I can’t remember why I joined Facebook or who influenced me to give it a try but it happened in December, 2008. That was before my current activist days began so it must have been a way of staying in touch with current friends and possibly finding old ones. Since that time, my use of Facebook has become much more involved, intense, time consuming and at times, overwhelming and aggravating.
As an activist interested in a number of issues that I consider urgent, I rely on Facebook to keep me informed of updates and developments, possible new alliances, ideas that others can share about creative actions and events as well as a platform from which to offer events of my own creation. All of this is accomplished through the flow of communication amongst my Facebook friends, some of whom I only know through this medium and are fundamental to the work I choose to do. I am grateful for the immediate access to information and the exchange of ideas that is crucial to intelligent decision making. That is a summary of the things I value about Facebook. The following list of things that sometimes make me wish I could wean away from the forum will likely be longer.
I’ll start with the way so many people, when faced with opinions other than their own, feel it is appropriate to use words to viciously attack rather engage in any meaningful dialogue. I believe that words are among our most powerful weapons when we wish to sway someone’s opinion. Because I find value in hearing different points of view, I am usually willing to read through lengthy responses to posts when true dialogue is happening but all too often threads degenerate into name calling, rude dismissals and foul insults that have the ultimate result of wasting more of my time. There are several subjects which I’ll rarely, if ever, get into on Facebook because the vitriol on both sides is simply too much to bear.
And then there is our tendency to hit the “share” button immediately after seeing a headline without checking the reliability of the source or the date of the information. I’ve been personally guilty of reposting something I’ve seen only to discover that the source was unreliable. I like to think I haven’t done that in a long time because having it brought to my attention was down-right embarrassing! Not checking sources can often be the same as spreading unfounded rumors or engaging in a cyber game of “Telephone”. Those of us who are trying to make the most of limited time can’t afford to have our attention pulled to things that offer no meaningful information. The same is true for outdated material. The emotional investment we make when we read headlines is unnecessarily drained when we read something, reach for the phone or email or pen and paper to respond to a situation, only to find that it is a report of something that happened in the past and has either been resolved or disproved entirely.
I’m also amazed at the casual manner with which people accept event invitations, then immediately forget they’ve done so and never show up to honor the commitment. It may not be so important if we accept an invitation to a rally where there will undoubtedly be thousands of attendees. The absence of individuals will not make or break that sort of event. But there are other, more personal or local events that we go to great lengths to plan, organize and prepare for that often fall victim to the equivalent of RSVP no shows. Consider these issues that event planners need to pay attention to: venue location and size, printing costs for advertising and materials to share with attendees, arranging for press coverage in the hope that participation of a large number of supporters will help share our cause, adequate food purchases if food is to be made available and the possibility that low attendance would be a good reason to postpone an event to another time when people could/would actually be there. The last event I personally planned and posted on Facebook had a guest list of a dozen people who indicated they would be there. Of those dozen, not one showed. Most of us would never consider doing that in the case of an invitation to an event at someone’s home or other personal venue. Why is it that it is considered okay simply because the communications are on-line?
For those of us with limited time and an interest in real, productive conversation, Facebook can be a time and energy black hole. It can expose us to vial exchanges, personal attacks when we disagree, disappointing results with our dedicated plans and for those of with little self discipline to disengage, an overwhelming source of irritation.
However, and this is BIG… Facebook also keeps us in touch with the things that are most important in our lives. It connects us to friends, family, allies and new ideas. It affords us a platform to express our ideas, beliefs and points of view that we hope will influence others to follow our example. It allows for instant validation of our thoughts and provides, sometimes when we most need them, sources of inspiration or humor to help turn our perspectives in a more positive direction. Perhaps it’s the traffic jam we have to contend with on our way to a great destination. As activists, I hope we all keep in mind the value of civil discourse, responsible reporting and following through on commitments made. Facebook and other internet tools all have their strengths and weaknesses. It is up to activist communities to use them to our best advantage.