I start my forthcoming book Facebook Democracy with this quote from Carlos Castaneda’s mystical book Journey to Ixtlan where the Yaqui Indian Don Juan offers the young student some advice:

It is best to erase all personal history because that makes us free from the encumbering thoughts of other people. I have, little by little, created a fog around me and my life. And now nobody knows for sure who I am or what I do. Not even I. How can I know who I am, when I am all this? Little by little you must create a fog around yourself; you must erase everything around you until nothing can be taken for granted, until nothing is any longer for sure, or real. Your problem now is that you’re too real. Your endeavors are too real; your moods are too real. Don’t take things so for granted. You must begin to erase yourself

While I wouldn’t necessarily endorse this as a life’s goal, it is interesting to me to juxtapose this idea of “placing a fog around me and my life” with the demands of social media. It begs the question: where is the space for doubt, contingency and detachment in the world of social media. I ask this earnestly, fully recognizing that I might not “see the space” before my eyes. It is possible to be a “lurker” in social media, but from my conversations with students it seems like a frowned upon practice.

As a political scientist, what matters more to me is how “being too real” impacts our civic engagements with others. Does social media provide a “certaintly” about the world that inhibits our ability to make the detached observation necessary to appreciate the other? Or does it connect us more and thus make us more empathic and better able to appreciate the suffering of others? While a number of studies highlight how heavy Facebook users lead to greater levels of civic engagement through more exposure to diverse ideas and greater levels of interest in politics.

But is being exposed to diverse ideas the same as integrating diverse ideas into an uncertain and contingent self?  An interesting study would look at how people deal with political information with which they disagree.  Do they “unfriend” or “ignore” the information?  Anecdotally, it seems people I’ve talked to simply remove people from their feed rather than un-friend them.  How does engaging with different and potentially distasteful views change when the conversation is on Facebook rather than face-to-face?  Not sure I know, but hopeful to find out in the future.