Sonya Sorich: After George Zimmerman verdict, some ask if serious debates belong on Facebook

ssorich@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 23, 2013 

A few years ago, one very complex question dominated Facebook.

"How cute is this baby?"

To answer, you simply had to give enthusiastic praise with a one-sentence comment. A time-tested "like" would also suffice. It required no internal debates, no politically correct phrasing -- only the self-discipline to refrain from unbridled sarcasm.

That fit some people's vision for Facebook: a place where games, pet photos and baby news offer a welcome escape from more divisive issues.

Not everyone feels that way.

In the last few weeks, we've seen some major culturally polarizing headlines. A Supreme Court ruling sparked discussions of same-sex marriage. The verdict in the George Zimmerman trial ignited complex conversations about race relations in America. A Rolling Stone cover featuring alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev led to serious discussions about journalism.

Those debates played out on Facebook.

In addition to individual posts about the issues, most news organizations helped solidify the social media site's role as a forum for debate. The Ledger-Enquirer is no exception. For example, our initial post about the George Zimmerman verdict generated 150 comments on Facebook.

While some people participated in recent debates online, others expressed another sentiment: "I'm sick of seeing this stuff in my Facebook news feed."

To some extent, the stance seems strange. Shouldn't a news feed include news? But in the Facebook world, hard-hitting opinions about social issues weren't always this widespread. The discussions are no longer confined to That One Politically Opinionated Friend who can be blocked with the click of a button.

"Like" any major newspaper on Facebook and you're bound to see comment threads about topics more complex than celebrity gossip. Even some people who aren't overtly "political" have participated in Facebook activism campaigns like the red equal sign associated with marriage equality.

Is Facebook's transition from escape route to debate forum a bad thing?

You can argue digital discussions are less likely to result in any real understanding, since people are often more combative when expressing their opinions online. Not to mention growing criticism of "slacktivism" -- a term that can refer to people expressing impassioned opinions online, but not translating those opinions into real-life action.

There are still ways to "hide" certain discussions from your Facebook feed. But maybe we should accept the serious conversations as one component of a multifaceted digital space.

Then, the cute babies we admire on Facebook might grow up in a culture that doesn't bury itself in fluff when the going gets tough.

Sonya Sorich, reporter, can be reached at ssorich@ledger-enquirer.com or 706-571-8516. Visit ledger-enquirer.com/sonya to read her columns.

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