I made a new friend at a training course I attended earlier this year. At the end of the week, we were sitting together during a break, and I was flipping through my camera, showing her some of the pictures I'd taken during the course, some of which she was in. When she asked me to send those to her, I mentioned that I'd be putting them up on Facebook when I got the chance. That didn't help her any, it turns out... she's not on Facebook - the possibility of which hadn't entered my mind for a moment.
I was in college when Facebook made the scene, and for the first few years, it stayed there - in college. Now it's open to everyone, anywhere, and has been joined by Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, and a profusion of blogging, along with other social media. Political campaigns are waged over Facebook, and virtually every business and company uses social media - some companies may have employees with the sole job of maintaining their social media presence.
Zoos and aquariums have proven no exception. I remember when zoos didn't even have websites... then, when they developed their first, really, really bad websites. Embracing social media came swiftly enough, and now zoos and aquariums use it to engage their visitors, as well as audiences around the world. Social media makes the experience more interactive for guests. Vote in our naming contest! Share pictures or videos of your family and friends at the zoo (but not illegal pictures)! Write a review of your visit! Give a caption to this photo! All efforts to get people talking about their experience and build up interest in the community.
Of course, zoo and aquarium visitors aren't the only folks on social media... so are many employees... and here's where social media can start causing problems. Zookeepers tend to be fairly young, so it's not surprising that many have embraced social media. And, like many young people (and plenty of older ones), they sometimes put up stuff that they shouldn't. Photos are particularly problematic - they can show behind-the-scenes areas, which, let's be honest, often look somewhat ratty. They can show things that can be taken out of context (i.e.: an animal that is sedated for a medical procedure, but looks dead). They can create the false impression that the animals are "pets" or "babies", or depict unsafe actions which may encourage non-animal-professionals to do unsafe things. It's not surprising that many zoos and aquariums have strict policies on the use of cameras behind-the-scenes by staff.
I confess, I'm that annoying paparazzi guy at our zoo who pulls out a camera at the drop of a hat... but none of my behind-the-scenes pics go up here (let alone on my personal Facebook page, where they could come back to haunt me).
Perhaps my favorite aspect of Facebook and social media is the sense of community that it has created. Zookeepers around the world are now linked together in online groups, closed to animal care professionals, such as "ZooKreepers", "You Know You're a Zookeeper When", and other, more specialized groups (cat keepers, parrot keepers, etc). A lot of great ideas and bits of advice come from these sites and keepers ask questions and share ideas. A lot of laughs also get shared as pictures and stories make their rounds. We tell stories of birth and deaths and escapes, and yes, dear visitors, we do talk about you (and our bosses...)
Of course, a lot of fights also pop up on here, as animal care folks tend to be some of the most cantankerous, self-righteous, hyper-critical people on the net. Private sector versus public! Circuses versus zoos versus sanctuaries! Pro-Seaworld vs Anti-Seaworld! And don't even get me started on the fiasco we had with the Copenhagen giraffe this last winter.
In these forums, things sometimes get heated, and people say things they shouldn't... especially about people they work with (forget the NSA, on Facebook, everyone is watching you!). Some folks have gotten in trouble - sometimes deep trouble - at work for what they post online, thinking that they are anonymous. It's good that we have a forum where we can - with relative privacy - discuss our business, but on the internet, any privacy is just that... relative.
I had early disdain for Facebook, but have, over the years, become addicted to it (though I still resist Twitter and the other heads of the social media hydra). It can be a great tool for sharing stories and ideas with the rest of the world, as well as for gaining new ideas and insights ourselves. But, like any tool, there is a proper and an improper, a safe and a dangerous, way to use it. Be aware of that.