Today I got into an argument on Facebook with a high school friend about unions. It was full of misinformation, which as a librarian was handily correctable, but my being a self-satisfied liberal fact-checker wasn’t winning me any points. As of now I seem to remain on his friends list and though I was angry I kept him on mine as well. I think he’s a funny guy and despite his political leanings I like him. Though I find myself wondering how long I really want to bother listening to inflammatory jibes. I’ve dropped other friends for less. My anti-abortion video posting cousin, the friend who was dancing in the street over an execution of a random person, my extremely conservative Christian uncle who posts things in ALL CAPS, and my high school friend who came out to me who posted anti-Obama macros. Among the 500+ voices on my Facebook page, conservative commentary sticks out like a flamethrower, which is usually how it comes out. My usual tactic is to just cut out the burning part and return to business as usual.
Which reminded me that other people have been writing about this as well. Over at Salon Kim Brooks asked herself “Is my Facebook page a liberal echo chamber?” She came to the conclusion that yeah, it pretty much is. She, like me, isn’t interested in engaging in straw man arguments and flame wars. It’s easier to just drop those voices and move on with life.
But I had to ask myself the question of “why?” Why drop these people from my Facebook? Why not speak to them?
The first reason that I’ve found is that the people I drop aren’t willing to engage in discussion. These issues are so entrenched as a part of their worldview that they’re not really looking for discussion or debate about the merits of their argument, what the facts are, or even what other people believe. Nothing is really going to make a crack in their very solidly built up wall of talking points. If there’s no movement, no actual possibility of reasonable discussion, then it’s pointless to even bother trying.
The second reason I drop people is that these issues are wholly consuming of their personality. Which is why my anti-union friend is still around. It’s not the only thing he talks about, which makes him a much more well-rounded person and someone I may find common ground with elsewhere. I have other conservative friends, some very far right. But they talk about dogs or RPGs or Glee or something that gives me another reason to hang with them. And that’s cool. But if all you’re going to do is rail against the President or post abortion snuff films, then I’m sorry, I don’t want to see that every day.
The third reason is purely emotional. I don’t like getting stressed out by my friends. Well, I don’t like getting stressed out in general, and for a long time I actively avoided the news because it was making me physically ill to just watch it. I actually wouldn’t watch the news, read a newspaper, or go to any website with even a vague amount of news. Some time after the 2000 election and September 11th just made me feel like I was going to have a heart attack over the news. So I turned to my friends as my oasis in a world that I felt was spinning radically out of control. Livejournal was that place for a while, and then Facebook became that place. The vast majority of my friends are from college, grad school, my life in gay clubs, the Pagan community, and now my professional life. The overwhelming lean from all of those places is pretty liberal. So it makes total sense that this is what I would see in wild abundance.
It’s when I go home that I find overwhelming voices of dissent. And that’s exactly the same experience as Ms. Brooks above. Richmond and Cincinnati are not so different when it comes to finding conservative voices. God and the Republican party are pretty heavy in the Ohio valley. Maybe that’s part of the reason I left.
But there’s more to this issue that’s nagging at me. It’s not just who we want to talk with on Facebook. It’s what we read overall, the places online that we search for information, and the voices in our social sphere who influence how we perceive the world. We share articles through Facebook and they loop around through the whirlwind of people who we know would read that kind of article, and we in turn are influenced by our friends’ article shares. But Facebook is just one place that this news comes to us. The choices we make in news outlets color our perceptions. Someone who reads the Washington Post is going to get a very different story from someone who reads the Washington Times, just as someone who watches MSNBC is going to get a very different story than someone who watches Fox News. And the websites we read say just as much. Someone who reads Talking Points Memo is probably not going to be reading the Drudge Report. Just as someone who reads The Nation is probably not going to read the National Review. All of these voices make up a very broad spectrum of opinion and every day we make choices as to which of those opinions we will listen. More often than not we will keep choosing the venues that align directly with our political and philosophical worldviews. Nobody in the world bats an eye about that. Well, unless you want to ban the opposing viewpoint, but that’s another story.
Eli Pariser in his book The Filter Bubble talks about how the internet is exacerbating this division of opinion by providing customized internet results based on an individual’s personal profile. So, the more you Google, the more Google knows about what you’re looking for, because their cookies know everything. And the same with Facebook, the more you share, the more they know what kind of content you find appealing and thus they can suggest content to you that may enjoy. Pariser sees this as creating a world divided into unique little bubbles of experience, an Ouroboros, feeding back into itself and widening the gulf between people further. Admittedly this is problematic, because it detracts from a person’s freedom to choose among the information that is presented, making his decision for him. But I ask myself, would I really want to read that other thing? Maybe not. Do I want to know it’s there, sure. But I probably won’t agree with it.
As a librarian part of my responsibility is making sure that people have the freedom to read what they want to read. We include material that some people may find offensive and that’s part of our mission to serve the entirety of the population of the city. However, in my personal life I choose what I wish to read and what I don’t. Just as I decide who is my friend and who is not. I choose to read liberal blogs, bizarro websites, arts and crafts pages, tech news, gay and lesbian sites, Pagan sites, and my news comes from places whose reporters are kind of neutral or left. I know that other sites exist, but I choose not to read them. And I know that other people exist within the spectrum of my friends, with whose opinions I may perhaps disagree. That doesn’t mean I have to read them. I feel guilty when I drop these people, but only a little. Think of it as weeding your collection of friends.
We are always actively creating the world we want to live in. What we bring into our lives becomes a part of us. I choose to bring in things that feed my soul in ways that make me come alive. If what you bring is hate, snark, strife, problems, misinformation, and outright lies, I have no time for you. I want to make this world a better place for people. I bring ideas, sharing, love, creativity, solutions, facts and truth. That’s the kind of world I want to live in. That’s what I’m collecting in my bubble.
What do you put in yours?