The Common Good

Facebook: The New Public Square

"Facebook" illustration via Wylio
"Facebook" illustration via Wylio,

Even though I use Facebook frequently, I doubt my usage pattern will justify a $100 billion valuation for the company or send a new crop of Silicon Valley paper millionaires to Ferrari dealerships.

I never click on sidebar ads, I immediately block all games, and I have no intention of using Facebook's virtual money. I've done some advertising -- to little effect -- and will do more, but not much.

On the other hand, I find Facebook intriguing, sobering and oddly encouraging. To me, Facebook is an intriguing window on the world. It's the raw stuff of human diversity, not filtered through self-serving politicians or media summaries. When I decided to "friend" people whose views differ from mine, little did I know how much we differ.

Name an issue — say, the recent dust-up over breast cancer funding for Planned Parenthood — and I read not only the rage and indignation of fervent extremes, but deep divisions within the sensible middle. The hope that we could find common ground by moving to the middle could be delusional. Divisions are still there, but maybe they're just calmer.

The things people care about cover a much broader landscape than I normally see. I expected pet photos and event promotions, but charts showing people's different names for soft drinks? A 90-year-old couple playing ragtime at a health clinic? A boy feeling President Obama's hair? A hint for naming a band? 

It's all very intriguing. Not appalling or worrisome, just intriguing. We are all quite different. And not shy about expressing it.

Yet there's also something sobering about Facebook content. I wonder what happens to these kaleidoscopic expressions. I see a few comments, sometimes even brief dialogues. But mostly I see people blurting a thought, and then nothing follows. I suspect they hoped for more.

When an exchange does occur, it can turn saccharine or nasty -- and needy. People want to be heard and yet don't value listening. That suggests a deeper isolation and loneliness than perhaps we recognize.

I also see more and more images -- photos, charts, cartoons, posters -- and fewer words. It's good for getting attention, of course, but strangely inarticulate, as if someone wanted to express an opinion but lacked the words or self-confidence to do so.

Why, then, do I find Facebook encouraging?

I am encouraged when people want to express themselves. So much energy goes into shutting us down. Given a venue for self-expression, people step up. That's encouraging.

I am encouraged that people risk disagreeing. Finding a low-passion center does little for us if it means stifling our passions. Dreamers, visionaries, eccentrics, nuts, entrepreneurs and artists are cut from the same cloth, and it's a good thing when we wave that flag of uniqueness and passion. That's encouraging, too.

I am also encouraged that despite the coarsening of political discourse, people still care about their society and are willing to speak out. We haven't left the public square to the shouters and ideologues. That is especially encouraging.

I don't see how any of this will make money for Facebook's new investors. I suspect they will find a way to kill the goose. But for as long as we have it, Facebook is intriguing. And sobering. And encouraging. 

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of Just Wondering, Jesus: 100 Questions People Want to Ask and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich. Tom's posts appear via RNS.

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