Electioneers

I think I may have a condition. I get nervous when I log in to Facebook. This has always been a problem for social networks but starting during the last United States presidential election it had gotten out of hand. You know those sleazy political consultants that we see on cable news and nasty attack ads we suffer through while trying to get on with our lives during elections? Turns out they’ve outsourced their jobs, to us. We get to take part in mudslinging, unpaid, and the only people who win are these politicians we complain about until we can reelect them. This state of constant campaigning for causes, candidates and political ideologies makes me cringe every time I open Facebook, it’s almost pathological.

Structurally, this state of affairs is only partly Facebook’s fault. Encouraging people to share advertiser’s material was bound to turn Facebook into a bit of a Mary Kay party, but becoming nasty over politics is a choice that we, the users, made. The ease of sharing turns everyone into a pundit, fighting for one side or another. Easy and instant publishing is a wonderful development of the last 20 years that allows people to broadcast their ideas far and wide. Unfortunately what people share are rarely their own ideas. Linking to others’ ideas, slogans and campaign posters is easy. This makes up the vast majority of the what we do with these powerful tools.

No one group is more guilty than others. My Facebook news feed is full of people from the right and the left, all shouting at each other. This is what makes me nervous. I dread having real world conversations with people that I know on Facebook. What if a topic we disagree on comes up? Will they blast me as forcefully as their posts do? Will there be any real discussion? Is politics really all they care about? It seems to be all they post about. Do I even have a chance of explaining my own opinion? Will our conversation be productive or, more importantly with friends, pleasant?

The truth is that most people are not so bullheaded and unpleasant in real life, but there is no room for nuance or empathetic understanding with online social sharing. It is important to realize that when people see you post your opinion, if not done carefully, they will not see it as your opinion, they will see it as campaigning. I don’t like censorship, and think people should say what they think, but Facebook is a place where I go to connect with distant friends and share things about my family with people I care about. I don’t need an angry echo chamber there. If I wanted that, I’d turn on cable news, where people are paid to make fools of themselves.

Facebook has connected me with people I thought I would never be able to communicate with again, but it has also turned us into electioneers. Reasonable people can disagree about most topics, but an assault of advocacy does not engender dialogue or conversation. Other social networks do a better job at this, Branch, Quora or even Twitter are all conversation platforms where every point of view has the opportunity to present itself in its best light. Facebook is meant for sharing, not discussing.

Imagine going to a child’s classroom for show and tell. After watching children talk about their dog, their new baby sister, their favorite video game, or their favorite food, one kid gets up and yells that everyone who doesn’t vote for him for class president hates kittens.

That is Facebook. All. The. Time.

Gives me the vapors.