Social media is doing unimaginable things to our understanding of other people. The average Facebook user has 190 friends, and the majority of people I know have at least 500 or more. I mean, if I look at someone’s profile and they have fewer than 200, I find myself thinking, “oh, a quiet type, eh?”
Before social media, the only tools we had to understand and witness the experiences of other people beyond our often-complex circle of personal and professional interaction were cultivated by the entertainment and advertising industries, both of which were and remain rooted in fantasy and aspiration. They’re about who we believe we are and who we want to be, patronizing our fantasies of ourselves and our world to sell us objects or escapism.
Now, I can watch over months the intricate planning of the wedding of someone I don’t know especially well. Probably I have worked with them via email a few times over the years, such that I liked them enough to accept a friend request, probably we’ve met a few times. Now I get to see, via high-res photography, the array of cakes they are considering for what they believe will be the most special day of their lives thus far. I see the ultrasound scans of perfectly nice people whose wombs I nonetheless would never have asked to look inside.
I can see the radiance in the eye of a near-stranger on his trip to god knows where. Just a bit over five years ago I would have met this person and forgotten him, basically, but now I don’t question this new breed of voyeurism. We had lunch a few times a year or two ago, and I liked him enough that when I received a ‘friend request’ — this one-click intruder at the gates requesting access to the little-considered bits of my private life that I put online to be consumed — from him, I clicked my acceptance.
I get the impression, nonetheless, that I ‘curate’ access to myself on Facebook more closely than many people I know, who will accept people they think they probably met at a party one night or who seem to have multiple colleagues among their mutual friends and therefore may have useful connections. Some people send friend requests simply based on the fact that a person with an attractive profile picture seems to have a number of mutual friends they seem to consider adequate to send that request, to be that stranger at the gates. Everyone uses the service differently.
I’m comforted by the idea that anyone who thinks I update too often or doesn’t feel basically interested in or entertained by me can ‘hide’ my relatively-frequent updates. Actually, my own best friend in Brooklyn hides my updates, because she thinks I post too many and she sees me every day so she’d rather use Facebook for other things. She hides a lot of people if having more access to them than she bargained for diminishes her appreciation of them. That’s fine.
This is why the whole grand exasperation with the discussion of politics on Facebook absolutely baffles me. People telling others to shut up about their political views on Facebook are legislating how others use the service, yeah. Abstain from the dialogue or hide it if you’re not interested, but handing out dictums through image macros or impassioned essays is weird, dude.
It’s especially weird given that we’re all self-governed in our use of this platform — it is all voluntary. And yet I’m supposed to allow access to myself, my whims, the pictures of me hugging my friends and pets, my often-personal interactions with my real-world friends, my boyfriend, whatever, to people who are so offended by my values that they don’t even want me to talk about them in my own domain?
Really, dude? You’re “friends” with someone such that you desire this voyeuristic access to their life, or assume they should desire to see yours — yet you disagree so deeply with them expressing their feelings on issues of national and international concern that you want them to shut up? If their views on core human issues stand in such offensive polarity to yours, why are you going to be “friends”?
It’s considered impolite to discuss controversial issues in a casual public setting without invitation. You wouldn’t attend a professional event or a birthday party and begin a debate, it’s true. But social media is designed as an individualist platform where people are allowed to represent themselves for an audience of presumed allies, and you don’t get to tell them how to do it. If you hate someone posting about politics all the time, accept that they’re into it and you’re not. Accept that they feel a certain way and you don’t, and then decide whether or not you can live with that.
The amount of entitlement people have learned to feel toward others just because they can access them on the internet is completely absurd.
For better or for worse, social media has created a norm by which we know more things about more people than we ever would have in the pre-internet age. It has leveled the topography of human interaction and rebuilt it again — yet it’s still a world where the social norms will be determined by small clusters. Some of my Facebook friends read my updates and rarely intercede. Others like, comment and create discourse with me all the time. Others still have definitely ‘hidden’ me and I’m not sure which those are. That’s their decision, just as it’s my decision who should have access to me and who I care enough to have access to.
I’ve been gratified by the way speaking up on issues that often aren’t “socially acceptable” has helped me unite with people who feel the same way. We unite under an umbrella of openness. Through the platform I deepen my sense of connection to them. This seems to be how it should be.
If that’s not how you want to use Facebook, then you can politely overlook those aberrations in your feed the way you might excuse yourself from an oversharer in a cocktail party, but still like them in the morning. If your interest is superficial, if you’re afraid of alienating others, there’s the ‘hide’ feature.
But users that make sweeping proclamations about how others should shut up about politics on Facebook? I often regret the way that social media has altered and devalued the designation of friend. If you don’t give a shit about my values, what kind of friend are you? But if I have any friends who will tell me that my passions or my values are so distasteful to them I ought not to discuss them; that they cannot overlook it in my own domain, in which they are participating by choice: what does the word “friends” even mean, then?
You aren’t my friend: You’re a creep who wants voyeur rights, who wants me to pay attention to your life unrequited, while you tell me what to do. Stop it.
The food pictures though. The food pictures. I mean, I know I just said… but like, maybe you shouldn’t feel like you have to… nah. Nevermind. It’s cool.