Facebook is a new communication technology. It has only been around for 8 years, and yet huge numbers of people now conduct a great deal of their social and professional lives on it. Because different people use it in very different ways, and with different underlying assumptions, there are all kinds of possibilities for misunderstandings and conflict. Few of us have been taught to use it effectively - we stumble into it - and we probably are only partially aware of its effects on us and others, until we stumble into some unforeseen problem.
Like any tool, Facebook can be used for good or bad ends. It is the behaviour of those who use it (primarily the content that they post, whether originally, or in response to someone else’s post) that determine that.
Facebook is unlike Twitter. Twitter is a public application, where everything you post is instantly visible to the entire world and where the poster has no control over who follows, responds to, likes, or retweets, his or her tweets. That is why injudicious tweets have brought down individuals and organisations. One libellous or insulting tweet could, in principle, be enough to land the tweeter in prison (or worse in some countries).
Facebook allows its users control over the privacy settings. Some Facebook users make their pages public. Many, probably most, don’t. They set up private communities to which they invite and admit selected “friends” one by one.
I see a private Facebook page as, essentially, an extension of its owner’s living room. By setting up a facebook page, I am inviting my friends to “drop in on me at any time”, look at what I am interested in, respond, and point me to things that they are interested in.
But, like my home, my Facebook page is my private space. I decide who comes into it, and if they behave in a way that I don’t find congenial, I don’t invite them back. No-one has a right to be in my private space.
I have nearly 500 Facebook friends. Some know each other, the majority don’t. Every time someone makes a posting on my wall, all 500 of my friends see it. Since the poster does not know who most of these people are, the poster should - surely - take great care to ask him or herself what impact this might have on the other 500 people. Since I am interested in all 500 people, I need to take a view on who will get on with who, what might be offensive or inappropriate for some of my other friends to read, and act accordingly.
To make a set of rules to cover all eventualities is probably an impossible (and perhaps not even worthwhile) task. A Facebook user has to use his or her good sense to respond to the situation as it develops, drawing on general principles of courtesy, fairness, generosity, and - of course - an appreciation of the law.
However, everyone should at least ask themselves the question “what kind of a Facebook community and conversation do I want, and why?”. And then we might ask ourselves the further question “which of my facebook friends show - by their own responses - that they know and respect my “style”?
In general, my priority is to share information and views that I have found (mainly, though not exclusively) about public events and public figures, and - where I feel I have something to say - comment on it. Sometimes I post things with which I agree, sometimes things I disagree with, and sometimes things which I am not sure what I think about, but am interested in other people’s opinions on. The topics I post on include topics on which strongly differing opinions exist, including the wars and international disputes that Britain and its allies get involved with, the behaviour of key British political allies such as the USA and Israel, the behaviour of banks and multinational corporations, and so on. I expect and welcome clear and informed contributions which take different perspectives to the ones I post.
What I do not expect are comments which directly call into question the character or motivation of a person within the Facebook community I have created through my postings. It is the difference between “that was a stupid thing to say” (unacceptable), and “I don’t agree with what you said, and here is why” (acceptable).
There are a few of my Facebook friends who have found the general tone of some commentators to my postings so unpleasant that they have blocked those people from appearing in their own feed. In a few cases, where a comment was directly insulting to another one of my Facebook friends, I have had to delete the comment myself.
I have not yet taken the step of “defriending” anyone, though I have been privately urged to do so on several occasions. I would prefer it that people become aware of the character of my page and operate in a way that doesn’t do injustice to that. But there may well come a time when taking a tougher line is right, both to protect the majority of users, but also to make it clear what steps over my boundaries of acceptability.
Now that internet communication is overtaking face-to-face communication as the main means of interpersonal contact for many people, internet users need to consider their own internet behaviour as thoughtfully and self-awarely as they hopefully consider their personal behaviour when in the direct presence of another person. What you say on the internet is a written record which stays there for the rest of your life, and may be looked at and referred to by many, including those who may wish you harm. It’s little wonder that so many open forums (including those on most online newspapers) are moderated, and comments which violate their codes of behaviour removed.
As always, I’m grateful for thoughtful comment on this issue, and being pointed to published contributions on the same topic.
Postscript: I showed this article to a Facebook contributor whose own contributions I find exemplary. This person added the following points which I think are spot on: “I try to imagine saying the things I write to certain people in person who may read the post. I have friends who are devout and I therefore avoid posting disrespectful things about religions. It’s a small consideration that doesn’t compromise me in any way I think”.... and “One breach of etiquette that I sometimes find myself drifting into is starting a dialogue with another respondent and wandering off the subject of the original posting. To use your analogy of your Facebook page being like your living room, it can be rather like being invited over for dinner and then two of the guests taking over the conversation. Knowing when to call it a day with a topic is a useful bit of etiquette”.