I'm not one of those naysayers who bemoans the age of social media. I don't think it cheapens communication or commodifies human connection or whatever the grumps say (grumping on this shit is pointless anyway). Social media lets you riff hilariously with people you truly love, pay lip service to people you medium-like (while expending approximately zero effort), and—in a phenomenon I think we'll be seeing with increasing frequency—say a big public "fuck you" to the people who deserve it. Like your relatives. Because let's face it, your relatives are terrible.
Recently, a friend of mine posted a fairly innocuous pro-gay-marriage statement on his Facebook wall, causing some batshit country aunt of his to comment (I'm paraphrasing), "But God and the Bible and AIDS! AIDS!!! THE BABY JESUS! AAAAAAAIDS!!!" This kicked off a quick but bloody argument, involving my friend, his gay friends, his straight friends, his batshit country aunt, the memory of his closeted (and tormented) gay uncle, AIDS, racism, and the baby Jesus's tender baby-feelings. Eventually, my friend posted this comment (not paraphrasing):
[Redacted], I'm going to block you from looking at my Facebook page. It's one thing to have an opinion and it's another to use my wall to call out and torment my gay friends. The sad fact is we both know not only do you hate gay people but you are openly racist even though you won't admit it here. Last time [redacted] and [redacted] and I came out to your place to eat dinner you said you believe blacks and Mexicans don't deserve the same rights as us. I don't think I've ever been around you or [redacted] without hearing either him or you say faggot or nigger at some point. So the fact you are sitting here acting like you aren't a hateful person is a fucking joke and we both know it. I can no longer sit back and let you argue with my friends knowing that you are hiding your real feelings about other minorities to make your gay marriage argument seem more valid. You can have fun in your trailer hating people you don't even know but now you have pushed me out of your life. I'm not going to visit you anymore and I'm done making an effort to check in with you and [redacted]. I hope it was worth it.
Facebook basically takes everyone you've ever met, puts them all in a big jar, and shakes the jar to make them fight. (I'm going to just focus on Facebook here, because nobody's grandma is on Twitter unless your grandma is Michael Ian Black; Google+ is extinct; and if you've ever accepted anyone's LinkedIn request then you just failed the psychopath test.) There is no place in real life where your grandma and your barista and your best friend and that guy you went on two OkCupid dates with are going to sit around and have a conversation about gay marriage. But the entire point of Facebook is to facilitate those kinds of interactions. While you might never bring up messy political issues at Thanksgiving dinner because you know that grandma doesn't trust immigrants or whatever, you don't think twice about posting them publicly on your wall, right where grandma can see them. And comment (the baby Jesus, AIDS, go back to Mexico, etc).
And reciprocally, bigots seem to think that Facebook is a great way to widen their demographic. Like, "Hoo-boy! Before, I could only tell my friend Jeff my feelings about NObama's Secret Muslin birth certificate, but this here internet is like nature's telephone!" Also, has Ron Paul hacked into every uncle's Facebook account? I feel like people's uncles are constantly posting about Ron Paul, and if I were a conspiracy theorist I would look into how Ron Paul could possibly have targeted America's uncles with such specificity. Except that if I were a conspiracy theorist I would also be a Ron Paul supporter, thus compromising the integrity of my conspiracy research. But ANYWAY, all that shit is showing up in your news feed too. And what do you do with it?
Traditionally, it's been easy to laugh off bigoted relatives if you only have to see them once every few years. Those old-timey prejudices can seem almost like a wacky novelty act—and besides, it's more peaceful, and kinder to your mother, to just ignore them. But Facebook brings all that garbage hate-speech into your computer and into your bedroom and into your loved ones' faces. It would be totally unacceptable for anyone to call one of your friends a slur in your living room, and it is equally unacceptable on the internet. So Facebook forces your hand. If you ignore grandma's racist/homophobic bullshit you're complicit; if you delete it you're a coward. And if you really stand behind the bleeding-heart politics you're espousing on your Facebook page, then you wouldn't want to sell out those deeply held beliefs in front of all your friends, would you?
So it leads to confrontations like the above. And I think, ultimately, that's a good thing. I've written before about how important it is not to coddle the elderly—not to give bigoted old people a pass just for being old. I think we all need to start standing up a little more candidly to our terrible relatives, and Facebook is a relatively passive, painless way to do that. Worst case scenario, some mean old bigot doesn't speak to you anymore. Medium-case scenario, secretly jerky relatives keep their mouths shut and everyone's happy. Best case scenario, some scared old biddy realizes that a person they love feels really passionate about an issue, and just maybe the old biddy is the one on the wrong side of history. (Pro tip: If your opinion resembles history, you're probably on the wrong side of history.) Maybe I'm naive, but that has to contribute to some kind of cultural shift, however tiny.