30 Apr 2012
Having a Facebook page is becoming more and more of a liability. Surely we’ve heard it all before, though. Journalists, authors, bloggers, and even occasionally incredulous Masters’ students love talking about the potential negative Facebook effects, from loss of self-esteem to increased anxiety or jealousy.
But there’s a much more tangible one: you can be expelled or not hired based on what is posted on your Facebook wall.
This is hardly a newsflash depending on how jaded you are about invasions of privacy, but the situation has gotten worse. In 2009, the University of Oxford’s student population discovered that their administration was using Facebook to spy on their pictures and subsequently fine them for any wrongful behavior. As recently as four days ago, a report surfaced that three 14-year-old girls were expelled based on wall posts in which they jokingly discussed who they would like to kill. I’m assuming the school had never heard of childish games like MFK before.
Through 2011-12, cases emerged where employers would ask for one’s Facebook account as part of their application process. Recently, this exercise has been taken to its extreme. In a disturbing new case, Maryland’s Department of Corrections forces job candidates to scroll through their Facebook profile while a recruiter looks over their shoulder, in what is being called a compromise brokered by the American Civil Liberties Union; recruiters initially wanted candidates to simply disclose their usernames and passwords.
Let me be clear: this is not your average “Facebook leads to negative things” post. Because at this point, it is easy enough for one to believe that most Facebook users know the potential risks of using the site. People must also know that regardless of how inaccurate these judgments turn out to be, they continue to be made. The problem is the illusion of control that everyone assumes we have over our own Facebook accounts, and how we could always directly prevent situations that befall those unfortunate few. Of course, to the extent that we do have control, we should exercise it by posting content with an awareness for potential consequences, refraining from extending friendship invites to everyone and their mother, and putting friends in ‘lists’ to which reasonably differentiated privacy settings are applied.
However, complications arise at each step of this process that neither academic researchers nor policymakers seem equipped enough to handle. It is widely believed that Facebook became popular because it took less time and effort for people to communicate with each other when they wanted to (see Baron 2007, for instance). But in order for them to place people into lists, this time and effort would need to be increased, particularly with a large, unlisted, existing pool of friends. (Incidentally, Google’s “Circles” innovation, Google Plus’s raison d’être, seems to show the benefits of starting from scratch with an organizational schema like this, but switching to Google Plus would also require more time and effort.)
The most popular solution has simply been to educate people about the risks associated with Facebook use, and certainly, that measure should still be taken. But even in those places where the issue has been over-saturated, incidents such as those mentioned above are still prone to exist. They may arise because Facebook changes its privacy settings, forcing every user to re-visit any and all hard work they already put into cultivating their relationships with the proper viewing privileges (do I want everyone to see my cover photo as well as my profile picture with Timeline?). They may arise because apps that we use are becoming more precocious and hold their services at ransom to us, the payment being the publishing rights to our walls (can I really not play Words with Friends without having everyone see how nerdy I am?).
But mostly, they may arise because of our Facebook friends.
Numerous academic studies assume that because we can control who we are friends with, we can thereby control the content of their posts (most recently in Chou & Edge 2012). These studies are not in touch with the realities of social pressure, both on and offline. Can we control who we are Facebook friends with? Probably not. We confirm Facebook friends all the time to avoid unpleasant situations, such as the one where an office neighbor asks why I have not confirmed his friend request yet. And can we truly censor the content of their posts? Technically, we can with a delete command. But realistically, we cannot because the post may have already received a number of likes and comments from people who knew it was there and would notice its disappearance. And even if they had not noticed, the original poster certainly would have.
In this way, Facebook is even worse than real life. Nowhere in real life do one’s friends make such a consistent and indelible impression on how that person is viewed by others. And it is bad enough when it is a Facebook friend who is judging you, but when it is a school, an office, or even the government, the consequences tend to be much more dire.
Clearly, the whole story is not being told unless it is mentioned that interactions with your Facebook friends can also provide numerous benefits, from social support to an awareness of news and events in the world around you. But in no way do these interactions need to be public to be effective. Facebook users should be able to decide more efficiently which of their wall content gets to be viewed publicly.
We have passed the point where Facebook profiles are generally considered private. That point continues to recede into the distance as Facebook inspires more and more public displays and invites more and more public organizations to interact with its members. And while the culture surrounding Facebook use has changed to one that accepts ‘going public,’ that acceptance is not often accompanied by excitement but with resignation.
Because every day we give ourselves over to Facebook is another day that our characters may be soiled by an errant post, video, image or behavior that receives a little too much publicity.