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September 2, 2009

The Perils of Facebook

Kevin E. Dayhoff

For better or worse, new social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter are here to stay – that is, until something new comes along – like, tomorrow.


Increasingly Facebook is affecting the way we relate to co-workers, job candidates, family, or friends – and to certain extent, how we gather our news.


Whether you are a Mom or Dad with a child that has just tottered ever so tentatively off to college, a child of the 60s in search of long lost high school classmates, Washington Post writer Howard Kurtz, or New Yorker writer and author Susan Orlean, you have come to understand the value of Facebook.


Many will recall that it just last February when a bi-partisan insurrection broke out in the Maryland General Assembly when the Office of Legislative Information Systems Director Michael Gaudiello decided to ban the use of Facebook by legislators.


The ban was quickly rescinded and the sensibilities and comity of the state were saved.


If Mark Twain or H.L. Mencken were around, they would love Facebook. For that matter, anyone with a passionate love affair with – or an addiction to – words, whether banal, erudite, insightful, or silly, Facebook will get you a great fix.


Pretentious people or pathological insecure persons with a low threshold for social discomfort need not apply.


Of course, along with Facebook, blogs and Twitter, or any occasion where, to paraphrase what Truman Capote once famously said about Jack Kerouac's work, there are plenty of examples of “That's not writing, it's typing,” that accompanies this brave new exploration of the intellectual depths of banality.


The American author John Cheever would have loved Facebook and Twitter. If you will recall, it was Mr. Cheever’s classic, The Enormous Radio, which appeared in the May 17, 1947, issue of The New Yorker. It was about the Westcotts, who appeared, by all superficial measures, to be the perfect “all-American” family.


Old file notes described The Enormous Radio as “the Kafkaesque tale about a sinister radio that broadcasts the private conversations of tenants in a New York apartment building.”


Who could forget the line in The Enormous Radio, about Irene Westcott’s “wide, fine forehead upon which nothing at all had been written?” Today, Mrs. Westcott would post her thoughts on Facebook.


Along with the newfound freedom of expression – the great democratization – that is offered by Facebook come the bloodshot eyes and perils of the dreaded “Too Much Information.”


If only Joan Didion had a page on Facebook, there would no need for the hilarious parody site, Ms. Didion, whose commentary on the disintegration of American morals and postmodern cultural chaos, would have loved the individual and social fragmentation evidenced on Facebook.


I would love to know what Ms. Didion, who along with Tom Wolfe, author of The New Journalism, 1974, was an early champion of “communicating facts through narrative storytelling and literary techniques;” thinks of the first-person, personal narrative style of Facebook.


Nevertheless, many will agree with the conclusion of Richard Simon, who recently noted in a commentary in The Daily Record, “Jump on the new media bandwagon,” “It’s clear that for most Baltimore businesses, you either jump on the new media bandwagon or get trampled by the competition.”


For news making – or newsgathering – Facebook is the new town hall meeting. And in consideration of the mercurial superficial nature of today’s marriage between new technology and the personal narrative comes the perils of Facebook. That is the blurring of the lines that delineate the private and the public lives of individuals.


Benny Evangelista recently wrote “To friend, or not to friend: That is the workplace question,” in The San Francisco Chronicle, in which he cited: “Commissioned by online job search site, this survey said 35 percent of employers rejected potential job candidates because of content they found on their social networking sites.


“The top reason? Posting “provocative or inappropriate photographs or information.” And that was followed by posting “content about them drinking or using drugs.”


Yet, on the other hand, he also observed that “18 percent surveyed also listed reasons why they decided to hire someone based on their social media background check, such as learning the candidate was a good personality fit for the firm, showed creativity and possessed solid communications skills.”


Such was the case in a recent shake-up with employees of The Journal News, a Westchester daily owned by Gannett, according to a recent article by David Carr in The New York Times.


“Specifically, the 288 news and advertising employees at The Journal News were told that jobs were being redefined and that they all would need to reapply for the new positions and that by the time the re-org music stopped, 70 of them would be without jobs.”


It was suggested by a sampling of the 70 that weren’t rehired, that it was because they did not have a Facebook or Twitter account. To be sure, it was a complicated matter, but nevertheless, command of the new integration of the new social media and the old print traditional media continues to wiggle its way into the new media lexicon.


Then there was the recent example mentioned by President Barack Obama, in which former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin asserted on her Facebook page that the president’s health care initiative contained a provision for “death panels.”


The liberal advocacy group “Americans United For Change,” launched a vigorous response – on Facebook, no less.


One may only wonder what Thomas Jefferson, who believed in citizen-based government, would think of Facebook. Can you imagine what it would have been like if Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, had published The Federalists Papers, on a Facebook page titled “Publius?” And then Tweeted about them…


Heck, these days, who needs The Washington Post or The New York Times when Facebook is available? Now that’s just silly! Or is it?


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster.  E-mail him at


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