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Facebook privacy & digital NIMBY

Facebook comment privacy

The more you ‘live life transparently,’ the more you post to your social networking life stream, the more ‘friends’ and acquaintances you pick up along the way, the more you invite trouble. Well — that may be stating it strongly. But you do attract a small group of social media hecklers, bullies and office chair pontificators whose apparent sole raison d’être is to leave sarcastic and clever (to them & nobody else) comments about your status updates. You know the type who encourages you to post more observations about the coffee you drink and the sandwiches you eat? And the type who just feels compelled to comment on everything, simply everything, regardless of whether he has anything to say? Sure you do. You’ve encountered them, too.

The problem has been irking me more lately. The busier I get at work, the more I look to increase the quality of my social networking time. Facebook — that melting pot of personal and work family, friends and acquaintances — has the answer, even if it’s not immediately obvious.

When the big Facebook Privacy Scare hit earlier this year, I carefully divided my < 400 friends into a number of different groups to whom I decided to disclose different things. Most of these decisions were about really personal information, like address, mobile and home phone numbers (I do tend to pre-edit myself fairly well when it comes to photos). I also disconnected almost all of the applications I had in my profile, un-liked everything, un-joined most groups and put some tighter controls around what Facebook profile information the outside world got to see via Google.

This weekend, when the hecklers and pontificators finally pushed me over the edge, it became clear that Facebook’s updated privacy controls can also be used to exert a kind of content distribution control, a sort of personal censorship. So I created another Facebook privacy group for my hecklers and pontificators. And then I removed that group’s right to see any of my updates. To them, my wall will basically appear empty from now on — nothing to leave comments about. (People are free to follow me on Twitter. They’d get to see essentially the same content there. But the fleeting nature of Twitter — and the sheer number of spammers that I ‘gong’ every week — makes me less concerned about managing the problem without upsetting the delicate social ecosystem that is Facebook.)

Another option would have been to de-friend or ban them. But it’s not that I have something specifically against these people; I just don’t enjoy being incessantly bombarded with their opinions about my opinions. And for their comments to be preserved, together with my updates, for eternity.

All of this has made me think about the connection between privacy and censorship in social networking. What I have just done is censored a few people, exercised a sort of digital Nimbyism. It’s a pretty mild form of censorship in that I haven’t muzzled them anywhere other than on my Facebook wall by preventing them from commenting on my status updates. But it forces me to consider my views about openness, freedom of speech and censorship.

Like most people considering freedom of expression, my internal dialogue is one about personal limits and the public good. Lawmakers need to balance the concepts of freedom of speech and personal protection daily. Where I net out — for now, anyway — is that in my small portion of social networking, I have the right to decide what’s inside and outside my personal limits. My policy is that I’m open to positive and negative feedback, to other perspectives, and to humorous commentary. But I’m not open to criticism of what I say couched in a quasi-humorous ‘heckling.’ That’s just bad behaviour. I’m also not open to web diarrhea. Just being in front of a computer and having the time doesn’t qualify you to comment on my stuff. You need to actually have a point.

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