The Litloves Disagree Over Facebook

When Mister Litlove got in from work last night, he found me deep in George Orwell’s 1984. Our son is reading it for his exams next summer, and I decided to keep him company, having never read it myself. Mister Litlove was already familiar with the novel.

‘How are you getting on?’ he asked

‘I’m not sure what I think at the moment,’ I replied. In all honesty, I’m not that far through. So far I have been introduced to the main protagonist, Winston Smith, living a life of mental torment as he silently rebels against the totalitarian state he finds himself in. Watched at all times by Big Brother, Winston fears that a visit from the Thought Police is only an involuntary twitch or unfortunate expression away. And he knows how absolute is the control that the state operates over its citizens; his job is to falsify, or rather, correct, old documentation, newspaper articles, reports, and so on, when the predictions they contain are not borne out by events (or at least the ‘events’ that Big Brother deems necessary to have occurred). The past is endlessly rewritten to erase the discontinuities of history, and to make Big Brother seem perfect and omnipotent.

Well we must have been in one of those faintly abrasive marital moods, as we bickered a bit over whether 1984 was or was not a response to the threat of Communism as it appeared when Orwell wrote the novel in 1949. But then Mister Litlove said,

‘That reminds me about a thing I heard on the radio about Facebook and that privacy issue….’

‘You’ll have to back up a bit,’ I said. ‘What privacy issue?’

‘Like the fact that you can type into google ‘Bored with my wife’ or ‘Looking for fun’ and you’ll come up with Facebook entries.’

Personally, I felt that if you were stupid enough to update your status to: Bored with my wife and looking for fun, you deserved all the foreseeable consequences. But I said, ‘I’ve never once had a reference to Facebook turn up in a google search.’

‘I’ll send you the link to the article about it and you can see the search results for yourself,’ said Mister Litlove, in that way that arguments so often miss the point of the matter. ‘But Facebook isn’t as private as it looks.’

‘Okay, so what’s the problem with that? If you write things on Facebook, then surely you have to be all right with people knowing about them?’

‘But you might have something in your past that you don’t want a potential employer to know about.’ I began to protest but Mister Litlove cut me off. ‘No, the programme was talking all about this. It said that not everyone has a coherent life. That some people go through distinct stages, and change and become very different people.’

‘But that still wouldn’t be healthy at all, to cut yourself off completely from the past. That would be like saying: “That wasn’t me. I didn’t do that.” And it would be sort of scarily dissociated.’

‘But you might have something like a prison record. They were saying that employers hardly ever choose to take someone on if they have previous convictions.’

‘The problem of getting employment after serving a prison sentence predates Facebook!’ I protested. ‘And in any case, if you’ve done something really wrong then you have to integrate it into your life. It’s massive, having been in prison, and the only way you’d prove you’d changed for the better would be to accept responsibility for what you’d done along with the consequences.’ Thinking about it, I had to laugh. ‘You know,’ I said, ‘we’re taking up the opposite positions to the ones we should. You have a perfectly blameless past, whereas I’m the one with the big blot on my record. I could easily lose any job I went for because of all the years with chronic fatigue, which I’ve spoken about readily online. But if someone didn’t want to employ me because of that, then I wouldn’t want to work for them, either.’

‘They called that the benefit of privilege,’ said Mister Litlove triumphantly. ‘You’re privileged enough to be able to pick and choose like that.’

‘Oh nonsense,’ I replied. ‘We both know that if we needed money, the easiest thing for me to do would be to pick up a job behind the bar in one of the pubs or shops in the village and there would be no questions asked. Sure the money would be bad, but it was no better as an academic. I don’t know, this all sounds a bit crazy to me. We all have limitations, there are always things we can’t do and can’t have, even though we want them, people will always have prejudices and make assumptions. And we can’t pretend that things we’ve said and done didn’t actually occur because it suits us. You’re only on this side because you’re manic about your privacy. I’ll bet you’ve never updated your status once on Facebook.’

‘Certainly not!’ said Mister Litlove, shocked to the core.

‘It seems to me that this is a problem that comes with living in a highly visible age,’ I said. The more we put ourselves on display, the more we risk disliking the image that gets reflected back to us – unless we control it stringently. ‘If Orwell’s novel shows anything, it’s the unhealthy possibilities of being seen too much. Either we end up like Winston, terrified to move a muscle in case it betrays something about himself that mustn’t be seen. Or we end up abusing power like Big Brother, and altering everything we can in the past so that we always look like we’re perfect. Surely the only sane, healthy way forward is to accept our mistakes and our bad bits and integrate them into our lives?’

