Thursday, October 6, 2011

Personal/professional/political ethics: the perils of fieldwork and friendshipin the digital age

 Are you looking for tips on how to piss people off, lose friends and undo goodwill that you have spent months building up? If so, you have come to the right place. It is actually much easier than you think, and you have probably already done it. But just in case, I'll give you some quick pointers. Just make a nice intimate gathering with friends, snap some photos so that you and everyone have nice souvenirs of the evening, and then become so overcome with good feeling the desire to share that good feeling with your 543 most intimate friends --you know, the ones who pop up on your "friends" list on Facebook -- that you decide to post a few photos (even without tags) on Facebook.

And then you can just back, go about your business, and wait for the shit to hit the fan. I promise you, it won't take long. At least not here in Guatemala, where there is a lot of wariness about social networks and especially Facebook. In the last two weeks, there have been several disappearances and at least one murder of young people (teenagers and young adults) who apparently agreed to meet people whom they had never met except on Facebook.

So, this is precisely what I did last weekend. Not thinking very clearly. I'm not sure why I made such an egregious error -- to post photos without asking everyone's permission first. Many of my friends here in Guatemala are also FB friends, and with some of them, there is almost an expectation that if we do something together and take photos, we will all post our photos on Facebook and tag each other.  "Esto va para Facebook" (this goes on Facebook) is a pretty frequent refrain in our gatherings. Many of us in the community radio movement use Facebook to communicate when we are at our respective stations; we send greetings to be read over the air; I use Facebook chat to try and plan conversations and meetings.

Most of the people present at the event in question were  Facebook friends with me and with each other. I fairly regularly post photos of public events, and sometimes tag one or more of them (tagging someone who does not actually appear in a particular photo is a pretty good way to make sure that he or she takes a look at the photo).  I guess I've become so accustomed to the fact that the majority of my Guatemalan friends want to have their photos posted on Facebook and want to be tagged that I allowed my professional and personal ethics to lapse. I made an incorrect assumption that everyone wanted to share everything. And I didn't ask permission before posting identifiable photographs of individuals (there were no tags, but some close up photographs).

Not only have there been disappearances linked to Facebook (I will add that I do not think "Facebook" or "social networks" are solely at fault; the young people in question each agreed to go off to a relatively distant location and meet a complete stranger -- not a good idea regardless of whether the stranger is someone whom you found by answering an old fashioned "personals" ad in a newspaper, or someone whom you encountered on a social network like Twitter or Facebook), but there has been political violence linked to people divulging information (or believed to have divulged information) about narcotrafficking operations on social networks. I am aware of this, and even exchanged some comments (via Facebook, of course) on the subject with a colleague in Mexico.

And so I received some curt IMs, after which I immediately took down all the images in question, and then some follow up emails. So, without even trying, I had managed to deeply upset some of the people about whom I care very deeply, people who are both friends and comrades in struggle. I made an apology to everyone present, and felt very sad and ashamed. I don't know what I can do to repair the damage, except to be more vigilant in the future.


  1. and i would bet that each one of us, including perhaps those who took issue with your shared photos, has slipped up like that at least once. At least. Those clap palm to forehead moments. Ouch. It sucks. And it passes.