I am an enthusiastic user of social media. I find Facebook and Twitter wonderful vehicles for getting and staying in touch with others, whether people from my past with whom I'd lost touch, or people I've come to know via electronic media, or just folks close by, getting an insight in to who they are apart from our regular encounters. All the same, I am aware of the medium's many faults and limitations, not the least of them the possibility that one gets a false impression of who all those "friends" are on the other side of the digital veil. Just as I assume the persona that others encounter when they read my tweets and status updates shows only a glimpse of a facet of who I am, I never believe I "know" those whose statuses I read. I assume I am getting a tiny hint, perhaps, of a deep passion for poetry, say; perhaps a secret love for painting or auto racing; even several years of Facebook statuses would fail to give me any interesting insight in to who the people I encounter there are.
At best, I might hope for the surprise that the rough-and-tumble, tattooed military vet has a soft spot for all those sickeningly sweet kitten pictures that float around the internet; perhaps I might find out that the young woman who seems so upright and devout also enjoys letting her hair down, rocking out with Stoly and dancing the night away at various watering holes. Not one to judge others, I find these insights more fascinating than anything as all of us do the grunt work of negotiating with others and determining for ourselves who we are.
I am also amused by the steady trickle of complaints about various policies Facebook implements. When they switched over their homepage format to "The Timeline", I sat and chuckled, reading all the people who posted what amounted to one long whine that Facebook might dare change without consulting them. Personally, I like the timeline format, finding it, if nothing else, an easy way of differentiating one's homepage from the usual news feed.
Then, there are the complaints that Facebook, as a corporation, might dare use information it gleans from our posts and clicks-through on ads both to target advertising to users as well as to create data that marketing firms and others might use in their research. How dare they! A corporation acting like . . . a corporation! I have to laugh out loud (for real, not LOL!) when people couch their protests at such indignities in the name of privacy.
If you have any expectation of privacy, or object to anyone using any image, word, sound, or other content put up on the internet without any express consent, my advice is simple enough: Get off it.
If you don't want people knowing you have a secret passion for porn, don't sign in to those websites using your Facebook account. If you're having an extra-marital affair, don't put pictures of you and your hoped-for future trophy wife frolicking in Cabo on Flickr. If you don't want your neighbors to know you drain a twelve-pack of beer every day, don't tweet, "Well, another platoon has fallen."
In other words, use some common sense. I have nothing against people who check out porn, or who carry on with those with whom they're not married, or anything else. If you do those things, then use the internet to communicate things about them, don't sit and bitch when this stuff suddenly becomes well known because it's your own fault.
Furthermore, while I agree to a point with Rob Horning's many articles and essays on the manipulative aspects of social media, I also believe he overdetermines it all just a bit. Were our identities so fragile that we were little more than the sum total of our status updates or photos or likes or tweets, we would be pitiable indeed. If true, how would it be possible to mourn such a state because there would be no access to a place outside from which to bewail such a diluted, inhuman reality. The fact is, social media are only as powerful and determinate as we allow them to be. Both individually and collectively, we need to exercise not only common sense and restraint, but a sense of proportion when it comes to how we use these marvelous tools for communicating. They are just tools, for all they give us access to other people and information about the world and a variety of ideas and thoughts and perspectives.
They are also borrowed tools. Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Google +, Flickr, and other social media are not ours; we use them under the terms set by those who do own and operate them. As such, the control over information we place on them disappears because the information ceases to be ours once it is up there.
Which brings me to a larger point. For all that the internet has created opportunities for people to collect and disseminate all sorts of information, the best part of the internet still seems to elude so many of its users. Once stuff is up here, it's up here forever. Anyone, anywhere, at any time in to the distant future has access to it. Whether it's a photomontage of your vacation to Paris or the love letters you've emailed to the next door neighbor, letting him know your husband has left for work and he can come over for some nooky, it's all there and no amount of pressing "delete" makes it go away. If someone wants to access it, they can and probably will. You don't want anyone to know about the fling with the dude next door? Don't use the internet to communicate about it! You don't want people to find out you're not quite as holy or unholy or bad or good or straight or gay as they might think you are? Then I suggest you don't post material on the internet that might lead them to discover this is the case.
A while back, I posted about my awe at how ignorant some people are about things on the internet. A gentleman from South Carolina had verbally attacked Sandra Fluke, then became enraged when those tweets were shared on various websites. He threatened legal action. He was one of far too many people who have not quite understood that the internet is a public forum. All those folks bitching about Facebook don't quite get it, either. Or, perhaps, their own sense of themselves is so fragile, they fear what others might think of them should some deep dark secret about them suddenly receive a blinding glare of light. Either way, I have only one wish.
Please, for crying out loud, remember where you are. Use some sense. Don't create a situation wherein you feel vulnerable because something you wanted kept private becomes public knowledge.