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Facebook, Memes and Vicious Criticism

I read the Yahoo news. I started reading the news again at the point Obama's campaign got going, because the news stopped being a stream of unmitigated shame and stress. Still, once in a while a news item comes up that needs to be answered.

This one is an Opinion article by Sara Libby: The value in Facebook's new craze.

The subject under discussion, which Sara Libby does not herself put down, is the "25 Things About Me" meme that some unknown poster brought to Facebook. We've had that meme crop up here at LJ about once or twice a year since 2000 when I first joined LJ. It's not some shocking new thing. Eight years online makes something old and traditional.

Here's the relevant quote: As they are wont to do with most things that "kids these days" take part in – members of the media have marveled at this latest Internet curiosity and the intensity with which it has erupted. Their hand-wringing has ranged from the paranoid – "Does Facebook share too much information?" fretted the Atlanta Journal-Constitution – to the meta, with PoynterOnline releasing a "25 Random Things About 25 Random Things on Facebook."

Mostly though, the media have dismissed the trend as yet another example of the hollow narcissism that young people take part in online. "It's just so stupid," a Time magazine article complained. "Most people aren't funny, they aren't insightful, and they share way too much." Sounds as if someone needs to get more interesting friends.

You can see that it's not Sara Libby perpetrating this ludicrous dismissal of a social game. I recall that in the 1980s, right around the Reagan years when greed started getting the front seat in this country's policies and mindset and all considerations of life choice were supposed to be subordinated to making a quick buck, similar social games were popular offline. "Truth or Dare" got played a lot at parties and in social clubs.

The games serve a function of cohering groups. They build community. They build a vital social connection that's gone when modern Americans migrate randomly on average every few years and don't know their neighbors. When I've moved, my Internet neighbors, the people in my real affinity groups, could still find me.

How something that involves sharing personal information with your acquaintances, the outer ring of your personal social contacts, can be called hollow narcissism is beyond me. Perhaps too many of my friends have come out of assorted closets in "25 Things" or make casual references to things that most people would expect to be closeted. Or this writer at Time of all things doesn't comprehend how many people grow up without any cultural matrix. Very little of who most of us are as individuals gets defined by your tribe in 2009.

There was handwringing all my life about the amount of television people watch. Yet something like this meme isn't passive. It's socializing. It's people making connections and deepening relationships. Into every real friendship come layers on layers of self revelation and acceptance. I doubt many people fill out "25 Random Things About Me" without including at least some of the things that they're nervous about sharing, embarrassed by or afraid of social rejection for.

What this sounds like is that even ten minutes of introspection may be too much for some writers to bear thinking about. Let alone bonding with people who aren't blood kin of very close degree, or bonding at all.

Patterns might emerge. "I hate my job" is one that sometimes gets greeted with that wave of recognition. Or "I buy a lot of junk I don't need or even like." Things people thought of as their personal problems turn out to be widespread and common to a lot of the people they know. It can be empowering.

Or it can relieve some pressures in its own right, like a level of personal loneliness that doesn't even get talked about most of the time but is common to an unbelievably high number of people. More and more relationships people have are fleeting and take third place behind economic necessity (or perceived economic necessity) and work-related obligation.

People don't socialize at work because employers go way out of their way to prevent that and keep everyone on a professional, impersonal footing. There's too much risk to building friendships in the workplace. What if you were a friend of someone who wound up on the way out for offending the upper hierarchy -- and got stained by association with a whistleblower or scapegoat? That may explain some of the other observation that came up in today's Yahoo news.

AP released a story by Devlin Barrett: WASHINGTON – Eric Holder, the nation's first black attorney general, said Wednesday the United States was "a nation of cowards" on matters of race, with most Americans avoiding candid discussions of racial issues. In a speech to Justice Department employees marking Black History Month, Holder said the workplace is largely integrated but Americans still self-segregate on the weekends and in their private lives.

Of course, my question at the moment is whether that's actually true about me, or for my friends. I know my life is a bit different from most Americans. Disabled and housebound. I know where I spend my weeks and my weekends, my spare time and my worktime.

I'm online. Everyone I know is text-colored. Usually with an avatar that may randomly be a cat, an artwork, a jazzy icon or maybe a photo purported to be themselves but also occasionally someone's best photo of someone they care about. I know at least one woman online who's got her son's face up as her avatar. She explains this in a signature line.

I know some of you aren't white. I know there's a lot of variety in what other listing on any "race" question you fill in, because in this brainless country any one eighth of any listed category automatically cancels out the 7/8ths that might be European, and this is just based on those online friends I have who happen to mention it. I don't actually have any 1/8th of anything that doesn't fall into the "white" category but by who I am and how I've lived, I don't mention it because I don't identify as white.

