Social Networking Sites and Social Theory
I personally don’t have a Facebook page, a “random thing” about me that increasingly places me in the minority. I’m sure that there are great benefits to having a page on a social networking site, and who knows, maybe someday I will. For now, though, I am okay with old-fashioned socializing.
Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking uses of the internet can dissolve the boundary between our public and private selves. As many posts on this blog reference, sociologist Erving Goffman's "front stage" and "back stage" concepts have been a useful way to understand social life. Goffman wrote in 1959 of how we keep certain information private, part of the process of impression management.
The internet in general and social networking sites in particular have blurred the distinction between front and back stage, something that some social theorists would argue is a feature of postmodernity. In a postmodern society, binaries (like public and private) merge and cannot be clearly separated.
Some people seem completely comfortable divulging extremely personal information on blogs and home pages. Perhaps because of our fascination with the private lives of celebrities, letting others in on personal information may seem very normal. It’s also a way of creating a sense of identity—having lots of online “friends,” announcing one’s relationship status and posting snapshots are ways of making statements about who we are. Descartes, the seventeenth century French philosopher famously said, “I think therefore I am;” we might now amend that to “I’m online therefore I am.”
Not everyone wants all of their information freely circulating. Facebook users created a petition protesting the site’s use of their other online behavior, like shopping, and there has been debate about who actually owns the information posted on the site.
Sometimes people don’t realize that electronic information they might think is private can become public very quickly. As Janis Prince Inniss blogged about last year, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s steamy text messages revealed an affair and led to his resignation. Dean Grose, the mayor of a town in Orange County, California, sent an e-mail to friends depicting the White House surrounded by a watermelon patch. One of the recipients was outraged and made the e-mail public, leading to nationwide scorn and Grose’s resignation.
These cases are great examples of how it’s not just young people who need to think twice about privacy online. In reality there is really no such thing as privacy online. Some of the best advice I got and now give to students is to never post, text, video tape, or e-mail anything that you wouldn’t want to appear as evidence in court. We could also add to that information that you would be embarrassed for your grandmother to find out, your children, or your employer. Yes, they are online too.
Last year I was selected for a campus-wide honor, and I later found out that the selection committee undertook a basic Google search as part of review process. Fortunately for me, the internet was just coming of age as I was developing my professional self and this is the only “version” of me that exists online. As I noted earlier, if posting personal information on the internet is a way to construct our identities, we might run into trouble when we want to change that identity. If I had a blog when I was starting grad school, I’d probably be embarrassed by the content today, now that my ideas have had a chance to develop over time. Once ideas get out there in cyberspace they are hard to reign back in.
Some postmodern theorists might see the collapse of the boundary between our public and private selves as inevitable. But we can still decide how much of who we are will be made public. The framers of the U.S. Constitution valued our right to keep our mouths shut so much they included the right against self incrimination into the Bill of Rights. Ironically, we now tend to hear of someone who “pleads the Fifth” and presume they have done something wrong, or have something to hide. Former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, currently in prison on racketeering charges, was asked if he had anything to hide during his investigation. To paraphrase, he said of course he did, but not related to the charges against him. (He also once said the only way he wouldn’t be reelected would be to be caught with a dead girl or a live boy).
Edwards had a point—we all have something to hide, although hopefully not criminal behavior. It’s up to us whether we choose to share or not, and we all must deal with the consequences accordingly.
I know it’s soooo twentieth century, but I reserve the right to keep the 25 random things about me to myself and to those who know me offline.