We often experience the clash of contexts that happen on social media sites. We all have a different perception of what is funny or what is considered true. We are used to dealing separately with each of our friend groups. However, with many social media services, all of our relationships are classified within a single bucket. Personally, this has taken the fun our of my Facebook experience. I rarely post anything without thinking twice about the consequences. That said, something’s recently changed. I’ve grown to somewhat appreciate this clash. As the Flotilla event evolved, and things got politically charged, I realized that it might actually serve a constructive purpose.
This recently posted video of Israeli soldiers dancing to the beat of Ke$ha’s “tick tock” in the middle of their patrol in the West Bank is a great example of the clash of context. The video went viral extremely fast, as many Israelis re-posted and proudly emailed the link, naively thinking that “the world will finally see that our soldiers are humans who also like to have a little fun”. They could not have imagined just how offended people across the world would be from watching the video. Slogans like “It’s easy to laugh at the occupation when you’re the oppressor” were posted in response, causing lots of frustration and confusion all around.
Intentions were good, but were lost in translation.
Ethan Zuckerman has been writing about xenophilia and culture bridging for a while. He points at people’s tendency towards homophily (‘birds of a feather flock together’) and sees this as a fundamental challenge, since with the web, we’re more able than ever to find people that are like us. He stresses the importance for us to seek out and understand people different from us, especially as cultures clash on global web services become more common. Ethan defines xenophilia as people in the world who are genuinely fascinated by the breadth, complexity and difference of the world; “third culture kids”, people who were raised in one country, but are “from” another. Bridge bloggers are xenophiles who have the capacity to connect both sides of a story, because they themselves are associated with both sides.
In his recent blog post, Ethan looks at data released by peace.facebook.com, boasting how many daily connections are made between pairs of battling entities. According to the site, 15,747 connections between Israelis and Palestinians have been made over the last 24 hours on Facebook. I find this piece of data incredibly hard to believe (especially since the number doesn’t seem to change over the course of the week). Even if a reciprocal relationship equals 2 connections, I can’t imagine such a high number of connections forming on a daily basis. That said, 20% of Israeli population is Arab, many with roots and family in Gaza or the West Bank. This fact could certainly explain the data.
Their notion of “connections” makes me wonder if they account for Facebook fan pages. Successful fan pages tend to be politically charged, and polarize the users according to their political agenda rather than bring those with different views together. However, if Facebook’s data is counting Israeli Arabs as Israelis (as they should!), I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d accounted for multiple connections forming via these fan pages.
I am extremely doubtful that much bridging happens through direct Facebook “friending”, nor that it is represented by direct Facebook “friendships” between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. So where does it happen if at all?
In order to answer this question, we must discuss the notion of a “safe space”, which I consider crucial for bridging to happen. A safe space makes us feel comfortable, almost at home. Its an environment where we are supported and validated; a place where we are willing to lower our defenses.
I am a huge fan of Global Voices, but wouldn’t consider it as a safe space for Israelis. The majority of readership on the Middle East section tilts heavily towards Arab articles, comments and opinions. One might say that is totally fair since it is representative of actual world distribution of population. But the outcome is an imbalanced environment, which for an Israeli, feels unsafe; a place where they won’t be supported, nor will they be identified with. Why hang out where everyone’s picking on you when you can easily go play with fun friends elsewhere? For the most part,like the Guardian or Al-Jazeera, Global Voices is not perceived as a safe space.
However I believe that Facebook creates new opportunities for safe spaces to form, especially as they are based on people’s familiarity with each other.
Facebook received massive adoption in Israel, easily taking over any other Social network or service. Israel is a tiny place, and people are inherently social – making Facebook a perfect place to interact with the “hevre” (Hebrew for ‘gang’ – also the name of one of the earliest Social Networks that saw light in Israel). Facebook is a place where my friends from Israel feel extremely comfortable. Even when someone lands on my profile page, there are always other friends a mere click away, in the periphery. One is never alone, in any given context.
The Flotilla incident triggered something I hadn’t seen before. Friends from different contexts don’t tend to communicate with each other, even when reacting to the same post. The flotilla events changed this.
When dealing with such a complex topic that has no clear “right” or “wrong”, I witnessed multiple “cross boundary” conversations happening on my own Facebook page, and also amongst my Israeli friends who are also living abroad. Our pages served as bridges, or safe havens, where contacts from “opposing sides” could have a conversation.
It would go something like this – (1) Facebook page owner posts link to article (2) Israeli friend/relative responds with a pro-Israeli message (3) European friend responds to that with a counter opinion (4) Another Israeli friend responds (5) another foreign friend supports #3 (6) profile owner mediates…
…you get the drift.
The interesting part here is that even if there are no direct links between those in Israel, and those with opposing perspectives wherever they were, a conversation could take place because of the personalized nature of Facebook. Because it felt safer to do it there, on a shared friend’s page. Much safer than on Global Voices, or other international news websites.
The more Facebook grows, the more I see these kinds of exchanges happening. In his post, Ethan claims that “we overestimate how many of our online contacts cross borders and underestimate how often these tools are used to reinforce local friendships”. While I agree, I’d add that we shouldn’t only look at direct cross-border connections, but rather try to understand and estimate the value that Facebook serves as a safe space for bridging to occur. I’m not sure how we quantify the amount of cultural bridging that is not represented by FB connections. We could only do this by analyzing public discussions happening on profile pages, between profiles who are not friends on Facebook.
To conclude, Obama argues that we suffer from an “empathy deficit”, as quoted from a speech to college students:
“There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us – the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room. As you go on in life, cultivating this quality of empathy will become harder, not easier.”
Placing yourself in someone else’s shoes is much easier when the store attendant is your close friend. Facebook as a platform has the potential to host these conversations; be the store. Safe space.
But we the users, have to make the conversations happen.