DEBATING FACEBOOK, POLITELY

~ Posted by Tim de Lisle, July 16th 2012

In a Suffolk field on Friday afternoon, in a dimly lit, open-sided tent with dance music throbbing in, Intelligent Life made its festival debut. Tania Harrison, the gentle dynamo who curates the literary and artistic sides of Latitude, had roped us in for a discussion with Psychologies magazine about whether Facebook is doing more harm than good. I had been wondering if my teenage daughter, dragged along for the day, would be the whole audience, but as I peered out from a leather sofa on the stage, I could make out around 250 people.

My sparring partner was Lucy Beresford (pictured), who brought an impressive range of experience as a psychotherapist, novelist and Psychologies' agony aunt. She felt "40-60 against Facebook" because of the insecurities it can breed, "especially when people see their friends having a better time than they're having". Our skilful moderator Clare Longrigg, the deputy editor of Psychologies, seemed to agree, but managed to be even-handed. Both women were so agreeable, it was hard to argue with them, but that was my job, and in any case I feel at least 60-40 in favour of Facebook.

It can certainly be put to bad uses, as any medium can, but what I see on it mostly consists of harmless fun—people chatting, arranging to meet, tagging each other in photos, playing Angry Birds and linking to that important news story they've just read about Justin Bieber. And in some cases—for a young person who is hard of hearing, or stuck at home with an illness, or just living somewhere remote—it can be a life-saver. Parents tend to complain that their teenagers don't communicate, and then the teenagers find a way to communicate all the time, and the parents still find a way to complain about it.

Where I saw harmless fun, Lucy Beresford saw danger, ranging from status anxiety, "because deep down we are primitive and everything is a competition", to the chances of an embarrassing old photo derailing a job application. Her husband was a headhunter, she said, and his firm checked people's Facebook pages when sifting applications. Well, I said, Intelligent Life runs internships aimed at graduates, I often do the interviews myself, and we don't check the candidates' Facebook pages. We're looking for young people with a passion for journalism, not a squeaky-clean social life.

I hadn't met Lucy Beresford before, but within half an hour we had somewhow arranged ourselves into a caricature of a married couple. She was the one fretting about the children's safety, and I was the one saying "let them play, they'll be fine, it doesn't matter if they scrape their knees". "How can we make sure Facebook is safe for our teenagers?" someone asked during a sparky Q&A session. The answer is that we can't—just as we can't hold their hands when they go out on a Saturday night. You just equip them as best you can and leave them to it.

The event was far too good-mannered to have an actual result. There was a show of hands at the start to establish how many of the audience were on Facebook (answer: most of them), and another one later on to see how many were using Google+, the social medium that lets you sort the friends from the chaff (answer: only a sprinkling). The main thing was that we had had a lively airing of the issues. Somewhere in the tent was our submissions editor, Lucy Farmer. Back in the office this morning, she agreed that it had been a good turn-out. "Though I have to say," she coolly added, "some of the people were having a nap."

Tim de Lisle is editor of Intelligent Life. His recent posts for the Editors' Blog include Andy Murray does himself justice and Death of a fine magazine

Photo credit Sophie Herdman