Friday, February 11, 2011

Social Networking and Our Jobs

Being "lost in pop culture" means many things. It involves looking at entertainment media, most certainly, which I spend most of my time on this blog doing. But it also means looking at events going on in the culture itself, and reflecting on how these events are changing the culture in which we live.

Social networking is the defining media of our times, and of this current generation. It's amazing to think that in merely 20 years we've gone from beepers to cell phones to e-mail, internet and now social networking sites. Being able to stay in constant contact with everyone in our lives seems to have made our lives more transparent, our opinions more available, and our secrets less secret.

This was hammered home today for me in a story I read on the Huffington Post about a high school teacher, Natalie Munroe, in Pennsylvania, who used a blog called Natalie's Hand Basket to not only talk about her day-to-day life, but also about her work as a teacher.

She used her blog specifically to address her frustrations with her students. In one particular post, she created a series of comments she wished she could select when filling out her students' report cards. Of the comments, here were some of the most incendiary:

"I hear the trash company is hiring."

"Just as bad as his sibling. Don't you know how to raise kids?"

"I didn't realize one person could have this many problems."

"I won't even remember her name next semester if I see her in the hall."

"One of the few students I can abide this semester."

"Unable to think for himself."

"There's no other way to say this: I hate your kid."

I wish I could be up in arms about this. I wish I could be offended and outraged like many of the people who posted comments on her blog. Unfortunately, I can only feel sympathy and sadness. Maybe it's because I'm a teacher and can understand where she was coming from. Kids can be very frustrating, and I would be remiss if I didn't say that in the privacy of my own home, or in the privacy of select company, or in the privacy of a journal I haven't expressed similar thoughts.

But that's the point. Privacy. It is a sign of the times that a high school teacher might find it acceptable to put her thoughts about her students on the Internet for anyone to read. Did she think that no one would read it? Did she think that since she was exercising free speech and didn't give any specific student names that no one would care, or that there would be no fallout?

Social networking, I believe, has convinced many of us that it is okay to say anything and everything that comes to our mind right as it pops up. Twitter, with its 140 character outbursts, has caused more than a few controversies. The even more popular Facebook enables you to make public everything you think about to a worldwide audience. Last year, a young man who was employed by the Pittsburgh Pirates was fired when he made a negative comment about the re-signing of the team's general manager. He wrote, not as an employee, but a disgruntled fan who'd faced years upon years of misery rooting for the disgraceful Pirates franchise. It was easy to understand his frustration, but he lost his job for exercising his free speech.

Good thing he was only one of the guys wearing a pirogi costume and running races between innings.

Mrs. Munroe isn't so lucky.

I think we forget that the things we post on-line have the potential of being read by lots of people. Or maybe we know this, but we have a "death wish" of sorts that requires we post things we know can cause us pain. If I'm having a bad day at work and want to rag on the boss, saying something on Facebook might give me a feeling of power not just because I said it, but because there's a chance the boss just might see it. In a way, our connection to the social network is like the connection between drugs and users -- ask any user if they know shooting heroin can kill them. They will all say 'yes.' And they'll probably say it while getting tied off.

It's a paradox. The more public we make ourselves, the more privacy we seem to need. I'm sure Mrs. Munroe is thinking about this right now, filled with regret. I'm hoping the vitriol she displayed on her blog isn't what's really in her heart. Telling the world everything we feel and think may seem tempting, but it is most certainly a Pandora's Box. File this under cautionary tales for the new generation.