The Flaws of Facebook
An acquisitions editor of a major university press was nice enough to buy me a cup of coffee and a brioche and listen patiently as I pitched him my book manuscript during a recent meeting of my professional association. Things went well enough until, at the end of our meeting, he surprised me. On our way out of the café, he turned to me and asked "are you on Facebook?" "I am," I replied, nonplussed, "but I, uh, don't really check it very often." "Well I do," he said, tone heavy in significance, "so friend me."
My dislike of Facebook is not based on ignorance or a knee-jerk academic ludism. I understand exactly what Facebook is – it's an Internet replacement service that combines e-mail, instant messaging, photo sharing, social networking, mailing lists, asynchronous gaming, and personal Web hosting all in one. Crucially, it allows differing degrees of privacy, so you can blog safely about the antics of your adorable cat or the incredible evil of your department chair without either of them finding out unless you add them to your friends list. What bothers me about Facebook -- the dilemma highlighted by my encounter with the editor -- is the particular problem it presents for academics, whose professional career and personal goings-on are all rolled up together into one big life of the mind.
Teaching is an intensely public activity in a very simple way: You spend hours and hours having people stare at you. Over time this simple three-shows-a-week schedule blossoms into something infinitely weirder. It does not take long for professors to find themselves walking around a campus filled with half-remembered faces from previous classes -- faces worn by people who remember you perfectly well. If you teach at a large state university, like I do, it does not take long before random waiters and pharmacists start mentioning how much they did (or didn't) enjoy that survey class you taught. There are even apocryphal stories in Papua New Guinea -- the country that I study -- about a man who more or less taught every social science class at the country's university during the late 70s. He spent the rest of his life never having to stand in line or fill out a form because he had trained the vast majority of the nation's civil servants, who all remembered him fondly.
The public created by your teaching is much larger than just the students in your class. Whether we lament or rejoice in the purportedly poor state of teacher evaluation, it does happen. Those forms our students fill out have strange afterlives and become the source of evaluation by deans and whispering among the senior faculty. The Internet unleashes these evaluations as well, allowing our classroom antics to be shared on Ratemyprofessor.com.
So is Facebook a dream come true for academics -- a private social networking site where professors can finally let down there hair because you control your audience, in the way that the average "I hate the world" anonymous adjunct blog cannot? I would say No. In the physical world professors uneasily navigate the uneasy blurring of their public and private lives, but Facebook doesn't allow for blurring -- you are either friends or not. This extremely "ungranular" system forces you to choose between two roles, private and public, that the actual, uncoded world allows us to leave ambiguous.
Which of the following people would you friend on Facebook? A friend from graduate school? Probably -- Facebook is, for better or worse, a great way to take the Old Boys Club online. A fellow faculty member? If you get along with them, why not? Your graduate students? Hmmm... well I suppose some people have that sort of relationship with their graduate students. Your undergraduates? I've drawn a line in the sand and said no to that one.
I think these cases are actually pretty easy -- categories like colleague and student are well-defined, as is the distinction between a "purely" formal relationship and the intimate friendships that grow up around it. I'm sure that many of the people reading this got to be where they were today because a professor in our lives went beyond the call of duty to become a friend and mentor. Facebook makes handling the formal and the informal tricky, but in all of these examples a lot of work has already been done for it because the relationships in question can all be neatly divided into "formal" and "informal" registers.
What Facebook makes particularly uncomfortable are relationships in which friendship and professionalism are not clear and brightly bounded, but are tied to real political economic stakes. As a young professor on the path to tenure, for instance, acquisitions editors have a certain ominous power over me that compels me to friend them on Facebook (and I did friend him, by the way) and might even include small favors up to and including shining their shoes if the end of the deal includes an advance contract. On the other hand, as someone with a tenure track job, I am also in a position of diffuse power over people like adjuncts and lecturers, who I get along well with in my department, but who do not come to faculty meetings in which we discuss the budget (read: their pay).
The more widely you friend people on Facebook -- and it is a slippery slope -- the more and more your Facebook page becomes a professional Web replacement on Friendster's slick Internet replacement Web site. It becomes less and less a "private" space and more and more a place to show a public face to a very wide audience. In forcing you to craft a public persona, it raises uncomfortable issues of power and inequality and lurk under the surface of our actual world interactions -- which is probably a good thing.
I don't dislike Facebook because it forces me to reflect on uncomfortable truths. I dislike it because it aspires to a world in which these truths are washed away in a swirling sea of Friends. It claims to offer privacy but only magnifies dilemmas of publicity. It offers us a world in which we do not have to stand up and be counted. Living public life is not easy, but learning to do so gracefully is a better solution than a retreat to the supposedly cloistered halls of Facebook.