Facebook, Bullet Not Dodged Yet (Part Deux)

In June, I blogged about the dreaded question (for parents of teenagers): “Mom, can I have a Facebook profile?”  At the time, we talked about its benefits and drawbacks.  On the one hand, it’s a gateway to socializing that she had been missing given her late birthday.  Different sports leagues had Facebook groups, perhaps she needed to join, and other activities would as well.  On the other hand, her privacy and reputation could be jeopardized, by her own hand or her “friends.”  Facebook’s privacy settings are notoriously whimsical, and more importantly as Steve Bellovin’s work shows notoriously misunderstood–setting up an account was indeed a game of chance, or as Bob Keller notes, like giving your kid a pipe of crystal meth.  We gave our thirteen year old kid the choice and told her to talk to us when she was ready to get started.  The summer came and went and all was quiet.  So now, a good five months later and a good five months wiser, my kid has decided that she wants to think about getting a Facebook page again.  And the conversation went something like this (she did all of the talking):  So I’m feeling excited about this.  Facebook would let me stay in touch with my sleep-away camp friends who live all over the place and I could friend kids that I meet from other schools in the area, at games, mixers, etc.  And I am jazzed about this new close friends feature that everyone’s been talking about.  This way I can share photographs only with my five best pals and I don’t have to worry.  (Pause).  But, I really want to friend the kids from camp and want them to see what I am up to, so this close friends feature may not work.  And what if those camp friends have weird friends or end up being strange themselves.  I can’t de-friend them, can I and still pal around at camp?  And I don’t want other people making judgments about me based on what those not-so-close friends are up to?  Will colleges see what I am doing, when it comes time?  And what if someone goes on my close friend’s computer and copy and pastes my silly remarks and it goes viral, like the Friday girl who ended up getting death threats and harassed.  Can I put up my favorite artists?  I definitely can say I like the Beatles and Elton John, but can I say Kesha?  Will people think I am appropriate if I put Kesha down or Katy Perry?  Some of their songs are, err, a little inappropriate.

After all of that, my kid said she needed to think about it, it all seemed so, well, complicated.  That seemed just the right word: complicated.  But the question seems even more tricky now than it did in June.  Who is she doing this for?  Taking cues from Erving Goffman, life is a performance.  Some of it is just for you–a way to develop oneself, experiment, play, and figure out who you are as much as who you are not.  Much of it is for others.  We perform different roles for the people in our lives: friends, parents, co-workers, coach, priest/imam/rabbi, acquaintances, and strangers.  Some performances are oppressive: we cover or pass as best we can in the face of stigma and prejudice.  And we perform at a time of extensive social and political surveillance.  We feel watched, and for good reason.  Companies give us social influence scores.  Employers, marketers, and businesses use those scores to benefit some, leaving others less favored and less fortunate.  Maybe we perform online for them?  Colleges look at social media profiles.  (danah boyd has a great piece about a question a college asked her about a student’s MySpace page, which seemingly contradicted his college essay.)  Do young people perform for them?  At the same time, government monitors our online presence, searching for threats to critical infrastructure and the like.  Government 2.0 social media sites may be keeping track of the stories we like, the friends we make, and pictures we post.  Who knows?  Agencies aren’t promising not to watch us, so maybe being careful is smart.  Are we performing for fusion centers and our government social media friends?  All of this watching brings to mind Julie Cohen’s book Configuring the Networked Self: Law, Code, and the Play of Everyday Practice (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2011, see her talk here)–more on that in early 2012 in our online symposium on the book.  Navigating those questions every time one posts on Facebook is bewildering, especially because we can’t really control what happens to the information posted there.  A commentator on my previous post basically said that I had better get a grip on reality, that nothing I did or said could influence what she did and she would hate me anyway.  I guess we just fundamentally disagree.  Parenting is a huge responsibility, and lots of what my kid is mulling comes from long, long conversations we have had about being a responsible and smart digital citizen.  I am looking forward to talking it through again, once she has a better idea of what she wants to do.

P.S. Sorry about the light blogging, working on my first book on cyber mobs and hate (forthcoming Harvard University Press).

H/T Susan McCarty (who helped me find the db piece) , JJC

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5 Responses

  1. Ken Rhodes says:

    The following is a vast oversimplification, but it surely contains a valid caution. (And we tend to get more cautious as we get older, and more experienced with the myriad ways life can bite us on the butt.)

    “The friend of my friend is my friend” is the essential basis of Facebook, and of the concept of “social networking” underlying lots of similar on-line functions these days. But that cliche states that friendship is transitive, which it surely is not. Yes, I know that “friendship” in the Facebook sense is not the meaningful concept of “friendship” we use in the real world, but my point is still the same. It isn’t transitive in the real world, and making it transitive on-line opens us up to risks beyond any we imagine.

  2. PrometheeFeu says:

    I think there is a lot less to worry about than what is commonly believed. Everyone has embarrassing aspects of their lives which are now available online for everyone to see. You can do some risk management by carefully choosing who you “friend”, having multiple online identities for different purposes etc, but the best approach is to be ready for the time when something on your Facebook page comes back to “haunt” you because it will. When that time comes, you can figure it out. Sure, it might push you a little down the list for a job or a college, but it’s unlikely to make or break an application if you are otherwise a great candidate. That’s what introspection and personal experience tell me.

    My opinion is that if your daughter is asking herself those questions, she is ready for Facebook. Also remember that in the vast majority of cases, if something you don’t like goes online, you can have it taken down. I’m not speaking about legal rights, I’m just speaking about the fact that a nicely worded email usually results in a blurried face or a simple removal of the incriminating material.

  3. Really appreciate your thoughts, both.

  4. Heidi Anderson says:

    Ah, yes, the familiar WWHT (“What Will Harvard Think?”) debate… What colleges will think matters greatly, I suppose, but it hopefully will matter less with the passage of time, i.e., when today’s 13 y.o. quasi-carefree Facebook user becomes tomorrow’s college admissions staff person. Until then, perhaps the WWHT reason alone should deter today’s forward-looking and risk averse teens from joining and using Facebook. Kudos to you for encouraging your daughter to think about the issue in that costs-versus-benefits fashion.

    p.s. I can’t help but wonder…did you ask her permission to blog about this? Does she know about this blog? Do her friends? I’m not trying to pry, of course. I’m just wondering if there’s any potential irony in sharing the precise details of a somewhat intimate conversation with one’s daughter as part of an open blog discussion regarding whether said daughter should be permitted to blog about the intimate details of her life (given that Facebook really is just a blog with more user friendly features and links between your FaceBlog and others’ FaceBlogs).

  5. Danielle Citron says:

    I’m hoping that PrometheeFeu and Heidi are right, that in the fullness of time, it won’t matter. Permission granted, indeed.