facebook really amounts to if it only consists of "likes" and an endless series of personal statements that are neither here nor there. I will leave that for another blogger to address. What I have listed below are the six reasons that I have been thoroughly cured of the desire to engage in any future debate on Facebook. This doesn't mean that such exchanges are impossible- only that it seems to me that such events are so rare that one should not count on them.

1. Facebook is More Conducive To Non Sequiturs Than a Genuine Exchange of Ideas

Much like a bumper sticker aphorism, one's Facebook wall is also ideal for a similar kind of cultural haranguing. Yet the problem is not that people have a "bumper sticker" message for the world, but that with Facebook they become like that annoying person that has 100 bumper stickers on the back of their minivan. No one knows what they are saying because it all gets swallowed up in a constant outflow of useless platitudes and the lack of any real context. It reminds me of those people of yesteryear that used to get your e-mail address, not to send you any real messages, but merely to forward on to you every bit of junk mail that they could possibly muster. The other way in which it is similar to that irritating bumper sticker laden minivan is in the fact that it encourages a kind of "hit and run" mentality. People can shout their little statements at you and they need not even wait around to hear your rejoinder. They can slap you in the face and insult your mother without ever having to look you in the eye. But what is most disagreeable about this sort of proselytizing (both religious and secular), is that it is self-serving, reducing the discussion, not to a battle of ideas, but to a battle over clever witticisms.

2. Facebook Unleashes the "Stranger"

Back in the late 1970s, Billy Joel released a song called the The Stranger. I consider the message to be quite applicable here; "Well we all have a face that we hide away forever, then we take them out and show ourselves when everyone has gone..." Now that people have Facebook, they no longer need to wait for everyone to be gone in order to pull out that old stranger's mask. Indeed, they can exercise their remarkable talent for schizophrenia on line. Once upon a time a diary or journal was written so that an individual might express their inmost thoughts while at the same time keeping them private. Now we have a new kind of diary called Facebook, which has enabled us to turn our inmost thoughts into a kind of voyeuristic exhibition. Consequently, people that you would in no way associate with this kind of exhibitionism, all of sudden become about as modest as Lady Gaga (a little bit of hyperbole). A person's wall turns into a veritable proxy for an idealized version of themselves, a place where all of their favorite ideas and thoughts are enshrined. It is like going into someone's room as a teenager and looking up at the posters on their wall. Yet what makes this experience so strange is that they these individuals are no longer teenagers, and the posters are not related to "boy bands," and you're pretty sure you shouldn't be in that room, but you've been invited to see it anyway. The whole thing feels a little bit bizarre and disquieting, mainly because it is difficult to match up the person that you thought you knew with this odd creature that you are now confronted with. But be forewarned, if you do enter that "room" and dare critique what's up on that wall, be prepared to meet their angry alter-ego. You can almost hear them retort in a cracking adolescent voice: "You dare come into my room and tell me you don't like my Leif Garrett poster? Well... you're just stupid then!" Thus, if you find yourself saying, "I liked this person a lot better before I walked into their virtual room," don't worry- you're not alone!

3. The Tone of One's Rhetoric is Too Easily Misinterpreted

Obviously this problem can occur anytime you use the written (as opposed to the spoken) medium. You say something meant to be a little wry, and it is taken the wrong way. And even when you try to explain yourself, the other individual is still annoyed with you for the thing that they thought you were saying. On Facebook, this problem is only exacerbated. Not only are you in danger of being misunderstood by those you do intend to interact with, but you are in danger of being misinterpreted by someone whom you've neither met, nor have any connection with, save through a mutual friend who barely knows them either, but I digress. Indeed, the only reason you're having this "conversation" at all is because some person (i.e. the acquaintance of an acquaintance) happened to be eavesdropping- with express permission- on your conversation. It is a kind of Twilight Zone experience, for you truly feel as if you have entered another dimension; a place where the same rules of logic do not necessarily apply. As a school teacher, I can assure you that there are plenty of opportunities for misunderstandings with parents who would rather believe that you are at fault than their dear innocent child. But at least in that circumstance you still have a common interest, and in the end have a need to come to a mutual understanding. But as for the one who kindly delivers this cyber sucker punch, there is no need to find common ground. In fact, it is not clear whether or not "common ground" is something they are even remotely interested in. Subsequently, without the slightest bit of compunction they are more than ready to perform a psychological examination on you, claiming to know "your type", and boldly consigning you to the lowest level of secular hell. It is like getting blindsided by someone at a party whom you have never met, but who just didn't like the way you looked. In psychology we call this "projecting", for there is in these cases generally some underlying sense of frustration that requires ventilation, and unfortunately for your sake you have stepped into the mine-field of their id-shaped wrath. But do not think that you can reason your way out of this one, because, frankly, the person really doesn't care if you are misunderstood, nor are they are looking to help you redeem your good name, rather what they are looking for is a suitable dead horse to beat.

4. Too Often the Debate That You're Having is Not the One They're Having

The goal of communication is just that; to commune; to be of one mind, even if you are not of one heart. Hence, any form of communication which does not facilitate a greater understanding between two parties (as opposed to less) can be a dangerous instrument. Most people have had a conversation in which they were tempted to say; "Are we having the same conversation?" It is a frustrating feeling, but when you are speaking to someone face to face, you at least feel somewhat empowered to remedy the situation. When one faces this dilemma on Facebook, finding that common understanding can be more than a little bit difficult. You could be talking about the economy, and then someone will say out of no where something like, "And that's why the polar ice caps are melting!" And so naively you try to clarify your previous statement, believing that you can right the ship, but instead they start talking about the native habits of the people of Papua Guinea (if only to prove that they have recently read an article on the subject). If death is said to focus the mind, then at least Facebook cannot be accused of that. Whether it is because people don't feel like trying to understand, are not compelled to, or simply because they want to talk about something else, I cannot say for sure. What I do know, however, is that when I finish this type of conversation, I feel a lot like I am trapped in a sound proof echo chamber, among a series of sound proof echo chambers, wherein each person is trying to guess unsuccessfully what the people in the next are talking about.

