Engaging the Digital Forum

By Rob Patterson

I’ve had my mixed feelings about Facebook ever since I signed up for what has become the largest Internet social networking site, as I have written here before. But one huge boon for me of being on it is how it has become a vital place for political information and discourse.

And yes, I mean it when I say discourse. I’d liken its function as a political gathering place to the old town hall if that notion hadn’t been debased recently during the health care brouhaha by fulminating protestors hollering absurdities and inanities.

So maybe better to liken it to the cracker barrel at the general store. Or perhaps one of my favorite places for talk, the corner bar.

Sure, Facebook is about entertainment: people sharing about new music and the latest films, as well as the occasional book, and also touting classic music, be it famed or obscure. And too often, sadly, bemoaning the passing of musical figures and paying them homage.

But since politics plays both a social and entertainment function for me, Facebook has wound up as the center of my political world. Politicians and activist groups have been using it effectively as a place to gather supporters and get out their message. But what I’m digging is how it is a place for the dissemination of information and discussion of issues.

My browser toolbar now has a button that reads “Share on Facebook.” When I come across something of interest or particularly provocative in my daily perusing of news and opinion site, I just click, throw it up, and make my usual commentary (which does tend towards the snarky and sarcastic, with occasional expressions of sheer dismay at the absurdity as well as disgusting nastiness of political events today).

And some of my 1,000-plus friends are usually ready to weigh in with commentary. They are also regularly posting links to items of interest and having their say on them, as then do others. It’s often so engaging that I must confess I have a hard time staying off Facebook even when I have work to be done.

Then at times the discussions can be downright exhilarating, like a few nights prior to writing this. I posted a link to the story about Rep. Barney Frank’s wonderful retort to the woman who yelled “Hitler” at a town hall meeting. Then for the next two-plus hours some 10 of us engaged — and I do mean engaged — in a lively and substantive discussion of the health care issue and all the noise around that. It was respectful and informative and illuminating, as the best political discussions should be.

At the same time, over at my friend Marc Campbell’s page, the same post sparked an entirely different discussion (about how the president, the Democrats and the left should respond to such twisted rhetoric, and other thoughts on our elected officials). As I participated in that as well, I was happy to see how on both of our pages we were teaching each other and learning from one another, some of us making bold statements, some others differing from and even challenging them. And by our exchanges finding that we can learn from each other’s differing viewpoints.

So even though the sometimes silly, mundane and trivial posts on Facebook might irk me, I am grateful to be part of a forum where things that matter can be discussed and debated, even if it is among a self-selected sample of folks who even with all our differences are somewhat like-minded. I imagine if I took my opinions over to, say, Sarah Palin’s page, I would not likely find that. But as much as I decry her tactics if not feeble grip on reality, she and her supporters deserve a digital forum as much as my friends and acquaintances do.

That’s what freedom of speech and democracy are all about, and these days it can sometimes be downright ugly and even potentially dangerous. But participating in these exchanges gives me a glimmer of hope at a time when I have a very dour view of what passes for discourse out there in the world at large. Our digital playthings and entertainments may all too often be distractions from what matters, but maybe they can also provide some positive pathways to political progress.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@io.com.

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2009


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