Once upon a time, someone invited me to join this website called “Facebook.” She wanted to show me some pictures she had just uploaded (yes, like many stories, this one begins with a girl), but I had to jump through the hoop of signing up to see them first. I did so, of course, and that’s how I found my way into the now-ubiquitous king of the social networks.
Facebook for me was a personal space. I was in college when I joined it, and although many of my friends were also participants (or shortly thereafter became ones), my parents were not, and certainly neither were my bosses. In fact, Facebook initially enforced this separation. Initially, only students at select universities (beginning with Harvard) were allowed to become members. Shortly thereafter, students at other universities and colleges were invited to join. Only later were non-students allowed to join the (at the time) fledgling network, and much later still, anyone at all.
But the fact remained that during its formative years, Facebook was a place shaped and run by and for college students, and hosted their private, generally unprofessional, sometimes poorly thought-out lives and the events therein (you know, college). Because of this shaping, Facebook was like a digital dorm room for me and others. Although things have changed, although the first wave of Facebook participants have by and large been graduated and left their literal dorms, and, although personally I’m an alumnus now as well, in many ways I still think of the network — now the same perhaps the same place in name alone — as being that kind of space: One where young adults can be carefree and cavalier and express their newfound voices (and party pictures). It’s personal, for me, not professional.
But, there is a problem. The rest of the world doesn’t seem to share my nostalgic (wishful) view of this personal space as remaining personal. My work is one instance of this being true. In many ways, frequently in the name of “work-life balance,” my office blurs the lines between “me time” and “work time.” We have liberal telecommuting policies, we encourage office camaraderie, we are generous with holiday time and vacation flexibility, and we embrace Facebook. So long as the social network doesn’t interfere with one’s work or become excessively used, it isn’t a problem when one has a free moment to take a quick break and check in.
This all sounds well and good, and in many ways, it is. But, there are downsides to a lack of hard delineation between “where I share things with coworkers” and “where I share things with friends and family,” seen perhaps best when considering when one’s personal life and that of one’s coworkers or superiors — and when they are in conflict.
Consider this: The cardinal rule of polite dinner conversations (aside from using the right utensil and not wiping your face on the tablecloth) is never to discuss politics, religion, or sex; and, yet, people are often incredibly upfront about their views on these topics — sometimes obnoxiously so — on Facebook, as elsewhere on the Internet. The wall of “anonymity” seems to make people comfortable sharing things they wouldn’t otherwise, in ways they wouldn’t otherwise. But you are not anonymous to your bosses, and they are not anonymous to you.
So, when is an invisible wall erected between “we shared this at work” and “we believe this personally?” When can one party trust the other to be objective and not allow conflicting views on sensitive or volatile issues to influence how they are treated at the office? What should happen when one person feels compelled (explicitly or implicitly) to associate and share their otherwise confidential space with those outside their sphere of comfort and trust?
My feeling (whether the world shares it or not) is this: My Facebook account and the content I share on it is my personal space. Much as my house is to my cubicle at work, my Facebook is to what I share with people at work. If I invite you into my living room, that’s one thing. I’ve indicated that I trust you and want to share my space with you. But, if you invite yourself into my living room, and I feel as though I “need” to let you in, it’s another thing altogether. If you don’t like my decorations, or my views on sex, religion, and politics (or other topics), don’t complain, and don’t hold it against me. You brought yourself there. This goes even — perhaps especially — for those with power over me.
I think this is uncharted territory. Facebook hasn’t been around long, and businesses have been quick to jump into and try to integrate with the technology without considering the long-term ramifications, or deeply considering how to handle conflicting personal views held by people with unequal power and authority. What do you think? What is acceptable or unacceptable? Under what circumstances is a subordinate at a workplace “required” to accept and/or share with a supervisor who requests his or her “friendship?” What should (or should not) happen if their personal beliefs come into conflict?