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Banning Things: Facebook, using a Mobile, then what?

September 8, 2009

At least two news stories last week were about banning things.

The first was Portsmouth Council banning staff from using Facebook after discovering that they spent 413 hours per month using it.

The second was the suggestion that ‘people’ should be banned from using mobile phones in various kinds of shared public space.

In the Portsmouth Council case I resisted the temptation to go for a straight “Doh!”  After all this is a responsible public body looking for a way to cut down on time-wasting, and the default way to look at Facebook use is that it is at best recreation, and at worst trivia. But there are some ways I think that either the action, or the reporting of it, should have delved deeper.

  • On a technical level, is this time that some people spent actively using Facebook or the total length of time that there were some browser windows open at a Facebook URL? If the latter, then these windows may have been in the background with the user occasionally glancing at it for an update.
  • Then there’s the distribution of the usage. The Council probably had to respond to some grossly aggregated stats – hence the headline total of 413 hours per month. Neither that, nor the 4 minutes per month per employee figure, tells us anything useful. Was this a handful of people spending large periods of time with Facebook open, or many people grabbing a few minutes here and there? Which departments and networks were involved, and in which of these might there be IT security implications.
  • Crucially – exactly how were people using Facebook. “Using Facebook” probably has the status that “Looking at the Internet” had a few years ago in terms of vagueness and superficial disreputableness. Facebook is almost an operating system – there are all kinds of uses to which people might be putting it – just as there are all sorts of uses to which people might be putting e-mail.

Sitting across the top of this scope for greater discrimination and sophistication in the Council’s response there is a principle involved. It hinges on how you regard people. Are they inherently ‘naughty’ people who will do the wrong thing unless constrained – and is outright banning, as opposed to culture, motivation, peer pressure and job design, the only form of available constraint or guidance? The message is “we know you will be bad unless we stop you”, and “you are all the same”, and by implication, “anything we don’t actively stop you from doing is therefore OK, you don’t have to exercise your own judgement, or self-restraint, or sense of what’s right and fair”. I’m sure that’s not a message that Portsmouth Council would have wished to send.

It is this same principle which applies to the idea of banning mobile phones in some public places – coverage of which was triggered on this occasion, I think, by the actions of a particular pub landlord. I can see the argument for zoning some of the uses of public space – “Quiet” rail carriages for example, whether the noise is mobile phones, laptops, or music players or maybe just noisy people – just as we used to have “No Smoking” carriages or bars. But I don’t think that this is what the story was about. It’s about the fact that there are some people, called “other people”, who use mobile phones in annoyingly loud and inconsiderate ways. So this should be banned in as many places as possible. The message again? It is that we can’t rely on the propagation of things called “manners” or “consideration for others”. It is that, in order to curtail the behaviour of some, we have to create and go to the trouble of enforcing, blanket prohibitions. I don’t care about whether this is serious or feasible – but I do care about those messages. By implication the rest of us cannot, for example, be expected to “say something” for fear of being abused (or stabbed?) – conflict of any kind has to be sub-contracted to another group of “other people”.

In my work, my vocation almost, I’m going to continue to encourage all kinds of individuals and organisations to open themselves up and listen more by increasing their understanding, and then their exploitation, of social media such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and a variety of Google and mobile applications. This includes their use within the workplace, and it includes a requirement for sophisticated discrimination between different kinds of use. That, in turn, requires that as many people as possible have some competence in, and a rounded view about, those social media channels. This wouldn’t be served by a blanket banning, at a technology cut-off level, of anything that’s both networked and ‘social’. [And, yes, I know that Portsmouth Council will restore specific service access to specific people for specific purposes – but that completely negates discovery and interconnection. Imagine cutting off the phones on this basis – and then restoring them case by case… “What sorts of calls do you think you might be missing?”].

Ironically, one of the things I hope that imaginative and creative civic use of social media might tackle is the culture of distancing and banning – of legislation and litigation – and some restoration of a stronger notion of community, consensus and responsibility.

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