If nothing else, the recent rash of Facebook-related stories -- including the most recent one involving a group devoted to harassing and making racist comments about a homeless black woman in Cambridge, Ontario -- helps to drive home the fact that instead of a hard-and-fast boundary between private and public, we now have an ever-expanding grey area. Comments like the ones that members of the "Obeeba" group made about running over or the homeless woman in Cambridge are probably made all the time in bars and laundromats, or at meetings of the local gun club. Once they appear on Facebook, however, they effectively become public, and that changes how we perceive them.
Take another example: A group of law students at the University of Toronto who help advise injured workers on their rights recently sent out a copy of a letter that the group wrote to the chairman of the provincial Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. In the letter, the members of Advocates for Injured Workers complain about a Facebook group called WSIB Crew, which the AIW said contains a number of disturbing photos. The pictures are clearly intended to be funny, and involve absurd or bizarre situations that could lead to workplace injuries, including a man riding a unicycle through a meat locker filled with sharp hooks, a man fixing a fuse panel while standing in a fish tank, and a man sawing lumber while wearing a pair of joke-shop glasses with plastic eyeballs on long springs.
The U of T group doesn't see anything amusing about the Facebook site or the photos, however (both of which were removed as I was writing this post). The letter says that the group "includes pictures and comments which are so repugnant and offensive that we felt compelled to bring the matter to your attention and request that disciplinary action be taken against those responsible," including what the AIW says is a claims adjudicator at the WSIB. The letter goes on to say that the photos and the comments on them display "a contemptible level of callousness" towards injured workers, and that they show the WSIB views injured workers as "worthy of mockery, rather than respect and empathy."
In the case of the worker sawing wood while wearing joke-shop goggles, for example, the AIW says that "the implication is the worker is stupid for not wearing proper goggles and is himself to blame for his impending injury." Taken as a whole, the U of T group says that the photos "are clearly meant to imply that workers are stupid and deserving of whatever happens to them." In addition, the AIW notes that several of the photos have a homosexual angle to them. The implication, it says, "is that the WSIB employees think that gay sexuality or sexual harassment is a laughable form of workplace injury. This is demeaning both to gay people and to those who have suffered sexual harassment on the job."
My first response to the letter was that the members of the AIW clearly have no sense of humour. The photos on the WSIB Crew's Facebook page are no different than any of the other funny photos that people email to each other thousands of times a day, many of which are cruel, racist, sexist, or otherwise inappropriate. As the AIW points out, however, Facebook is more public than it is private -- and the group uses (or used) the WSIB name as well as the official logo of the board. Does that mean they should be fired or disciplined? What if the photos were emailed instead of posted? Or pinned to a board in the staff lunchroom?
Issues like this one force us to look at what we consider acceptable behaviour, and what we do when that behaviour leaks out into "public" areas. Facebook appears to have taken down this particular group, but there will undoubtedly be others.