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Is Facebook a “Public Forum?”

Posted by susabelle at 7:50 PM on December 26, 2011

I recently had a pretty disappointing encounter with someone on facebook.  He had been on my friends’ list for a year or so.  I was not close friends with him, but I had met him in in person at an event I attended, and he sent a friend request through an online photo album I had submitted pictures to (the event we both attended). He is also an acquaintance and facebook friend of my brother, who is also involved with the event through which I met this gentleman.

As is usual for me, I post a wide variety of things on my facebook page, from links to articles to pictures to commentaries to comics.  I also post about what’s going on in my life, my kids’ lives, books I’m reading, movies I’m watching, and good things that have happened to me.  I’m pretty much an open book on facebook, with one huge exception:  my profile is not public, and I limit my posts and comments only to those on my friends list that I want to reach or talk to.  This gentleman was one of those people, since he and I had a mutual interest in something.

So, I posted a link to an article from my hometown, about a Catholic school that had made a financial decision I didn’t agree with.  No biggie, I make such posts fairly often, and sometimes my friends agree with me, and sometimes they don’t.  There is usually some discussion at the comment level, and then we all move on to other things.  If there’s one thing facebook is, it’s a haven for “change the subject” or as the ADD crowd would say: “look, squirrel!”

This time, however, the comment conversation continued, to the point of some sharp words being spoken in the comments by several of my friends.  This gentleman was on one side, and everyone else was on the other, and it was getting out of hand.  I made one final post in the comment stream, telling all of them that the discussion was finished, it was time to move on.

It was at this point that the gentleman posted a comment that was rather ungentlemanly, and followed that up with a statement that if I didn’t want discussion then I shouldn’t post on a “public forum.”  Then he blocked me.

Of course I found this odd, since the original topic wasn’t all that controversial, and because I do not see my facebook page as a public forum of any kind.  Only the people I want to see what I’m saying are seeing what I’ve been saying; if I wanted it to be a “public forum” then I’d post my opinions somewhere else, something not locked down or limited to viewing by only a handful of people.  I consider facebook my “inner circle,” people who I share things with, people that I’ve generally met in person and that I have had more than just casual interaction with.

But it does make me think a bit more about what I share and why I share it.  Not because I wouldn’t have shared this particular link outside of facebook, because I’ve had some thought of making a blog post out of it on my personal blog at some point, but because we may think all these people who are on our friends list are sitting in our living room, that we know them well, and that they would never harm us.  Maybe they wouldn’t.  But then again, maybe they would.  Or at the very least, share our comments, intended for only certain ears, with those that are not in our “inner circle.”  How much of a public forum is facebook, even when it is locked down?

Things to ponder.

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