Facing Up to Facebook

Simon Nurse explores the risks of particpating in the social media

Arguably the critical technology of the early 21st Century is the internet. For dissemination of information nothing in the short history of our modern species can possibly compare. This amazing medium through which we buy, sell, communicate and teach now drives many areas of our life. In the brief 16 year period since the World Wide Web became publicly available, it has collected nearly 2 billion users. Almost a third of humanity is connected digitally.

Alongside commerce, the largest area of growth on the web is social media. Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Digg and Myspace all compete in the social networking marketplace. If you want to get ahead, get a profile. However, as new technology is introduced at breakneck speed, societal responses struggle to keep pace and respond to the new possibilities.

These new advantages pose hidden dangers for individuals and organisations alike. Barely a week goes past without some form of white paper warning landing electronically on my desk. The tools appear to split the HR world. For every cry of ‘use them to your advantage’ there will be a counter claim about their production sapping abilities such as rogue employees fuelling a Facebook addiction with hot news about their latest cup of tea and forthcoming plans for ‘must attend’ parties.

All this feeds the neurosis that many management figures – including me I might add – suffer from. We like nothing better to worry about than some insidious way that a freeloading employee may obtain a free ride at our expense.

Whether these concerns are real or just unnecessary management paranoia is a debatable point. However, what is to my mind not debatable, is the great danger posed by social networking tools if their use is not very carefully considered. A terrible and recent example is that of Emma Jones a teacher from Caerphilly based in Abu Dhabi. The 24 year old drank a corrosive substance after a colleague viewed naked images of her uploaded to her Facebook pages. It is believed that she took her own life out of fear of imprisonment.

This is not an isolated incident. In 2008, senior police officer Chris Dreyfus was reprimanded by British transport police and lost the opportunity of a more senior post after background checks revealed gay lifestyle details through his Facebook pages. Early last month, controls over Facebook use by HM prisoners was tightened up after some profiles were used to issue threats and taunts to former – and potentially future – victims of crime.

This weekend Wales online reported a Twitter breach that affected AMs Jonathan Morgan (Cardiff North) and Alun Davies (Mid and West Wales) on Thursday 25th February. A hacker managed to embed a virus within their profiles that broadcast a message to their subscribing public that they were in fact female, 24 and…well, you can guess the rest.

For some truly interesting and less juvenile political material, have a look at the canvassing claims and occasional scandals precipitated through social media tools during the 2008 American presidential campaign. This was the first political campaign partly orchestrated electronically and dubbed ‘Facebook politics’. It makes for fascinating reading.

According to US social media academic Clay Shirky, Facebook effectively “lowers the hurdles” for any type of individual or collective social action, turning normally apathetic individuals into rebels, leaders, voyeurs or antagonists from the comfort of their own armchair. Granted, it’s not all bad news and we should be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. A 2007 Facebook campaign coalesced students into a force to be reckoned with when HSBC decided at short notice to revoke student accounts with penalty free overdrafts. In the face of a growing campaign and dreadful publicity, HSBC were forced into an embarrassing climb-down. Social media therefore, can also result in successful collective action. Personally, I think Twitter is particularly good for broadcasting frequent brief messages to a wide audience without the need to subscribe and the commons offered by Wikipedia and other open source projects has improved easy access to knowledge immeasurably.

Any organisation wishing to commit to the use of social media to disseminate a message or to permit its use on company machines, needs to seriously consider the ramifications of doing so. Multiple web identities can confuse. Some sites may not pass through aggressive firewall settings and social media can expose an organisation to unnecessary risk. These tools mesh the individual’s private and professional lives seamlessly together, potentially laying personal and professional details bare and open to scrutiny, exposing the frailties of both the individual and the tool.

Dragons Den regular Theo Paphitis recently described Facebook as “an orgy of self-indulgence and exhibitionism”, banning it’s use on company machines and likening its negative effects to smoking. Whilst I wouldn’t quite go that far, one would be very wise to remember a piece of advice issued by Barak Obama at the opening of a school in Virginia, “Be careful what you post on Facebook”.

Simon Nurse is Head of Operations with Cardiff’s Capital Coated Steel and Editor of the Industrial Ecology and Sustainable Business website www.iesme.org

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