I was asked recently to comment on the dangers of social networking websites like Facebook. I was reluctant to address the questions for fear the comments would be taken out of context and used in the type of media hype many academics have come to fear. I decided to move forward with the interview and the resulting news story was an acceptable translation of my comments given the context of the news story. Here is a perspective with the luxury of a more considered exposition. First, social networking is a recent phenomenon.
Facebook, which appeared in 2004, is one early effort at supporting social activity on the web. One indication of this is the rapid evolution of the interface as new strategies and techniques are tried, replaced, augmented and dropped. There will be new kinds of social networks that will emerge over the years and with time the flaws and shortcomings of early efforts will be eliminated. The two most important areas in which changes will occur will be security and customs. On the security side, techniques for defining our circle of friends and exposure of information will emerge. They will be simple to understand and implement. Regards customs, we will learn what to say and not say in this new social environment. Stories of stalking, job interviews, embarrassed individuals, arrests, etc. will slowly help each of us to understand what we should and shouldn’t say. A colleague once advised me that if I had something good to say, I should do it in writing and if I had something bad to say, I should deliver it in person orally. What we say at a cocktail party or in a bar is different from what we want to say at a meeting when newspaper reporters are present. It will take time, but we will learn. I recently asked one of my former graduate students if she had gotten married – noting a new last name on her Facebook page. She said no, she was just using a different last name for security reasons. Similarly, I read recently that the best photo for your Facebook page is that of a bald man who is deceased! It may not be particularly helpful for old bald men, but useful for many others.
I will turn to the dangers of Facebook in a second, but let me begin with what I see as some of the positive aspects of this new technology. Over the last fifty years, we have seen the growth of passive media consumption – i.e. TV, radio, music and movies have absorbed a phenomenal amount of our discretionary time. A few years ago, the time spent in passive media use began to decline for young people as they engaged in video games, phone usage, text messaging, and social networking. I take this as a positive sign that we are reengaging our social selves. More importantly, new applications of social media are being experimented with every day. I have been engaged in research on the impact of social networking (simplistically put) to deliver various kinds of educational and support services to various patient groups – e.g. individuals with various forms of cancer, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, etc. The results of the research show strong improvements in traditional medical measures for the groups addressed. You have no doubt seen early efforts at providing care at a distance provided by children for elderly parents. I have no doubt that hundreds of applications will be developed over the coming years that will make use of these new technologies to bring various social groups together.
Ok, I am a believer in social networking and I am convinced that with time, security concerns will be addressed and each of us will develop social etiquette appropriate to the new environment. But the fact of the matter is there are some dangers associated with social networking. As parents of children or as mature adults, we need to pay attention. The first danger is one of time commitment. Television viewing, or video game playing, or texting are not dangers in isolation. It is excessive use that is a danger. We might imagine that each of us has a certain amount of time at our disposal. Alexander Szalai’s study on the use of time is old now, but captures the early impacts of media on our use of time. More recently the Pew research studies on the internet provide informative indications of how our time use patterns are changing. Put simply, I would suggest that we can view social networking, or online shopping, or texting, or video gaming as taking one of three time commitments. The commitment might be reasonable – something like the amount of time we would have spent in other forms of social networking. I would go so far as to say that it might represent a net increase in the time spent socializing, especially if it begins to replace anti-social activities to which we have become addicted. The time commitment could be defined as intrusive if it prevents us from doing some of the things we would normally be expected to do. Personally, I get frustrated when household chores, or professional commitments take second place to social engagement. Finally, we could define the time commitment as disruptive if it becomes our highest priority at the expense of many things we are committed to such as work and family.
The other danger of social networking is over exposure of private information. We have all met people who spend much of their time tweeting or posting on walls. As I stated earlier, some people use pseudonyms to reduce their exposure. Others use avatars or funny photos as personal images. Yet others seem bent on exposing every aspect of their daily life without constraint. In the physical world, we constrain our comments in public in a variety of ways. We don’t talk to an interviewer in the same way we talk with our parents or children. So the second danger of social networking is inappropriate exposure of information. After a half decade, individuals have come to understand that Facebook pages are not only viewed by those for whom they are intended, but by a number of other people. There are two ways to deal with the issue of exposure. First is to very tightly control access to the information we post. Thus a social networking site that is restricted to a tightly controlled group – e.g. family members – allows us the freedom to say what we want knowing it is being viewed by only a select few. But for many this kind of social networking site is not exactly what they envisioned. Many people want to use these sites to gather together friends and casual acquaintances. In this case, it is important that people understand that those who can view what we post include four groups – those for whom we intended it (friends at college), others for whom it was not intended but who are welcome (our cousins), those for whom it was not intended but who represent no active threat (parents, police, potential employers), and those for whom it was not intended and who represent active threats (identity thieves, stalkers, etc.). We need to learn to write and post conservatively or in highly controlled groups.