Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Social Intelligence

In a January 2011 article entitled, "Facebook posts mined for court case evidence," Brian Grow notes a growing trend in U.S courts: using Facebook postings as evidence in personal injury litigation. 

Two weeks ago, The Federal Trade Commission determined that "Social Intelligence," a company which does background checks of social media for corporations screening job applicants, is complying with The Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Social Intelligence scours the web for the "online presence" of job applicants and stores the information found on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere-- for seven years.

Under the terms of The Fair Credit Reporting Act, a job applicant must have agreed to allow the potential employer to perform a background check and must be notified if s/he is denied a job on the basis of any of the material found out there online or on social media.  (See Leslie Horn's article, "FTC-Approved Company Will Save Dirt from Your Facebook Profile for 7 Years," PCMag, June 20, 2011).

I have mixed feelings about this, of course.  I like free speech, and I think people should be able to express themselves whenever they want, however they want.

They may say things I don't like and don't agree with and wish they wouldn't say, but if they're not violating the First Amendment and engaging in practices that represent exceptions to our First Amendment freedoms, then I say, live and let live.

That said, I think technology and electronic media have complicated people's perceptions of the line between public and private.

I am the first to admit that, if you're a friend of mine and you seriously piss me off, you may get some pretty darn salty language directed your way.

In such cases, I don't mince words, even over email.

That said, it's pretty hard to seriously piss me off, and on the rare occasions when I have fired off in writing at someone I was involved in a personal relationship with, I have always done so with a full awareness of the potential consequences.

I realize they may share my emails with anyone and everyone and that, taken out of context, I won't look good.

If I trust someone with an expression of my emotions (both the good and the bad), I can only hope that, in the end, my trust in their character and their integrity isn't misplaced.

Sometimes, though, it is.  This is a painful realization for anyone to come to.

At such moments, I also realize that the follow-up email in which I sincerely apologized for my angry words won't even be mentioned, and it definitely won't be eagerly and voyeuristically circulated in the way that the original email is sure to be.

In short, I have to assume that I will wake up one morning and this will be plastered all over the front page of the newspaper, alongside my picture, and I'll have to deal with the fallout.

And then I make my decision about whether or not to send that person my thoughts and give them the gift of my trust.

If I send it, it's because I believe that we all have the right to express our feelings, our opinions, and our personalities, in our own ways and in our own words.  And we shouldn't always have to worry about whether or not other people are going to "like" it.   

I do it because I believe that anyone I have openly cared about who ultimately chooses to use my words against me is telling me a lot about 1) how much they value personal relationships in general, 2) how much they value me in particular, and 3) how much they truly value freedom of speech and expression.

I refuse to live in fear.  

Dictatorships don't emerge out of the actions of a powerful leader or a failing government.  They emerge as a result of people ratting out former friends or digging up dirt on current neighbors or making personal quarrels the substance of public actions and discussions.

In the 1969 French documentary, Le chagrin et la pitiƩ, Marcel Orphus retrospectively examines the social and political mechanisms at work during the Nazi occupation of France.

One of the most interesting parts of the film occurs when he confronts individuals with evidence that they publicly denounced other people to the authorities simply because they had a personal ax to grind. 

So on this level and for these reasons, I object to using online materials in job application screenings.  Although I understand from a pragmatic perspective why businesses might find resources like Social Intelligence appealing, on a very basic level, I don't like it.

At the same time, I think people need to realize that frequent use of social media fosters an illusion of privacy that never actually exists.

The "Privacy" settings on Facebook are meaningless.  I used to block people, until I realized that there isn't really any point.  "Blocking" only works when someone is actually in Facebook; materials are still available via Google and other search engines and webpages and social media postings are regularly cached. 

So even if you take it down, it's still out there somewhere and someone can always find it if they know where and how to look. 

I think of it this way:  if you run into the street with your pants down, screaming at various passersby, your neighbors are going to see it, and you know that.

(At least, if you're reasonably sane, you do.)

You also know that your neighbors may film it.  Or they may call a friend and say, "You gotta see this...".  Or they may tell your pastor next Sunday at church.  Or they may email a long-lost friend, tweet a buddy and compose a status update about your actions.

The Internet is the electronic street.  Facebook is the street.  Twitter is the street.  You're sitting in your own room, feeling safe and secure and assuming you're communicating "privately," but you might as well be standing on the street, screaming.

There is no reasonable expectation of privacy online or in a public forum such as a social media site.

Electronic communications are always public.  So if you choose to go public with words of anger or outrage, you need to realize that those communications are out there and won't go away.

In a way, that's a good thing.  People should be able to be themselves and speak their minds and words should have a certain resonance and staying-power.

So I guess what I'm saying is, if Anthony Weiner had tweeted me, I would have said, "Oh, holy cow!", deleted the tweet and simply moved on with my life.

Yes, he's a public figure.  Yes, his behavior is inappropriate.  Yes, he absolutely needed to resign.  And no, he shouldn't tweet such things to other people.

But at the end of the day, I think about his wife.  She didn't do anything wrong.  And the public glee surrounding her husband's downfall has to hurt her.

A lot. 

I know I've posted this statement before, but it's been on my mind a lot for the past several days.  In her letter to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, writer Lillian Hellman refused to be intimidated by a Congressional subpoena.

Instead, she wrote, "to hurt innocent people... is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable."

I think we all need to think more and more carefully about what constitutes humanity and decency and honor, both on the web and off.

I know that from now on, I plan to.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."