Facebook's press release this morning sounds pretty humdrum on the face of it—"Facebook to Enhance User Safety Through Formation of Global Advisory Board" isn't much of an eye-grabber. But it's actually really, good news. Mostly.
First up is to overhaul the safety advice in the Help Center, and then ultimately to create a comprehensive resource with "specific educational content for parents, teachers and teens." And that's great news (especially given the slightly Homer Simpson-like thinking of some Facebook users). Given recent revelations that Facebook's membership included a large number of registered sex offenders—not surprisingly beating out that ailing MySpace—it's even better news. The idea of better educating Facebook users, particularly young ones, about online safety is unquestionably good. And the goal of teaching adults about the safety of kids in their charge is great too.
But that's where this move by Facebook gets a bit tricky. Because there's a highly reactionary feeling about online safety among parents and educational workers, on the whole. It's the same sort of paranoia that the "stranger danger" movement stirred up in the '80s and '90s—a social movement that's resulted, in part, in kids not playing outside in the same way anymore, and parents driving their kids to school in greater numbers, creating traffic and environmental chaos. And it was largely based on myth and fear—as Penn and Teller have controversially pointed out.
Online safety is hugely important, don't get me wrong, and with hundreds of millions of users, Facebook has a responsibility to make sure it gets things right. But if the advisory board gets too big for its boots, Facebook may end up making changes that restrict the site for the worse for everyone, or instill an artificial sense of risk in young users. The socially positive potential of social networking is immense, and it should be celebrated: Facebook just needs to tread a fine line between safety and sanity, and make sure it doesn't lock up too much potential or create a sense of fear about its services. Stick to educating overly-worried and under-informed adults about the real issues, Facebook, that would be my advice.