‘Hmmm, maybe,’ said Mister Litlove. ‘Or maybe the way we react about our privacy depends on the way we relate to authority. You expect to have to account for yourself, and I don’t.’

On which note we agreed an honorable truce and went to cook dinner, passing our son en route who was on Facebook, reading up about his friends, having also never updated his status at any time himself. You can see who he takes after…


19 thoughts on “The Litloves Disagree Over Facebook

  1. I once heard a saying that goes like this – people are o.k. with Big Brother to look out for them until they find out their every move was also documented. As long as it’s the other guy but don’t you dare invade my space. see?

  2. You have such erudite conversations – literature and social criticism in one evening! My partner and I tend to just do the ‘How was your day?’ ‘Good. And yours?’ ‘Good too,’ thing, after which the conversation peters out, unless the cat happens to say something.

    I liked 1984 for the record, though as usual with Orwell, thought the characters were ciphers for ideas rather than fully-rounded people you could relate to. But still very moving…

  3. Don’tknowwhoyouare – ah, I get it, and there may well be truth in that. And embodying your own arguments, too. Good for you!

    Baker’s daughter – it’s so funny to have other people see it from the outside. It’s very nice of you to put it down to erudition. My husband ADORES Radio 4 and I have, umm, less love for it. So he is always trying to convince me of its worth with reported snippets and I am always trying to undermine their value. So I put it down to the lengths our mutual pig-headedness will drive us to, which I admit can be quite surprising. I’m glad you enjoyed 1984 – I’ve just got onto the start of the love affair and am happy to have a bit of plot.

  4. I have very mixed feelings about Facebook myself. They do not have good privacy controls, even though I am constantly going in and setting my privacy settings to the privatest settings I can do. I would have quit it ages ago except that I like keeping up with my enormous family and judging my high school classmates for their paths in life. :p

    1984 is, in my opinion, a much weaker book than Animal Farm, although I didn’t love either of them. My drama class in high school did a production of 1984, and the guy playing Winston, who was this rather arrogant dude with perfect SAT scores who went on to become a scientologist and acquire his very own 15-minute scientology radio show (while eschewing university), forgot his line in one of the scenes and passionately assured Julia that he was interested in her because he believed that two plus two must always equal five.

  5. Love 1984! I’ve read it a couple of times and each time it gets more sinister. Has Winston begun his journal yet? I can’t remember if he starts that before or during his affair with Julia. Can’t wait to hear your final assessment. As for privacy, my husband and I were talking about that over the weekend after I told him about a conversation I had had with a coworker who grew up in France. Her attitude is that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to worry about which I find appalling. I must say I am more of Mr. Litlove’s thinking about privacy so I try to be careful about what I say about myself online. Though I suppose if a future employer wants to discrimminate agasint me beause of my reading material they will have ample opportunity!

  6. ‘Or maybe the way we react about our privacy depends on the way we relate to authority. You expect to have to account for yourself, and I don’t.’

    I think this gets to the heart of why I find it frustrating when people conflate “Big Brother” with various nonstate intruders on privacy, like Facebook or the people that use it and Google to look up info (not that you have really conflated them here). I certainly expect to have to account for myself to people and organizations I’m trying to form a voluntary relationship with; it hardly seems fair not to. But I don’t expect to have to account for myself at all to the state, with which my relationship is involuntary and one-sided.

  7. What a great argument. I am somewhere in between. I am aware that what I say online is public knowledge and I write under my name, so I keep that knowledge in mind, for my h and children’s sake as well as mine, when I do. But if I am going to write then I have to be willing to be read and known more intimately than if I didn’t participate online at all.

  8. Well, as per Orwell, I will say it might have been in reaction to Socialism. This would be what Stalin and Mao accomplished – despite their own billing as “communism” it in fact was Socialism due to the necessary elite at maintaining order – as true Communism, by definition, required egalitarian society which can not happen when one acts as ruler and forces people to take part in a system. I think the best lessons regarding Orwell are in the notions of being weary of a power structure and thus those who so readily want to take part in it. Totalitarianism is something to indeed be weary of.

