Nothing private in digital era

I had a Facebook page once. Young women who sat near me at work signed me up for a bit of fun – their fun, I think – and so as easily as that I was a man of the digital age.

And to my amazement emails telling me that someone or other wanted to be friends with me on Facebook began arriving immediately. Some of these people were indeed friends, some were people I had not seen or heard from for years, some were people I had never known or couldn’t remember, and I’m never confident which.

Primarily my page came to be a way of communicating with my bike-riding friends, and it was rich with photographs of our rides and expeditions and with contributed material not fit for wide publication. While I serve as the moral compass for my bike-riding friends, they are younger and generally resistant to wise counsel and moderation.

Our comments were unguarded and often ill-considered, but, hey, we were and are friends. After all, my friends were there because I’d accepted their request to be friends. And their friends were surely of the same ilk and thus not a problem.

One day a year or two ago it became clear from a comment by a contributor to my blog that he had gained access to my Facebook page even though I had not accepted a friend request from him, and it emerged that he had navigated through the pages of linked friends to arrive there.

While I had no marked objection to his access, it was a shock that I was so exposed, and with help from one of the young women who’d signed me up I signed out, deleting my entry. Leaving was a good deal more difficult than joining.

I have rejoined specifically to gain access to a Facebook page I drew on for a column but mine is close to a blank page.

While I am not active on Facebook, I have many friends and workmates who are and it does seem that they see their Facebook presence as private and privileged.

Both are fallacies and both create a problem. It seems that a Facebook page is private with only the strictest privacy settings, which seems to defeat the social purpose of the site and which even at the strictest level may not be effective.

The main problem, though, is the sense that Facebook is privileged, that what goes on Facebook stays on Facebook. Both adults and young teenagers seem to believe that on Facebook they are immune, that they cannot be held responsible for their statements, that what happens on Facebook cannot be used against them in the real world.

I see or read of this immunity shattering among employees, adults who post derogative comments about fellow employees and bosses on their Facebook page. I’m not sure why an employee is not entitled to speak derogatively about a fellow worker or a boss, and we all have at some stage, but often these employees are disciplined and in some cases dismissed. It may be that the comments are deemed to be bullying or in breach of an agreement to not act in a way that could bring the employer into disrepute.

Perhaps the employers see it as a division between work time and private time.

The problem of accountability applies also to other digital media.

We seem to see a difference in accountability in sending comments on paper and digitally, and I suspect this is because we persist in seeing the comments on paper as a matter of record, as having a permanency comments sent into cyberspace do not. We know better, or we do by now, but the fallacy persists. Not only are the digitally issued comments likely to live longer, they can be multiplied seemingly infinitely, as many people have found to their great cost.

This may explain the informality and imprecision of emails, the imprudence of texts, the rash spontaneity of twitter, the aggression of blog comments, and I wonder if the sensation of the sent material blinking off the screen suggests to us subconsciously that it has disappeared and therefore doesn’t matter, or doesn’t matter so much.

Our world has changed and I suspect we’re yet to catch up.

Do you see your statements on paper and on a screen as different? Should you be less accountable for anything sent from a screen?