Social Relationships, Social Media, and Politics


August 1, 2016 by Jean

imageDuring my working years, I steadfastly resisted Facebook. I had some social media presence with my blogs, and for several years I participated in a social networking site for garden bloggers. At one point, I even signed up for a Google+ account, although I never actually used it much. But Facebook seemed to me like a terrible time sink, and I just couldn’t see the point.

That changed almost two years ago when one of the committee members for my 50th high school reunion asked me if I would set up a Facebook page for news about the reunion. I dutifully set up a Facebook account and then set about trying to find my classmates on Facebook and invite them to join a group page for the reunion. The reunion group page was never very successful – mostly because I didn’t really know what I was doing; classmates found it easier to communicate with one another via group emails. But a surprising thing happened while I was working on this: I found that Facebook enhanced my social relationships.

When I joined Facebook in late 2014, I was recently retired, living uncomfortably in a house that was under construction, and feeling somewhat socially isolated because I couldn’t invite friends to my house. Slowly, I increased my list of Facebook “friends” from high school classmates to members of my family who were on Facebook, to old friends whom I hadn’t seen in years, to former colleagues, and to new friends and some of my neighbors. (I’m pretty selective about who I “friend.” After two years, I have fewer than 100 Facebook friends and routinely decline requests from people I don’t know.) Facebook has turned out to be a good place to keep up with friends and family whom I seldom see and don’t communicate with regularly. I especially enjoy seeing what’s going on in the lives of my nieces and nephews (who range in age from early twenties to late forties) and what issues they are concerned about.

I don’t post a lot on Facebook; my timeline consists primarily of links to my blog posts. And I’ve generally made it a point to avoid political discussions on Facebook. I find the political “discussions” there are mostly rants. They shed more heat than light and don’t do anything to help people understand one another. Occasionally, someone (often one of my politically conservative high school classmates) shares some post from another source that I find so offensive that it would seem complicit to be silent. In those situations, I try to leave a comment that is polite and reasoned and that explains why I disagree (hoping, I think, for a teachable moment).

The political conventions and the realities of this Presidential campaign have triggered a departure from my usual “avoid politics” Facebook policy. The morning after Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech, I was moved to share my feelings about it on Facebook. Here is what I wrote:

I stayed up late last night to watch Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech. I was reassured by her calm, clear-eyed competence and inspired by her vision of a country in which we come together to solve problems.

Many of my friends and family members “liked” this post, and a political scientist friend left a comment in agreement. Then one of my high school classmates, a Bernie Sanders supporter with serious reservations about Hillary Clinton, raised concerns about whether she will be able to “overcome all the negativity.” He and I exchanged a series of comments that were thoughtful, restrained and respectful and several of our other high school classmates chimed in, only one of whom went off on a bit of a rant. Since then, I’ve found myself sharing a couple of other analyses of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy that have appeared on Facebook, one sociological analysis of why Hillary’s historic candidacy was illustrated in the newspapers mostly with photos of Bill Clinton and a short film that links Hillary’s candidacy to the fight for women’s suffrage.

I don’t think I’m in any danger of becoming a political social media junkie. I remain uncomfortable with the combative tone of most political posts on social media. But I also think my exchanges with my high school classmate in the Pacific Northwest point to the more positive potential of social media. He and I barely knew one another in high school and we haven’t seen one another since, but we have found in one another some similar interests and a love of reasoned discussion. As he put it in one of our recent exchanges: “It is nice to converse with you. I think we both listen and hopefully learn.” This is a “Facebook friendship” at its best.

6 thoughts on “Social Relationships, Social Media, and Politics

  1. Charles F. Emmons says:

    Very interesting, Jean. My history with Facebook is similar to yours, and we both got drawn in by personal influence, in your case by classmates, in my case by my son who insisted I use social media to plug one of my books. I also generally avoid the political exchanges, but have not found a useful exchange of ideas with somebody of a different opinion the way you have. Like you, I don’t see the point of being “friends” with somebody who either doesn’t know me or who never says hello when passing me in the street. Maybe the most significant point though is that I reluctantly admit seeing some useful things about it now, like connecting with colleagues who are headed to the same conference.

    • Jean says:

      Charlie, The occasional exchange of ideas is interesting, but I have found the greatest value is keeping in touch with my far-flung network of nieces and nephews (who range in age from teens to mid-forties).

  2. Jean R. says:

    Interestingly, my niece (a retired teacher) is in the process of setting up a Facebook page for her old high school class and that has drawn her into liking Facebook. When she was working, social media was discouraged by the school board.

    I try hard to stay away from politics on Facebook because so many of my family and friends hold such different views than I do. However, lately that’s been hard to do when people are bashing Hillary and praising up Trump and using conspiracy sites for their source of information. The very first political comment I made this cycle was met with, “I thought you were smarter than that. She should be burned alive!” That was last week and that nasty comment is making me reconsider if I should stay out of the Facebook political discussions. They may not be useful but it’s hard to ignore such ignorance.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, It’s ignorance that most often draws me in, too. After all, I’m a life-long educator; it feels like malpractice to me to let misinformation pass unchallenged. But I think many of the political “discussions” on Facebook are of the “Don’t bother me with the facts; I know what I believe” variety.

  3. kateragon says:

    I’m glad you’ve had a positive experience, too! I’m a sucker for getting involved in political discussions on Facebook. Although I’ve had a few heated discussions that went nowhere, I have actually had a lot of positive and productive discussions as well (especially with conservative family). In my experience, it’s usually pretty easy to tell who is open to discussion and who just wants to get in a fight. In any case, I really enjoy seeing your garden and retirement updates on my newsfeed, so I’m glad you joined the Facebook community!

    • Jean says:

      Katie, I’ve been thinking a lot about this. It seems to me that there has to be some shared base in values to have a productive discussion. If people are beginning from different value positions, they just talk (shout?) past one another. (More about this in a post to come.)

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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