Saturday, June 9, 2012

Trial by Facebook

"This is crap!": the indignant, very public and mid-act summary pronouncement (on a production of Two Gentlemen) from a 'patron' at the Studio Theatre a few years back. Followed by a welcomed, albeit attention-grabbing and disruptive departure from the building by said patron -- not without a little staff assistance. I daresay we've all had similar (thankfully sotto voce) opinions of the occasional staging over the years -- when our particular vision is challenged; when we're a little cranky for whatever reason; or it's just not great theatre. But do we stand up and 'share' our view for any and all to hear? Not usually. That's generally the province of the critic.

Ah, Facebook, (or Twitter, or . . .) -- the social media. In a conversation with a twenty-something recently, I was not a little surprised to hear of his resolve to close his Facebook account. Seems, among some other rather good and defensible reasons for his decision, he was fed up with this forum wherein issues that were essentially between himself and another individual found their way into the public courtroom of the social media. Remember our old high school grammar: between is used when two things are involved; among when we're referencing more than two -- like the rest of the digital world. I believe the straw that broke it for him was the respective other's pronouncement (not unlike our Studio Theatre attendee) that it was a 'gutless' move to deal with their differences in private, via a one-on-one communication. What a novel concept: if I have an issue with someone, to address it with him/her face to face (or at least email to email), without inviting the opinion, input, or judgment of several (hundred, or thousand) outsiders of whose business this is none (awkward avoiding that preposition at the end).

I was reminded (to the extent that the movie, Social Network is a reasonably faithful account of the origins of Facebook) of just how this viral vehicle all came to be. If memory serves, the then undergrad at Harvard, Mark Zuckerberg, thwarted in his attempts to establish a relationship with the object of his affections, turned his considerable programming skills to creating an online 'rating system' for female students at the university. The intent of course was hardly that of providing a 'helpful dating guide' for other undergrads. Rather it was petulant, vindictive, decidedly pathetic, and mean-spirited. Essentially, to publicly shame the individual with whom he'd been unable to establish a 'real' relationship. Facebook was born. . . for better or worse.

An article appearing in this week's Globe (Dating Violence on the Rise, June 8, 2012) examines the 'appropriateness' of utilizing a social media forum with potentially much higher stakes -- but with quite similar parameters to my conversation above. What has historically been viewed as 'intimate' (aka, private, personal) in relationship is increasingly exploited on one hand and trotted out as 'proof' of one's world-readiness on the other. What used to furnish 'Monday morning bragging rites' at the back of high school home room is readily 'published' in a medium that is neither containable nor reversible. The report assigns a measure of responsibility to the very public aspect of social media as, once again, 'shaming' individuals into more extreme behaviours than their personal value systems would countenance; bullied into 'saving face' by putting out.

In the spirit of babies not being tossed out with bathwater or guns not killing people, people killing people, I suspect the essence of the problem is not with the instrument, the medium. Clearly public accountability, Arab Springs, the assorted 'Occupy. . .' movements, and innumerable other socially progressive forces would be hugely crippled were Facebook and its ilk to be put back in the box -- even if that were remotely possible. What my young friend was making a plea for was the sensible and selective use of a more intimate forum for addressing issues that are clearly 'between' (not 'among') differences. He had plainly begun to despair that such was even possible within his particular social group.  The 'conversation' (if that's even an appropriate descriptor) in his group had become so dependent on and exclusive to social media vehicles for communication, that it had come to be viewed as somehow 'cowardly' to eschew Facebook in favour of a good old fashioned one-on-one. That he was somehow attempting to avoid public scrutiny and commentary on private matters.

Back to guns and babies. And a final word to mindfulness roots. Buddhist teachings caution against being motivated in our daily lives by Eight Worldly Winds (or Influences). Consisting of four pairs of opposing forces (pleasure / pain; gain / loss; praise / blame), the fame / shame dimension has some very real applicability in the present case. An indisputable conclusion around the viral growth of the social media is that they provide potentially very public exposure for anything and everything that finds its way into this digital space, for good or ill -- the 15 minutes of fame hook. Sadly, the 'fame', as it were, is most decidedly not limited to 15 minutes. It is perpetual. Posting an ill-considered comment, photograph, or account of an exploit, may be cute or witty in the moment -- but the 'half-life' of these postings approaches that of Strontium 90 (that would be in the hundreds of years!).  Equally, comments motivated by intention to hurt, shame, judge, reactively hurled into cyberspace instantly become fodder for public debate. The 'pseudo-support' garnered from the endorsements of disinterested parties (that old 'thumbs up' for a particularly cutting comment) is really pretty meaningless -- not much use in resolving personal issues.

Far from a 'gutless act', my young friend's choice reflects discretion, courage, sensitivity, and respect for the other.  Rather than loading up his '357 magnum' and blasting off a few shots, he chose to holster his Facebook -- maybe permanently -- and talk, really talk.

Audio Link:

Courtney Shea's 'Weekly Challenge' in the Globe offers a very accessible alternative to digital communication:


iceboxlogic said...

Great piece David: here's the thing---the transactional basis of the web is, I believe, not cash nor time: it's story...shared story. The issue of privacy is (intimately) bound to the authenticity which allows us to build relationships online that actually *do something*---rather than passively hitting the LIKE button. The real evil of pornography (which drives the web's business model to this day) is not simply the degradation of women but the destruction of privacy. The counterpoise? The prospects for shared community action online are, in the main, well-nigh untapped. And 'trial by Facebook' is its polar opposite: destructive, petty, all about the self. The wonder of the internet is possiblity for collective intelligence, actually collaborating in ways we cannot at a distance. But your kicker is equally true: it's when the web combines with live events (we learnt this in the Monforte microfinance campaign) that the roof comes off. cheers/thanks/b

NONCENTS said...

i pseudo-like this