Are Facebook users stupid?

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.

Are Facebook users stupid? 1

10 thoughts on “Are Facebook users stupid?”

  1. I'm sorry, but I think this is largely nonsense and you're overstating the case.

    There are stupid people in real life who probably do stupid things on Facebook. It is a very flimsy argument to then advance the case that everyone on Facebook is stupid or that people behave more stupidly on Facebook. Maybe Facebook just provides more opportunities for daft people to do daft things.

    I don't really agree that people go into some kind of trance when online, otherwise you would have to say that about anyone who sits at a computer all day or does any kind of involved work. What does losing track of time have to do with saying dumb things? In any case, on Windows 7 there is a rather nice clock feature in the bottom right hand corner which I look at fairly regularly.

    I agree that people should be wary of the fact that they're not in a private conversation if they're posting on someone's wall. However, if the content of their private messages is available to the police or courts, then we need to be asking another question all together – which is "how much of what you believe to be private is actually private from the authorities and is Facebook contributing to a Big Brother state".

    As for the woman who was boasting on her wall about her job interview – when is this information from? Facebook tightened up all of its privacy several years ago, so most people can set their wall to be seen only by their friends or friends of friends. Assuming she wasn't friends with the employer, they should not have been able to see her comments. If she hadn't set her privacy options correctly, then perhaps that is careless rather than out and out daft or stupid.

    Contacting a defendant seems bizarre. But with only the bare bones facts, we're not really in a position to judge the reasons behind it. News reporters like to give all the salacious details to a public that wants to be shocked and entertained, but they are not very good at providing all the salient facts in order to form a reasoned opinion of the situation. A recent report on Channel 4 gave us half the facts about why the Air France flight from Rio to Paris fell out of the sky, but did not explain why the plane was travelling at only 120mph and why being pitched up would make it fall into the ocean. That annoys me – I'm intelligent enough to understand the basic physics off it.

    Back to Facebook – personally, I do take momentary pause to consider if what I'm saying is actually funny or helpful. I probably don't always get it right, and text is a really bad medium for communication – for the reasons you stated and more – no tone of voice! But the whole thing would die of lack of spontaneity if everyone was to get up and walk around before posting. And come on, not very realistic is it!


    • Jane – thanks for your comment. Perhaps I didn't quite get my point across well enough. Some people who sit in front of computers for hours do indeed enter a trance-like state; there is plenty of evidence on that. Lack of time tracking does make people say stupid things because our concept of time is something that anchors us in the present. When we lose our time concept we do start to say or do strange things – again there is research evidence on that one too.

      The woman who posted her job interview information was clearly careless with her privacy settings as the potential employer found it posted on her wall, available to anyone. The same was true for the police who found the criminals. But many people do not think of privacy settings when they think they are only talking to their friends – it is the highly social, connected nature of Facebook that helps people lose sight of its public nature.

      I am not suggesting that everyone who uses Facebook is stupid. But I am suggesting that online technology allows us to appear stupid – unless we have some method of considering what we say before we hit the enter button. Whatever works for you really – I take a break for a moment or two.

      I've just paused, by the way, looked out of the window for a minute or so at the birds feeding in my garden and then returned to see if my comments make sense. I hope it hasn't spoiled the spontaneity for you….!

      • Graham,

        Thanks for responding. Look, if I go with my gut, I have to say that I think your article is written for writing's sake. The arguments are flimsy and not terribly well coordinated.

        To be a total pedant, Ms Fraill is NOT "the first ever person to face criminal prosecution for the inappropriate use of the internet during a Crown Court trial". Why? Because she is facing criminal prosecution for Contempt of Court, not inappropriate use of the internet. As far as I know, there is no crime of "inappropriate use of the internet" and therefore she cannot face prosecution for it.

        As someone paid for their psychological studies and analyses, I'm going to assume you have a BSc in Psychology. I would therefore expect a certain degree of rigour to arguments. Maybe it isn't Facebook or losing track of time that is making us stupid, but just the internet in general!

