Presumably, I’m not the only Facebook user whose thread was inundated in political expression two nights ago as election results were pouring in from across the country and political science experts were scrambling to call the race. It was as if the entire social network imploded upon itself in a frenzy of celebration and despair. Logging on the other night wasn’t a complete waste of time — now I know I still vehemently disagree with the political opinions of a guy who sat behind me in high school math class.
Nor was it an entirely positive way to spend two minutes on election night — and I mean that it was even more of a waste of time than Facebook usually is. Everybody has their opinion as to the purpose of Facebook. If you ask me, it’s a simple way to keep in touch with friends all around the world. Its genius lies in the fact that it brings people from all over the globe together in an electronic community. Last night I saw spontaneous political expression on Facebook driving people apart.
Now I’m not here to advocate against freedom of political expression. On the contrary, I want to see more of it. But I don’t think Facebook is the place for that sort of celebration and protest. When I read through statuses that waxed poetic in their affirmations of American progress, or damned the entire democratic process to hell and wrote off the next four years as the utter unraveling of this country as we know it, I was struck by the hit and run nature of social network soundbites as a means of political expression. This wasn’t a discussion. It was lobbing hand grenades from the inside of a bunker.
Maybe you have a relative who you would never talk politics with at Thanksgiving, but you know in no unclear terms what he or she thinks of Mitt Romney. Or you might never see your little league baseball teammate again, but you know what he thinks about President Barack Obama in explicit detail. What I’ve been wondering is this — is this the sort of politics that rather than kindling an active discussion that leads to a greater understanding of our political beliefs, or is it simply digging the partisan trenches deeper?
To me, Facebook politics appears to be more of an expression of political egoism than an effort to participate in an ongoing discussion. Maybe here in the Midwest, we don’t have mountains to shout our beliefs from — but we do have status lines and we can blow up some news feeds. I’m okay with people shouting their views loud and proud on the interwebs. But I think that as a generation of American citizens, we can do better. Why don’t we go outside with signs and make our voices heard in the streets? Here in Wisconsin, we have seen how much more inspiring that sort of active democracy is than the dull white and blue glow of a computer screen.
My fear is that social media has begun to serve as a pressure release valve that diverts political action into angry internet posts. Even when there is enough political unrest to warrant actual protest, after some angry tweets, would-be activists cool down and go on with their lives. I don’t want picketing in the streets to be replaced by ranting on a social network — it turns discussion into one-way rants, it isn’t an effective means of participatory democracy and it’s not nearly as fun.
Charles Godfrey ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in physics and math.