Tuesday, November 13, 2012

God wants you dead. Facebook told me so.

Author and social commentator Andrew Potter sizes up Facebook, Twitter and other digital communication and calls them "a sort of social acid, eating away at the boundaries between public and private and eliminating the established norms of discretion, courtesy, and common sense." 

That sounds a bit harsh but most people who are on social media for any length of time have seen those boundaries and norms, at the very least, blurred.

I joined Facebook in 2005. In the social media timeline that was the Cretaceous Period. Since then it's gone from being the exclusive domain of those with ".edu" addresses (which I had because of my work) to what Rebecca MacKinnon calls "Facebookistan". A digital nation. My Facebook "feed" is a goulash of just about every aeon of my life since I was 14. Former students, vocational colleagues, and family members. And there are the friends from my past going back to high school in the Philadelphia area and tracing through my days in South Carolina, Mississippi, Australia, New York City, Georgia and now here in Birmingham.

With that comes the inevitable ideological mishmash. The large middle is matted by Tea Party types, Progressives, 9/11 Truthers, Birthers, Home-Schoolers, Libertarians, Christian Fundamentalists, "Recovering Christian" Atheists, Pro-life/Pro-choice Activists, a Solipsist, and even a self-professed Anarchist. I've always been a bit pleased with myself about that. Hey. Look at all the diversity. 

During the recent election cycle I found some parts of this diversity to be maddening and as close to Potter's description of "social acid" as I've experienced.1

[Fair warning and full disclosure. Moaning about Facebook - including the claim you'll never join it - can be a barely transparent foray into primping self-righteousness. Not unlike those who used to insist they only watched public television. I hope I'm not doing that here. But. I can't be too sure.]

I don't mind snark. I can get really snarky. I've been known to vent anger and cynicism on the interweb. I've bruised feelings with harsh emails and thoughtless twitter posts. I'm not proud of that and I've needed to humble myself more than a few times to repair the damage. Because of this I have a reasonable tolerance for that particular indulgence. What I found beyond depressing leading up to the presidential election was what CNET editor Charles Cooper describes as the "spittle-splashing, eye-popping vitriol" that found its way daily and often on Facebook. It was thoroughly bipartisan and had the unmistakable tone and timbre of those on a mission from God. And this god wants his enemies dead. Because otherwise life as we know it is over. Can't you see that? You can't? You're a moron. Cooper adds, "What's extraordinary here is that names are attached to these screeds, with people proud to stand behind their nastiness."

And with these came the inevitable comments from the like-minded. "Ha ha!", "Love it!", "Totally sharing this!". The embodiment of what University of Chicago professor Cass Sunstein calls the "Daily Me", that peculiar social media phenomena where group polarization fossilizes as we only engage in ideological reinforcement. The winds of political doctrine and speech don't blow in this Town Hall. They are shamed and shouted down. This is not a discussion. It's a spider's egg hatching thousands of baby Rush Limbaughs and Bill Mahers. And they're gonna eat their momma. Sunstein argues the Daily Me is bad for democracy. Potter adds,
Democracy is based on the premise that reasonable people can disagree over issues of fundamental importance, from abortion and gay rights to the proper balance between freedom and security. When the mere fact that someone supports the other side becomes evidence that they have been brainwashed, then the truth is you no longer believe in democracy.
So several weeks before the election I got off Facebook. There are other reasons, but this was the main one. I couldn't bear the noise so I left the room. Now that the election is over the winners are happy and the vanquished are left in their despair. I'm back in the room but I know the relative calm is illusory.2  The monster is resting. He's coming back and you know it.

[2 Why am I back on Facebook? At least two reasons that are shamelessly self-serving: 1. My band is playing a Christmas Show next month and the best way to get people to show up is Facebook. 2. Most of the people who read this blog do so because Facebook points them here. ]

My really conservative friends (Facebook and otherwise) worry that there has been a tectonic shift in American culture toward entitlement. I despair that the really worrying (and deeper) shift is how so much of our political discourse has taken the form of junior high gossip and slander. Nasty political talk has existed in this country since the feud between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. I'm not a utopian dreamer on this. But do we have to be so proud of being such asshats?

I hope not.


  1. Nice to see you knock the dust off the blog.

    Is the Potter work you are referencing The Authenticity Hoax? I've not read it, just read about it (which is a Facebookey thing to do I guess).

    Me - I got off FB b/c I was becoming one of those echo chamber asshats.

    1. Yep. The Authenticity Hoax. Potter is an academic and journalist (and a Canadian!) The book begs for deeper analysis but a good read.

  2. Tom... Love it. Totally sharing this! (Seriously). And, in the case that you are remotely interested in your sister-in-law's love/hate relationship with fb as used personally, I have recently, for most of the reasons which you have outlined above, whittled down my "friends" to family members, very old friends or "like-family" members, and folks who I am connected to through business. That took me from 194 to a mere 85. No friend collecting here.

  3. Rob Edwards tweeted a link to your May 7th post and I read it. I thought it was really good. So I kept reading other posts you had written. All of the ones I read I thought were very good. Then I followed you on Twitter. I only met you once, years ago. I was the Director of Admissions at WTS and you and other RUF ministers were there for some reason. We were on the porch of Machen Hall and you said something derisive about WTS. I thought you were an asshat. But what do I know? (I like Nickleback too.)

  4. Quite possibly the most succinct and current info I came across about this subject "God wants you dead. Facebook told me so. ". Sure pleased that I discovered that site by accident. I’ll probably be subscribing for your feed so that I will get the most current updates. Like the information here.

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