Over the past year I’ve been participating in some very interesting, rich, and challenging conversations online. They’ve involved a diverse population and some tricky subjects.
Yes, despite Facebook being a vast and inhumane company, in spite of its callous exploitation of our privacy, besides it setting up a walled garden against what I love on the open Web, and the other enumerated problems, these conversations have occurred.
Let me backtrack.
I’ve been on Facebook for a while, since around the time it opened up to the public. I joined up in order to learn about one social media platform (social media was called “Web 2.0” back then, kids) that seemed to be growing into something major. Once it became major, then something bigger than major, I persisted because so many people were using it and it attracted a lot of development. That user number then just kept growing, cresting past one billion last year (so they say).
How do I use it now? Sometimes like Twitter, I offer and read very short, often informal observations. Also like Twitter I sometimes share links, on various topics from life in Vermont to my travels, family, or animals.
Partly it’s because the thing is enormously influential in and out of the digital world, and there’s only so much I can learn from the outside.
More it’s because I’m in touch with a large group of people I wouldn’t connect with otherwise. These are folks who aren’t on Twitter (or if they are, they don’t interact with me there), aren’t on Google+ (where I do have good conversations, but that’s for another post), don’t use LinkedIn for conversation, and aren’t interested in emailing me.
Most don’t follow this blog, either because they aren’t engaged in the blogosphere or because the main topics here (education, technology, the future) don’t attract them. Which is fine. And there is a substantial number of people who *are* attracted to this blog’s subjects, but prefer to use Facebook for their own reasons. Sometimes this leads to professional communications there, even job offers. I automatically copy this blog’s posts to Facebook, too.
Yet on Facebook I don’t usually discuss this blog’s topics. For whatever reason few people in my network there want to comment or emote-by-click on other subjects: family, Vermont life, culture, incidents of my life, travel, politics. Generally speaking, broadly construed, Facebook is for personal content, while this blog, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+ are for professional topics. Mostly.
So Facebook is where I find a very large and diverse population of people that’s otherwise inaccessible to me. That’s why I’m there.
That diversity is pretty extensive politically. Comments come from Republicans, Democrats, green activists, anarcho-capitalists, feminists, libertarians, socialists, a state legislator (Democratic), a political party activist (Republican), political scientists, an actual Swiss banker, anarchists, home birth advocates, atheists, one priest, and more. It’s like am infinite “three people walk into a bar” joke generator.
They also know me through diverse channels, including having worked with me (several succeeding positions), been at schools together (grad school back to elementary school), having met through various online activities, and friends of friends.
In short, my Facebook network is no echo chamber.
So discussions could – should – turn out badly. The Fox News watchers and the MSNBC fans should tear each other up. Gaffe-ready gaps should open up across social contexts. The clear majority don’t know each other in person (I think), so that liberating situation should encourage them to cut loose. And sometimes they do. I have to wade in and ask folks to relax, both in comments and through messages.
Otherwise? I’ve seen some fine discussions about the presidential election, about mobile technology and society, about chivalry and changing gender roles, about surveillance, about economics, about computing problems. Dozens, even hundreds of comments flow from the right posts.
I’m not completely sure why this works, when it does. It may be that something about my Facebook threads causes the most destructive people to say nothing, or unfriend me. It could be the peculiar mix of folks. I know I draw mightily on my experiences as classroom teacher, online moderator, and meeting facilitator to keep things going. Howard Rheingold‘s teaching helps enormously. But it’s mostly the horde who participates.
So what’s the problem? There are tactical and strategic issues.
Tactically, it’s hard to set up such discussions, since it’s impossible to predict which posts will appear before my contacts’ eyeballs, thanks to Facebook’s only occasionally chronological display system. I don’t know when or which content will trigger Facebook censorship. Search is awful. And I can’t link to anything.
Strategically, this is a damned silo. I can’t link around Facebook content. Google won’t index anything. I can’t show you what I’m talking about without piles of laboriously captured screen grabs.
At best these Facebook discussions constitute a parallel world to this one, here in the blogosphere. I have to run from one track to the next, unable to synthesize or even encourage line-hopping.
Unlike my usual multi-platforming habits (listening to a podcast, noting it on Twitter, sharing by email, blogging), the Facebook activity tends to stay there. It’s a kind of vast and happy sump, the biggest of all (except maybe YouTube), where discussions settle in.
I’m honestly not sure how to proceed any longer. I value the Facebook discussions and the many relationships there – remember, most are Facebook-only. But in facilitating them I’m encouraging people in a small way to enjoy the web’s walled garden district.
Looking ahead, should I keep following this double track approach, or cut back the Facebook? Is there another combination of platforms that would work better?