    As for facebook and privacy… Well, I think the issue with facebook is how they change their settings so frequently while constantly having the default set to the most public option. Ultimately, it brings up notions of responsibility and awareness in a generation that is not spoken to honestly about such things (at least many in the US are not). I may update my status relatively frequently but I exercise every privacy control Facebook has to my advantage INCLUDING making sure my stuff doesn’t show up on a google search. It always boils down to faith. How much faith do you have in the people operating facebook to keep your details private? If you don’t then take action accordingly. 😉

  9. I do not understand the attraction of FB. My former college roommate has something like 350+ FB friends. How can you even keep up with that many people? Why would you want to? Can it be anything but a headache? And I agree that you and Mr. Litlove have the best conversations!

  10. Jenny – lol! That story about the school production is wonderful. And I think that if facebook promises privacy that it doesn’t deliver then that’s the bad bit. I suppose I think that once you’ve told one person then the information is out there, potentially. But no organisation should make promises it can’t keep.

    Stefanie – yes, Winston has begun his journal (and I overidentified with his love for those crisp, clean pages). I think my son quite enjoyed the novel too, which made me very curious to read it. I will definitely write about it once I’m done! And Mister Litlove will be delighted to have you on his side – I do think anyone should be careful what they write online (and I laughed a lot to think of choosing employees based on the books they read – it could happen!) and funnily enough when I was last on facebook, your photo was on my page and I was being urged to contact you and get you more involved – lol!

    nicole – I could certainly go along with that. There are intrusions of privacy (and I hold the media responsible for setting up a model whereby this is seen as necessary and virtuous) effected by people who have access to information through the abuse of authority. But some situations seem to call for an ethical sharing to keep things transparent and honest.

    Lilian – do you find that people read your books and assume they must be autobiographical, at least in part? I think that is the curse of the fiction writer. For non-fiction writers, of course, readers tend to say scornfully, you made that up! You can’t win. Authors are made so much more public property nowadays, which feels all wrong to me, because by nature, they are life’s private, quiet observers. It must be a tricky balance to maintain.

    Kimberly – what a great comment! I really like the discernment you bring to both those issues. And thank you for explaining the political dimension of 1984 – neither of us got as far as that with it! I do think that facebook would be in the wrong if it promised privacy but could not deliver it. But that’s a different matter to the issue of privacy generally. I do think that you always have to consider what you say, and my experience has been that trying to cover up the lengthy period of cfs I suffered was far more stressful and troubling than if I admitted to it and explained to people why I couldn’t see them/spend time with them, etc. I think you are quite right to pinpoint trust as the issue here – telling anyone anything that matters always involves ascertaining their trustworthiness to hear the information and deal with it sympathetically.

    Grad – I most certainly do not have 350 friends. Alas! And I am quite incapable of saying anything in less than a hundred words. You may imagine that twitter is also an impossible challenge for me. I’m just too verbose for social networking. And you’re welcome to drop by at any time and join in the conversation – we’d love to have you!

  11. Very interesting argument that you and Mr L had, and I imagine that Orwell would be happy that his novel sparked such discussion. I like the idea that sharing information means that we need to integrate it into our lives. And I don’t remember reading 1984 but I may well have done. That’s the trouble with dissociations! Getting back to FB, I would argue that it can make us more integrated (and connected) since once you’re friends with someone, you do need to maintain some level of interest in their lives.

  12. Very interesting … and I have a weird theory that Facebook simply makes life into a bigger small town. You know how when you grow up in a small town, everyone knows everything about you, and gossip can ruin your life because someone who wants to slander you knows you well enough to give the convincing substantiating details that make a good lie? Well, Facebook is kind of like that, only you’re providing truth (hopefully) which may harm you later. And if anyone on FB is dumb enough to have their post settings so that everyone can see their posts (which is how FB posts manage to show up in search engine results) then they probably deserve exactly the kind of job they will get thanks to the whole world knowing they’ve served in prison and are looking for an affair. I wouldn’t want anyone that ill-informed or exhibitionist doing anything requiring … well, a brain.

