Today, following a period of Facebook madness, I deactivated my account. Unlike reefer madness, this one was a by-product of the Arab revolutions. Since January I’ve been updating statuses, liking pages, linking to articles, posting youtube videos. And, regrettably, I’ve been getting into fights. I don’t mean physical fights. My computer screen is still intact. I mean Facebook fights. Sometimes these are reasonably polite altercations; sometimes they aren’t polite at all. At all times they eat up time. Hours and hours of time. Time I could have spent reading Tolstoy or trying to play the saxophone or walking across the fields.
Getting into fights on Facebook is undoubtedly a symptom of psychological problems. I possess many social skills, diplomacy not included. I am overly passionate. Plus I am too sensitive for someone who is also a rhetorical bruiser – like a soft-jawed weakling who packs an iron fist (which sounds like Bashaar al-Asad; but this becomes too ugly). Beyond my own issues, however, Facebook presents challenges to any human being more used to communicating through the contexts fine-tuned over millenia – face to face, or in a crowded room, or by private or public letter. All these situations contain subtle mechanisms for conflict resolution or avoidance. Facebook doesn’t.
In real life you might meet someone you vehemently disagree with once a week, or once monthly, and you’d probably meet him in company, and you’d both find in the setting subjects to discuss other than the prickly issue. But on Facebook you might engage in intensive bursts of one-on-one with such a person five or ten times daily, without a social framework to restrain you. In real life, if someone is boring you or annoying you or offending your values you can smile and walk away, and if you like the offender nevertheless you can return for more exposure later, you can take him in the doses you choose. On Facebook, the person is there constantly. He’s there waking up with you as you switch on the computer, there whispering through the laptop while you’re in bed for a siesta, there when you’re naked and there when you’re clothed, there when you’re ready for the world as well as when you’re not. His voice is always ringing in your head.
And who is he? What do you know of his face? His profile picture may be a cartoon character, or a flag, or a picture of a baby. You may imagine him as tall or short, as light or dark, or as a gay girl in Damascus. Your picture of him depends entirely on your imagination, not on human facts.
Who are the people on Facebook? Many different kinds, between whom the medium makes no distinction. Some very good friends. Some family members. Some colleagues and contacts. Some interesting thinkers or information gatherers who always have something new to offer – in these cases disagreement doesn’t matter. Some people you can fruitfully enter into debate with, even if neither will persuade the other, because the exchange will be educative and courtly. And also people you can’t fruitfully enter into debate with, either because they endlessly repeat themselves or someone else’s propaganda regardless of your response, or because the two of you are approaching an issue from entirely incompatible perspectives. In the first category I propose as an example the sort of faux-leftist Westerners (for whom politics is a lifestyle choice) who still insist that Qaddafi is an anti-imperialist hero. (These are personal examples from recent experience, and do not of course represent ‘the left’ in general. Neither has this got anything to do with the legitimate debate over NATO intervention, or NATO’s increasing shift to ‘shock and awe’.) The second category is exemplified by the pro-regime Syrians I currently find myself unable to talk to, who are as genuinely concerned or in most cases more concerned than I am by the crisis, and who are not evil, but who have bought into a different narrative of events than the one I’ve purchased. At present I cannot properly hear them. My ears are too full of the screams of Hamza al-Khateeb, slowly and grotesquely tortured to death at the age of thirteen. I go on about him, and I may as well – he’s representative of the thousands killed, hurt, and humiliated in the last three months as the country has hurtled towards war.
My inability to hear pro-regime people may itself be a sad comment on the prospects for ‘dialogue’ inside Syria. And how much worse it must be for Syrians inside the country, for Syrians whose pasts and futures lie in Syria. Imagine that your son or husband had been shot by regime thugs, and then imagine your feelings when the neighbours chant praise for the president. Alternatively, imagine your fear when the men down the street chant in favour of what you believe to be a Salafist insurrection which will destroy everything your country’s ever built. This is how Syria is cracking. I’m feeling only a slight ripple effect of it here.
As for my Facebook enemies, I confess I’ve sometimes gone looking for them, trawling the internet late at night like a teenage boy lost in pornography, browsing pages for comments that revolt me, like a thug roaming the shadows in search of another thug to assault, like an addict angling for very dark drugs. People tell me I should be on Twitter. I fear if Facebook is heroin, Twitter will merely be methadone.
Time for a psychic break. And then I shall return to Facebook to post information but not, I hope, to fight.