Amy Groshek Avocation and Vocation

Why Using Facebook for Event Planning is Lazy and Evil

I know this is super controversial but…

I want to explore the ways in which using only Facebook for your event planning and public forum management socially excludes (even isolates) people who need to protect their privacy. This is an important thing to explore because many of us don’t consider, or don’t even know, the ways in which we exclude people by using Facebook in this way.

Why “but I have nothing to hide” is myopic, classist, and possibly sexist

We all have that militant Linux user cousin who insists that you never let your Web browsers manage your passwords and that everyone only ever message via XMPP. I think that cousin and her rights are super important, but I’m not talking about her.

There are many, many people in our society whose privacy must be protected, and whose safety and security is threatened by participating in social media. Let me list a few of hundreds of scenarios:

  • Your good friend who has had the misfortune to have a stalker.
  • Your good friend who ended up in an abusive relationship and is still stalked by his or her abuser.
  • Your good friend who has an estranged parent with untreated mental illness, a parent with some serious problems who destroyed your friend’s credit rating before he or she was old enough to walk.
  • Your good friend who has in the past been the victim of Internet bullying.
  • Your good friend who, as a public health professional, has served prisoners or other individuals from whom he or she wishes to remain not-findable on the Internets.

Maybe that list makes you shrug and say “Well, I don’t know anyone like that.” If so, ask yourself how many people you would tell if you had had a stalker or had been in an abusive relationship. There is a stigma around these things, a very classist stigma which applies, especially, to women and the poor. Which gives your friend every reason to never tell you that he or she was in an abusive relationship. Which means that you don’t know who needs to protect their privacy in this way. Which means that in order to protect the ones who need protection, you need to consider everyone to be in need of these protections.

When you, or your organization, places its public presence, threads, calendars, and invites on social media like Facebook, where participants must verify their identity and are asked increasingly specific questions about their location, their friends, and their activities, you undermine the privacy of those who want to participate, and you exclude those who must restrict their online identity. If receiving event announcements from you or your organization excludes a person who cannot safely have an online presence from participating, you are in effect discriminating against these persons. (Persons, it should be noted, who are often already in a more tenuous, threatened position either socially or financially as a consequence of whatever led them to protect their online privacy in the first place. These persons are therefore more, not less in need of the social connections that you or your organization might provide.)

Using FB for your online presence is especially egregious, in my opinion, for publically funded organizations, and it is absolutely the worst thing for educational institutions. Why is it a bad thing for an educational institution—or any branch of an educational institution—to engage in? Because we already have a law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), that tells us what a bad idea this is. FERPA is a very old law, and it has never been revised for the online era. But it bars an institution from disclosing “enrollment information” about students without adult (parent or student) consent. If I am enrolled at X institution, and Jane Stalker calls X institution to try and access my records, the institution can tell Jane that I am enrolled, but that’s it. Jane Stalker cannot find out my class schedule, the buildings where I attend, the courses I’m enrolled in, none of that. No one can find that information out without my consent. In the eLearning industry in the United States, we have spent a lot of time thinking about FERPA, because eLearning needs to provide the privacy protections required by FERPA. FERPA is why course instructors cannot ask students to post to Facebook, or to create public blogs as class assignments. It is not ethical for us to ask those who must protect their privacy to stop doing so for the sake of a grade or a degree. Posting a photo of a student participating in an athletic activity at a University might not be an outright violation of FERPA, but it does tell Jane Stalker exactly where that student can be found on every Tuesday night of the semester.

Refutations, refutations, refutations

But everything can be hacked.

That is true. But not every Joe Stalker can hack or can afford to pay a hacker. Are you a hacker who would risk the legal repercussions of hacking a privately owned site and violating others’ privacy? Me neither. Give your friend with the stalker the benefit of the doubt and respect his or her privacy under the assumption that his or her stalker isn’t a hacker. It’s the least you can do. (If he or she is still alive and has any credit his or her stalker is probably not a hacker.)

But Facebook is private. I can control what people see.

Have you ever taken a screenshot of your smartphone or computer screen? Anyone that can view what you’ve posted on Facebook can take a screenshot of it. And guess what: that screenshot can go anywhere. It can be posted anywhere on the Internet. Any. Damn. Where. The granularity of Facebook’s internal controls means nothing, unless you are only friending the 10 people that you most absolutely trust in the world. In which case you won’t be getting very many event invites and might belong in the list above.

But I have to promote myself.

That’s awesome! I’m glad you have the kind of success which requires that you make endless posts to Facebook. Go nuts with that. But if you need to have threaded comments, send out event invites, and the like, you might want to look for other solutions, in order to accommodate those whose privacy needs to be protected.

But I/we can’t do Web design. I/we are just a poor business owner/social justice organization.

I know you all can’t do Web design. Believe me. I’ve seen the results when you do. But that’s what Wordpress is for. Twitter, also, does not pretend to the privacy controls of Facebook, and allows for much greater user anonymity. Google Calendars are super easy to manage, share, and embed. And email listservs still work great. This is just a rudimentary list. It doesn’t have to be beautiful. It just has to provide anonymous access to information. And you can probably find some widget to port that event calendar right damn beautifully into Facebook for all your Facebook-loving followers. Why, finally, would you restrict your event promotion to just Facebook users? If you’re operating under a growth model, you want to be seen in as many places as possible, and get all information and features out from behind login barriers.

But Facebook is so easy!

It is, isn’t it. It is easy to give up your privacy, and easy to take it away from others. This is not an accident. Facebook is not in this business for free. Everything we do on Facebook generates revenue for Facebook. We are the gerbils on Facebook’s huge data mining gerbil wheel.

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