When photos of the Prime Minister’s “butler” appeared in various Sunday papers recently it was the latest example of an emerging genre of so-called news stories based on allegedly revealing photos available on Facebook. Australian readers may well remember the media frenzy around swimming star, Stephanie Rice; but in the week following the butler story The Courier Mail's Saturday headline described the untimely death of a local artist as "Facebook Murder".
Rudd’s apparent reaction to the front page controversy has been to force staff to remove their Facebook profiles - a response that, as numerous commentators point out, is more than a little hypocritical given Labor’s own election campaign deployed these sites as part of a sophisticated campaign strategy.
Again the Prime Minister seems to be saying one thing while doing another when it comes to his own employees. Just as it’s fine to note the concerns of working families when they are blue-collar battlers and not middle-class public servants, it’s fine to exploit the potential of social networking sites that other people use.
I suppose the difference is that Rudd regards public service as a vocation, and this logic justifies the sacrifice of something as trivial as an online profile.
Then again he may simply be as poorly informed as his staff appear to be about the privacy options available on Facebook and many other social networking utilities. Telling friends you are having a party on these sites does not necessarily leave your house open to looting and ruin, either. But you wouldn’t know this based on the sensationalism and selectivity of mainstream media coverage.
Social networking users are actually quite familiar with the way marketing firms mine these sites for personal information, developing algorithms to promote products to them based on stated preferences. But they could have been forgiven for expecting a little less opportunism from the fourth estate. The weekend coverage has caused a remarkable amount of unsolicited attention for John Fisher, who now has assumptions about his sexuality to deal with along with everything else.
There is another story to be written here about how the press is gaining access to these images which may or may not be publicly searchable.
Are newsrooms actually setting aside time for staff to mine Facebook all day in the hope of uncovering scandal? Are journalists drawing on their own networks online, to gain access to, or pass on, damaging information? Either scenario raises important questions about ethical and professional standards, and there should be more debate about it.
My own interviews with working journalists show that maintaining links on sites like Facebook is now a crucial part of the job.
It provides a convenient and ready-to-hand pool of commentators for stories going to air while the international distribution of a user’s network keeps them aware of stories breaking elsewhere - often before newswires can. The ambient nature of technologies like Twitter also provides a “meta-conversation” on breaking stories, pooling together the news gathering habits of people who spend most of their day at the computer.
Finally, the presence and status functions on messenger programs and on Facebook saves time wasted in the to-ing and fro-ing of emails and missed calls.
This is the present workplace reality that the theatre of the media beat-up and Rudd’s reaction both effectively mask: that middle-class employees use these sites as a matter of course, that there is nothing spectacular about them, and they tend to use them precisely because they are committed to their vocation.
If you expect employees to spend long hours alone in front of a screen with a keyboard, they will use that technology to pass the time and soothe the solitude of the office cubicle. And when they are under pressure, as newsroom and public service employees certainly are, they will be the best judge of whether a communication platform is helping them do their job faster.
Returning to the butler, that the PM’s assistant had time for some sightseeing in London is surely proof that Rudd doesn’t enforce a 24/7 commitment from all staff. They get time to relax and rest and have fun now and then, as any worker should. In fact the whole thing seems to suggest that the PM has an effective social networking strategy after all.
In terms of improving the negative impressions of a lacking work/life balance for his assistants, it was nothing if not an inspired leak.
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