        Anyway – good title! Got me hooked. I just didn't really buy anything that you said after that, and came away with the distinct feeling that this was a blog post designed purely to garner interest from a hot, current story, but which doesn't offer that much insight as the arguments are flimsy.

        • Jane, I'm a great fan of "gut feeling" and so if your "gut" is telling you my arguments are flimsy, that's fine. If we are going to exchange pedant points, I did not say Mr Fraill was facing a "charge" of inappropriate use of the internet, because as you rightly point out there is no such thing. Maybe the word "for" is misplaced and I should have said "as a result of" instead.

          You are happy to check my qualifications in psychology – I have two Bachelor degrees, two Masters degrees and two further postgraduate qualifications.

          Maybe my short blog post on the subject is flimsy because it is not a scientific discussion of the literature. I'm happy that what I have said is true and that the background to it stands up to professional scrutiny if required. Indeed, my professional gut instinct tells me I am right…! Oh gosh we're back to instincts again….!

  2. I think social networking is still very much in it's infancy, and as such the users of social networks (the general public) are still learning how these systems should be used, what's appropiate, not appropiate etc. In 5 – 10 years time when social networks become even more a part of everyday life, and education on the use of these systems is more widespread and thorough, then I think we'll see much less of this kind of thing. Though as mentioned, you will always have to suffer idiots in all walks of life unfortunately.

    Just worth noting also, I had a very similar situation in my family with the online obituary issue. A member of my family posted a message several hours after a death, and my family in the USA found out about the death through Facebook – they were asleep when the message was posted and couln't be contacted.

    Plain stupidity, ignorance, or some people's way of grieving?

    • Thanks for the comment Adam – I agree we are still learning how to use these new systems and so we may well see a reduction in issues with them. Sorry to hear another obituary example. It is perhaps a way of grieving, but done without much apparent thought. But then in grief straight-thinking is in short supply possibly.

  3. Online doesn't cause stupidity. It just allows stupid people to show how stupid they are more easily, more quickly and in front of a lot more people than offline.

    Graham is right in that the immediacy that Facebook and online interaction means that we do not get the benefit (ironically) of social cues to help us find our way.

    But it really does come down to intelligence and common sense. Facebook cannot be blamed fora shortage of either.

    • Jim. I agree that Facebook can't be blamed for a lack of common sense and that yes it does provide an opportunity for people to show us how daft they are…!

  4. Hi Graham, flimsy, perhaps – however, Jane raises some valid points, as do you.

    I always read what you write as it is generally from a good perspective and frankly, social media has got a little bit out of hand.

    Only today I posted a comment on a question asked in LinkedIn because it was – in my view- a direct attempt to solicit contacts for an event – the perpetrator was informed by me that I thought it was out of order and removed the post accordingly. However, I and really don't want to get involved in Social Media policing as who is to say what is right or wrong? We hope against all hope that people are not all like the ones you mentioned in your article and actually take a little time to consider their comments both on 'professional' Social Media sites and of course facebook and the like.

    I think Jane has taken your blog post a little out of context in as much as I see it as a warning to Social Media users to 'take care out there'. We have all suffered from sending that email to the wrong person or making an inappropriate comment on a post or two, perhaps the social media sites need to put an 'are you sure?' warning prior to posting – that might help. Somehow, I doubt it. I see many facebook walls that seem to discuss very open subjects and even people posting their address and phone number in a comment because they need someone to contact them.

    We (you and I) provide training on the use of these media outlets to professionals, perhaps we should think about offering our services to the general public?


    Andrew Palmer

    PS – Jane – great response by the way…..

    • Hi Andrew,

      Yes – I got the gist, and to be fair, I don't really have any argument with the sentiment of "beware what you post on the internet – it may come back to haunt you".

      I just thought the way in which it was argued was quite contrived. Most people, as far as I know, go about their Facebook and Twitter lives without incident. If people need training, they probably need training in social skills and common sense, rather than online networking sites. Although I concede that there are a number of "business" people out there who commit faux pas on places like LinkedIn on a regular basis. So maybe they need some training.

      I was massively into Web 1.0, so I guess I take it for granted how you're supposed to behave on the internet. But I still get it wrong sometimes.


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