Sunday, June 1, 2008

Ethics of Friending and Gossip

This is interesting. An old article on the ethics of Facebook de-friending in Slate magazine is now on the most emailed list. Here is the author's advice on de-friending in 2007:

Is it OK to de-friend someone?

Say you've been too generous with your friending policy, and a gaggle of strangers is now hogging your News Feed. You too can launch a Great Facebook Purge. The beauty of this is that no headline or notification pops up in your ex-friend's inbox announcing, "You've suffered a humiliating rejection at the hands of _________." It's all very stealthy, thus making it the perfect way to deal with promiscuous frienders.

But what if your so-called friend scans through their friend list and notices that you've gone missing? First off, anyone who is policing their Facebook account this rigorously is morbidly obsessed and thus best kept at arm's length. If she confronts you about it, the best strategy is to plead ignorance: Perhaps the site's massive growth has led to some unexpected technical difficulties? Re-friend, then wait at least six months before trying another de-friending.

When we started this blog, people thought an Internet ethics was far fetched, but the idea seems to be catching on--even with those who are not completely aware of it. You may have seen the expose, tell-all story in the New York Times last weekend from the woman who gossiped her way to stardom but now feels a bit dirty about it. This is a funny excerpt from the article (funny in a sad way):

As Henry and I fought, I kept coming back to the idea that I had a right to say whatever I wanted. I don’t think I understood then that I could be right about being free to express myself but wrong about my right to make that self-expression public in a permanent way. I described my feelings in the language of empowerment: I was being creative, and Henry wanted to shut me up. His point of view was just as extreme: I wasn’t generously sharing my thoughts; I was compulsively seeking gratification from strangers at the expense of the feelings of someone I actually knew and loved. I told him that writing, especially writing about myself and my surroundings, was a fundamental part of my personality, and that if he wanted to remain in my life, he would need to reconcile himself to being part of the world I described.

After a standoff, he conceded that I should be allowed to put the post back up. As he sulked in the other room, I retyped what I’d written, feeling vindicated but slightly queasy for reasons I didn’t quite understand yet.

That "queasy" feeling is your moral compass trying to tell you something: Stop what you are doing.

Total freedom to act with pure impunity is not a good thing. It is something moral philosophers have talked about throughout history. Sometimes restraint is the kindest thing you can do.

The ironic thing is that this meta-narrative of how the author felt bad about doing something only worked to promote her story and (probably) compound the damage to those hurt. I gave a talk at Net Impact in San Francisco on Friday about Internet ethics. I asked who had read this New York Times article. Everyone had read it but no one could finish it because they were so repulsed by the actions of the author.

If you did make it to the end of the article, you would have seen that the author came around:

I understand that by writing here about how I revealed my intimate life online, I’ve now revealed even more about what happened during the period when I was most exposed. Well, I’m an oversharer — it’s not like I’m entirely reformed. But lately, online, I’ve found myself doing something unexpected: keeping the personal details of my current life to myself. This doesn’t make me feel stifled so much as it makes me feel protected, as if my thoughts might actually be worth honing rather than spewing. But I still have Emily Magazine as a place to spew when I need to. It will never again be the friendly place that it was in 2004 — there are plenty of negative comments now, and I don’t delete them. I still think about closing the door to my online life and locking them out, but then I think of everything else I’d be locking out, and I leave it open.

No comments: