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Issue Date:  November 16, 2007

Safety issues raise concerns, as does potential for polarized communities


Facebook began as a Harvard-only network in 2004, then caught on at other Ivy League Schools, finally becoming accessible on college campuses everywhere. It was opened to high schoolers in 2005. This was a controversial move, in part because Facebook’s existing members were concerned about online sexual predators targeting young students. But members of dozens of anti-high-school membership Facebook groups mostly said that high schoolers were annoying and frivolous.

But even high schoolers joined the inclusivity backlash when Facebook went “global” in 2006. Now, parents could join. And although privacy settings allow users to restrict who can access their profile, many were concerned about parents poking through their party pictures. In June of this year, over half of Facebook’s members were not students, and membership was growing fastest among people over 25. In 2007, users logging onto Facebook were greeted with the message that depending on their privacy settings, their profiles could come up in public searches through such engines as Google and Yahoo.

Universal access brings up bigger concerns than whether high schoolers feel their parents are encroaching on personal space. One Catholic mother in St. Louis, who asked not to be named, reported that her 17-year-old allowed a friend of a friend to have access to her profile. The young man later showed up at their house, uninvited, at 1 a.m. The family had to call the police.

The mother recounted being surprised by the parenting challenges Facebook presented. “When [kids] get older the big issues are ... drugs, sex. And Facebook and MySpace seem so innocuous. I was always focused on the big issues, you know, don’t drink and drive, those things so much in your face. [My daughter] doing something on the computer at that time didn’t seem like that much of a threat. Until that young man showed up on my doorstep.”

In September, the New York State Attorney General’s office launched an investigation into whether Facebook was, as it advertised, a safe space for teens. The investigation found that Facebook’s response to complaints about pornographic content and online harassment was sluggish, often taking weeks. Though Facebook asks users to guarantee that the content they post is not pornographic, users are, in effect, allowed to post anything as long as they check a box that certifies that the photo is not lewd. In October, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo reached a settlement with Facebook, where the company guaranteed stricter safety measures and resolution of complaints within 24 hours.

Of course, the same feature that makes Facebook helpful for scattered family, friends and activists -- access to and aggregation of personal information -- also contributes to its risks. Facebook is, like high school, college or adult life, an occasionally cruel and dangerous place. The vast online community, in knocking down some of the hurdles of communication, has also leveled some barriers between youngsters and those who would exploit them.

It is helpful and indeed unprecedented for like-minded Catholics to be able to reach one another on the scale that Facebook has allowed. It is also interesting to note that a person’s identification with the Catholic church is not enough to guarantee “like-mindedness” with another Catholic. Increasingly, Facebook allows the faithful to analyze each other’s information to discover what kind of Catholic someone is. Facebook has a place for adamantly pro-life Catholics as well as members of Catholics for a Free Choice. It has a group in support of women’s ordination, but the debates on the group’s message board underscore the point that harmonious beliefs among Catholics cannot be taken for granted.

It is valuable to feel part of a sub-community of the broader church that shares similar viewpoints, but the risk of increasing polarization within these groups is one that Facebook aggravates, some say.

In University of Chicago Law Professor Cass Sunstein’s book, he discusses the risks of being exposed only to similar viewpoints, and hearing only “echoes of [our] own voices.” This is manifested on the Internet, not only on Facebook, in many different ways, exemplified by the personalized news feed that gives readers only information and opinions they have preselected. While Internet users have access to more information than ever before, they also have more ways to filter it, and tend to seek out the information that reinforces their own viewpoints.

One risk, then, of the personalized virtual parishes that have sprung from Facebook is that they limit their members’ exposure to contrasting viewpoints. If we can adjust our virtual parish to fit only our needs and our own values, we never have to interrogate and examine what makes us all Catholic in the first place.

National Catholic Reporter, November 16, 2007

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