Everyone you know or know of is on Facebook, from that kid you met in camp six years ago to your grandma to the Taliban. Yes, the Taliban, though their profile pictures may not be accurate representations of who they are. A recent Australian government review of social media and defense found that Taliban members were using Facebook to gain information on and track the whereabouts of military personnel by masquerading as “attractive women,” friending deployed soldiers, and by exploiting Facebook’s affordances, namely the geotagging feature. In addition to the geotagging feature, the report states that only “few [people] consider the possibilities of data mining and how patterns of behaviour can be identified over time.”
If Facebook got one thing right, it was building their website around the fact that we do like to share things about our lives with those close to us. What we, like those military personnel, perhaps don’t realize is how much about ourselves we really put out there. A friend recently challenged me to question my own Facebook activity—how many of those funny quotes or puppy pictures would I actually go out of my way to share with my closest friends through conversation or email? The honest answer is I probably wouldn’t share at least two-thirds of the content I share via Facebook. But the platform can’t be blamed for that. I don’t believe we necessarily share more because we can’t escape Facebook’s grasp. I believe it’s a symbiotic relationship, or as Nancy Baym coins it, “social shaping of technology.” It is indeed a middle ground in which “ the consequences of technologies arise from a mix of ‘affordances’…and the unexpected and emergent ways that people make use of those affordances” (44). Deployed soldiers may use Facebook for one of its (very) early goals of keeping in touch with friends and family, but those same tools can be used for the flipside—to meet new people. Social shaping is a two way street, right? So Facebook responded to our desire to share and thus provides the means with which we can do that with ease, via status updates, photo albums, “checking in,” etc. However, as seen through the Australian findings, since Facebook’s well-intentioned platform and intention can also be used by a terrorist organization for purposes other than simply staying in touch with a pal from home, I do believe we have more of a responsibility to be mindful about what we choose to share and, going further, how we choose to present ourselves.
The article also brings up interesting points of authenticity within the Facebook medium. It could just be that I’m very naïve and plain wrong, but I thought you were more likely to find people who are who they say they are on Facebook because of how easily you can cross-check their legitimacy with their Facebook friends, who you (or I, at least) assume are also real people that whoever you’re creepin’ on met from real junctions in their life.
Whereas I can see and understand how one can create a persona on YouTube, MySpace or Twitter, since all platforms exist at least partly to create connections between people who don’t know each other, I find it challenging to understand how those military personnel—or anyone for that matter—can accept a friend request from someone with zero connection to them. I viewed Facebook as a space to, as Boyd and Ellison point out, “maintain existing offline relationships or solidify offline connections” and not as a place where new relationships are formed (221). Even friendships of mine that might have begun on Facebook stemmed from having an offline close mutual friend who could vouch for my authenticity. When someone who we initially don’t recognize friends us on Facebook, don’t we look to “mutual friends” to validate this person’s request? To make sure this person is not some random sketchy guy but just that sketchy guy you were introduced to at that party you were at last week?
We’ve all clicked on and browsed profiles of people we’ve never met before out of sheer curiosity, be it to check people out from any “NYU 20_ _” group or the attendees of that party you were thinking of going to. But would you go as far as to friend that cute guy or girl before actually meeting them? Probably not. You’d more likely scope their profile pictures out, store the information in the back of your brain, and make a mental note to seek them out in person. But how would you react if someone you didn’t know friended you? Would you immediately accept the request and see what blossomed? If you would, would you be wary of what information this unknown person is privy to? Or would you hold off before accepting and try to garner some sense of their authenticity and legitimacy, some sense of security that YES this person is not a fiftysomething year old man living in his mother’s basement?