Latest Facebook Debate

Who Should Really Be on the Shrinks’ Couch?


Facebook and MadnessA couple days ago, I popped in to inform my 90-year-old father – who was engrossed in a crime novel – that the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel had suggested he is a psychopath for not having a Facebook page.

Being my father, he responded cheerily with “Éso me alegra” (his version of “Hooray!”).

As the number of Facebook users declines in the United States and in most of the countries where its market penetration is roughly 50 percent, certain media outlets and human resources professionals have begun to sound warnings about not being on Facebook. Examined closely, these cautions have all the logical credibility of flat earth theory; but in a period of economic uncertainty and widely publicized episodes of mass violence, the sinister connection of social network anonymity, mental illness, and employment unsuitability is bound to raise some alarm bells.

Since articles referring to Der Tagesspiegel’s sensationalist linkage highlighted specific psychologists, I decided to do a little research into the two mentioned: Christoph Möller and Richard E. Bélanger.

Incidentally, you’ll find few references to either of them on the Internet. But both men seem to have jobs nonetheless.

Both practitioners focus on child and teen psychology, with an understandable interest in the effects of Internet usage on young people’s lives today. Möller has attended the SXSW (South by Southwest) Interactive festival in Austin, Texas (along with 48,999 other people). The only research of Bélanger’s that I turned up focused on Internet use by teenagers with chronic conditions, especially noting the frequency of the study group’s visits to Web-based health sites.

Der Tagesspiegel‘s pronouncements by the two professionals are hardly profound. Möller cautiously notes that it is possible that Facebook can provide feelings of positive feedback, and that these may have a beneficial effect – as long as users aren’t reliant on it for this function. Bélanger, who doesn’t mention Facebook specifically, was cited as having produced work indicating that young people who actively avoid connecting with people via the Internet may be more susceptible to depression than those who communicate with it.

The latter point isn’t unreasonable, given the target group (adolescents) under consideration. In pre-Facebook days (yes, these did exist), a similar correlation may have been made between those young people who never talked with friends on the telephone or socialized at camp, parties, church, school, the mall, what have you. The degree and type of socializing remain difficult measurement standards in such correlations, as differentials of geography, culture, community size, family size, mobility, class/income, and race may influence these “soft science” data (that is, data not accounting for hereditary patterns of mental conditions, brain damage, chemical imbalances, etc.).

What is most significant about this account is not the psychologist researchers’ assumptions but the media anxiety to boost Facebook’s necessity. Initially, I wondered how many shares of Facebook Der Tagesspiegel bought in the IPO. (Buying any demonstrates questionable judgment as far as I’m concerned, given ongoing privacy issues and companies’ reassessments of the network’s advertising value – and the second have increased with the discovery of “bot clicks” on advertisements.) But what I really think is at work in the creation of this Facebook-based pseudo-assessment is a reversion to the tradition of yellow journalism, most notably practiced by U.S. newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.

Likely the German people have tired of hearing about the euro crisis, so the newspaper is seeking a new audience.

Employers, however, comprise the other set  of demons against anonymity cited in the article, and recent evidence suggests that certain entities have some explaining to do. On the whole, firms would be wise to distance themselves from Facebook as a measurement for potential hires’ desirability, if they are indeed using it. (Responding to Forbes staffer Kashmir Hill‘s speculations over the importance of having a Facebook page in employers’ eyes, contributor Haydn Shaughnessy suggests Facebook’s irrelevance to credibility in four-fifths of the world, and even less in terms of work-related credibility.)

The most basic reason employers should get over any inflated ideas of Facebook’s importance is that it is not, technically speaking, itself a communications technology. It is a product that uses the Internet to create a virtual environment, comparable in that sense to the environment of an online role-playing game like World of Warcraft (though more akin to an online bar, absent the beverages and a much-needed bouncer).

To depend on Facebook activity as a measurement of employee competence, mental or otherwise, is in commodity terms as absurd as using the Oscar Mayer weiner song.

I blame Facebook’s novelty for this confusion, as well as its promotion by business consultants as a “tool,” so that it seems more active than it is in making it possible to communicate with people. A combination of directory service and individual Web pages hosted in one place, Facebook has existed only eight years. Thus, potential employees who grew up with Facebook always in their world will not apply for serious job positions for another 10 years, at least – assuming it’s still around then. Those who went through adolescence with Facebook just entered the job market. But the potential employee pool far exceeds the latter group, including a large number of people whose work kept them too busy to dither around on Facebook – as well as those who actively avoided a product designed chiefly to yap at them all day.

A more useful investigation than whether, say, Ingvar Kamprad (IKEA’s founder, with a net worth of U.S. $37.4 billion) shows antisocial tendencies for not playing FarmVille on Facebook would be for companies to measure productivity, credibility, and innovation before Facebook’s arrival against the same today – and to ask which they’d rather have for their firms.

The second, and critical, reason for employers to avoid the question of employees’ social activity is that it borders on the illegal, if not actually crossing over into a violation of labor law. March 2012 saw battles between Facebook itself and employers who sought employee account passwords. As both Facebook and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) pointed out, employers who plumb Facebook for employee information could open themselves up to discrimination claims. While U.S. senators have called on both the Justice Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to investigate the password request incidents vis-à-vis privacy and labor law, another area for litigation has cropped up over issues of free speech in the firing of a sheriff’s department employee, who simply “liked” his boss’s election opponent on the social network.

To put oneself in the position of being seen to discriminate against potential hires for not using a product unaffiliated with their role in your business is, to put it mildly, to risk your bottom line – and to open up a field day for the legal profession.

Finally, the nature of the interactions that do take place on Facebook should raise eyebrows, and to my mind constitute a rich area for psychologists to mine. A few egregious cases are:

  • The mother of a Swedish rapist who set up a Facebook page to defame her son’s victim.
  • The murder of a bed-ridden man in Sweden who posted his condition on Facebook.
  • The burglary of an Indiana woman’s home by one of her “friends” when she indicated on Facebook that she was going out to see a band.

Do I need to point out that the criminals and those supporting them … had Facebook pages? (Viewing my own news feed, it does occasionally strike me that if I didn’t know these people personally – if I were an outsider exposed to certain barrages of unedited, unconsidered, and temper-tantrum-impulsive thoughts – I would be quite certain I had hit a bulletin board hosted for the mentally unstable.)

When it comes to social networking I side with Andrew Keen, author of Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us. I laud the ideal of connecting to others to learn about them respectfully, but I see little movement toward that end in Facebook’s self-promoting, self-absorbed environment. Rather, it tends toward the unjustified assumption that one’s self-expression is always brilliant – and coherent – or that it will be quickly forgotten when it’s embarrassing. The basic unfamiliarity of most users with a text-based medium and with concepts of publishing leads to the durability of momentary frustrations and hurt – perfectly normal human emotions – so that, divorced from the contexts of vocal intonations, body language, and environment, rash words characterize individuals for a long time.

The upside is, we are increasingly aware of this, and trying to address it. But it is a very young process. Employers would do well to consider the whole “nature of the beast” – as well as their assumptions about their own aptitude in addressing the medium.

An unrealistic belief in one’s ability to foresee and control every possible factor doesn’t speak well of a company’s self-evaluation. Rather, it is the flexibility to adapt and respond to new circumstances that governs most profitable ventures.