Not everyone in the world is on Facebook, but Facebook is used by enough people to have created a new mode of expression around the planet. We friend and unfriend people, we share our feeds and our statuses, our relationships our complicated, and we ignore, chat with, and msg each other. In just a few years, Facebook has arguably had more cultural impact than any medium since television.
Facebook has also created a novel political rhetoric, whereby users post links to news articles, editorials, or video clips to declare their sympathies. Sometimes even a one-shot meme will do – those generic stills or cartoons accompanied by a pointed caption, or stock photos doctored just slightly enough to send a pithy message. Pictures say a thousand words, and Facebook gives millions and millions of ordinary people an eloquence once reserved for the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and Winston Churchill.
Yeah, sure. Social networking effectively amounts to an Internet equivalent of Wayne’s World‘s Community Access programming, as individuals of all or no backgrounds can promote their very inexpert opinions to captive audiences of fifty or five hundred other people. Political posts on Facebook are not much different from Grumpy Cat or Epic Fail shares: distracting “click baits” which grab attention for a few seconds and are quickly forgotten. The constant stream of damning commentaries on the Keystone pipeline, Barack Obama, Stephen Harper, Iran, Israel, Rob Ford, Democrats, Republicans, Liberals, Conservatives, atheists, believers, pro-choicers, pro-lifers, pro-gunners, anti-gunners, and on and on, have as much to do with traditional debate and dialogue as Twitter feeds have to do with commencement addresses and blog posts have to do with books. We used to worry about sound-bite politics; through Facebook, politics has entered the realm of the eye-nibble.
What’s baffling is how anyone imagines their posts on such weighty topics as war, the environment, or racism will actually change anyone else’s mind. Obviously a dramatic image or a well-phrased essay can get people to reconsider their positions: “Gee, I never thought of it that way,” or “I didn’t know it was that bad.” But Facebook is about quantity, not quality; mundane images and essays proliferate, and thus fewer of them are powerful enough to have much real influence. It’s also doubtful whether the most committed Facebook posters are politically active anywhere but online. Are the men and women earnestly throwing up links to (for example) TruthOut.org, TheOnion.com, rabble.ca, theguardian.co.uk, or georgecaseblog.wordpress.com heading down for bodily appearances at their local constituency office, soup kitchen, or Native Friendship Centre as soon as they log off? Probably not. And remember that Facebook is a commercial medium whose members provide the content. As long as its algorithms can determine personal interests and generate ad revenue, the posts of vegan anarchists and Christian rifle enthusiasts are equally valid; what matters is not what is said but that it’s being said at all, and predictably.
“Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice,” social scientist Malcolm Gladwell has written, “but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice…It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.” I’m on Facebook myself and I check it regularly. But I’ve realized that while Facebook offers the appeal of personal connections and the stimulation of fresh perspectives, it inherently cannot provide the enlightenment of serious reflection.