The big story today was the Ontario government’s banning of Facebook from staff computers. I do not really know how this impacts Ontario libraries yet. I hope not much, because in my view having a “no facebook” policy in libraries is kind of like having a “no cooking” policy in restaurants.
That said, it would be very easy for me to go the “just say yes” route, but I can see some ways in which a wholesale ban of a particular website could be justified.
First of all, I should admit that if my employer turned facebook off right now, it would have little impact on my life. I use facebook sparingly at best. Turning off YouTube would frustrate the heck out of me, because videos like this, this and this (and this one I just discovered by searching for the URLs of the other three — way to go Calgary!) have been extremely helpful in getting my point across about what blogs, wikis and social softwares are all about. That said, it wouldn’t be the end of the world, because I would just send the relevant information from home. They could then (ironically) get on a public computer and view it themselves.
Anyway, I am hoping and praying that the Ontario Facebook decision was one that was carried out with considerable reservations because they had an obvious productivity problem. There is evidence that this is the case. For one, they did not ban MySpace. I know, I know. . . some of you out there might say “well, that’s just because they don’t understand what social software is.” Well, here is my thought (or hope). They have folks who are using Facebook on staff time and not getting their work done; therefore, they ban Facebook to thwart the addiction and get the productivity jump. This is a reasonable move in my view, provided that Ontario has found that a serious problem exists.
You’d think, though, that the Ontario bureaucracy had always been a paragon of *Ahem* productivity until Facebook came along and destroyed all that.
Anyway, here are some things that I hope Ontario thought about before they banned Facebook.
- Consider the whole productivity equation — Productivity is about effort for sure. But there are other things that increase productivity too. Things like learning and using technology effectively. Banning Facebook would probably reduce distractions, thus (perhaps) increasing effort. But what does it do to the other two productivity enhancers? I really hope that the Ontario government carefully examined how Facebook could enhance community image and social learning before going this route. I know hard-working people who have caused project delay because they refused to learn new technologies and/or apply some innovative thinking to a problem. And worse, sometimes these folks will hurt productivity because they will call long meetings in hopes that the “techies” will come out and solve the problem for them, basically wasting everyone’s time.
- I hope there were more than IT and HR people at the table — Most back-end IT people I know would not use Facebook and would not be the best ones to do research on such a thing. IT folks think in terms of switches, bandwidth, user permissions and security. They like to assert their power over others with the use of admin accounts. They use commands like “Kill – 9” with impunity. I can just hear the meeting right now. An HR person finds out that they have a problem with people loafing on Facebook on company time. They are much too busy making sure the Ceridean payments get out on time and don’t have any extra bit to provide coaching and discipline training to their management staff. They go to the IT person and ask for help. “Let’s just kill it” will be the quick and dirty response.
- Can you really keep up with every loafing website? Taking traffic off Facebook is fine, but will it really stop the issue? For every “Facebook” there are a gazillion other social websites that work pretty much the same and can result in the same wastes of time.
- Do you really want to take away the knowledge opportunities? I know communication folks who have no ability to access blogs at work. Mwhahaahahaha! I know people who work with teens who have no access to any social networking sites. Mwahahahahahahaha! I know high-level managers who have discovered that a website necessary to their work was banned inexplicably. Mwhahahahah! Let us watch as public services continue to fail and fail because people are out of touch with the technology world. If “Information is the currency of democracy” (as Thomas Jefferson declares) then are you sure you are not impoverishing your policy shops by shutting information centres down?
- Are you sure you know what it is exactly that you are stopping? I had a conversation with someone at Computers in Libraries and she asked a colleague and me what the difference was between a wiki and a blog. We explained. Then I said, “or, instead of a wiki, you could use Google documents — that’s a really good tool for collaborative writing. Of course, you would have to get a Google account but once you had that, you could use Google reader to handle your RSS feeds. . . ” “Oh nonono” the person interrupted. “We don’t want to get into that. See, our people don’t have any discipline and they’ll just end up chatting with their friends and family all day.” Eh? It was pretty obvious that this person had dismissed RSS before she even knew what RSS was.
- Are you using a private sector model for a public sector? The private sector is not beyond blocking sites in a fairly heavy-handed way. But let’s remember that many private sector companies are primarily about operations. They produce widgets and the total amount and quality of those widgets will pretty much define their success. Or, if they are a service industry, the speed and quality of service will be the primary factor. Either way, risk and competition will always be synonymous. If letting people access Facebook gives the competition the advantage, then you turn it off. Stack. The public sector doesn’t work that way. The public sector works in predictions and uncertainty about social and economic trends and tries to protect the public from these sort of things. Risk in public life is not about the competition, but about costs in lives, human happiness, community vibrancy and social stability. You need your public servants to know Canadian communities at their source. Canadian communities are on Facebook. You need to give at least your policy-related public servants access to Facebook.
- Are you using technology to solve a people problem? I alluded to this before, but it seems to me that there is an opportunity here for the application of serious coaching skills. Seriously, what’s wrong with simply saying “uh. You’ve been using Facebook, and we need to get some work done. How about turning that thing off?” Chances are, that would probably be more responsive than just “magically” making it unavailable. I mean, honestly, if I have a laptop, it is just about as likely that I could get on to a local wireless connection and access Youtube/Facebook from there. And the more restrictions that get applied, the more ways people will find their way around those restrictions.
I am going to try and give the Ontario government the benefit of the doubt here, but I am skeptical that real fore-thought has gone into this decision. Hard-lined restrictions on IT lines have never really been an effective way to deal with most social problems. I hope the folks in Ontario at least look towards tweaking into a compromise about this site.