Last year was just nuts. We can all agree 2016 was just a banner year for nutty behavior in America, the election driving us madder until the crescendo in November. It didn't die completely after.
One of the memories that stands out distinctly for me were the Facebook interactions at that time. The feeling of people taking their corners was palpable. I was friends with some people at the church we'd just started with the year before, and some were giving me a glimpse into the meme-verse of conspiracy mania. Online, Hillary Clinton is like Lord Voldemort and The Emperor plus a vagina. There is no scheme too sinister or wildly implausible that she could not be behind, and I got to see a good number of them.
As an aside, memes are a great modern rhetorical tool. They're visual, so they're catchy. The letters are big, and you can read them in under 8 seconds. They're generally crafted well enough to have some snark and sting. And, it's the beginning and ending of an argument you have no part in. Take it in, there's no references, just the shock. It you're stumped, just put "Benghazi" at the bottom and post it live.
While friends in one corner were sharing headlines about Vince Foster and Podesta's satanic rituals, friends in another corner were fully activated by Bernie Sanders, energized on a moral crusade to finally turn America into Northern Europe. It wasn't the "let's help the homeless and unfortunate" soft love of socialism, but a more visceral "burn down the capitalist machine" and "fix our broken system of wage slavery" vibe. The Berniest of bros would post several times a day, also piling on to their anathema Hillary Clinton, the representation of Wall Street and all that is wicked in the Democratic party.
If you remember this time, and it gets you revved up at all, you were probably in a few heated online exchanges. If you were, I can predict a few things about your exchanges without even knowing you or your friends:
- Your exchange didn't change anyone's mind
- You were still worked up after your exchange - exchanging comments did not ease your mind
- You talked to others about it later on
That's what I remember at least. I recall my church friend sharing articles from an unknown website that used a random tweet for it's only source, and I tried to convince him that wasn't a reliable place to get news. He responded with another article from a similar source and an even weaker source. Afterward, I felt anxious that people are so easily misled, and honestly a little concerned about the man's judgment and intelligence.
When I look back at it now, at no point did I feel like it was a conversation. What it felt like was a sparring match of bumper stickers and sound bytes. People would start with the intention to steer their friends on the right course, but eventually give way to stating their own truths as acts of self-identification.
There was a guy I worked with briefly - we met one or two times in person, mostly coordinated over email. I somehow ended up friends with him on Facebook, and really liked the stuff he would post. We'd exchange comments on occasion, and I felt like I could relate with the guy a good deal on various subjects.
After several years of seeing him on Facebook and trading comments, I ended up working at the same new company as the guy, and ended up seeing him in person on the job. I'm pretty good with faces and names, and immediately knew it was John. "Hey John", I started, and could tell he was blanking on my face. I tried to help him, and it was still wasn't registering. "George Kovats... we worked together back at the old company..." He eventually registered it, like I was dredging up a kid in the back of a class he barely remembered.
I unfriended him from Facebook immediately that night.
John was by no means in any wrong, he was legitimately just a guy I worked with a few times at one company. He wasn't snide or dismissive, actually quite open. But in some odd way, I felt our online interactions were the basis of some connection that didn't exist. I'm an adult, and I confused Facebook friends with real friends. It felt silly - not that there's some high bar one must meet to ever earn the title "friend", but that a connection on Facebook doesn't really have any actual social capital. Surely, it doesn't have to, either. But at the time, for whatever reason, it felt dishonest being connected online to a person I shared no relationship with in real life.
What's become more clear to me over time is that Facebook, and surely the other social platforms as well, are used to achieve different goals for each user. If you spend any time on the site or app, you probably already see patterns among your own friends. For some people, it's a place to compare your life with others and keep up appearances. Here's my handsome husband, my lovely kids, my recent manicure, the front lawn, a spa day, a happy life. For some, it's an outlet of your life style, whatever it is that motivates you. A lot of fitness folks fall into this category, posting run times and gym pictures to keep themselves motivated. And of course, there's the political folks, sharing headlines and images from their favorite arguments around the internet.
Did you know 2/3 of Americans get their news from social media? That's fucking sad, isn't it? The answer is yes. Yes it is.
At some point, I realized Facebook truly wasn't a conversation anymore, it was a content and self-expression engine. Like with bumper stickers, people aren't looking to debate their High School Honor Student or how they rescued their West Pomeranian Shitzu, they're looking to reinforce these parts of themselves. The act of posting to Facebook is just reinforcement of their thoughts and values, and the comments are attention.
As Facebook drew less pleasure for me, I began to follow the KonMari "discard what does not bring me joy" method and started muting everyone who posted things that perturbed me. I ended up with a small, narrow group of people who generally posted very similar content, usually with some thought and commentary. It was good for a time, until I learned my brother had moved into a new home from my mom, and when I went to look for any posts I'd missed, I saw that I'd unfollowed my own brother at some point in a massive purge.
This was a wake up call for me.
Post Facebook (posts)
Immediately, I noticed after quitting Facebook that I no longer had a go-to distraction whenever I had access to an internet browser. It was literally the URL I would go to whenever my brain wanted a brief Pavlovian moment of distraction. I now had to find some online periodical or rotation of news I care about to possibly fill the void (still looking).
Also, I've returned to my blog for self-expression. Sure, people need to express themselves through writing, crafts, art, and other means. But Facebook had become a very cheap form of self-expression, where most of the posts were just repackaging content from around the internet, or light commentary on pictures taken from a phone camera. It always irked me how a conversation on Facebook had to remain sparse and skip a lot of context and nuance.
For example right now, someone is posting something about the sexual assault revelations from Louis C. K., and it has to be quick and to the point. In a blog post, you can see the person covering the complex range of emotions for a fan who admires the comedians perspective and body of work, but can only recoil in disgust at his alleged behavior with these emerging women. But in social media, it's an emotional, pointed missive. The disagreements are equally trite.
Not everyone is a writer. Hell, I'm not a writer. But for all that people leave commentary all over the internet from day to day, there's so much a dearth of people's actual thoughts. It's people's emotions that often boil down to emojis or colloquial slang.
As for Facebook itself, we can see it's taken on a very savvy role in this new world where information is like yesterday's oil. It's become so canny at knowing it's users, journalists literally have to tell us that Facebook is not listening to your conversations. The investigations into last year's election hacking revealed that Russian trolls motivated two groups of people in Texas to protest each other over fake causes. Facebook testified to Congress they have at any time around 500 million active buyers of ads on their platform in target categories as detailed and esoteric as Housemate-based households and Family members of Expats.
As for the friends and family I left on Facebook, I added as many as I could in my email contacts and will try to stay in touch the old-fashioned way: a catch-up email every 3 years. Yeah, I'll their cat's Bat Mitvah pictures and various filtered selfies, but they can always mentally add one Like button from me, and it'll almost be like I never left.