Joanne Fraill, a hitherto unknown mother of three from Manchester, is going down in history as the first ever person to face criminal prosecution for the inappropriate use of the Internet during a Crown Court trial. If you haven’t caught up with the news, Ms Fraill used Facebook to contact a defendant in the trial – not that bad, you might think, except Ms Fraill was on the jury. When you become a juror you are treated to a lecture on court procedures and the need to refrain from any contact with anyone involved in the case. Equally you are told not to read any newspaper or other reports of the proceedings and not to discuss the case with anyone outside of the jury room. You are told that to do so would be considered “contempt of court” which has a two-year prison sentence. Every juror is made fully aware of their responsibilities.

Some people may regret what they post on FacebookIt appears that Ms Fraill was well-aware of these because in her Facebook chatter with the defendant she said: “don’t say anything jamie, they could cause miss trial [sic]”. Ms Fraill has admitted that she was in online contact with the defendant but has denied that this constitutes an offence. We will have to await the High Court’s decision because of complex legal issues involving other appeals, still waiting to be heard. But whether or not a legal offence is proven, there is little doubt that the action seems inappropriate.

But Ms Fraill’s action on Facebook is not alone. Recently, a woman in a nearby village died – a situation made all the worse by the fact that some of her family members found out about the death because a so-called “friend” published an obituary style message on her Facebook wall. The insensitivity of doing that within a couple of hours of the death belies belief. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be a member of the woman’s family, to get an email saying “someone has posted on your relatives’s wall”? Off you pop to see what they say, to discover your relative has died. Not the best way to learn about it.

Cases like these could make us think that some Facebook users are stupid. But cases like these are not isolated. Every day you will find people amazed at what other people do on Facebook. They post inappropriate pictures for instance, or tell stories of their drunken night out. I know of one job hunter who wrote on her Facebook page that she had just “blagged her way” through a job interview; needless to say her potential employer declined to offer her the position. And there are cases where the police have caught criminals because they have boasted of their hoard on Facebook. Stupid or what?

Well, there is a possible excuse. It’s Facebook’s fault.

Facebook enhances the sense of intimacy and closeness between people; it is designed specifically to help you feel connected. The result is that for some people when they are on Facebook they feel as though they are in private conversation, isolated from the rest of the world. But they aren’t. Added to this, there is a general problem with using online technology – it messes up our concept of time. When you are focused on the screen and drawn into its world, you have no real signals of the passage of time, thus making that sense of isolation all the greater. In the “real world” we have several cues available on passing time – clocks, TV screens changing, lighting and so on. Online, we can become unaware of many of these and our feeling of time passing can alter. Combine that with our sense of personal connection and we can be in a world of our own when social networking online. And that allows us to do things we might not otherwise do.

Plus there is another problem with Facebook. In the “real world” you pick up cues from other people as to whether or not what you are about to say is appropriate. You check body language, facial expressions and so on to help you decide whether or not you should continue with your line of discussion. Often what you are about to say gets curtailed because you adapt it due to the immediate non-verbal feedback you get from those around you. Indeed, you get a “sense” of whether or not to say something. On Facebook such important feedback mechanisms do not exist.

So, how can you avoid being a stupid Facebook user? Easy peasy. Firstly, put a clock close to your computer screen – get a sense of time passing. Secondly, get into the habit of typing your message then standing up, walking away from the computer before returning to hit the enter key – or at the very least pausing, looking at the nearby clock for a while. Those seconds, or minutes, will give your brain a chance to mull over what you are saying.

Unless we do take time, unless we do pause before sending that message or posting that item on a wall, we could all easily be stupid Facebook users. It’s not that we are stupid – it’s that we are unskilled in using online social networks. We are all rather like toddlers still learning to talk – it’s easy to make mistakes. The problem is, mistakes on Facebook might end up with you in prison.

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