Private messaging exists on social networking sites for a reason

So that other people won’t dob you in to your employer for things you write that might appear alarming, resulting in you being fired. Facebook “Walls” are public to anyone in your networks, they are not private at all, and this should be fairly obvious, honestly. That’s why they have the “Send a Message” feature, for when you really truly trooly reely only want the exchange to be private. The same goes for Twitter exchanges on unlocked accounts, especially since even if you’ve locked your account that doesn’t stop a follower re-tweeting something you’ve written in your locked tweets. That’s why Twitter has a Direct Message feature.

This is not rocket science, folks.

The media seem to be asking whether it’s “fair” that people’s behaviour online should be scrutinised by their employers. Why not, when customers/clients might find an employee’s comment through a search engine that could be a potential liability for the employer? Rules against disparaging co-workers seem an extremely sensible element of a workplace behaviour code, and extending that to comments made online seems entirely reasonable given how many people end up “friending” or “following” their work colleagues in cyber networks. Employers are probably, and with good reason, wary of cyberbullying through online networks ending up providing grounds for a harassment case based on a “hostile work environment” – nobody wants to be the first to get stung on that one.

While I find this woman’s expressions of support for an upset friend very human and understandable, so are lots of other behaviours that workplaces put limits on simply because they can disrupt the work environment e.g. horseplay, extended private chats, websurfing, fundraising etc. I also find other people’s reaction to her emotional response – to view it as a threat against the coworker – entirely understandable, and that made her remarks worthy of reporting. That she ended up deleting the comment from her Wall even before she was called in to work about it shows that she knew it wasn’t an appropriate remark to have made, too.

So, despite how most news reports appear to be angling for a “poor Caz!” response, I’m finding it hard to muster either much sympathy or much outrage. She said something inappropriate, and she didn’t take the moment of care required to restricts its dissemination using existing simple-to-use privacy features. Live and learn.

Categories: ethics & philosophy, relationships, technology

Tags: , ,

8 replies

  1. It’s not clear to me that her employer would have regarded a private message any differently (the paraphrase simply says “online forums”, which doesn’t distinguish between Wall and the private messaging on Facebook), and given that the wording was threatening, perhaps shouldn’t have, but of course there would be far less viewers able to call it to the employer’s attention.
    As regards the sympathetic spin, I wonder if it doesn’t come more from the detail about how they had a printout of the last six months of her public Facebook activities. (It doesn’t state whether that was because her Wall was truly public, whether one of her contacts provided it to them, or whether they got it from the Facebook company itself. I would guess the first two are about equally likely and the third unlikely, if only because assembling the necessary legal force to draft the request wouldn’t be that fast.) I suspect that many regular users would be uneasy about that much activity, read in one go, adding up to something entirely pleasing to their employer, even if they are not posting comments directly threatening towards colleagues.
    Social networking sites don’t make this easy, but I think where possible it’s sensible to lock or delete older content if you can, due to this cumulative effect.

  2. The article also said “Ms Marshall said she was called to a meeting and shown “six months’ worth” of older Facebook posts she had written and was sacked – a move she thought was extreme.”
    Six months’ worth would seem to indicate she’d written things about her employer/fellow employees repeatedly, not just the once.
    ETA: my comment crossed with Mary’s, who already pointed out the six months’ worth thing.

  3. Why I’ve locked my Twitter and Facebook, encapsulated in one unfortunate story.

  4. I agree, tigtog.
    I know of a young Facebook user who revealed in a wall-to-wall chat that he had only 50 hours on his learner driver log book, and that he was planning to copy the last 70 from his sister’s book before he booked his driving test. (Readers out of NSW … learner drivers are required by law to show evidence of 120 hours supervised driving experience before sitting their test for a provisional licence.)
    He didn’t seem to have any concern that #1 his plan was illegal and stupid; and #2 that all of the shared friends (several hundred people) could see what he’d written.
    Print screen is very useful.

  5. Six months’ worth would seem to indicate she’d written things about her employer/fellow employees repeatedly, not just the once.
    It does indicate however, that her employers were willing to go to quite creepy lengths vis a vis stalking their employees. (I’m not condoning her behaviour.)

  6. I don’t know about this specific instance, but in some of the news I hear about things like this, employers don’t distinguish between generic “Argh what a horrible day at work” or “my work sucks” and specific, defamatory “[name of employer] is a terrible place to work”.
    I also only let friends see anything I post, and I only have one co-worker on my friends list. I’d be glad to be fired if my employer felt it necessary to coerce her into giving them a list of my activity, or if they got it directly from facebook. Not that I think there’s anything bad on there, it’s mostly stuff about my cat. But unless your wall is public and there are specific defamatory things on there, it should be treated as private, even if you have friended your boss.

  7. I am very open online, suing my first name on a number of forums and my full name on my blog (I don’t use Facebook cause I don’t want messages I wrote years ago to hang around with my full name attached). However, I do try to be careful not to say things about real-life people that could be identifiable. I wasn’t always that careful though, so my former teachers have found a lot I wrote about them (nothing nasty) on my blog.

  8. Counterpoint: danah boyd has talked about this a lot, including Making Sense of Privacy and Publicity, Public by Default, Private when Necessary and just because we can, doesn’t mean we should:

    Being socially exposed is AOK when you hold a lot of privilege, when people cannot hold meaningful power over you, or when you can route around such efforts. Such is the life of most of the tech geeks living in Silicon Valley. But I spend all of my time with teenagers, one of the most vulnerable populations because of their lack of agency (let alone rights).

    Of course, teens are only one of the populations that such exposure will effect. Think about whistle blowers, women or queer folk in repressive societies, journalists, etc. The privileged often argue that society will be changed if all of those oppressed are suddenly visible. Personally, I don’t think that risking people’s lives is a good way to test this philosophy.

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