Friday, February 4, 2011

Aruging Politics on Facebook

It's been said that winning an argument on the internet is like winning the Special Olympics. This was true when the forums for these debates among strangers were AOL chat rooms and random special interest message boards. Everyone hid behind a username and avatar. The "debates" often became flame wars and people were routinely given time outs or banned by moderators for crossing invisible lines in the sand of internet decorum. It was the wild, wild west of internet socializing.

Facebook has been transformative. We now present ourselves online. Some still use pseudonyms (I am friends with Ralphy Wig-mm) and many don't use pictures of themselves, but we're out there now. We're "friends" with our family, friends, friends' freinds, coworkers, acquaintances, and even sometimes people we've met on internet message boards. I occasionally get friend requests from people who have seen my comments on other friends pages. I sometimes accept these. I now have over 600 "friends" ... that's many more than my mother has, but far fewer than some of my show business friends have. Psychological research has suggested humans are not capable of maintaining more than 150 or so relationships. I suspect this is true, though facebook is making it easier for us to try.

And this is where I think arguing on the internet has become more important. We're no longer arguing in a chatroomful of strangers, trying to convince them of our point of view.  Besting such an opponent in a political debate is a hollow victory at best. You know nothing about their intelligence or mental stability. More importantly since it's not actually about "winning" or "losing", you have no idea how you've changed the world view of the people who've read your arguments.

Facebook is different. On facebook our debate takes place in public. For the most part, all our friends or our friend's friends can see the arguments and judge their strengths and weaknesses for themselves. This provides us with a forum for exchanging our ideas with a much larger audience than we would usually be able to reach. For example, during the health care reform debate I was involved in a discussion on a friend's wall. He is a professional musician with over 2,200 friends. I have no idea how many people read my comments, but it was likely far more than read this blog.

What is perhaps most rewarding from political discussions on facebook is seeing the evolution of ideas among our friends. I've watched far right conservatives become more moderate in their beliefs. I've seen arrogant liberals soften their rhetoric when they realize some conservatives have reasonable points of view and justification for those positions. I've seen people completely ignorant on an issue become sponges for information once they've been awakened to the topic.

I've also seen some of the ugliness that appeared on the old message boards - the homophobia, the race baiting, the name calling. And I've watched as this poor behavior is condemned by friends of the offended. This is progress.

It's not perfect. Too often our facebook friendships are too homogeneous. A Massachusetts liberal's ridicule of GOP Senate filibusters will go unchallenged by any of their friends while a Texas conservative's disparagement of President Obama will get plenty of cheers and no jeers. It's difficult to be exposed to alternative points of view when all of your friends think like you do.

But ultimately this exchange of ideas in the forum that is facebook is a net benefit to our political discourse. We should discuss policy issues with one another. It's part of our responsibility as citizens to gather information, share ideas, and ultimately draw our own conclusions. It's part of what makes our republic so vibrant.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have someone to poke.

1 comment:

  1. Thru the delay of the internet we get to think about our comments & thus perceptions of us by others unlike a regular conversation where we often say the first thing that comes to mind.