When you post something on Facebook, who are you directing your post to? It doesn’t matter so much when you write the “Blueberry pancakes for breakfast!” updates that people like to make fun of, but what about when you write about religion or politics, or public breastfeeding, or how annoying the gender you’re attracted to is? Any time you write something that someone might be inclined to disagree with, the question comes up: to whom are you speaking?
In face-to-face interactions, we’re generally attuned to our audience. We have an idea whether the people we’re talking to agree or disagree with our thoughts, and we choose when and how to voice them accordingly. If I know the people around me generally agree with what I’m about to say, I’ll put it forwardly more boldly than I would in mixed company, and I’ll expect affirmative responses. If I know or suspect they’ll disagree with me, I may be more qualified in my statement, and I’m braced for challenge. If I don’t feel like getting into a debate, I won’t say it.
But when you post on social media, you’re addressing a wide audience, some of whom probably disagree with you on just about any subject. At the same time, it seems to me that a lot of people post as though they’re talking exclusively to like-minded people. They present their thought with an “everybody knows this” attitude rather than a “this is what I think, come and challenge me” attitude. This raises an overall question of etiquette when it comes to social sharing. I’ll keep making analogies to flesh-and-blood situations because most of us have an understanding of etiquette there. If you’re at a party and you overhear, from across the room, someone voicing an idea you profoundly disagree with, it’s generally considered rude to run across to them and tell them how wrong they are. If someone is in your conversational group and voices the same idea, you can challenge them politely. If you’re reading a newspaper and someone has written the same thing in an opinion piece, you can write them a letter as forceful as you desire.
But where do status posts in social media fit in? If someone I know distantly writes something I disagree with, do I treat it as something said to me that I can politely respond to? Or do I treat it as something said to their more immediate circle of friends, a context where it would be a little boorish to charge in with my dissent?
The uncertainty around this makes me uncomfortable when someone posts a status I disagree with. If I leave it alone, I feel irritated that I’m letting such comments go by unchecked, and if I challenge it, I worry that I’ve overstepped a line.
The system of “circles” in Google+ is something I’ve been wishing for for a long time. It has the potential to change the whole dynamic of social sharing. If I want to offer a status post only to certain people, I can do that. In theory, this should mean that any status I can read, I can feel comfortable commenting on.
At the same time, I can hear the voices of certain people I love questioning whether this is a good thing. Too many of us, myself included, are inclined to segregate and compartmentalize our identities: to show a different face to every group we’re involved in. Only sharing about polyamory to people I know accept it, only complaining about evils of religion to the non-religious, might not be the healthiest way to go about life. On the other hand, I still have this blog — my editorial space, where I say whatever I want and people can and should feel free to challenge and criticize. To what extent should I modify my presentation in social media? In flesh-and-blood interactions? It’s something I’m still working on figuring out.