Just a few years ago social networking was primarily a past time for dramatic preteens, garage bands, and spammers, but more recently an older demographic has been drawn to sites like Facebook and Twitter, altering the landscape of these social worlds and normalizing to some extent the disclosure of personal information online. One challenge of this new technology has been the balance between privacy and public disclosure. At this point, most of us have heard the horror stories of people who posted something foolish or offensive on their Facebook page only to be fired by a boss who stumbled across it.
While I think we should all consider our jobs when we post things online, there are other layers of privacy concerns that I think are important for us to reflect on as our society moves online. Not only should we ask, “could I get in trouble for posting this picture”? but also, “why am I posting this picture?” and “is it good for other people to see this side of me?” In other words, we should not let the fact that we can broadcast our lives lead us to think that we should. That said, Facebook and other social sites do provide a unique and potentially meaningful way to communicate with family and friends. Our task becomes figuring out how to balance our privacy and communication.
First, I think it is important to note some of the less talked about pitfalls of social networking. The case is often made that these networks lead to or feed our pride and vanity, since we are essentially advertising or marketing ourselves to the world. And while this argument is fairly old by now, I believe it is still a warning that most of us (myself included) would do well to hear. Facebook is designed to allow us to define, describe, and announce ourselves to our friends, family, and the general public. If we choose to use a social networking site, it is important that we recognize the effect of the design and take steps to counter it, so that we do not give in to flagrant self-promotion.
Another danger is the feeling of pseudo-anonymity that these sites give us. They appear to allow us a safe way to proclaim our beliefs, opinions, and feelings without seriously offending anyone or getting into lengthy arguments. Whether it’s viciously denouncing the opposing political party, mocking some belief system, or proudly trumpeting our own, social networks present us with many great opportunities to arrogantly promote our beliefs without ever engaging in meaningful dialogue with our friends (online or otherwise). Thathast is not to say that one can’t share his or her thoughts or opinions online, but merely to point out that social networking sites tend to foster idea promotion, not dialogue.
Finally, social networking sites can trivialize our memories and experiences by undiscriminatingly displaying them for all our friends, and perhaps even the Internet public in general to see. This issue came to life for me when my wife and I started thinking about how we will share photos and videos of our children once we start a family. On the one hand Facebook will allow us to easily share important moments in our child’s life with our family and friends without the hassel of sending an email attachment, but on the other hand, by posting a picture or video of him or her online we will be essentially establishing their online presence without his or her consent. In addition, the tendency to share all our significant experiences and memories online can trivilize them by shifting the focus from the experience or memory itself, to the act of sharing them. There is a fine line here, but I believe there is some cause for concern when we find it acceptable and good to look at the family vacation photos of some distant aquantance of ours online, or when we feel the desire to share our own with the world.
I do not want to suggest that there is a decisively “Christian” level of privacy that we must adhere to in our Twitter or Facebook posts, but I would like to propose a series of questions which can help us think critically about our online presence:
1. Why am I posting this? A quick motivation check is usually more than enough for me to be able to tell when I am posting a status update to make myself look good or when I’m actually trying to share some thought with my friends.
2. Would I say this to a room full of my friends and family? Would I show them this picture? Asking these questions is a good way to challenge the temptation to make arrogant, flippant statements online. Assuming that all my friends and family read this, how might they react? Will this needlessly offend them? How will my non-Christian friends react?
3. Why should I share this memory? Sharing memories is an essential part of human existence, but that does not mean that all sharing is good. Photo sharing sites like Flickr encourage us to post all our photos online, leading to the mindset that our first impulse should be to post our information and media and only remove it if we have a specific concern. But understanding that once you post a picture, video, or note online it’s likely to be out there forever, perhaps our impulse ought to be not to share unless we have a good reason to.
Thankfully, most of the social networking sites have developed practical ways to help you balance your privacy with your desire to share. One way you can share photos online without exposing all your family memories to the world is to use different sites for different groups of friends. For example, when my wife and I have our first child, we will probably use a passworded Flickr to share pictures with our close family and our Facebook accounts to post a few choice photos of the little one with the rest of our friends. This will allow us some privacy will still using the benefits of the social networks.
Recently, Facebook has implimented some very extensive privacy options. Under the Privacy link on the Settings tab, you can select your profile, and choose not only which groups of people may see which types of posts you make, but you can also exclude individual people. This feature might sound like a hassle, but properly used, it can make Facebook a much more useful platform.
As with socializing in the “real world,” there is not pat answer or simple solution to the difficulties of social networking. Each relationship and scenario will dictate its own kind of appropriate communication and interaction. This requires that we are willing to consider the effects of our words and actions online, rather than accepting the increasingly common idea that our private lives are merely the juicier secrets we share online.