2 May 2011
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A few weeks ago I had the chance to discuss the issue of Facebook and Cyber bullying on CNBC (see one post down). The tragedy of the Alexis Pilkington along with other reports of cyberbullying prompted a few interesting questions. Is Facebook responsible? Should brands in social networking sites be worried about things like this happening on their watch? Is there more that can be done?

For the sake of clarification, this isn’t a post about privacy. That horse is being flogged repeatedly and everything about the topic has probably been covered already. I use Facebook all the time and am of the belief that you can protect your privacy well enough by simply being discreet about what kind of information you choose to supply. If you don’t put highly personal information in, people can’t ever get at it, and we’ve all heard about sites like A modicum of common sense goes a long, long way.

With tragedies like the one involving Ms. Pilkington it’s easy to look to blame someone. The classmates, Facebook, the parents, all in some way, shape or form can make tantalizing victims for a blood-thirsty media outlet looking for a attention-grabbing angle. I’m a big proponent of parents having tighter relationships with their kids, schools taking a more active role in monitoring student activity and everyone making more responsible decisions to make the world a safer place. In this case, several classmates used the virtual world to torment Alexis to the point of suicide. Their crimes were so egregious that they even kept taunting the poor girl even after she was dead. Could the Pilkington tragedy have been avoided? I don’t know, but I don’t think Facebook and it’s bevy of privacy issues are the problem here. Whatever the means, some people are going to act aggressively and stupidly whether the technology is there to help them out or not.

The disturbing thing about cyberbullying is that it’s most often done by someone you know. In cases like that, your privacy isn’t what has been violated, your identity is. We’re obviously not talking about identity theft here, but rather blatant attacks on your personal identity; how you feel about yourself, and what your outward persona is to others. What makes cyberbullying so damaging is that the teasing can be incessant and come from all angles, all in plain view of your circle of friends, 24-7. It used to be that when kids picked on other kids, they could at least look forward to escaping the pressure by getting on the bus and going home.

The internet has the ability to bring everyone into our personal space, whether we like it or not.

As I write this, Facebook has very quietly been asked by some parental groups to install more safety features to help protect kids. In England for instance, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center (CEOPC) has asked Facebook to include a “Panic Button” on all group pages. The feature would allow kids to alert someone in the event they feel threatened or unsafe. Facebook has flatly rejected including any such features its site, declining to comment as to why.

So this begs 2 relevant questions:
1. Why won’t Facebook provide more safety features on its site? And,
2. What features should they provide if they were willing to do so?

Mark Zuckerberg’s well documented abhorrence to personal privacy aside, I don’t think Facebook is deliberately obfuscating its responsibility of providing a safer community experience. I do think they worry about the precedent it sets. If you live in New York, from time to time there will be visible and formidable increases in local police and security forces in the subways. If you’re like me, the first thing you do is to feel a bit safer, but then you might begin to wonder: Why are the extra forces are needed? Is something going on? Should I be worried? It’s this very thinking that I believe Facebook is looking to avoid. If you begin to see features like panic buttons and parental alerts, I’m sure the next logical question parents will indeed ask themselves is whether Facebook is safe at all.

We all want to feel safe as long as we don’t have to think about the danger.

So what kind of tools should Facebook, or any social site for that matter, be developing? While not an exhaustive list, here are a few that I can think of.

1. A simpler privacy settings dashboard
Privacy issues for Facebook users aside, the dashboard and default settings for restricting access to personal information are a joke. Facebook should create a much simpler system for managing these features and have them all located in one place, rather than scattered throughout your profile. And, by default, they should all be off so that users would have to opt in to making information available. Their recent updates to the privacy settings system are a good start, but not remotely close to optimal.

2. An online cyber safety councilor
For anyone under the age of 18, a councilor, trained in helping people who feel they are being threatened would automatically included in the chat list of a user when they come online. Don’t want to include a panic button? This is the next best thing. A trained specialist could help guide individuals through what to do and where to go for help in the event that they feel unsafe when on Facebook. You could even take this idea one step further and have a councilor’s chat window automatically appear and offer to help should someone type a phrase like “I’m thinking of committing suicide.” Think of it as a real time 9-1-1 operator.

3. Sentiment bots to detect predatory conversations
Facebook claims that it already has tools like this in place, but if they are anything like some of the tools most social media agencies use to analyze conversations, they are most likely woefully weak. Conversation analysis tools can’t detect things like sarcasm or humor, so honing in on keywords becomes essential to determining relevancy. If these tools do exist, beef them up. Make the API open source and offer $10,000 to the person or team that could make them more accurate. Would it be perfect? No. But it would be a good start.

4. Educational programs
There already exists a page on Facebook dedicated to understanding cyberbullying, but if I hadn’t searched for the words “Facebook + cyberbullying,” I probably wouldn’t have found it. Plus, I’m not entirely sure Facebook sanctioned this. The bottom line is Facebook has the ability to drive awareness, education and support to lead the charge on this issue, and their efforts to date have been muted at best.

Privacy issues not withstanding, in my opinion, Facebook is at a crossroads. The site is already getting heat from congress about their “opt-in” privacy options, and have, to date, capitulated to a certain extent. This has made users a tad more anonymous, but not necessarily safer. Tragedies like the one that befell Ms. Pilkington are horrible, and should be met with a swift and decisive eye towards preventing a repeat occurrence. But for now, Facebook seems inert. I can only pray it doesn’t take another, higher profile incident to make them rethink a more proactive stance on the subject.
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