Friday, December 3, 2010

Facebook: Defending the Online Debate

With over 500 million fans, Facebook is steadily becoming its own global empire. Its influence stretches every day, with more and more people adding the social network to their daily – or hourly – routine the world over. With so many joining the Facebook community to keep close to friends, post pictures, update their profiles, etc., it is little wonder why the media is so enthralled with finding out just how much influence Facebook really has on the political and religious mindsets of its members.

In her article, “The Politics of Facebook,” Liz Funk of The Huffington Post affirms that the authority of the social network, while significant, fails to truly inhibit the political decisions of its online members. Despite the growing number of individuals joining activist groups every hour, Funk asserts that entering such organizations usually has little to do with the individual’s beliefs, and more to do with his or her desire to appear politically informed to the world.

Such activist groups, ranging from the “Tea Party Patriots” (526,443 members) to the “Liberal Socialists” (1,456 members), have, according to Fink, distracted people from what Facebook was always meant to be, which is a social network for college students to enjoy discussing the goings on of their daily lives.

“Facebook is not a place of politicking or a hotbed of Internet activism the way that Myspace might have construed, or utilized by grassroots activists” says Fink. “It's a place of fun and play and college student recklessness in a very online era.”

After viewing the activist groups more closely, I was initially compelled to agree with Funk’s argument. I myself have joined an abundance of political organizations (more so than I can count) that have had very little effect on my daily routine, let alone my political mindset.

Then again, when dealing with a social network that is quickly becoming Google’s biggest threat, it is useful to recognize that “politics” itself has always been in a state of flux. Even if Facebook’s activist organizations do not seem to meet the general definition of political involvement to people like Liz Funk – involvement that requires its members to meet face-to-face to discuss the issues – it is wrong to assume that such online groups do not manifest many of the qualities that traditional political activist communities have.

On Facebook, members are encouraged to express their opinions, start conversations, post polls, debate controversial issues, and ask for answers. In light of these facts, my question to Liz Funk is this: If such activity doesn’t warrant “political engagement,” then what does?

Facebook is garnering more and more discussions about controversial issues every day. “Positively Republican!” – a group over 303,376 members strong – offers a surplus of discussion threads for individuals to post their opinions on; these threads range from health care (26 posts) to the definition of American patriotism (a whopping 444 posts). Although a healthy number of these posts dwell on the sillier side of the issue (and some are just plain ridiculous), many of the posts exhibit a well-informed, educational perspective of the topic being discussed.

The problem with Liz Funk’s opinion of Facebook is that it only considers one feature of the social network – the feature that allows people to stay connected via wall posts, pictures, etc. While this is the primary component of the website, it is plain to see that Facebook is no longer just for college students wanting to have fun. “Positively Republican!” remains politically involved by inviting government leaders to address an issue on the group’s page every few weeks, then asking them to respond to any questions members might have. Without Facebook, this conversation between the elite political sphere and the normal, everyday individual might not be possible.

This online discussion of political issues is rivaled only by the social network’s outlet for religious issues. No other topic on Facebook garners the popularity that politics and religion have, perhaps because neither of them can be discussed as openly in any other forum. Religion – a controversial topic in itself – may be debated without fear of face-to-face confrontation, which is a plus when expressing an opinion that contradicts a religious doctrine. Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Baptist, Anabaptist, Orthodox, Catholic, Mormon… the list goes on. If you can think it, you can join it, and if you can join it, then you can discuss it – all within the safety of your own home.

Just like the political activism groups, Facebook’s religious organizations comprise of both stimulating debate and impractical drivel. Facebook’s power, however, lies in its ability to convert whatever political/religious decision a person makes into a universal commodity, meaning that whatever information one puts into its database instantly becomes public knowledge to the Facebook community. Want to join a Jewish organization? Go ahead. Just be prepared for every person in Facebook’s empire (that’s 500 million and counting) to know about it within a few seconds.

Facebook, then, is doing much to convert both religion and politics into community-based goods. The mere act of joining a Facebook organization has the power to alter the public opinion of any given topic, regardless of how active one is at replying to discussion threads on the group’s homepage. Once a member joins an organization on Facebook, that decision is made public to the entire Facebook community, thereby transforming the individual’s personal choice into a topic of discussion and debate across the network.

Although I contend that Facebook may not yet be the global leader in political and religious activism, I find fault with those who ignore the value of a website that is at present generating more discussion than actual top news sites. As a member of the first generation to experience the birth of such a network, I am inclined to believe that websites like Facebook will only grow more influential as the years progress. With the number of online members increasing every minute, we must either acknowledge Facebook’s activist potential, or be left in the MySpace dust.

No comments:

Post a Comment