Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Facebook: a warning

The national press has picked up on the Facebook, a website known to all Cambridge undergraduates as somewhere to promote themselves by listing their vast numbers of friends, share photographs of their wide and varied social life, and display their interesting quirky character by listing the different groups and societies they have formed -- most of them only virtual and existing for the sole purpose of making a public display of inventive humour and free-thinking wit. This is, of course, all well and good to a point but -- as the Guardian article makes clear -- the content is not always written with the clear thought in mind that it is a very public forum. In particular, jokes or criticisms aimed at members of staff, teaching staff, and other students are public and open to view by the objects of the barbs.
Isn't this an odd sort of doublethink? Clearly, the point of such a forum is that it is a form of organised public display as much as a means of communication. Two students can email each other in a mode which is open only to the two of them should they wish. There is no need for them to post a conversation on their Facebook 'wall' that any passing browser can read. So there is, built into the very nature of the thing, both an openness and also, I think, the pretence of baring oneself to a wide audience. But it is easy to think of it also as a kind of private club, as if these were indeed closed conversations and discreet grumbles that no one but the select and envisaged few can read.
Students ought to be cleverer than this. Some colleges, I know, have already warned their students that Facebook profiles are regularly checked by employers on receipt of a job application. The diligent and committed budding merchant banker can soon blow his cover if the HR department reads about his membership of the 'Brunette appreciation society'. It doesn't matter that, of course, the Facebook is no more a window on the 'real' person than any other form of self-presentation (blogs included). It can and is on occasion treated as such. Those students in Cambridge busy writing lit. crits. for their Classics IB paper on 'Latin letters' might like to wonder how what they say about Pliny's correspondence might be said (mutatis mutandis...) about their own.

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