London Letter: Facebook – Be careful with the online you

A titan of the internet universe, Facebook is now said to be even more popular than google, and is valued at $50 billion after investment by Goldman Sachs. A quick glance over some Facebook profiles, however, and you would question how dumbed down English, cringe worthy tributes to the deceased and shocking status updates from some individuals could be part of such a phenomenon.

Debate continues over privacy issues on the site, and while a lot of this will be of little interest to those who dip in and out of their Facebook walls for trivial musings, perhaps people should be a little more careful about how they portray themselves and how they use the site.

While there is the illusion that you are among family and friends in a cosy online community, and cranked up privacy settings are allowing you to say whatever you please, Facebookers should realise that every single thing they do on Facebook is viewed, judged and scrutinised by those 600 “friends” and more. It isn’t just potential employers googling you that you should worry about; one dodgy status update and that work colleague, neighbour, cousin or far out acquaintance could form an impression of you that will be very hard to change.

Everything you do on Facebook, whether it is updating your status, uploading photos, being tagged in other people’s photos or commenting on friends’ walls, combines to create an online construct of who you are. Therefore, while bullying, hacking and other privacy issues continue to deserve attention, more emphasis needs to be placed on your own online presence and the impression you give to all those “friends” and friends of friends that may view your profile.

Recently, people have begun to use Facebook as a way of promoting their own blogs or sharing other online journalism in the hope of provoking discussion in comments underneath. This is an example of how useful the site can be and how social networking has progressed.

However, almost daily I need a deep intake of breath as I see what people are prepared to say on Facebook, despite the fact that they are effectively in a public sphere. Even if you have your Facebook page secured as tightly as possible, with all privacy settings sealed, the reality is that not all of those 600 “friends” are actually close companions. A lot of them are likely to be people you have met once, or who you know vaguely through another friend. They might be people who were in your class at school seven years ago, or perhaps they are people you holidayed with in your childhood.

We have often read and written about the protective barrier a computer screen becomes when you’re sitting in front of it with a keyboard, and how it makes saying outlandish things a lot easier.

But would you make the admission on Facebook that you used to be a drug dealer and take every drug imaginable? Would you reveal that you drink and drive and think it’s no big deal? One particular profile I viewed, which is genuine as I know the owner, stated all of the above, all of which was written in text speak of course. There is no doubt that everyone who could see those status updates have now formed an opinion of the person who wrote them, and probably told mutual friends, or “friends” as the case may be.

Another social networking crime committed by facebookers is writing soppy status updates about the dead, which I think not only come across as embarrassing and silly, but also rather disrespectful. More often than not they are written in text speak, or are littered with spelling mistakes, and are almost always finished off with one or more exclamation marks followed by Xs and Os. I can’t think of anything less dignified than a badly typed “tribute” on a Facebook wall, which might appear just above another update about “going on the rip” or having a hangover. There is a time and a place, and I fear that soon we will be using Facebook to announce deaths and invite people to funerals, rendering the obituary pages of the Irish News completely pointless.

You must remember that people who do not know you very well, but who have been on your Facebook page, will base their entire opinion of you on the nature of your online presence: What you say, what you link to, what photos you appear in.

If you were a stranger viewing your profile, what would you think of yourself?

Catherine Wylie is a reporter at the Press Association in London.