I tend to answer that question "human" and have been mistaken for everything but Asian at various times by various people in person. What I am in terms of cheap stereotypes and so on is a cripple. I'll even use the ugly word, I'm entitled to it. I walk like Boris Karloff in The Mummy and drag along at other people's walking pace in a flat run that I can't sustain very long.

Right now I don't know many people offline in my immediate area. I don't go out much. At other times when I did, my preference was mixed neighborhoods and my acquaintances were a random mix that included "anyone not prejudiced" -- there's one of my biggest personal filters right there.

I had a cross burned on my lawn in high school. One of the important things it taught me was to avoid Nice All-White Neighborhoods where I was the weirdest thing visible on the block. Sure as shootin' every time I lived in one there was harassment and trouble. I don't feel safe in white monoculture.

But as a pattern of living in the superstate that is America, I don't doubt Eric Holden's observation. He's at a level where it'd be visible in the extreme. I remember my therapist getting stopped and questioned by cops almost daily when he drove to or from work because his route took him from a nice middle class black neighborhood through a nice middle class white one and he drove a decent car while wearing a suit and being black. Dude was a therapist. They make decent money.

So I am glad Eric Holden spoke up about it, was rude enough to mention that. The phenomenon happens on both sides of that line and other lines too. It takes me a while to break the ice if I'm in a place where no one looks like me, though I will usually manage that faster and with less anxiety than the reverse. There's a hard core of bigotry in other groups than white too, often with plenty of reason, or there's just plain old religious bigotry that draws a line there because I'm not Christian nor interested in converting.

So if this phenomenon, this social racism is a part of life, then what can people do to break it down? Are there any good answers to that question Eric Holden poses? It's not that easy to make friends at work, that carries real economic risk and makes as much sense as dating your roommate. If it doesn't work out, you will be losing your job or your housing.

Holden brought attention to a real problem, one that perpetuates the long shame of this country's racism and carries it on through generations. So what's the way to fight it?

It's dangerous and stupid to go marching in where you're not wanted. Head in first to be the only one who's different in an area that's consolidated and that's a good way to get severe disconfirmation, shunning is probably the nicest thing that'll happen. Shunning terrifies most human beings because humans are social. So any direct attack on social racism is bound to create a lot of ugly incidents and may set off unwanted violence that makes the problem worse.

A better approach is to actively look for social groups that are already integrated or colorblind, then make a point of outreach if something that you enjoy doing in a group that isn't prejudiced still leans too much one way or the other. Just spending a bit more of the publicizing efforts any club always has to do on reaching other communities that may not be that far away geographically can make a difference.

Tape the flyer for the Firefly fan club down the black blocks too and see what happens. At least with something like that, you know everyone who shows up likes the show and knows it. There was a particular, ugly hypocrisy for a long time in science fiction fandom because on the whole, the literature leaned against racism way long before the community did. You had Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles and Star Trek and people pretending they'd finished Dhalgren and understood it. (It helps to be familiar with West Coast culture, black neighborhoods and James Joyce simultaneously to get everything in that book).

But for most of my youth the conventions tended to be very white, peppered with a few token dark faces who were all being very polite and diplomatic and not saying much about the rest of their lives while putting up with incredibly dumb bigoted jokes and comments. Right around the seventies, women broke in and they had to start cutting back on the sexism, though that was a long struggle. I haven't been to a con in over a decade so I can't say what they look like now. The ones in New Orleans were more colorful perhaps because of the city's composition in itself -- to get decent attendance they could not be that white-focused.

Those of you who've been to cons more recently might let me know about that, whether they're media focused (movies and TV) or book-focused conventions. I would love to think that Fandom grew up and actually learned something from all those good stories.

What people have nowadays in the American superstate (which is not a culture, anthropologically speaking) is Affinity Groups. People find something to center their social lives in a sport or activity or something, in subcultures like the SCA or a church with a vigorous social activity schedule and learn to trust their fellow fans or church members or whatever a lot faster than people who don't have anything in common with them. Some form of social filter gets set up between the Vast Mass of Everybody (which includes people who'd kill you on sight over something you were born with or is important to you like your race, gender, religion, etc. etc.) and the people you can trust to at least be polite and pretend to accept it if they don't like something inherent about you.

My hobby and social connections for some time has just been art, it's one of several major interests of mine. It cuts across a lot of lines, it's just human to want to draw and paint or to appreciate a good painting. I know I don't often write about racism because it seemed redundant after all these years. There's been so much written so well that it seemed like a cheap shot, a good way to get a whole lot of support fast for something everyone already agrees on as important. It stopped being radical a long time ago.

It's a great victory to have President Obama. I feel safer in this country than I ever have. But the old poison is still there, this layer of breaking down the social barriers of fear, disconfirmation and unreasoning hate is an important one too. It's not something that can be legislated. The only way I can see for it to break down is for individuals to abandon that pattern and live in the future rather than the past.

