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Facebook and identity politics

Is it a coincidence that the rise of identity politics coincides with the rise of the Internet and in particular of social media? Identity politics has been around for a while and predates the internet, but it’s become particularly impactful in the last few years.

Facebook is centred on the personal profile. It encourages people to say who they are, to express how they feel about things, they like and who they like. This is its business model. It’s essentially one very big market research survey, selling people space to advertisers so they may better target their ads and sell more stuff.

The byproduct though is the increased focus on the self, a trend that predates Facebook and predates the Internet.

What someone thinks is of less interest to Facebook. You’re free to post what you think, but after three lines your words will be hidden behind a read more link. This encourages punchy and emotive slogans over an argument with references and evidence, something with a logical step-by-step progression. You sometimes see that on Twitter, people stringing tweets together to make a 10 point argument which they then Storify.

There are some groups on Facebook that have quite involved discussions, but Facebook doesn’t make those kinds of serious discussions easy. It seems better at generating flame wars, with people shouting slogans at one another, getting personal – which is inevitable when you have a site so focused on the person. Facebook may be good for friends and families keeping in touch, but it’s not good for our politics.

The kinds of interaction these platforms encourage is a form of manipulation. They give us an emotional grammar: to like something on Facebook or to friend someone, to share or to retweet, to follow. And to unfriend or to unfollow.

They squeeze us into filter bubbles where we are surrounded by people like us with similar views to us. They tend to hide from us views that challenge our own, are far more likely to show us views that confirm what we already think because, by tracking our behaviour, they know the kinds of things we’re likely to click on and respond to. They give us a distorted view of the world. When we do occasionally encounter people or views from outside our tribe we see them as alien, incomprehensible, abhorrent.

And if the social network encourages communication by slogan then you’re never going to really understand what other people think let alone why they think it. You’re just going to get a cartoonish characterisation of their views.

Not all social networks are the same though. Medium for instance encourages long form essays. I first came across it on reading an article by an Iranian blogger, just released after being in prison for eight years and astonished at how the Internet had changed. When he went to prison the blogosphere was all-powerful, threatening the existence of a number of corrupt and authoritarian regimes around the world. When he was released the blogosphere had been replaced by Facebook, with people liking things and friending one another.

It’s the infantilisation of culture and the infantilisation of the public. And they’re ripping us off as well, selling our personal data to their advertising and marketing clients without paying us for it, but we let them. We’re behaving like infants.