Spreading like wildfire...down a slippery slope
I remember back in early 2004 sitting in my friend's basement after school one day when she turned away from her laptop to me to ask: "Does your school have a facebook?" At that point I had no idea what the facebook was or what it was all about. I decided to check it out and noticed that it seemed to be limited to a couple east coast schools so I quickly lost all interest. I remember thinking it was a good idea, an opportunity for people to learn a little about the people that they would be living with when they went to school. It seemed like nothing more than a freshman year name game type of thing...I guess I was wrong.
Flash forward 6 months or so. I happened to overhear someone talking in the dorms about the facebook and decided I might as well give it a whirl. I didn't really put much information in it. It seemed like a waste of my time to sit there and type about myself when I could be out meeting real live people (and it still seems that way). Over the year I would add a little tidbit about music or movies here and there but never anything I wouldn't tell someone upon meeting them for the first time. My experience with facebook was rather uneventful. That didn't last long.
Towards the end of my freshman year, when I was admittedly young and stupid, a couple of my friends and I (all engineering students) found ourselves discussing the problems often encountered when using a beer bong (again, young and stupid). We concocted a plan over lunch that day for a beer bong that used basic laws of density to automatically filter out and recycle foam. We built this contraption and one of my friends decided that there needed to be a facebook group dedicated to this feat of modern dorm room engineering.
That was where things went terribly wrong.
The picture that was used for the group showed the device hanging in front of a dorm window. Hall management caught wind of this and decided to use it as grounds for a punishment. Now this group never said anything about drinking, the tubes were empty in the picture and there was nothing to suggest we used this contraption in the dorms. Over the course of the next couple weeks I was informed to remove evidence of Frontier Hall from the picture so I changed the background of the image...to a different window. Ultimately, I was told that the group had to be taken off of the facebook all together.
I could live with being punished for being stupid and building that thing in the dorms but the thought being told what I could and could not do in a medium that is completely unaffiliated with the U infuriated me. I used the group as a means to voice my opinion about Housing and Residential Life's ability to punish me for what I say on the internet. About a month later and after exchanging some nasty letters with upper management I stopped hearing anything from HRL. To this day I was never informed what decisions were made and put on my housing record but I digress.
Sorry for the long-winded anecdote however I think this story touches on most of issues we are discussing this week.
First, my friends and I were careless about the information we divulged about ourselves in this community. We did something stupid and then decided to tell the world about it. Low and behold it came back to bite us in the end.
From here we dive into the sticky subject of policy based internet information, which is (ironically) a very slippery slope. The majority of the trouble I had to deal with as a result of this incident was a result of challenging unwritten policy. It could be policy that students remove association with the University when they portray themselves doing unsavory things but at what point do we draw the line? How do we deal with the fact there's no way to know how much of this activity is being caught? And the ultimate question, can we tell people what they can and cannot say at all?
Facebook gave me a way to deal with problems like this. Now, anyone who is not my "friend" gets a very limited view of me if anything at all. I think this is a feature that goes overlooked by many using the service. People can't be surprised when they open their life to the world if someone the don't quite expect finds out about it. I think facebook has done a good job of protecting privacy by providing the user with the tools to do what they are comfortable with.
I really like the Cornell policy on the facebook. They embrace the open nature of the internet and furthermore use it as a means of encouragement to students to think about what they post. They touch on the subject of freedom of speech and acknowledge the fact that there is really no implied freedom on private networks. They can tell you what you can and cannot do. However again they embrace the free flow of information as a tool that can be used for good and/or evil if you will.
It all boils down to the fact that the internet is the largest and longest running jury trial ever argued. Everybody involved is a defendant, a prosecutor, and a juror. Ultimately what you do will be judged by your peers (in the broad sense of internet users). If they find you guilty, chances are you did something wrong and therefore have to deal with the consequences. The only way to avoid scrutiny is to keep a clean nose. (Bob Dylan's words seem to fit well.)