Home > Uncategorized > Appropriate Boundaries and Social Media in an Election Year

Appropriate Boundaries and Social Media in an Election Year

A few months ago, a parent of one of my son’s classmates sent a political message to all the parents in the class.  He started off by apologizing for posting it, but said the situation was just so important he wanted to make sure we were aware of it.  This was clearly not an appropriate use of the parents’ email list. The specific content of his message also offended me–redistricting had put two highly qualified candidates into the same district and he wanted to persuade us to vote in the primary for the candidate who was historically our neighborhood’s rep because she is “one of us” (his exact words).  By “one of us” did he mean “white”?  I was furious because it would be inappropriate to reply to his message. I thought about sending him a private note but restrained myself. 

His message was a boundary violation.  Boundaries are healthy. It’s rude to discuss politics at work, because it’s too divisive.  Grown ups know not to do that.  Stay away from politics, religion, and the great pumpkin and we’ll all get along much better. Which brings me to my discomfort with Facebook this week. The Republican National Convention is happening this week, and some work colleagues are posting about it on both Facebook and Twitter.  In my ideal fantasy world, my reaction to this would be:

Oh, interesting!  I don’t know Colleague X well, and his views are certainly different from mine. I don’t agree with him on most things, but he had an interesting point about issue Y.  I will have to think about that some more.

That would be a nice world, wouldn’t it?  I wish we lived in it.  Because you know what I’m really thinking:

Oh, I had no idea Colleague X is a moron!  Who knew?  I wish I still didn’t know.  I am going to try to forget that I read any of that, but it’s going to be hard.

I know Colleague X would not say those things on a work mailing list, or send them to a mailing list of parents in his kid’s class.  He would never do such a thing.  But somehow Facebook makes it seem OK, even though those same colleagues and fellow parents are there.  I sometimes post political stuff on Facebook too. I don’t do it a lot, but sometimes something seems important enough.  Like I guess our local redistricted election felt important enough to the parent who posted about it?  Eek.

I’m torn. Part of me wants to rejoice in this new openness. Could we be moving towards a revitalized public sphere, where serious issues can be thoughtfully explored?  Can we understand one another better because we have seriously listened?  But most of me thinks those hopes are naive.  No one is listening to anyone in politics these days, and breaking down the boundaries of discussing politics in polite company is not helping one bit. Psychologists argue that certain kinds of appropriate boundaries are a key component of mental health and harmonious relations, and I believe they’re right. And social media are mucking about with those boundaries in an unhealthy way.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Mor
    August 30, 2012 at 10:33 pm

    Thoughtful post (as always), but I am not sure I agree with you here — I think by “friending” someone on Facebook you do accept that boundaries do not formally exist and can be set by the poster. After all, when you “friend” them, you step into a space that they share with friends, family, parents, work colleagues and so forth. Almost by definition, there are no formal social group boundaries there (but hopefully some civility-driven boundaries remain). It is still up for them to craft the image that they want to present to others, of course, but I don’t think there could be expectations set for the type of content being shared.

    • August 30, 2012 at 10:39 pm

      Family are an even bigger problem than colleagues for many folks. I’ve talked with more than one person who is considering ditching social media because political things like the Chick-fil-A broohaha are getting them furious at their relatives!

      Anyway, I do see your point… which gets to the broader question of how we decide who to be friends with/follow….

  2. Loren Terveen
    August 30, 2012 at 11:10 pm

    I’m pretty much with Mor, perhaps not surprisingly since he and I both have posted political things that you’ve (potentially) seen. I would simply say that “this just seems important enough”. And to be utterly brazen, I trust my judgment on this issue.

  3. August 31, 2012 at 12:19 am

    For me, the biggest problem with making political comments on social media is that the resulting online “debates” are always a trainwreck. If people make such comments in person, we can often have a reasonable conversation about it. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen such conversations work well on Facebook. As a result, seeing really pithy or inflammatory political messages on social media frustrates me because I can’t effectively respond in that medium. It’s read-only, in a way.

