Parallel webs: actually having good discussions on Facebook

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.

Facebook logoI’m writing this post with some embarrassment, because these discussions have occurred on Facebook.

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.

Like us on Facebook_Michael CoghlanBack to the present: given the problems gestured at above, why am I still in Facebook?

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.

Facebook religion discussion

A discussion about religion in public with opposed views and no rhetorical violence.

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.

parallels by cogdogTactically, 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?


(Facebook door photo by Michael Coghlan)

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25 Responses to Parallel webs: actually having good discussions on Facebook

  1. ellenandjim says:

    I agree with you, but then when decades ago we knew one another on a small listserv, we often agreed. I’d say don’t cut back, but at the same time control the time spent. Not easy. I have a place for you to spend more time on 🙂 Future Learn has offered a course called Why We Post. It’s not hard to join FutureLearn, it’s for free, a non-profit umbrella group, mostly coming from British universities trying to expand non-traditilonal degrees. Why We Post is remarkably unprejudiced: it’s a professor with 9 students studying the posting patterns of 15 areas. They show how centrally the experience of the Internet has been woven into people’s lives even if they are not the writing type. While individuals have found liberty on the Net they haven’t found elsewhere, the anthropological approach stresses the group experience and it appears that far from breaking with social conformity, increasing in general (I stress in general) replicates but beautifully (there’s a Henry Jamesian elusive word) extends it. They have a website, and have written informative books. With your expertise you don’t need me to offer URLs but here is a general one:

    I hope this shows you Why We Post:

    One book I looked at How the World Changed Social Media (a study of an English village) by Daniel Miller seems to be about — I’ve read only the introduction how hard people in real space work to deep virtual space apart from life in real space and why.

    • My dear Ellen, many thanks for pointing me to that class. I’ve been following FutureLearn, but that class is new to me.
      Let us know if the Miller book turns out well.

      Ah, I miss those days of discussing literature with you on good old listservs.

    • VanessaVaile says:

      Ellen, what an interesting course — I’ve followed courses on other platforms, meaning to on Future Learn but haven’t yet.

      Bryan, I’m on multiple platforms too, have noticed similar patterns and the much broader spectrum — and thought about them a lot too. Of course no two people use any social exactly the same way. Group dynamics have a different feel but can turn, especially closed ones. I make an effort mix up platforms too. I can share from G+ to FB — does not always display well though. Sharing images from Twitter to Facebook works surprisingly well.

      I have exchanges rather than conversations on Twitter. On the rare occasion that someone writes me from LinkIn, I reply but that does not happen often. Joined but never got into Quora. I tend not to think of the Facebook (timeline and pages), G+, Twitter streams, email, blogs, etc as separate networks. More like threads and people crisscross, some more than others, some platforms more than others.

      I’ve always liked this piece

  2. nukem777 says:

    Finding the same thing Bryan….I have a vastly better Network and conversations going on FB than on Quora, LinkedIn, or Twitter….who’d a thunk it?

    • How much of that is due to Facebook’s much greater size?

      • nukem777 says:

        As Whoppi Goldberg might say, “Size matters” 🙂 I think it’s size, diversity of viewpoints, cultures – this is truly a worldwide platform, and to the extent you ‘friend’ the world, you get feedback from the world – and what I think of as the “drop down” effect….you are right it is primarily a social, no-brainer platform, but once and a while you may strike a chord (how and why are still a bit of a mystery – think it’s a zeitgeist kind of thing), and when you do, people “drop down” out of their social cloud and actually express an opinion and then the serendipity occurs….I see it all over Facebook, not just on our pages…Overall, I think it’s social growing up….we are seeing it all over the Web…people have found their various niches – FB, Snapchat, Instagram, Redditt, whatever – and now that they have their social platforms in place, they can actually express themselves. At least that’s the case for me — have moved from establishing virtual communities to a pretty good-sized and specific-to-me Network and now it’s a feedback loop. What I enjoy most about FB is that is so diverse that the comments range from feedback loop to outrageously creative, exploitive, and/or challenging to my point(s) of view. I find it the most interesting spot on my digital canvas at the moment.

        Like what Ellen is saying, great comments and observations, and I’ll let you do the work of checking out the new platfrom she is recommending, but I don’t need another feedback loop or new learning curve at the moment, too much pipeline, too much data, just trying to chill out and take it all in for a while….also taking a lot more time away from digital, rediscovering life on the ground and away from the screen….An hour a day (of screen time) keeps the shrink away!!! And this has pretty much taken up my hour…Cheers.

      • “I think it’s social growing up…” That’s a powerful statement, and works for me.

        And also the limits of attention. Nothing has really replaced FB.

