For a number of years I was an active participant, and moderator, on a hobby forum. I was well aware at the time that the experience of forum participation was quite unlike anything else I had ever encountered, and, from time to time, I posted analyses of that experience onto the forum itself. I no longer participate on that forum (it got taken over by climate change deniers and such like—this will be relevant to my following analysis), but I do visit the site to see what is happening there. It's a kind of time travelling experience, thanks to the existence of searchable archives, in which I can see something of myself frozen in the amber of digital memory. But I see something else: namely, some striking signs of what has been happening in this country over the last ten years, not the least of which is the role of Facebook as both symptom and cause of those changes.
I'll start with something I posted to the site at the time when I was first coming to appreciate the affect it was having on me. Here's what I said, way back in 2005:
What an forum provides is a historically unprecedented combination of carnival and holiday. That is, the ancient tradition of the carnival enabled Europeans to drop their everyday social hierarchies and limitations, to don masks, and enjoy a freedom that ordinary life doesn't offer. Here on Site X, what we are in everyday life doesn't matter at all. The hierarchy here, and there is a hierarchy of sorts, comes from technical expertise, or experience, or sheer congeniality and cleverness. I'm very glad to note that it does not come from equipment. Many of the high-rung folks on Site X do not own the best equipment. You can't buy your way to the top here—which is a lot different from everyday life.
More important is the masked nature of an forum. Because we can conceal as much of ourselves as we like, the stakes of ordinary social interaction are lowered. We aren't risking anything, as happens in any ordinary social interaction. This enables us to relax, to be playful, even a bit childish. We can also be more authentically ourselves, which is very refreshing. On top of this is the fact that while we can interact at literally any time of the day, the virtual rather than spatial nature of that interaction eliminates most risks. In spatial interaction we have to worry about having to see a person again whom we have may made a goof with. Here, we don't risk that. Again, this enables us to relax enormously.
This relates to the holiday-like characteristic of Site X. Just as on a travel-related vacation (a cruise, say), one finds oneself making extraordinarily close friendships that rarely last beyond the voyage because one knows that when the cruise is over everything can be erased, on Site X we are on a kind of permanent holiday. We can let our hair down safely, knowing that if too much is revealed or dared, we can always jump ship, so to speak. Since most of us feel this way it makes for an extraordinarily relaxed atmosphere, with most of our defenses down. Our usual defenses make ordinary social interaction fraught with tension; with them down, we are just more fun to be around.
As I read these words now I realize that there is a deep irony in them, the snake, so to speak, in the garden I thought I had found. This irony lies precisely in the anonymity and virtuality of social interaction, whose benefits can cut two ways. For without the controlling factors inherent in face-to-face and fully-identified human interactions, the Internet is also a place of unbridled hostility and vituperation where people say things they would not dare say to someone else in person.
And there doesn't appear to be anywhere to hide when it comes to those forums that still thrive, as Amy Olberding's essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education laments. Her title says it all: "When Argument Becomes Bloodsport: Philosophy is mired in wanton pugilism."
Which is where Facebook comes in. Facebook first appeared at a time when all-too-many forums were becoming cockpits for the ever-increasing political and cultural divisions that are now so visibly tearing at our society. Forbidding anonymity and offering opportunities for interaction in which everyone could be a site administrator with the power to exclude unwanted voices, Facebook was quickly embraced as a means of escaping the flame wars and troll fests the Net had become. Indeed, on Site X most of my friends ended up retreating to Facebook—where I did not follow due to personal concerns for my privacy (a topic ripe for its own analysis).
So in one sense, Facebook is a symptom, not a cause, of American divisiveness. It offered a way out. But in another, it is a cause: as more and more people have retreated into their own silos, wherein they can interact only with those people with whom they already agree and be supplied with newsfeeds that deliver only the news and the opinions they want to hear, in the way they want to hear them, the divisions between what is emerging as the Two Americas are only growing. This is not mere correlation, for when a divided people are experiencing a different reality via their social network connections, they are increasingly living in a different reality, making it impossible to understand where the other "side," if you will, is coming from. And this is clearly making things worse.
So we have another spoiled paradise on our hands. And I really don't know where we go from here.