Facebook and privacy are two words with a long, tenuous relationship. At 750 million members, the site houses a lot of information about a lot of people. It is no surprise that the company has been the frequent subject of scrutiny over its privacy policies. What is often overlooked is the fact that Facebook, Twitter, and other similar websites are only media for personal information — any offensive or libelous material is posted by individuals. These individuals, not the companies, are the ones responsible for the material they post.
We’ve all heard stories about people who, after a tough day at work or school, went home and tweeted “God I hate Mr. Turner,” or posted that their students were all germbags. While these stories are generally funny, they affect real people and can cost some their jobs. In some instances, the messages sent can be considered threatening, a point that hits rather close to home here at McGill.
Many of the characters in these stories, after they realise the consequences of their actions, cite one of two excuses. Either: “I was joking.” Or: the website didn’t permit them enough control over who would be able to view their message, and they didn’t intend a certain audience to see such sensitive material.
Anyone communicating using just text must realise that most jokes are cued non-verbally. On the internet, however, these cues are absent for messages shared in text format. Sarcasm is more difficult to detect in written words than spoken ones, something any micro-blogger should know.
While it is true that many social networking sites have complex and confusing privacy settings, this is a widely known fact. It should not be a surprise when users make mistakes in these settings. It is not a good example of user-interface design, but we all know that. Additionally, many people don’t actually know what settings they would like, they only know that Facebook did it wrong, and any improvements they make are just less wrong. It’s difficult to blame Facebook for this, as they were trailblazing when they created the site. If you don’t like the privacy settings, don’t use the site. Or, at least accept that you don’t understand how they work and proceed with caution.
Even if every website on the Internet permitted perfect control over one’s personal information, there is still a degree of insecurity in the picture: other people. When your friends see you’ve posted something funny, tearjerking, or rude on Facebook, there is nothing preventing them from taking a screenshot and posting it on Failblog, Reddit, Digg, or any other similar website. These excerpts can contain all of your identifying information accompanying the scandalous material. When this happens, it’s difficult to blame Facebook.
While the National Labour Relation Board ruled earlier this year that employees may not be fired based on things posted on Facebook, it is still not a good idea to publically call your boss a “nitwit.” You can’t be fired for it, but there is still no reason to potentially let your co-workers know your true opinion of them. While the court might protect your job in these situations, they can’t make any guarantees about working conditions, letters of recommendation, and other courtesies offered by employers.
Internet users have to realise that if there ever was a true cliché, it’s that the internet is written in ink. When you post something on any of your favorite social networks, blogs, or other publicly exposed websites, it should be considered out there for everyone to see. There are never going to be ideal privacy settings for any website, and anything you tweet that can be misconstrued, will be. Users need to prepare for the worst case scenario when posting potentially offensive material. It is up to the web user to think before they post. Only that way can you prevent yourself from becoming a “victim” in one of these unfortunate events.