Pew’s research on social media’s effect on people’s willingness to undertake conversations is worth pausing to reflect about for a moment. Active social media use actually decreases people’s willingness to share their opinions not simply online, but in other contexts as well. This is particularly true of people who think their opinions are in the minority, though it happens more generally than that.
A number of people pointed out after I posted it on, erm, the social media channels that they used Snowdon and the NSA as their test case, and wondered whether this might have been particularly to blame for people’s unwillingness to share their opinions online about the subject. That’s a fair point, but not persuasive: after all, people were less likely to share their opinions in person, too. Unless people were possessed then by total paranoia–and not living in America at the time, I am skeptical that they did but cannot properly assess it–then it seems like the muting effect has to do with the threat of perceived disagreements than the subject matter itself.
Somewhat relatedly, Freddie De Boer recently lamented the nasty state of online liberalism. As he puts it:
It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing. I now mostly associate that public face with danger, with an endless list of things that you can’t do or say or think, and with the constant threat of being called an existentially bad person if you say the wrong thing, or if someone decides to misrepresent what you said as saying the wrong thing. There are so many ways to step on a landmine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them.
It’s a bit narrow, though, to say that this is simply a liberal problem. Spend a few minutes browsing the comments on Erick Erickson’s recent post on the conflict between his faith and his politics…or rather, don’t. You already know what’s in there, and it is not pretty. Conservatives (theological or otherwise) have their own “acceptable stances” and terms, too, and moving outside of them–as I have sometimes done–raises eyebrows and elicits emails. Those exchanges have been, thankfully, generally more civil than what many folks get online. But still, that kind of boundary-policing is exhausting to have to deal with.
I’ve been ruminating on all this recently, along with my friend David Sessions’ excellent post on why the internet is awful and Frank Chimero’s analysis of Twitter, which suggests that the nature of the conversation there has moved from the “front porch” mode to the “street” mode. I don’t have grand thoughts about how it all connects–smarter minds than I, like David, will have to take up that task.
But by way of hypothesis, I do wonder whether the shift in conversations away from blogs or other internet “third places” toward the more intimate and personal “social media” platforms is partly responsible for the increasing difficulty people seem to have disagreeing with others online and elsewhere. This is particularly the case with Facebook, I think, moreso than Twitter–and might explain why Facebook users experience the ‘spiral of silence’ more. In my Facebook use, for instance, I might go from pictures of my life around town one moment (when I lived in Oxford, anyway) to discussing the politics of Hobby Lobby the next. I see pictures of my friends’ children, and then get comments from them disagreeing with me.
The intellectual environment such juxtapositions create blurs any distinction between personal and public, which makes it more difficult to disentangle the disagreements I have with my friends about (say) social policies regarding marriage from my friendships themselves. This is particularly true with people that I have not seen much, like friends from undergrad. I’m not generally one to shy away from conflict. But with what feels like so many minor conflicts and disagreements going all the time, attrition simply takes over and I lose my appetite for the conversation. Those are people I’m supposed to be friends with, or at least friendly with, after all, but perpetual, pervasive disagreement at even a cheerful level is corrosive to that.
To borrow Frank Chimero’s categories, if Twitter has moved from the ‘front porch’ to the ‘street,’ Facebook has brought the street up on to the front porch. People treat their Facebook walls like their own, personal space, a habit that Facebook has encouraged since the beginning. But that raises the stakes for everything that happens there. While it has always been difficult to distinguish between the personal and the public, Facebook is a business built on obliterating that distinction. Everything is both, simultaneously, and that means the conversation has a different ethos than it does in a coffee shop. Next time someone invites you over for dinner, try critiquing their views of fracking without any other social interaction. Let me know how that goes for you.
But as I said, I don’t have grand thoughts about this. It’s an interesting conglomeration of essays, though, and I hope people ill take them up in the comments.