I led a workshop this morning with my friend Gideon Culman on the subject of social media and identity (part of the Women’s Information Network‘s brunch series), and one of the themes that kept coming up for the women in attendance was, “It’s too hard to be myself on Facebook, in front of the judging eyes of friends and family.”
“Half my family is Republican. They’d freak if I shared my political views.”
These were women for whom politics is a core part of their identity, many of whom have devoted their lives to working on progressive social issues, and yet, in front of their families, they feel they must behave differently…must censor themselves.
These women are feminists, and yet, they perform, in order to avoid unpleasantness, or confrontation. I don’t judge them— I do it myself, to some degree (yes, as much as I share, there are certainly things I leave out, on purpose)…but it was upsetting, the extent to which this kind of self-censorship emerged as a theme in this morning’s discussion.
Of course, politics has been a fraught subject matter for ages, long before social media rolled around.
But as we gear up for our next presidential election, what gets lost as a democracy when we can’t have constructive conversations about these issues with those to whom we’re related, let alone friends or colleagues who might not share our views?
We blame our politicians for being polarized, unable to reach across the proverbial aisle, and yet, we model the same behaviors in our homes…and, yes, on Facebook.
When we post cute dog pictures, instead of saying, “This thing happened in the news this week and it upset me and HERE’S WHY,” we are saying, “I don’t have faith that you can speak intelligently or thoughtfully with me about this, so I won’t even try.”
Maybe we’ve been burned. Maybe we’ve tried before, and been shot down, so we’ve given up.
But at what cost, not only to our democracy, but also to our chance of real closeness with the people in our lives?
The “here’s why this matters to me” part above is what’s really essential, by the way — not just passing along angry headlines, but taking the time to articulate what the news means to you. To share your own thinking. Because the reason you share an article may not be the same reason I do. And hearing your reasoning may affect my consciousness (and get my attention) in a way that simply seeing the headline in my feed would not.
Of course, it’s not just politics that we avoid discussing.
A friend of mine, let’s call her Tracy, says her relatives judge her harshly whenever she expresses anything but gratitude for her children. So Facebook becomes a place of artifice for her, a place to push down the messy, ugly, real feelings about needing a break or feeling annoyed, and just beam up a picture of Domestic Joy.
So, what’s the answer? Start pissing off relatives left and right? Well, that’s one option. You could just let it all hang out, and que sera sera…if they can’t take it, screw ’em.
If that’s not your style, though, here are a couple of other ideas:
- Share Selectively: On Facebook and Google+, you can choose to share your status with a targeted sub-group of your followers, instead of with everyone. I like the practicality of this approach, and it’s certainly non-confrontational, but it also bugs the purist in me, because you aren’t really solving the problem…you’re just skirting it. Then again, we’re all busy, and this is a nice, easy approach that you can implement immediately. You get to share more freely and truthfully without starting any drama.
- Invite Everyone to a More Private Conversation on a Polarizing Topic: For example, you could say on Facebook, “I’m starting a weekly e-newsletter this election cycle where I’ll share a roundup of what I consider to be must-read articles and why I think they’re important. I welcome people of all beliefs to subscribe and engage in open-minded conversation with me about my ideas. If you just want to pick a fight or advocate pre-existing positions without considering what I share, please don’t subscribe.”What I like about this option is that you’re opening up the opportunity for constructive discussion to everyone (whether it’s about politics, or parenting ups and downs, or religions…whatever “taboo” topic feels most central in your life), but you’re setting up clear ground rules, and if someone doesn’t follow them, you can exclude them. If you go this route, Mailchimp is easy to use, and free until you reach more than 2,000 subscribers.
- Find Other Outlets: If Facebook is just too full of people who make you self-conscious about sharing things that matter to you, consider finding another outlet where you cultivate your community more selectively. This is like option #2 except you don’t have to announce your alternative outlet to everyone…just go do it and hope they don’t find it (chances are, your cranky grandmother who thinks it’s shameful to be a feminist won’t find you on Instagram, for example). Depending on your subject matter and preferences, you could try out Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, or, an e-newsletter, just to name a few options.I have a presence on many different social networks, and I cater the content I share on each; LinkedIn is for professional insights, for example, and the only place I share cute pics of my daughter is on Facebook. Twitter is where I pretty much let it all hang out, except for my business account, which is more focused.
Of course, anything you share online, anywhere, is less private than, say, the thoughts buried deep inside your mind (in other words, Grandma might find Instagram). But that’s the point: We all have gifts to share. There is power to your voice; don’t keep it locked inside.
One of the women at this morning’s discussion said, “I’m just private, and I don’t see a problem with that. Why should I let it all hang out online?”
By all means, don’t. There’s no one “right way” to be when it comes to Facebook, or any social network, or life, for that matter. Certainly, we all know people who we WISH would let it all hang out quite a bit less! But if you’re holding back out of fear… I say… don’t accept this outcome. Find another way. Even if it means taking on the deeper, harder work of setting new boundaries with some of your relatives or friends.
I don’t mean to say it’s easy; it’s not. But what is the cost of avoiding this difficult work? What is the cost, when we let other people’s judgment silence us?
What’s the point of sharing at all, if it’s all an elaborate performance to reinforce other people’s false notions of us?
Being real is really fucking hard. But what if we committed to doing it, together?