Why Facebook? Why is Facebook so often in the news and why does it generate so much passion; after all, isn’t it simply a website?
I guess the most obvious response to this question is ‘no, it is not simply a website’. It is a place, a home, an expression of voice, a space to connect and an opportunity to share. As a result, supporters of Facebook guard their right to its use, defending it as ardently as any heavily fortified ‘Castle’. However, with equal valour, others (dwelling in different Castles) seek to dismantle it, or at the very least, impose restrictions on its use. I realise the castle analogy may seem unusual given Facebook’s philosophy of open communication. However I use it here to illustrate how attitudinal walls have created a grand divide between those who understand how to use Facebook, those who think they know how to use Facebook and those who don’t know how to use Facebook.
Today, in the Sydney Morning Herald, Andrew Taylor reported on Ben Self’s suggestion that Facebook (and other forms of social media) may be useful in emergency and disaster situations. According to Self, Facebook offers the opportunity for ‘real-time’ updates that are not restricted by press release rules and time frames (‘The Social Networker’, 28/08/11, p.3 Sunday Extra).
However, even as I type this I can hear the collective outcry of those who suggest social media may have devastating consequences in these same situations, especially when ‘untrained amateurs’ or ‘rubber necking’ glory seekers offer false or misleading information. Of course there is also the danger of being exposed to tragic circumstances involving family members before ‘official notification’ is given. Worse, are the bullies who use Facebook as a means of torture and worse still, are the heartless (faceless) individuals who deface tribute pages.
These arguments are frequently raised (particularly by parents, politicians and school administrators who do not use or understand, Facebook), as evidence that Facebook’s use should be restricted or even banned. But, isn’t this a case of blaming the tool, when really, it is the wielder of the tool? After all, a simple fork (designed as an eating utensil) may become a toy in the hand of a child in a sandpit, or a weapon in the hand of an assailant.
It is with this in mind that I offer two suggestions, one to parents, politicians and school administrators; and the other to the team who administer Facebook.
To parents, politicians and school administrators I reiterate the need for education. Rather than banning Facebook in schools, we should be actively teaching how it is used. We need to teach the responsible use of Facebook in much the same way as we teach the creation and evaluation of media and advertising. Students should be encouraged to be critical responders and composers within the social media sphere so that they may develop a responsible digital profile. It is vital that young people fully appreciate the consequences of their digital actions. They must recognise how their Facebook chat may be perceived by future employers, friends and family. To facilitate this, teachers, administrators and parents should also learn about how to use Facebook responsibly; both in social contexts and more specifically, in an educational sense. As the ‘walls’ shrouding Facebook from the eyes of ‘naive’ ‘digital immigrants’ are torn down, perhaps fear and uncertainty will be dispelled. In the absence of these restricting emotions, the positive uses of social media (such as those raised by Self) may flourish. Facebook may even foster a greater sense of community.
Nevertheless, Facebook administrators must also recognise their responsibilities. While free speech is to be commended; prejudice, cruelty and defamation must not be tolerated. Therefore I would like to see Facebook programmers add a ‘comment moderation’ option to the privacy settings (particularly for Tribute Pages). This would provide page administrators with the opportunity to ‘approve’ comments before they were made ‘public’ (in much the same way as comments on WordPress blogs may be approved before they are posted). Perhaps, since their audience would shrink considerably, this would discourage ‘bullies’ and ‘vandals’.
Of course these suggestions are not new, I simply add my voice to the countless others who seek to work with (rather than against) technology induced changed. I would love to hear what you think.