Commentary: Facebook's show-and-tell culture

The Kansas City StarJanuary 19, 2011 

Except for our abhorrence of full-body scanners, we are an exhibitionist nation.

What won’t we let the world in on these days?

College students post photos of themselves in states of intoxication on social network sites. Those cute-but-embarrassing babies-in-the-bathtub pictures that used to be kept within the family are now disseminated on the Internet. And if only they stopped with the babies.

Party photos have displaced crime news as the most clicked-upon feature of news Web pages. Memoirs sail to the top of the best-seller lists.

On camera and computer, in text and print, everyone seems to be shouting out, “Look at me! See what I’m doing now.”

Now come four Johnson County Community College nursing students, doing what comes naturally: posting photos of themselves on Facebook.

With a human placenta.

Even that in itself isn’t unique. Many people elect to document and disseminate their childbirth experiences.

But the placenta wasn’t the property of the students. It had been donated as a lab tool.

It’s one thing to wantonly violate your own privacy. Involving the person or property of someone else is another matter.

Or so the college officials thought. They dismissed the four students from the nursing program because of the Facebook postings.

On Thursday, a federal judge ordered the school to reinstate one of the students. Doyle Byrnes, 22, had argued that the school had no grounds to stop her from completing the program, and U.S. District Judge Eric F. Melgren agreed.

Byrnes’ attorney contended that nothing in the school’s code of conduct addresses photographs or social media — a regrettable, almost unbelievable, oversight, if true.

Then there’s the role of the instructor who supervised the lab session. According to Doyle, when a student asked if they could photograph the placenta to post on Facebook, she only said, “Oh, you girls.”

Given the mixed signals, I’m not sure it was necessary or fair to throw the students out of the program. Apart from this incident, they apparently had good records. A reprimand and extra homework would seem sufficient. Apparently, the judge thought so too.

But in the bigger picture, I’m struck by something Byrnes wrote in a letter to the college’s director of nursing.

“In my excitement to be able to share with my loved ones the phenomenal learning experience in which I had been blessed enough to take part, I did not consider that others might view this photograph as unprofessional, offensive to the school I was representing and, more importantly, the sanctity of human life,” she wrote.

Isn’t that a sign of our times? It’s no longer enough to share the experiences of your day with your family over dinner or your friends over coffee.

Those experiences must be photographed, chronicled and sent into cyberspace. But the risk is that once they’re out there, you can’t explain their context, or control how a detached audience will react.

The placenta-sharing incident is actually mild compared with some other episodes.

The Los Angeles Times reported this summer that nurses and other staff at a Long Beach, Calif., hospital photographed a man with a horrendously slashed throat and posted the images on Facebook.

And in a much-publicized incident, a university freshman in New Jersey committed suicide after his roommate surreptitiously videotaped him having a romantic encounter with another young man and put the images on the Internet.

Once you stop guarding your own privacy, it seems, other people’s privacy might not seem so important, either.

Obviously, hospitals, nursing schools and workplaces in general need to educate employees as to the limits of sharing.

But the cheapening of the concept of privacy begins with the young. Teens and even pre-teens were “sexting” long before quarterback Brett Favre was accused of it.

We need to get across to our kids that information and experiences are valuable commodities and should be shared with great care.

You don’t have to show and tell everything to everybody.

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