So thanks for speaking up on it, Mr. Holden. I'm with you on that and if you lived close enough it would be feasible, invite you or whoever in your family likes drawing and painting over for an art jam. That is pretty much the extent of my offline socializing now, has been for years because of the housebound thing. So I hope you suit action to words and break that pattern in your own life, which for all I know you have been doing for years. Good going speaking up about it.

Oh, and the next time I do 25 Things About Me, I'll be sure to mention "Not racist, scared of bigotry" among them.
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( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 19th, 2009 09:56 pm (UTC)
GMTA... as I was reading the criticism of the meme you quoted, I thought, "Uh. What about Truth or Dare?"

Handwringing about TV... now TV for the most part is accepted and assumed that everyone will watch, including dumbass "reality" shows. The handwringing you often see more is about people playing video games, very particularly online games which have a strong social aspect. Hells, do some googling around on games and women, and you'll find actually anthropologic studies stating that women? make up something close to 40% of gamers now. In part that's because of games like Sims but you also see a lot of women playing what are traditionally considered nerdy teen boy games because of the online social aspect. Women don't want to just blow things up (... well, certain times of the month aside... ;) they want to chatter at people while blowing things up. :P

But, of course, anyone that plays a video game to any degree is a socially isolated addict... *rolls eyes*

(Not that game addicts don't exist. They do. But seriously, it's not the freaking majority.)

re: socializing at work... it depends on the job, actually. stormerider and paulzap met working at an ISP where... years upon years after its demise... there are a TON of people that are still close from that environment. I actually know a commune-type household made up primarily of people that worked there or were otherwise peripherally involved. But, it is unusual and not the norm. I hear a lot more complaining about shitty jobs.. but every now and again, you hear about something special. :)

Self-segregation... hrm. Most of my socialization, also, is online due to health issues. The times I have gone out and done something social, it's usually an event and I'm not closely interacting with anyone but the people I've come with. But, you know, some of the people I chat with a lot on my writing forums and would love to meet IRL... are not white. (Although, for some reason, when it comes to matters of race, people usually discuss "black" and "white" and leave Asians, Native Americans, Latinos, etc, out of the deal entirely.)

My closest friends are white but I tend to think that's coincidence. I think, in part, that people of different ethniticies also tend to "keep to their own" and participate in different subcultures. I have rarely seen a black person at a SF convention, for instance, and I don't really see non-whites in the Goth communities. Some more in the BDSM scene but I really don't participate publicly there... too much internal politics. There are quite a few non-white people over at RD... but most of them write in a completely different sub-genre than me, and with romance, that's a MUCH bigger deal than in SF/F. It can be, quite literally, the difference between Inspirational and Erotic Romance, lol.

Cons... heh, can you tell I'm writing this as I read? I think it depends largely on the size of the con and the location. The ones I have been to were mostly white. In fact, I don't think I recall seeing someone that wasn't... however, that doesn't mean much as I wasn't really actively looking. Some of the cons are more writing-related, others are media. For instance, there are two primary SF conventions in the Boston area: Boskone and Arisia. Boskone is very writing-oriented, Arisia is very media-oriented. Then you have the behemoth DragonCon in Atlanta, that covers EVERYTHING. It's media, writing, and goth rolled into one. From everything I have heard about it from folks that have gone... you'd probably love it. Something to think about when you have that zoomity chair and your SFWA membership. ;)

It's going to take a long time for things to change. At least we have the ball rolling. :)
Feb. 20th, 2009 04:06 am (UTC)
DragonCon could be fun. Thanks for making that point. It's disappointing that they still run that white though, given that SFF was always so strong on that topic. I know it was hard for anyone not white to be accepted in the groups that went to those cons.

There are other cultural barriers too. Sometimes crossing one line can slam you right into another or several, like religious prejudice, sexism or homophobia. Not that easy to solve because it means actively trying to seek out the people from that group who don't have any inherent reason to hate you for something about who you are -- and then overcome the inherent one of being white in the first place and get past the fear and embarrassment.

It makes sense an ISP would turn into that much of a community among everyone who lived there. That's Geekhaven. Results in cities that wind up with gay friendly laws and growing economies and tech industries, a different way of life. One that isn't always white or straight.

Goth does seem to be white but not in my experience that racist, more like a rejection of a lot of things that include racism. Then again I could be wrong and self selecting only for goths who aren't black clad skinheads.
Feb. 21st, 2009 10:29 am (UTC)
Well, keep in mind that my experience is limited to local cons and not Major Big Ones, which may have more of a varied ethnic attendence.

No, you'd be right about the Goth community as a whole. Usually the black-clad skinhead racist sort is reviled by the community, mainly because they're the ones that get media coverage and give the rest of us a bad name.
Feb. 22nd, 2009 06:30 pm (UTC)
That's good to know. I sometimes think that goth is white people's blues.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )


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