Facebook's ominous shadow stretches out

I've been thinking about this topic for a while, and the main reason why is because I seem to be approaching it from a sociological perspective. Of course, I'm not a trained practitioner or even an expert on the ins and outs of the human condition, but no matter where you stand, it's easy to see that Facebook has been quite a privacy (or lack thereof) phenomenon in this young digital age.

I rarely go on Facebook anymore, not because I'm too busy (well, actually that is part of it) or because I'm not interested or curious to see what friends and family are up to, but more because there is little else that interests me on the site. And frankly, the choices others have made has helped me forge a particular path towards the monolithic social network. This was recently reinforced in me when I caught a documentary on CBC's Doc Zone called Facebook Follies. While there were some feel-good stories of family reunions and a married couple who met through the site because they had the exact same first and last name, there were others of head-scratching audacity and abject stupidity.

The stories were definitely intriguing, especially the ones that didn't make the headlines. It's no secret that we, as humans, have an inherent need for attention and to share details of our lives. Social media makes that possible in a way we've never seen before, allowing people to essentially broadcast snippets of their lives — where they've been, who they were with, what they drank, how drunk they got and what they like or hate, among other things. What's being laid out on a silver platter is personal data — data that isn't so easily removed or erased. If you want something to be private, don't post it.

When I first joined the site in 2007, I had made a point that the only albums I would post would be travel photos because I love traveling and showcasing my photography. Slice of life shots would be rare, and in most cases, I wouldn't even be pictured in them. Whatever other photos I was in were those I was tagged in. My reasoning was partly based in skepticism. A site growing in scope and popularity like Facebook had to monetize all this data somehow. I didn't know how, but I didn't want too much of myself out there to find out, either.

At first, I was surprised at those who refused or just weren't interested in joining the social network. After all, it was the hottest thing going at the time, and it enabled people to catch up after years and years. Now, I get it. They may not have realized it at the time, but in staying away, they were choosing not to become a product in a never-ending assembly line of data. Maybe they also didn't want to invite scrutiny. Or maybe, just maybe, they valued their privacy so much that they didn't trust putting their information in the public domain, where it can be viewed, mined and then sold as a commodity.

I'm not writing all this as a rebuke to what Facebook is or represents. There is plenty of good that comes from it, but I find myself puzzled by the incessant barrage of photos of babies and children and the sheer lack of self-restraint in comments people make. It's easy to understand why employers look for an applicant's Facebook profile. What other site can put insurance companies and bitter exes on the same path digging for the same dirt? And what other site can make a person's life seem almost as illusory as a Hollywood movie?

I'm not a parent, so I realize I can't empathize, but if I was I would refrain from posting anything about my children. They have no say in what gets posted and why, and I think that matters. I barely post anything about myself, as it is, and when I do, it usually has a travel or work element to it. I don't have axes to grind, I don't have points to prove and I have no desire to add spectacle to my virtual presence on there. On the flip side, my work life offers more leeway, where posting links to articles or blogs that I've done might help inform people willing to read them. A standalone Facebook page does make a lot of sense for any one person or business looking for some exposure. I just find it a little ironic that many of the social network's most active users seem to manage their profiles the same way, promoting themselves and their lives with purpose — or no purpose at all.

It's true, the social network has an uncanny ability to make the mundane seem interesting, and users know it. It's also terribly efficient at embarrassing people, though the irony there is that the root of said embarrassment usually comes full circle. In other words, you might post something one day that seems cool and funny, but could come back and bite you in the ass. Give most people an open canvas, and they're likely to make a mess.

I'm totally against censorship, but sometimes it makes you wonder if a few key restraints might actually be what the doctor ordered. Twitter limits you to 140 characters and is less about a profile and more about snappy comments, witty musings and an endless supply of links and tongue-in-cheek images. It's a bit disorderly, but it works, and it's generally more private than Facebook is. I only realized months ago that's why I probably liked it more, and why I'm fairly active on it.

Whether people realize it or not, Facebook is a sociological and digital experiment that is ongoing because it continues to evolve. Actually, I shouldn't single out Facebook alone, since all social networking really falls under that. I've been, and will continue to be part of that experiment, but I will do so on my terms — where I strictly control what goes in and keep tabs on what comes out.