The TV special "Saturday Night Live: Just Commercials," which ran Sunday in prime time, included a parody commercial which aired on SNL earlier this season in which a young man (Andy Samberg) is horrified to discover that his mother (guest host Jane Lynch) has joined Facebook.
The parody commercial was for a filtering software which would supposedly translate any of the young man's potentially-offensive posts into content his mother would like. For example, when the young man types a post critical of a religious conservative TV pundit, the mother (who apparently likes that pundit) sees it instead as "I need new dungarees." In response, she cheerfully offers to send her son a department store coupon she just clipped. Similarly, a photo of the young man partying a little too hard with his friends is automatically doctored to make it more acceptable to the mother.
It was a funny joke, but it illustrates an interesting problem posed by social networking software. As your network grows, you tend to add friends and acquaintances who know you in different ways, from different aspects of your life.
As the character in the parody ad has discovered, that can cause problems. There might be things you would say to your friends but not to your co-workers, or vice versa. I don't think that's hypocrisy; I think it's just that we relate to different groups of people in different ways, and we have different comfort levels when it comes to sharing with different groups.
Back in the earlier days of the public Internet, I was part of alt.fan.dave_barry, a Usenet group -- a prehistoric type of Internet message forum -- consisting of people from around the country who were fans of the humorist Dave Barry.
Barry once accidentally posted a humorously-vulgar and politically-incorrect message to the newsgroup; it was supposed to be a private e-mail message. He then had to apologize both to the newsgroup and to the person who was meant to get the e-mail. The term "chuckletrousers" (from Barry's original message) and the number 2,038 (from the intended recipient's reply to Barry's apology) became in-jokes among the alt.fan.dave_barry crowd, and we were delighted when Barry occasionally worked the number 2,038 into his columns as a nod to his fans. (Do a Google search for "Dave Barry 2038" for examples.)
The discussion in alt.fan.dave_barry ranged far beyond reacting to Dave Barry, however, and the group became a sort of collegial gathering of people who shared a common sense of humor.
I never knew any of these people in person.
As Usenet faded away, I had fallen out of contact with most of the old crowd, but then a few months back I reconnected with a handful of them on Facebook. If you use Facebook, you know how that goes; you connect with one person, and then all of that person's friends notice you on his or her wall, and if they have any contact with you they'll send you friend requests, so it's not uncommon to get several such requests in short order.
A few weeks back, I posted a link to my Facebook wall of a story that a co-worker had written about Korley Davis and how her illness had united the community. I had only brief acquaintance with the family, but like many others I'd been moved by Korley's plight and by the way it seemed to bring people together.
One of my alt.fan.dave_barry acquaintances left a puzzling comment under the link. Without context, I'm still not sure whether it was meant to be funny, or a serious challenge to the idea of praying for someone's health, or something else. Whatever the intent, I found it really inappropriate, especially since the woman who made it had no way of knowing the family whose pain she was mocking.
I didn't want any of my real-life, in-person friends to read the comment and think I was being insensitive (or, more accurately, that I was condoning insensitivity) to a family going through a terrible situation. I didn't really know this woman very well in the first place, and I decided it would be easier to just quietly delete her from my Facebook friends and hope she didn't notice.
She did notice, however, and now I've gotten a new friend request from her, puzzled as to why we aren't friends anymore.
Previously in this space, I've hinted that it's sometimes better to pare back your Facebook friend list to people you actually know and consider friends. I think this is a great example of why.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.