Friday, September 24, 2010

Facebook: The Bane of Society or Just the Next Thing?

Earlier this week, a friend of mine with a young teenage daughter sent me a link to this article... "Facebook is Spreading Like the Plague". The premise of the author's message (and I paraphrase here) is that Facebook is evil and will be the ruin of mankind. You can read the article and make your own assessment of the author's message, but I believe that my succinct summary is pretty accurate.

My friend does not currently use Facebook, and this article made him hesitant about allowing his daughter to use the service. He was also concerned about how prevalent social media services were being used at his workplace. As you might suspect, I have a different point of view.

How many times do you think this article, or some version similar to it, has been written in the past? I’m guessing that the same argument has been made by concerned parents for:

SMS / Text Messaging
MP3s and portable music players (e.g. iPods)
GameBoy
DVDs
Internet Forums
Mobile Phones
Instant Messaging (IRC/IRQ)
AOL
Email
CDs
Handheld Video Games
CompuServe
Prodigy
Video Tapes
Philip's Cassette Tapes
BBSs
Usenet / Newsgroups
Citizens Band Radio
8 Track Tapes
Color Television
45 rpm Records
Black and White Television
Amateur “Ham” Radio
33 rpm records
Telephones
Radio
78 rpm records / Victrola
Newspapers
.
.
Books
.
.
The Wheel
.
.
Fire

Okay, maybe I’m am being a bit of a smart alec, but I think that you get my point. There is always some new technology, some device or service, that is going to sap the life and intelligence out of our children and ruin our society and culture as we know it. These arguments are also often made in regards to the use of these same types of technologies in the workplace.

I believe that whether you are referencing your children or employees, it all comes back to an appropriate level of supervision and a reasonable amount of control. Facebook only consumes every waking moment of some children’s and adult’s time because it is allowed to. If a parent or supervisor is concerned about how much time their child or employee spends online, they only need to establish some house rules regarding the hours that it is permissible. It is no different for Facebook than what it may have been for any of the other items in my list above.

As a proponent of new technology and a self-proclaimed early adopter, I probably lean towards giving my kids more leeway on these matters. Our family's rules are generally based upon the children’s performance at school and with the successful completion of their household chores. If they can maintain exceptional grades, get their chores done, and still get adequate sleep and exercise, we generally don’t care about their time on Facebook (or Xbox, or texting, or…).

My wife and I originally established Facebook accounts to monitor our own children. That was the deal; the kids could sign-up for Facebook as long as they friended us. There has been only a couple of instances where we suggested that they delete a comment or photo. It has actually been a good life lesson and social experience for them. Interestingly, once we were on Facebook, my wife and I both discovered many old friends, some who were monitoring their own children. It has been fun to reconnect and we have also found that the service is a very good way to communicate with extended family; much better than our previous attempts at mass emails, family websites, or periodic newsletters.

If employees in the workplace are spending too much time using these services, then it is quite possible that they don’t have enough work to do or they simply lack the self-discipline to control their own behavior. I would classify that as a supervision problem; not a problem with the technology.

It can be difficult determining if these technologies are beneficial or detrimental in the work place, especially when they are first introduced. It’s not too hard to argue that a little music from Pandora in the background may help some people be more productive. The use of Twitter / Yammer could help people share information and improve productivity. Time maintaining a LinkedIn profile may help business development efforts.

There are no hard and fast rules. With notebook computers and mobile email devices, many believe that employees work far more hours per day than what was expected in the past, so allowing someone to watch a couple of YouTube videos while they eat their lunch, or maintain their Farmville crops before starting their long commute home may actually help the company keep the employees happy and working hard(er).

The best part of social media for me is learning how to leverage it for use in my day-to-day work. I can provide examples of projects and business development opportunities that were only possible because of my connections on Facebook and LinkedIn. I believe that anyone who is not leveraging those sites today is really falling behind. And I mean “leveraging” by joining groups, making new contacts and engaging in discussions, not simply creating a profile and then never going back to the site again.

So is Facebook the bane of society? Nah! It's just the next thing. Just wait. It won't take long for parents to identify something else that is sapping the intelligence out of their children and they will all forget about how awful Facebook is.