5. People Are Generally Ultra-Senstive When Their Ego is on Display

Not to over do it with this theme of adolescence, but here we go. One of the typical characteristics of the teenage years is an excessive, some would say narcissistic, focus on the self. In our teen years we are in a continual search for our identity. We seek it in our friends, we seek it in the clothes we wear, in the music we listen to, and in the humor we enjoy. And all of this is fine as long as one realizes that such a self-indulgent search should be consigned to that period of our lives. However, when that phase extends into our 20s, 30s, and 40s, it can all get just a little bit weird and tragic. When people don't grow out of this ego-centric phase, the spirit of adolescence can harden and turn us into a kind of over-sized man-child. So how might an individual like this respond in a debate? First of all, where ego is enshrined, people are generally thin-skinned. Pride and ego are closely aligned, so if you question some detail of their wall posting, then do not be surprised if they perceive you to be a kind of iconoclast of their ideals. As a direct consequence, they may try to employ a little bit of the old passive aggressive one-upsmanship approach. In other words, they will not actually discuss matters with you directly, but they will post things on your wall, which will at once express their opinions, and at the same time say in essence; "Take that"! Another popular tool of adolescence (beyond passive aggressiveness) is cynicism. Cynicism requires no argument. All a cynic has to do is say "that's cool", and all their unthinking followers, out of respect for their coolness, laugh in unison. In high school the cynic is generally popular because he seems so far above the fray that he is almost like a god who is too good to condescend to anyone's feeble and unimpressive thoughts. He slays his opponents and silences them with a healthy dose of ridicule and a smattering of "that's cools." And by the time anyone realizes that no actual argument has been made, the moment passes you by. One final shortcoming of the adolescent mind, is its complete lack of intellectual humility. They know everything. If they have read one article on some controversial matter, then they are all of a sudden the leading expert on the subject. Go right ahead present yourself as a scholar, enlighten our poor ignorant souls about matters otherwise too lofty for us. However, if you try to inform them that you too have read an article on the subject and have come to a very different conclusion, be forewarned, you may be dismissed as a silly yokel, a bigot, a fanatic- unworthy of their priceless store of experience and unsurpassable knowledge.

6. Anonymity Breeds False Courage

In some universities and high schools at the end of a course you have students fill out surveys wherein they have an opportunity to, as one of my student happily put it, "grade their teachers." This statement should give you something of a hint of the mentality that is unleashed on Facebook (or on most blogs for that matter) when one is given leave to judge your thoughts and ideas without the consequence of actually having to face you. One might argue that this is only fair, since the teacher was able to grade the student all year; now the tables are turned. Yet whatever the intention, one cannot pretend that the anonymous student will not in some way feel emboldened to act with a sense of vengeance and retribution if that is indeed how they feel about a class. The teacher, for all his (or her) failings, at least must encounter the student when they give them a bad grade. By contrast, when it comes to student evaluations they need not face the teacher at all, for they are meant to be anonymous in order to inspire greater candor. As a matter of fact, sometimes the student will even alter their handwriting, so that they can be extra candid. This hardly requires a great deal of courage.

This element of anonymity is understandable from an administrative point of view, but in terms of the message that is ultimately sent, one might rightly wonder if it is a good one. I cannot say for certain what the college or graduate student thinks while they are writing their survey, but I can tell you, not only what people in high school think when they are filling it out, but what they actually write. In these surveys, students have written anything from; "What I like most about this class is the bell..." to "This was my favorite class". While not every survey is as noteworthy as these, there is a distinct pattern to many of them which suggests that these kids genuinely feel themselves to be the arbiter and judge of your worth as a teacher. Now just imagine that instinct played out in a forum where there is even less accountability, where one is truly given free reign to say whatever they wish, and to vent in whatever fashion they see fit; where they are not only free to question your intellect and your professional skills, but even your very worth or value as a human being (or lack thereof). Consider all of these dimensions and then you will begin to sense what a Facebook debate can ultimately devolve into. Once again, this is not say that it always happens this way, or that people should not have the freedom to say whatever they please. Indeed, they do. But I also have the freedom to avoid this kind of adolescent anarchy, and I fully intend to.

Check out the link below; I call it "Monty Python meets Facebook"  


  1. This is a great analysis! I have the same issues with Facebook but haven't been able to find the right words to express them. I'm an underspoken Liberal who happens to have a lot of close friends and family members I'd refer to as "ultra conservative." I really feel that everyone has the right to their own opinion and that there is so often no right or wrong solution to a problem. I really enjoy intellegent debate and have found myself reading your blog to obtain some perspective on issues without the vitriol. I really think people should feel comfortable expressing their views without fear of losing friendships. Sadly...I tend to keep my Facebook posts as frivolous, non-political and non-religious as possible so as not to offend too many friends. (So I guess that makes me part of the problem).

  2. Thanks Trish for your perspective on this. To the contrary, you are not part of the problem. If you are going to use Facebook for frivolities sake, so be it. The problem arises when one uses this medium as a means to get at people without trying to understand them. Please feel free at any time to let me know what you think of my future posts... even if you disagree. I like different perspectives!

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