Thoughts on Social Media and “Common Sense”

Over the last few months, I’ve been paying attention a lot more to Facebook. Or rather, paying attention to the kind of information and comments that are published via Facebook.

In many ways, Facebook is micro-blogging, and it provides easier access to a network much larger and more accessible than LiveJournal and Xanga (remember those?).

I can’t remember exactly when I joined Facebook, but I think it was during the spring/summer of 2004. I’d heard about it when I was an undergrad student at Carolina, but I was more focused on my studies and my “LJ” friends. And now, about six years later or so, my “network” has expanded to include more than 900 people. Yes, I know or have met just about all of them. At times, I have had a couple “friends” whom I hadn’t met personally, but they were friends of trusted friends. In fact, I prefer to refer to my Facebook friends as “connections,” as admittedly, I don’t have 900 best/close friends. (Who does?!)

While 900+ may seem like a lot, it’s really just evidence of the many intersections I’ve crossed in my lifetime. My connections include classmates from K-12 schools, a few from my undergrad (remember, Facebook hadn’t yet hit the stratosphere), some from grad school, some colleagues, some from the large-scale events I’ve worked on in the past, and others I’ve met within the deaf community—cuers, signers, and oralists, as well as interpreters and transliterators.

Now, the Deaf community is relatively small, and the interpreting community even smaller. Consequently, if you click on a friend of mine who is deaf or an interpreter, chances are, we have a whole number of friends in common. Which means one thing… opportunity to annoy someone without realizing it. We all have our opinions, and we all have our secret desires. We also all have our breaking points.

But no matter what is going on in our lives, we all need to remember one thing:

Facebook is BOTH private AND public. It doesn’t matter whether your wall is restricted to your friends (connections). People talk. And repeat things both online and offline. (“Oooh! Did you hear what so-and-so said/did the other day?”)

Several weeks ago, a member of the school board in a small town in Arkansas came under fire for posting a status message on Facebook. On his personal Facebook page, Midland board member Clint McCance posted the following about the social media effort for people to wear purple in honor of the young adults who committed suicide:

“Seriously they want me to wear purple because five queers killed themselves. The only way im wearin it for them is if they all commit suicide. I cant believe the people of this world have gotten this stupid. We are honoring the fact that they sinned and killed thereselves because of their sin. REALLY PEOPLE.”

How did this status become public knowledge beyond the “confines” of his wall? Easy – someone saw it and reported it to the Advocate. (Read the full story.)

Did many people agree with Mr. McCance? No. Did he have the right to share his personal beliefs and opinions? Yes. Were his comments inflammatory? Absolutely. Did he think about the possible consequences of posting that kind of comment on Facebook? Clearly not. He resigned from the school board after several days of public, national outrage.

I hate to say it, but nothing he said was libelous. The only person he truly hurt was himself and, by extension, his family. But would his comments have “gone viral” if someone hadn’t taken a screenshot of his Facebook page and sent it to the Advocate? Would his views on homosexuality have been viewed the same way if the suicides completed over the previous month hadn’t made the national news?

Who knows?

The First Amendment today is not the same First Amendment as passed by Congress in 1791. The words are the same:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

What is different today is the power of the Press, and the Press now includes contributors to the blogosphere, including social media.

No longer are we bound to weekly newspapers in which the news is wired by telegraph to news offices. No longer are we waiting for the 6 o’clock news to find out what happened around the world. In today’s age of technology and social media, we are inundated—perhaps overwhelmed—with news. The news is appalling, sad, exciting, disappointing, and hopeful. And, today, I think that many of us are even more skeptical of news than ever before.

The reason we’re so skeptical? Social media. Facebook. Twitter. Outlets that report “breaking” news before they may have been fully researched and confirmed to be true by an independent entity or an official with permission to verify and/or deny the news. Lately more news outlets seem to be rushing to release “breaking news” before the information is independently verified. And individuals are using Facebook to “report” news as well.

Case in point: A well-renowned interpreter, Alan Champion, who is part of the NYC Broadway scene, was “reported” dead by someone who posted that “fact” on Facebook. That interpreter? Not dead (though he is battling cancer). But he and others have a great sense of humor, decided to make fun of it and created a video response to it. And then posted it on Facebook!

In short, we all have the ability to link to news stories and videos provided by CNN, Fox News, The Washington Post, the New York Times, the BBC, People magazine, Al Jazeera, and more. We also have the ability to inform others, whether correctly or not, of personal news, like someone’s death (or not).

This means that Facebook has provided us with ready access to news and events in all parts of the world that we otherwise might be ignorant of. Is that a good thing? I think so. I’ve come across some fascinating news stories, learned about the deaths and other life experiences of former classmates, teachers, etc., thanks to any one of my 900+ connections . Some news tidbits are interesting, some appalling, and some disappointing. But the ones I share with my connections I think are either newsworthy or of interest to some of them.

I’m also careful about what I say on Facebook. I am actually not that prolific a status updater. I think I actually share more links than I do statuses about what I’m “thinking” or what I’m doing (or have done). Part of that is really an attempt to stay private in a public world.

Have you ever thought about what you’re really posting on Facebook for all YOUR friends/connections to see? Have you considered whether your statuses might be shared with others? After all, we don’t tell our parents everything, right? Our bosses? Colleagues? Would you want a stranger on the street to know personal information about you? I’m not endorsing self-censorship here; just a reminder to think about what you share about yourself (and others).

The moral of this blog? Using social media requires a bit of thinking. 😉

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