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Facebook–Where Everyone Knows Your Name May 6, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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34 comments

An Indiana woman’s home was burglarized recently, while she was at a concert. The culprits turned out to be Facebook “friends”;  she had announced, online,  that she’d be at the concert. With friends like that, we surely don’t need any enemies, as the old saying goes.  Facebook, along with MySpace and Twitter, is one of the institutions in which a generation may see itself mirrored and reach self-comprehension, and it is a fascinating phenomenon, socially, psychologically and philosophically. Most of my students, and most of my friends’ kids, have Facebook pages, and I see the amazing accumulation of “friends” displayed on their sites—in some cases thousands.  I think it probably compares to “counting coup” in the Old West, a new form of collection mania, or transition rites of adolescence (such as collecting phone numbers that you’ll never, ever call—as if they’re proofs of friendship). I assume that everybody knows this is just a new term for temporary, occasional contacts, and not genuine friends, but even so, words are seductive, and some of these contacts get to know a wealth of details about each other that I (coming from a different time and place—I’m kind of a time traveler. We all are, the older we get) would reserve for perhaps only two or three people in my entire life. A friend, to me, is someone who you do activities with (according to Deborah Tannen: the male friendship model), and/or talk about big and small things with (Tannen: the female model), or both. It doesn’t have to involve proximity: a friend can be a good friend, even if you don’t see them for years.  Online/phone contact makes up for physical presence in many of our current friendships. On the other hand, people you see every day and deal with on a superficial level, are acquaintances, not friends. So I am not a big fan of the friending phenomenon online, or the social websites where some people spend part of their social life—perhaps even all of it.

However, I, too, have a Facebook page, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing personal on it, on or behind the Wall. I don’t check it very often, because I don’t maintain it to accumulate friends. From time to time I get “friend” requests from strangers, and I ignore them. But quite often I get such requests from students—former and present. I appreciate the (presumably) amicable intent, and I don’t want to seem rude and alienate nice people—but on the other hand, sharing personal information with students  is downright unprofessional for an instructor, and may even be construed as professionally unethical:  are you more “friends” with students on your Facebook page than with the students who aren’t on your “friends” list? That could lead to the suspicion of preferential treatment of some students. In addition, it may in some cases invite trouble: some people can’t tell the difference between a real Friend and a Facebook contact, and they don’t know where the line should be drawn. So I don’t add anyone as a friend who is not either a real old face-to-face friend or a colleague I know personally, and on my page I state specifically that I don’t add students as friends.

But this issue goes way beyond such personal choices in changing times: it illustrates the new questions arising about how much and when to make oneself available to friends, to students, colleagues, teachers, and the world in general—because this is not an innocent world. Years ago, when I was the same age as students now collecting friends on Facebook, we loved Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan books, about the old brujo teaching the young anthropologist the secrets of power (as some of us suspected, most of those books were, shall we say, fantasies rather than actual anthropological reporting). One ground rule was, loosely paraphrased, Don’t give away too much information about yourself. The more you spread your information out there, the less control you have over your life. Now Carlos wanted to use this rule for a deeper understanding and use of the powers of the mind, but I’d say that it is a pretty good rule to bring back in these days when privacy is becoming a thing of the past. Our intimate information will soon be out there, anyway, whether it be through ubiquitous webcams, health records online, tax records online, or other means. And enterprising people—with or without political and legal legitimacy—will be able to mine all that information for power and profit. It is already happening. Why add to it by sharing details about your life, simply for narcissistic reasons? Facebook is being challenged by U.S. lawmakers as to changes in its privacy policy, which would allow  Facebook members other than your friends to access personal information about you—but even if Facebook restricts the access to “Friends,” it would not be much of a protection, when people add “friends” indiscriminately as a form of collecting trophies, and share details about their lives with untold strangers because it feels good. In addition, the phenomenon of phishing is getting increasingly sophisticated. This excerpt comes from a blogger who is a regular user of Facebook, Dan Tynan from ITWorld:

I still have a dozen other group invitations from various friends. I don’t trust any of them now. I don’t even want to click “ignore” on the odd chance it will somehow corrupt my account and spam all 700-odd people in my FB posse. So this spam attack has effectively killed that feature for me. And if spammers can manipulate Facebook’s group recommendations that easily, imagine what they could do to Facebook’s plan to butter “Like” buttons all over the Web.

We’ll see much more of this erosion of privacy in the future. So your old Professor Cautious recommends: think twice before you share your personal information with selected friends and accumulated strangers on Facebook and elsewhere in Cyberspace…

PS  The latest development from The Atlantic: The Facebook Privacy Wars Heat Up.

PPS May 11: In case you were in doubt: here’s what’s been going on since December, according to Wired Epicenter (long and informative article):

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