Friends with Facebook? Sometimes technology can’t be denied
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has had more than his share of bad news this year. In addition to seeing the share price of his company drop by more than half since its initial public offering in May, he now faces the almost certain prospect of his social media network being replaced by something more cool. My negative outlook is based on the fact that I just set up a Facebook account, ending my six-year boycott against the company. Typically, when I try something “new,” like in fashion or dining, for example, it indicates that the particular trend is over and a new style or corporate bankruptcy will ensue. As far as I can tell, there are only a few Facebook holdouts left. I was promptly called a traitor by one of them when I broke the news that I had finally signed up.
My reason for joining Facebook is a little different than the ones I normally hear from middle-aged folks. I am not doing it to keep in touch with my kids. I am probably better off not seeing what they have posted on their pages, and communication with them never really has been an issue. They seek me out any time they need money, and so communication has been pretty constant over the years.
The reason I joined was to understand the technology. I don’t want to get caught in the trap that I saw some people fall into when the personal computer first started appearing in government offices 20 years ago or so. Then, I was just starting out, but quite a few guys who were the age I am now resisted the technology. These modern-day Luddites did everything but fling their wingtip shoes through the monitor to avoid using their computers. At first, they would joke about it. Grabbing the mouse and talking into it like a microphone was always good for a few yuks. I remember one manager declaring at a meeting that he would never be able to “boot his DOS.”
Eventually their resistance became irritating and then sad. Computer tasks tend to build on themselves, which makes holding out a risky strategy. I took a class on how to use Microsoft’s Excel program with that manager who couldn’t “boot his DOS.” As he was learning to use a mouse for the first time, the rest of the class was entering formulas into spreadsheet cells. When he finally realized that computers weren’t a passing fad, it was too late for him to get up to speed. Eventually it was that manager, rather than the computer, who got “booted.”
Government is rarely on the cutting edge of new technology and left to our own devices, we might still be using quill pens. Rather, it has been the public that has demanded that government enter the computer age. This pressure has been applied directly, in the form of requests to obtain information over the Internet or pay bills online. Taxpayers apply pressure indirectly when they expect government to contain costs. Technology improves productivity and is one of the reasons why our county employs fewer workers than it used to.
Walworth County’s technology effort is led by a 13-person information technology department under the leadership of John Orr. They do a great job keeping our computer systems operating and our technology moving forward. More than 127 multi-user software systems keep track of information as diverse as school records and payroll; still, departments and the public demand additional services. Facebook is one of those applications and, hence, part of my motivation for learning about it. While it is tempting to flip the switch and open up our network to social media, these technologies pose a number of issues. Under the public records law, for example, we need to be able to produce copies of records that we possess. This can be a challenge in the constantly changing environment of social media. Network security is another concern. Our IT department has deflected more than 1 million spam emails so far this year. Nearly 34,000 of those contained computer viruses.
Within 20 minutes of setting up my Facebook account, I received seven e-mails. My two oldest kids reluctantly accepted my invitation to be “friends” and a friend, who is far more computer savvy than I am, figured out I had opened an account and sent me an invitation. I logged onto my page a few hours later and to my horror, what had started out as a single “profile” photo of myself with my daughter had morphed into a collection of photographs and links, including a picture of myself wearing a cowboy hat and another apparently taken while I was “resting my eyes” during a recent baptism ceremony. I have no idea how all of the information appears on my page, but I would surmise the source of the photos was one of the kids who wasn’t very enthused about being my Facebook friend in the first place.
All of this additional cyber activity increased my stress level and tempted me to pull the plug on the whole exercise. I might, eventually, but not until I understand what makes it all work. Facebook might not be my cup of tea, but the next application that builds on its technology might just be.