  13. To tell you the truth, I’m not all that concerned about Facebook and privacy issues (despite all the fears surrounding it), because I’m cynical enough to think we’ve always lived in a somewhat 1984-ish world (despite never having read the book. I will get to it one of these days) in which no one is free from being exposed. Just like someone who REALLY wants to break into a house, no matter what kinds of locks and security systems it has, anyone who REALLY wants to know all about you can find out (Facebook or no Facebook). Then again, maybe I’m not so much cynical as someone who has read quite a bit of detective fiction.

  14. ‘You expect to have to account for yourself, and I don’t.’ I love this bit as I can see other commenters do. And I love the fact that you’ve tied a discussion about 1984 via a conversation between you and Mr Litlove on modern technology. That’s a very different way to talk about books, right there.

    I hate the idea that people thinking about employing you can go and check your facebook. What you’re like in your private life often has little bearing on what you’re like at the office (for example I am not a lush who laugs at nothing at the office, while that is what many of my pictures on facebook imply). And employers have stricter ideas about what they think of as acceptable behaviour than can be realistically applied to personal interactions put up for the world to see (because we are all a bit rowdy and we very rarely put up pictures of us being terribly responsible on Facebook – although I guess pics of going to weddings and christenings might suggest that). I think I expect to have to account for any mistakes I make, but I don’t expect to have to account for any fun I have that doesn’t suggest a responsible office personality. But then I reject this idea that we all have to be branding ourselves positively in the majority of our interactions in case these interactions can affect our careers/life progress.

    I’m also not really sure I expect to have to account for my mistakes to everyone – to those involved and to myself certainly, but perhaps not to everyone I meet afterwards…but then how would I apply that to your person in prison.

  15. I tend to think more like your husband and worry about privacy in the abstract, but that doesn’t keep me from updating Facebook and tweeting and blogging — I’m very inconsistent, basically! What I want to do overrules what I think might be wisest in this case, and that’s just the way it will have to be 🙂

  16. As attorney, I can tell you that facebook and myspace gave a wealth of information about opposition. I know some attorneys start with facebook when they investigate.

    I am careful about what I post on facebook. Personal stuff goes on a locked blog.

  17. Kim – oh it’s just a time sink anyway, don’t go there! 🙂

    Pete – I think facebook is great at keeping a person in light contact with the sort of friends who might otherwise drift out of their lives, mostly through geographical relocation. I can’t think that anyone I know has EVER posted anything contentious or cruelly revealing. But I am not good at spotting that sort of thing. Like I never thought anyone would shoplift books when I worked in the bookstore!

    David – I see exactly what you mean. All the people I know on facebook seem to be very restrained and polite in their postings. And often gnomic too – my only problem is that I never really understand what exactly IS going on because they are all so careful. Which rather defeats the object of keeping in touch. But I may also be cynical in that I think telling anyone anything, unless you are completely assured of their integrity and loyalty is asking for trouble. If you want to have secrets, it is best to keep them entirely to yourself, I think.

    Emily – I completely agree. If anyone wanted to find out about me, they could so very easily. And I don’t think that has ever changed in the course of human history. There were ever gossips and scandal-mongers and people who made assumptions about you and others who betrayed you. You only have to read a couple of novels to find that out. 🙂

    Jodie – that’s an extremely interesting perspective. I suppose the majority of people on facebook are young, whereas my private life is as staid now as any office job (this is what marriage and motherhood do to you). I have no carousing to report anywhere, even if I wanted to! But it would be a pretty stupid employer who took on a 22-year-old, say, and didn’t expect them to go out for a drink on a Friday night. Still, I accept, the world is full of dumb people. And thank you for noticing – I keep trying to think of new ways to integrate books. There must be all kinds to try if I put my mind to it!

    Dorothy – lol! There’s definitely a place for inconsistency in the world. I honestly do not think anyone could find fault in your amazing bike riding career, unless the anti-cupcake-league are out to get you. 😉

    Bluestocking – wow, I am amazed that anyone would a) give away so much on facebook or b) feel they could use status updates as admissable evidence. Criminals certainly need to wise up, don’t they? 😉

  18. Elvis Costello wrote the song “Less Than Zero” supposedly as a response to British fascist Oswald Mosley on TV saying in effect it was time to forget his Nazi-sympathizing past. (“Let’s talk about the future, now we’ve put the past away.”)

    It’s nice that Mosley had moved on, but if you were Jewish would you want him babysitting your kids?

    I’m with you, LL, but then, we’ve established elsewhere that we’re both suckers for a good backstory. 😀

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