  3. Dan Miller and cohort of anthropologists on Future Learn serve an excellent MOOC (‘Why we Learn’). As for Facebook -that’s where online conversations and exchanges continue to take place – whether it’s community or anti-community. Useful if you want ‘mass’real time engagement (if you make your posts visible to the public, as opposed to just ‘friends’). Twitter use is pretty much restricted to academic broadcast / real time research tool these days. Does it make me love Facebook more? Nope. Facebook feels more neo-liberal and temporal by the day. And of course, it’s a giant silo which will refuse to interface with your ‘deeper thinking’ on the blog. Your content is only searchable on FB if you pay money. That’s how things are, at the moment. And will stay like that for a while, if the algorithms are to have their say..

    • That’s a dark and realistic take, Alex.
      Google+ has the possibility of making an alternative to some degree – less siloed, at least. But it hasn’t panned out at scale, and has other issues.

      So, as the man said, what is to be done?

      (Thanks for the other FL MOOC pointer)

  4. nukem777 says:

    And that’s the key point right there Alex, it’s the algorithms having their say…we have to all be very creative to override and get around these mothers…nuff said, I’ll let the hackers take it from here 🙂

    • Where might they take things?
      Alternatives, like Ello, haven’t progressed.

      • nukem777 says:

        The hackers will tackle the algorithms directly…FB seems to realize this and yesterday went open source and invited people to help them develop better AI…so, I expect some white hats to ride over and assist. We’ll see how well FB and Microsoft, who is also doing the same thing and added the Linux bash line to a recent build, play well with the Open Source community…they really have no choice…it’s do it up top and friendly or get hacked from the bottom.

        But this all brings us back to the key point…we are all now “data prisoners” (my term) to the AI’s, while we patiently wait to see if they will play well with us…it’s all becoming all too Isaac Azimovish, all too fast!

      • What are the Three Laws of social media, hm?

        Thank you for the open source reminders. I’ll keep my eyes open.

  5. I think one of the reasons you have some good conversations (when you have them) is because you don’t scream out your opinion and ridicule those who wonder about issues and have questions. I always want to try to understand both sides of any issue and the complexities therein. But too often *both sides* just yell at me if I dare to ask a question that shows some interest in learning all aspects of an issue. Your conversations maintain an open tone.

    • Thank you for saying so, Gretchen. I am a political independent, and take care to post and facilitate as openly as possible.

      Escalating partisanship makes this more desirable, I think.

  6. Bryan,
    When I am invited to table and the host asks, “White wine or red?” I have one word for him, “Bofadem!”

    I have also wished I could coax my large Facebook family to follow links out into the blogosphere, but mostly, they won’t even click on a Vimeo link to one of my digital stories. However, if I load the same story directly to Facebook, I will literally get hundreds of views and copious comments, which is why I make them, after all.

    I actually do understand this. It is a function of the digital age of my Facebook friends and family. Signing up for Facebook was as far as they got in crossing the bridge into the 21st century. They have cell phones, but they don’t use a fraction of their potential. Facebook is a comfortable neighborhood, and they don’t move from there.

    And it isn’t just an older age function. I am teaching college technical writing online even as we speak, and I moved my class from Moodle to Edublogs. You never heard so much verbal handwringing in your life. My students are community college–average age is 33–but even computer science majors have erroneous notions of what a blog is/does. 100% of them do not use Twitter. All have Facebook accounts.

    More. On Facebook, I have many fans of my photography and poetry but not of longer form writing of any kind. Outside of Facebook, I have my DS106 cohort, very few of whom actually create anything I’d call a digital story (although I am devoted to them and all their quirky interests). As I transit into retirement, I am not really interested in “teacher quack-quack” any more, and teachers are so many of my Twitter connections.

    I am interested in connecting with people making digital stories on a consistent basis; where are they? The thing is, digital storytelling happens in classrooms and in focus groups (trauma healing, nurses, etc.), where people make one off stories, usually love it, and move on to other interests. Teachers are caught up in curricular issues surrounding DS and rarely make more than a couple of stories of their own. It doesn’t seem to me that many if any have picked it up and developed it into a life passion.

    I don’t actually digress because it is through these various virtual networks that we each seek our peeps.

    To answer your question for both of us–gotta pass bofadem bottles of wine down the Table of Life!

    • Sandy, at a meta level I have to say that comments like yours are why blogging is so awesome.

      Bofadem indeed. Facebook certainly has the numbers. And it’s also the final destination for many folks, like your students -hence my sump comment. We must therefore go where the people are.

  7. nukem777 says:

    ‘Bofadem’ is now a part of my lexicon…wonderful word…great thoughts Sandy, thx.

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  11. jacob says:

    Thanks for the discussion

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