Thursday, January 26, 2012

Likes and Dislikes: Social Media and Community

Facebook's lower case "f" logo seems ubiquitous these days.  Everywhere I look, I'm asked to "like" something on facebook.  And I'll admit, I've used facebook both professionally and personally.  Professionally, we've used facebook (and this blog) to help connect people to our farm - and our farm to our community.  Personally, facebook gives me a chance to stay connected with friends and family who I don't get to see on a regular basis.  In this sense, facebook and other social media can help create and strengthen community.

But these virtual communities have a negative side, as well.  "Big Brother" isn't our government; rather, it's social media sites and corporations that record our interests (our "likes") in order to sell us more stuff.  Indeed, when I logged into my blog this afternoon, Google informed me that it's changing the way it views my privacy.  Beyond these concerns, however, I have a feeling that these social media websites (or virtual communities) have contributed significantly to the vitriol and polarization we see in our politics and our public discourse.

While I enjoy the funny stories and humorous photos my friends post on facebook, I find the absolutist statements about political affiliations, religious beliefs, and social outlooks increasingly disturbing.  Because we can only "virtually" see our friends on facebook or other networking sites, we seem to feel free to say things we'd never say in person.  I have "real-life" friends from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, countries and political points-of-view.  I wouldn't think of purposely saying something that I thought might be insulting or hurtful to them in person.  When we can't see our friends, however, we seem to think that denigrating a perspective different than ours, often in insulting language, is appropriate behavior.

I'm not sure if this on-line polarization is the cause of our real-life polarization or if it's the other way around - it probably works both ways.  Part of my discomfort, I'm certain, stems from the fact that the world is not black and white for me - there's enough gray to make me question every extreme or fundamentalist position I hear or read.  Ultimately, all effective communication (whether verbal, written or on-line) requires us to consider our audience.  Social media has diminished this filter for many of us.  Sometimes I wish facebook had a "dislike" option - but I guess that's too absolute!

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