There are only a few lingering pink and red “marriage equality” profile pictures in my Facebook newsfeed. The magnitude of that campaign, however, was enormous. Approximately 2.7 million more Facebook users updated their profile pictures on Tuesday, March 26, than on the previous Tuesday.
Of course, this demonstration doesn’t have the power to affect Supreme Court decisions directly. But it sure can energize a movement.
According to a Pew Research Center study, half of all adults in the U.S. use social networking sites. Even more critically, 80 percent of young adults ages eighteen to twenty-nine use Facebook or similar sites.
Social media can be one of the best facilitators of a grassroots movement. For advocates of gay marriage and its skeptics, for pro-abortion and pro-life groups, social media can be an incredibly powerful tool, for better or for worse.
Because it’s so different from most other media, I’d like to look at what makes Facebook a unique platform—along with some things to think about when using it rhetorically.
Your posts are (likely) read only by people who know you.
Aristotle, hailed as the father of classical rhetoric, spoke of three appeals that comprise an argument. The first of these is ethos, or the credibility of the author. Regardless of how sound a logical argument is, people tend to believe those they respect, both intellectually and morally.
Your Facebook friends know you in some capacity. And if they don’t know you well, they have access to your profile, which can generally tell them enough about your character. While Facebook is not a professional network, most hesitate to accept a friend request from a boss or teacher.
There’s also your delivery to consider. No matter the content; if you post a typo-ridden status, you will be written off because you sound unintelligent. If we can’t command the respect of our intellectual opponents, we’ve already lost.
Your audience is not self-selecting.
Your conservative coworker, crazy aunt Tina, and childhood next-door neighbor all see your posts, whether they’re interested or not. This throws something of a wrench in Aristotle’s second rhetorical appeal, pathos, which hinges on knowing your audience and the emotion that you wish to inspire in them with your argument.
While this can be somewhat discouraging, the truth is that Facebook just doesn’t allow posting for targeted audiences. One cannot possibly post something that appeals to everyone.
That’s okay, though. Our audience isn’t everyone. Our audience isn’t even necessarily those who are the biggest supporters of the movement we oppose—they’re not going to change their minds because you posted a pro-life meme. Our audience is populated by those people on the margins who either haven’t thought much about the issue or are on the fence about their position. However, they are a varied bunch, and there’s still no one-size-fits-all argument.
While you might not convince your cousin, with whom you went back and forth over the issue for twenty-seven comments under a status you posted, you may convince your former middle school classmate, who read the exchange but contributed nothing to it.
Part of pathos, of course, is remaining aware that many in your audience may have personal ties with these sensitive issues and being careful to emphasize empathy over judgment.
Facebook has no standards for quality.
That is, where a newspaper may reject your opinion article, the “share” button will always work.
Aristotle’s final rhetorical appeal is logos, or the meat of what you’re actually posting and the reasoning you use to make your case. Even if Facebook doesn’t impose any standards, the human appeal to deeply coherent and solid, reasonable arguments will.
Facebook should not be one’s only way of communicating ideas and values. It is perhaps analogous to shouting the gospel in a public square. It can be useful—and sometimes that’s how we meet the people who most need us—but no one would argue that it’s a sufficient replacement for one-on-one interaction. If we want to change the culture, we have to change hearts. And the best social medium for that is real-life friendship.
Laura Mitchell is an economics student at George Mason University.