Posted by: JDM..... | April 10, 2012

Facebook, and questions yet to be asked…

Pay LOTS of attention to that man behind the curtain….

Among the social controversies being wrestled with of late have been the matters of changes in the way we communicate and the nature of digital relationships in the newly developed universe of pixels and bytes.

While those to whom such an environment represents the norm into which they were born may have no questions beyond those associated with learning how to master the ever changing technologies, those who have been around long enough to be straddling the transition harbor responses ranging from passive curiosity to serious concern. I, for example, was born into an environment shaped both socially and technologically by World War II. Science fiction included such far-fetched ideas as men on the moon and Dick Tracy communicating with a device worn like a wristwatch with a tiny TV screen on it.

The people designing the tools and toys of everyday living in 2012 communicate, trade stocks, take and send videos and photographs, shop, manage their monthly bills, and more with devices which fit nicely into a shirt pocket. They weren’t even born yet when men first walked on the moon. I straddle. I struggle with the new skills. My interest outpaces passive curiosity, but without quite achieving paranoia.

The issues which raise my eyebrows involve the changes in personal boundaries I see occurring, and how that stands to affect some pretty basic principles of our society such as freedom of speech, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, the right to associate freely, and more. The advent of newer technologies and changes in how we exchange information finds us on the cusp of entering a world where what and how we think may replace the way we behave as the focus of government oversight. I don’t see this as paranoia. I wanted to see how others view the same issues.

I discovered an on-line article (Economist) about the nature of Facebook “friendships” and read it, as much to correct my own predispositions as to learn about the observations of others, hopefully observations based more on some semblance of empirical analysis than my own.

According to Facebook’s “in-house sociologist”, the average user in 2009 had 120 “friends” . One could reasonably presume that the figure might be higher today, but that isn’t necessarily true. I had estimated a much greater figure, with an extreme of 500. While some in fact do claim 500 or more friends, the average proved to be fewer. Social scientists studying the networking capacity of primates, such as Dr. Robin Dunbar, have suggested that the human limit for stabile networks rests at about 148. Others (Bernard and Killworth) propose twice as many. In any case, the question of how big a network can grow before it ceases to be functional is valid, and the number limited.

The studies also found that women tend to have larger networks than men, and that most people really only communicate with about 7 “friends” regardless of how many they list. One interesting finding was that the number of people with whom we seem comfortable discussing “important matters” appears to be declining.

I had a couple of thoughts about all of this. My first raised eyebrow was triggered by the disclosure that Facebook employs an “in-house” sociologist. Sociology was my minor field of study in college, so I can understand why such information might be of interest from a marketing point of view, but to have a full-time social scientist on staff, combined with the recent concerns about personal privacy and the permanence of digitally transmitted information, raises the bar off of the sales floor and strongly into the realm of manipulation and control.

The second thing that came to mind was the question of why people are compelled to collect alleged “friends” like baseball cards. The psychology major in me played around with theories of inadequacy, but the real answer apparently resembles the answer to that troubling question of why the family dog chooses to groom his nether regions in the middle of the living room when sensitive company is visiting:

….”Because he CAN”.

Advances in technology have made it easier to expand the field of contact globally, while my early experiences had me limited to kids in the same neighborhood or at school.

I think the advances in technology and the changes in the ways such organizations as Facebook and Google are approaching the market bring fascinating opportunities to the table. I also believe these new developments warrant caution, serious examination from a legal perspective, and an understanding of the potential for unintended consequences to casual behaviors in a digital culture.

Big Brother is US….not THEM……

Thirty years ago, I was editor of a local weekly publication, and we made light of the uneventful passing of the year 1984, though not without some inkling that all was not well. What we never suspected was that “Big Brother” was actually destined to evolve more from within our own ranks than from government. We are seeing the genesis of that with the lemming like migration of the public to private sector entities such as Facebook and Google, the permanence of digitally transmitted information, and the testing of Constitutional limits on who can have access to detailed transcripts of whose personal on-line behavior and why.

Students are being disciplined and expelled for comments they post from their homes during non-school hours. Employers are rummaging around in the social laundry baskets of their employees. Job applicants are asked to bare all by turning over the keys to their most private after-hours behavior.

Educators and employers have always had an interest in after-hours behaviors of their students and workers that might have a negative impact on the school or the company, but they have never been given the right to show up at midnight to search their homes, to tap their telephones to see what they talk about with friends and family, or to read their mail. Such intrusions would clearly have been serious violations of the law. They still would. Yet, in the electronic universe, the socially acceptable and legal boundaries have not yet been established.

Those who share my concerns about such matters would be well advised to think twice about any intellectual streaking they might have an urge to engage in.

Nearly sixty-five years ago, I scrawled a new word I had learned in a drawer of the table at which I sat in first grade. The teacher “busted” me, and corrective measures were applied. Had I not mentioned that just now, nobody would have known of my transgression. The teacher no doubt passed away years ago, as did my mother, who would not have been pleased. However, if my grandson should pull a similar stunt when he starts school, in digital format instead of blue crayon, it will be come a part of his resume. What will he and his peers learn from such a world, and how will they adapt to life under a microscope?



  1. You are still an amazing man, Jeff. My biggest problem with communication only by compter and such is that it allows a person to make him or herself up and could eventually lead to that horrible place of “buying you own bullshit” We still need to look into one another’s eyes to know who we truly are.

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