In chapter ten of The Facebook Effect, David Kirkpatrick attempts to illuminate the complex position Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook take on privacy, as well as the backlash to their campaign for complete social openness. Kirckpatrick opens with the question, “How much of ourselves should we show the world” (199)? This question is based on the common perception and traditionally held belief that we have multiple identities that vary depending on the social context. How we behave, how we dress, the jokes we make, and what we generally think is appropriate may change depending on where we are and who we are with. For example, you might tell a risqué joke amongst friends, but would consider it completely inappropriate to tell it in the workplace.
Zuckerberg and Facebook, on the other hand, take the position that “you have one identity” and that the way we might split up our identities is an “example of a lack of integrity” (199). Their purpose is at least in part driven by a moralistic agenda which believes that “by openly acknowledging who we are and behaving consistently among all our friends, we will help create a healthier society” (200). But I really wonder if more information really equates to a healthier society. Important questions arise; such as does the fear of persecution just stifle expression, or promote the most reserved and agreeable self to be expressed? As Kirkpatrick notes, “the path to more openness is already strewn with victims whose privacy was unwillingly removed” (200). Even if an increased openness and the proliferation of personal information does lead to a more open and accepting society, the forced route Facebook seems to want to promote ensures many people will fall to the social and professional sword before we decide we can’t judge people so harshly. When I think of the collapse of social circles and the “radical transparency” Facebook promotes, I cannot help but think of The Death of Independent George and what that essential concept, on an exponential scale, means for all of us. After all, a George divided against itself cannot stand.
Another issue is that while Facebook does advocate a social responsibility to openness and integrity it is not, as Marc Rotenberg notes, “very transparent about what it does with our information” (201). Furthermore, Facebook’s privacy controls are quite complicated and seem to encourage (almost forcing less tech savvy individuals) to, unwittingly, share more information than they may be comfortable with. As people continue living more and more of their lives online, doing business online, socializing, and playing games it could be argued that Facebook and other social media sites are going back to the dynamics of “small-town life, where everybody knows your business” (204). That is an interesting thought to ponder. Kirkpatrick illuminates several examples of how this increased access to other people’s information is socially jarring. The example of employers not hiring potential employees after seeing pictures of them drinking is a common one. The simple fact is that it’s not like their employees haven’t always been drinking or living lives not directly in line with their professional image, it’s that we aren’t used to seeing all of it all of the time and that we haven’t found a way as a society to negotiate the increased accessibility of information—both from the posting and the viewing perspective.
Ultimately, Facebook’s belief that “more transparency should make for a more tolerant society in which people eventually accept that everybody sometimes does bad or embarrassing things” (211) may be true, we definitely aren’t at that point yet and people need to be very aware of the potential consequences of what they post online and carefully make the decision of whether or not to do so. And when it comes to Facebook, do your part to make sure you understand your privacy settings.
On a side note: Kirkpatrick starts a sentence with “From time immemorial,” (214) and he definitely loses points for that.
Kirkpatrick, David. The Facebook Effect. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. Print. (link to abstract).