Is Facebook a Luxury or a Right?

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by Raywat Deonandan

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post Canada on Oct 21, 2013.

An interesting challenge occurred earlier this year in a Chicago courtroom. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was taking issue with a rule that Facebook had enacted since 2008 that banned convicted sex offenders from the social media site.

Regardless of how you may feel about the ruling, I am certain that you will find the ACLU’s argument to be a fascinating one. They made the case that in today’s modern, wired world, access to social media was an essential right. And they won.

Is access to Facebook a luxury or a right? I posed this question on my personal blogand on the site of Knowledge Mobilization Works, and was not surprised that most resulting comments reflected a sense of horror that something has seemingly frivolous or superficial as Facebook could be considered a social essential.

But the question is not as ludicrous as it may seem upon first glance. How many people under the age of 50 do you know who don’t engage in social media to some extent? Whether it’s reading or writing a blog, sending a Tweet, lurking on Facebook, posting a photo on Instagram, or putting a resume on LinkedIn, the silent weaving of these platforms into our daily lives has happened quickly and unobtrusively. They are so intertwined in the process of modern life that it can be argued that one cannot fully engage in society without using social media sites to some degree. Denying someone access to them might be tantamount to denying them access to society itself.

If you don’t buy that people need social and emotional interaction online, then you’ll certainly agree that professional sites like LinkedIn are now essential tools for job-seekers and those seeking to expand their professional networks. Certainly, an increasing number of staffing agents, or “head hunters,” are prowling those types of sites seeking candidates. Failure to be active on such sites, then, might be a measurable disadvantage in the unending contest for advancement and prosperity.

The ACLU’s argument, then, was that Facebook has become such an essential aspect of 21st century living that denying it to a specific demographic constituted a violation of human rights.

At the very least, the court ruling is a signal that we have experienced a profound paradigm shift with respect to the role of new social media technologies in our society. Much like during the introduction of other media technologies historically — the telephone, television, the personal computer — we seem to have passed the initial phase when the new thing is a mere vanity, toy, or luxury, and have entered the inevitable phase in which the new media are a background part of our social infrastructure, assumed to always be there at our disposal, and a source of frustration when they are not.

The arrival of social media as societal infrastructure has not been without its hiccups. If access to Facebook is a human right, does it then logically follow that perhaps access to specific people and/or services via social media is also a right? The question lead me and a colleague, Dr Kamila Premji, to consider the extent to which certain professionals are accessible on Facebook. We chose to look at family physicians, since they are a demographic much in demand. Anecdotal evidence suggested that many doctors were being contacted via their personal Facebook accounts by patients for medical communication purposes.

What we found, thankfully, was that most doctors had their privacy levels cranked quite high (only about 10 percent were “creepable”). But some personal information was being widely shared. Over 81 percent had publicly visible profile photos. And 24 percent had made public their place of work.

There were those few, of course, who probably didn’t realize how transparent their lives had become. For those individuals, we learned so much about them that if they walked by us, we’d probably recognize them, know where they’d gone on vacation, whom their son or daughter had married, and what kinds of restaurants they frequent.

Our conclusion was that certain people, like family doctors, are at greater risk than others for invasions of their online privacy. Such in-demand groups may need to consider more effectively using the electronic privacy control options available to them, or indeed whether they need to be online at all. It would be a shame if a certain professional demographic were “chased” off of social media due to their online vulnerabilities, since they would then be denying themselves the potentially joyful and productive benefits of full engagement with these services.

The flip-side to all this, of course, is the extent to which people actually expect their doctors (and indeed other much relied-upon professionals) to be available on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. To explore this phenomenon, another student, Priscilla Karnabi, and I have been propagating an online survey via email, Twitter, blogs, and Facebook, to ask the world about the pros and cons of being able to access their doctors via the latter’s personal and professional social media profiles.

I love the idea using social media to study social media. It introduces some interesting challenges in sampling bias, but the symmetry is too poetic to dismiss.

The initial data are quite intriguing. But I don’t want to bias any subsequent results by describing them here. However, if you’d like to participate, feel free to take the survey (only available in English) by clicking on the following link, and/or share the link via your own social media tools. Everyone is invited to participate, so long as they are 18 years of age or older: http://svy.mk/19kp31F

It’s a challenging and sometimes frightening world of new electronic social opportunities unfolding before us. The inspiring part, for me, is that despite the complexities, morasses, and temptations, we’re forging ahead through it all together as a global community. I guess that’s why they call it “social” media.

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