    There are definitely some design opportunities here. Travis Kriplean’s work is a great example. I’m also still waiting on the Facebook/Twitter app that lets me mute any politically themed messages.😉

  4. August 31, 2012 at 12:55 am

    I think part of the problem is that Facebook and Twitter do not (easily) allow one to give off different impressions to different sets of people, a mechanism which sidesteps these problems in real-life interactions. Mailing lists are inherently contextual; like you said, there are lines that are evident to every participant, although some might choose to ignore them.

    What if a social network truly supported giving off different impressions to different sets of people, including separate nicknames, separate posts, siloed photos & videos, etc. In other words, is this merely a problem because the technology does not support it, or is it something deeper that newer media has uncovered?

  5. August 31, 2012 at 4:17 am

    This is exactly the multiple audience problem that I documented in my dissertation. Your solution is also the polite home page solution that most people choose. Personally, that solution annoys me. While it is a justifiable solution, the implication is that we must avoid public conflict as it is not worth it; Thomas Jefferson would not approve. Propaganda, whether “hope and change” or “we built it,” is pretty worthless and can and should be ignored. On the other hand, I find well reasoned arguments that I disagree with to be one of the best things about Facebook. I tend to befriend people that are smart. Even when I disagree with their opinions, I still try to understand why they came to that opinion. In rare cases, it is worthwhile starting a debate (I definitely concur with Dr. Luther that Facebook is not the right medium for most kinds of debate).

    • August 31, 2012 at 6:40 am

      Jeff I totally agree that Thomas Jefferson would not approve! I agree with Kurt that there are design opportunities here and with Manas that just a little bit of context would go a long way.

      I do sometimes post political things on Facebook and Twitter, and I’m not planning on stopping. But the whole thing is… a design opportunity, as you say.

  6. Deborah Tatar
    September 2, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    This is a really interesting discussion. Oddly enough the only things I post on Facebook and Twitter are political. The one thing I do on Facebook, in addition to replying to a deeply contextual discussion such as this one) is forward messages that seem important to me for more public viewing. I do not put (much) personal matter on Facebook, and frankly I do not write much on Facebook.

    But doesn’t Facebook from it’s very conception involve boundary violations? The primary question is whether we know when they happen or not and who is involved. I will not expose myself on Facebook until I have a better idea what it means in the long run.

    I will tell you a story, though, that is from a book I’m working on: Like Amy, I went to Harvard. I was very proud to be accepted and eager to enter into (as I imagined it) the Life of the Mind and Be An Intellectual. I arrived on a warm autumnal day, and sat with another girl, still a dear friend, on the steps of Thayer Hall, blowing bubbles, just about as happy as I was capable of being. We soon noticed little groups of boys walking around with paper. They would stop and stare at various people, including us, confer around the paper, and walk on. Eventually, I came to realize that the papers were their Facebooks (the original Facebook), and that they had marked out the women they wanted to hit on from their little black and white photographs. Of course, I was very young, but I was shocked, frightened and, frankly, disgusted. I had worked so hard to get in! I didn’t have to go to Harvard to be attractive object to men. It’s not that I failed to see that other people were living their lives along different lines. It’s just that I did not want to be part of that world. If I was going to be seen, I wanted to be seen as a whole person, not as a picture and a few keywords.

    Now, many years later, I don’t really need most other people to see me as a whole person, but I’d still choose to be unseen rather than to give up so much control over the fragments that others see, and this has hugely conditioned my response to electronic Facebook. And I don’t want to see ugly little fragments of other people either in accidental and unaccountable ways. If I do find out that they have ugly and even hateful bits, I want to be able to encounter them directly with my shock.

    Cheers!

  7. Mike Slass
    September 21, 2012 at 11:51 am

    I like your best-case scenario fantasy thought experiment. I think it’s a valuable technique for all kinds of decision making, because once you’ve articulated what results you’d like, you can make a more reasonable assessment of the likelihood of those results’ occurring.

    I had the “Oh, no, X is a moron” reaction when I saw an otherwise like-able co-worker get into a car covered in ultra-right bumper stickers. The stickers haven’t made me anti-choice, but they have made me stop talking to X.

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