Thursday, September 24, 2009

FaceBook and the New Personal Integrity

Joining FaceBook has done an odd and somewhat unexpected thing to me: it seems to have strengthened my integrity. And by integrity, I mean two things. I mean it first in the common sense of "adhering to an ethical code". But I also mean it in the sense of "having internal consistency".

How has this happened? And why is the title of this blog entry not "The Internet and the New Personal Integrity"?

The answer these questions lie in the fact that FaceBook has, for me, become a place where I interact with a very diverse group of friends, many of whom do not know my other friends. Granted, there are clusters of friends (Anglicans, bodybuilders, car guys, family, ex-students, etc.) who know each other. But people from one cluster don't know or share the same interests with people in the other clusters.

Elsewhere on the internet, things tend to be specialized. There are entire websites (nay, pairs or trios of rival websites!) dedicated to a single model of automobile. For example, I belong to the Fairlane Club of America, and the Motor City Marauders. These are special-interest sites, each with a laser focus on a particular tiny sliver of the automotive hobby. Likewise, I participate in the forums of several bodybuilding websites. That is a small sub-culture with dozens of rival websites.

The specialization, on the good side, allows one to let his or her hair down (not literal hair, you understand; I don't have enough of that to let down). One knows that one is among, if not friends, then at least a set of people who share a very narrow, common interest. The same specialization, on the negative side, allows one to lead a sort of "double life". For example, I can potentially post something on a bodybuilding site that would be shocking to my friends in other circles, with the near-certain knowledge that none of them will ever stumble upon it. (Here's a hypothetical: On a fitness-related site, it might not raise eyebrows to post something derogatory about fat people.) This allows for, at least, the possibility of presenting different personae on different forums, which doesn't really meet either definition of "integrity".

I am finding that, because my collection of FaceBook friends is so diverse, I am forced toward a greater integrity in two complementary ways:

(1) Refraining from giving offense. On the specialized sites, one has greater latitude in expressing himself in ways that will not give offense. (Hypothetical: On a muscle car site, I might be tempted to say that anyone who drives a Honda is an irredeemable loser.) But on FaceBook, because of the diversity of the audience, one has to truly refrain from making statements that one is not willing to defend to any and all friends.

(2) Sometimes, my most heartfelt opinions (ones I am willing to live or die by) will still give offense to some subset of my friends. These may be controversial beliefs and opinions, to which I cling so tenaciously that I am willing to lose friends over the issues, should it come to that. Here, the diverse FaceBook audience causes me to choose my words carefully, so that any offense may come from the substance of the statement, and not simply from its insulting form. If I truly believe the controversial statement, making it in front of the FaceBook audience requires much greater courage than posting the same statement in a special-interest forum.

Thus, when thinking of some single-line status update zinger, I naturally seem required to "bin" it into one of the two categories above. If it falls into the first, I restrain my hand in Dr. Strangelove manner, and do not post it. If it falls into the second, I post it and brace myself for the shock to come, if any.

A more purpose-driven individual (I am chaos-driven, myself) might have foreseen this turn of events before plunging into the wilderness of social networking. But I did not. I have to say, it is a pleasant thing. I can almost feel the integrity build inside, as I present what I feel is a much more honest picture of myself to the world.