Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

It's high time our politicians faced up to the truth about Facebook

The social networking site is not the moral threat that some of its sleazier 'friends' suggest, but nor is it the place for MLAs who want to keep their guard up, writes Malachi O'Doherty

Everyone now has heard of Facebook. It is the social networking site on the internet that enabled creepy child-abusers from around the country to connect and share an interest in photographs of small children.

It is also the new platform for political expression. Many of our MLAs are on it.

Jeffrey Donaldson and Peter Robinson can be seen posturing with British Army weaponry in Afghanistan.

And who has exposed them doing this? Jeffrey has. Which suggests that Facebook makes people a little irresponsible.

So what use is it? It enables members to collects 'friends' by the hundred and share information with them, news about their daily doings, opinions, campaigns.

The usual jibe is that a friend on Facebook is not a real friend, the implication being that you have online friends because you don't have a life.

This is to fixate on the terminology rather than the reality.

What is called a 'friend' on Facebook might as well be called a contact or an associate or, as in the other big social networking site Twitter, a follower.

It doesn't matter. What matters is your access to them and that it is instant.

I like Facebook. It creates a genuine connection to a lot of people I would otherwise just see when we pass on a corridor, both of us busy. It does genuinely improve my relationships with them; it makes me more familiar to them.

So the criticism that it damages relationships by separating us from people is usually a giveaway that the person making it doesn't know Facebook.

I have a few politicians for friends on Facebook. They include Margaret Ritchie, Mark Durkan, Sammy Wilson, Eoin O Broin, Naomi Long and Jeffrey Donaldson.

Once I was in a hurry to contact Jeffrey and I was able to set up an interview with him by Facebook. I didn't feel that it would be right to phone him after midnight on his mobile, but with Facebook I could leave a message that he would get first thing in the morning.

I could have emailed, but he probably gets hundreds of emails and employs a secretary to filter them. My sense is that most politicians don't yet know what to do with Facebook, even if they are on it. I suspect they just think that it is the cool place to be and that if they have a presence there, they will reach more people.

Facebook does two things well; it enables you to notify hundreds of people, at a stroke about events you have planned, positions you hold. It also maintains an informal relationship between you and those people.

And these two functions, of personal sharing and self-promotion or marketing, are not separate. You cannot expect people to pay much attention to the events and issues which you promote if you don't also share a little of your personal life with them. Critics of Facebook and Twitter are contemptuous of those of us who post things like, 'Think it's time for bed now' or 'Looking forward to a weekend reading'.

What they don't understand is that you have to give a little to get a little. If it isn't personal, it isn't anything.

The politicians who will thrive on social networking are the ones who can do this.

But can any of them manage to impress us with their personal concerns? Jeffrey says nothing on his 'wall', but provides loads of photographs and some wacky video clips. That's his way of being personal. It's better than nothing.

Similarly, Margaret Ritchie has no status updates on her page. It is simply a forum for people to say things to her. Coy or what?

Naomi Long tells us that she 'is loving Pink'.

And people are reacting to her and teasing her about 'hanging out with Hillary'.

Sammy Wilson and I have 26 mutual friends. He says, 'Visited Mullaghdubh Primary School on Friday and talked with the principal about getting a new school built - the Education Minister is dragging her feet'.

This is more like it. Sammy has attitude and Facebook thrives on attitude.

Gerry Adams isn't my friend yet and he keeps his page private, so I have solicited him and expect to get links back to his blog in which he does occasionally reflect on engaging trivia.

And that is the trick of social networking. If you can't be trivial occasionally on it, you can't ever be taken seriously.

Facebook is not the moral threat it appears to be when sleazy people get together on it.

But it is a huge informal medium and those, like politicians who feel they have to keep their guard up, are perhaps best-advised to stay off it altogether.

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