Facebook Morality

The other night I found myself in a conversation that I may have found rather ordinary between 2004 and 2007, back home north of Boston or some other semi-cosmopolitan place, but which felt completely irregular in 2010, in mid-town Manhattan. A friend was trying to decide if he should join Facebook.

“I only entered my email address and name and somebody already found me,” he complained.

His wife, my wife, and I, all of whom have been on Facebook for years, played along. We worked through the pros and cons. Keeping in touch with old friends that so frequently come and go in New York City: pro. Inevitably losing countless hours of productivity at work due to incessant status-checking: con.

In due time, the conversation moved to the inevitable gripes of those of us who are Facebook junkies. We complained about the users who are guilty of indulging too much information, the moms who don’t understand the difference between a public wall post and a private message, and the “friend invitations” you’d rather not receive. Aloof to all of this, our newest potential member listened in and asked the question that really is at the heart of social media: how do I know what I should and should not post on Facebook?

A recent essay in The New York Times Magazine considers this question, though in a round about way. The article, “The Web Means the End of Forgetting,” by Jeffrey Rosen, laments that the Internet has made it next to impossible for a person to control his or her identity or identities.

The piece begins with the oft-told story, well on its way with a few years and a few embellishments to becoming urban legend, of teacher-in-training Stacy Snyder who, weeks before she was supposed to be certified as a teacher, was booted from her school because salacious photos showed up on her MySpace page (this was 2006, so, okay). From there, Rosen goes on to identify the crisis: the difficulty in this brave new world of redefining oneself, particularly in different contexts. He follows his exegesis of the problem with a variety of potential solutions; from something called “reputation bankruptcy” to expiration dates for files so that after a number of years troublesome photos like those that got Ms. Snyder kicked out of school, will just disappear.

Facebook Morality isn’t an attainment of the ideal good; it is a reach toward our collective survival.

Rosen takes the reader through a brief survey of humanity’s relationship to self-identification, explaining that throughout most of human history, it was nearly impossible for one to change the way he was perceived as his identity was wrapped up in community, occupation, or class. Then came the blessed Enlightenment. Finally mankind could free himself of the pesky need for community and stand on his own as the “self-made man.” Equipped with this new ability to easily identify and re-identify one’s self, scores of Europeans emigrated to the United States, stuck flags in the ground, built McMansions and office buildings, put up fences, created cubicles, kept secrets, had affairs, and got away with it.

When the Internet arrived on the scene, some thinkers began to imagine how this network of connected computers could continue to keep us apart. But the opposite has proved true. The social network is the new village and a collection of photo albums, blogs, status updates, tweets, and fan pages have unified our disparate identities, even matching rather accurately our offline selves. With this, the public square, once a literal location but most recently the stuff of nostalgia has been resurrected, albeit online.

The bulk of Rosen’s article is dedicated to ways to fix this perceived problem. How can we get back to the good old days when I could be one person to my family, another to my friends, and yet another to co-workers? How can we regain the ability to redefine ourselves as often as desired? He wonders will the solution be “technological? Legislative? Judicial? Ethical? A result of shifting social norms and cultural expectations? Or some mix of the above?”

Did you catch that one right in the middle, ethical? Note it, because it’s nearly the last time a solution that involves personal responsibility is mentioned. What expiring files, companies hired to monitor one’s online identity, and even an onscreen anthropomorphic widget giving stern glances as a reminder to be careful online, have in common is: outsourcing responsibility. There’s nary a suggestion that amounts to if you’d be embarrassed if your co-workers saw you doing this, don’t do it, or, at least, don’t post it online. Rather, Rosen suggests that the Internet’s memory should be erased, noting that even the God of the Talmud forgives and forgets. Here, he nears an ethical answer, suggesting that our society could benefit by being more forgiving. And perhaps we will, not despite our permanent online identities, but because of them. We’ll all have one or two embarrassing pictures in our wake.

But what truly is missing from Rosen’s article, and indeed, from much of the conversation surrounding our new online identities, is the opportunity that this presents us to enter into a new morality. Call it Facebook Morality. When my friend who is considering joining Facebook asked how he should know what is appropriate to post online, I offered him this methodology:

“Imagine Facebook is a room filled with everyone you know,” I suggested. “And then imagine shouting whatever it is you consider posting at the top of your lungs. Or,” I continued, “think of the person in your life who is most likely to be scandalized by a picture or a link, a grandparent or former teacher, and then imagine showing it to him or her.”

This new morality, then, is not one dictated by individual conscience. You may think, “Sure I had a wild night last night, but I don’t regret any of it.” But that is different from thinking,”I had a wild night last night and I think everyone should have to experience it.”

In her essay “On Morality,” from her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion writes of a kind of “wagon-train morality.”  This she defines as the social code that dictates our collective responsibility to each other. To Didion, morality is not created in an individual’s conscience and thus relative from one person to the other, rather it is “a code that has as its point only survival, not the attainment of the ideal good.”

Facebook Morality isn’t an attainment of the ideal good; it is a reach toward our collective survival. Perhaps it is wrong to drink to excess, but Facebook Morality is not primarily concerned with that. Rather, it is concerned with the way in which the portrayal of a person drinking to excess may compromise his or her community. Therefore, Facebook Morality makes the decision to post or not to post, a moral question. It also opens up the opportunity to question behavior, providing a practical standard for one’s actions before sharing is even an option.

There is a new morality on the rise in American culture. It goes hand in hand with a new sincerity. And it is these, rather than new technology, which will provide the solution to our “collective identity crisis,” as Rosen calls it.

Here a parting word, a kind of benediction from a great moral teacher, the late Kurt Vonnegut, from his last collection of essays before he passed away, A Man Without a Country, seems fitting:

“Save our lives and your lives, too,” he writes. “Be honorable.”

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