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Articles > April, 01, 2008

Social networking: The good, the bad and the privacy

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The popularity of social networking sites such as Facebook and My Space has exploded over recent years, especially among students. This popularity is probably down to the host of features these sites offer all in one place: blogging, instant messaging, personal profiles, photo albums and games to name but a few. But what is unique about these sites is the distinctive social element (the “social” gives it away!) such as Facebook’s “status updates” which lets friends know what you are doing and how you are feeling at any given moment.

As part of this social interaction, these sites encourage the posting of some quite personal information. Browse to any of the popular sites and you are likely to find numerous profiles containing personal information such as dates of birth, contact details, personal photos and future plans which people have voluntarily posted.

But does this really matter? Well, advertising agencies find this personal information very useful for targeting adverts at you, so much so that MySpace was bought last year by the world’s largest media organisation (News Corp) for £332.85m. I find that my attention seems to be drawn to the ads on social networking sites much more often than on any other site despite that fact they tend to be text-based and less intrusive (as apposed to being big annoying graphics), a system which I prefer.

Privacy issues were also raised last year when Facebook introduced a feature called “Beacon” which monitored which Web sites users visited and the products they bought online, and then posted them without the user’s permission on Facebook. What surprised me was the way they introduced this feature with almost no consultation of the users…a move that caused angry members to create a massive protest group (on Facebook, ironically) forcing the feature to be removed. As a user of the site, it makes me wonder whether I can really trust my personal details with them (or any other site), and what they might decide to do with it without my permission.

Another problem is that what you (or others) post on these sites could jeopardise your job and university applications. A survey found that that 62% of British firms check applicants’ social networking profiles, and a surprising quarter of these turned down applicants after what they found. I resent employers who use this method of vetting; your private life should be exactly that, private. As long as the candidate is suitably qualified and can get the job done it shouldn’t matter what they choose to do in their spare time – so employers have no right to commit the electronic equivalent of stalking!

It has also emerged that staff at Oxford University have been trawling Facebook for photographs of students whom they say are committing “anti-social behaviour” during post-examination celebrations, and issuing fines as punishment. To make matters worse, you are not even fully in control of what is posted about you. Friends who upload photos can “tag” you in them, associating your profile with that picture.

One of the great things about social networking sites is that they are essentially very large people directories. They are easily searchable which makes it invaluable for tracking down old school friends and work colleagues. Unfortunately this also makes it easier for fraudsters to steal your identity – no longer do they have to steal your wallet or trawl through your bins; a quick search of a social networking site for your details could give them all the information they need. It has been said that a date of birth, home address and mother’s maiden name could be enough to access your bank account, set up a credit card or order goods from an online retailer in your name.

Fortunately there are some simple steps you can take to protect yourself against the perils of social networking:

·    Use the privacy controls on the site to make the information on your profile invisible to all but your friends

·    Keep your friends to a minimum (harsh, I know!) and while we’d all like to have 300 friends, try to only accept friend requests from people you’ve met face to face. This reduces the likelihood of anyone you wouldn’t want to being able to access your profile

·   Think carefully about the information and photos you post. Does it really reflect you or you friends in the best light?!

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  1. Emer

    Some really good advice here. I joined Facebook a couple of year ago when my sister was at university as a cheaper alternative to keep in contact with her than using my mum’s phone to ring her mobile! There wasn’t many of my peers on it at the time; it seemed to be for university students only. but as it got popular, more and more of my friends joined. as my sister had been using it for a while, she had taught me to put privacy settings on. when one of my friends joined, he went as far as to put his address and telephone numbers on his profile, with no privacy settings! anyone could access his page! i soon told him that this was dangerous and to take it off. people need to be wary that anyone could be looking at their page!

  2. Jenna

    I really enjoyed this article and i felt it raised some important issues that users of social networking sites should consider. As a myspace and facebook addict, I know only too well the pits falls that sharing information can bring, to the point where I recently made the decision to leave both beloved websites. It was a bold (and scary!) decision but i felt for my career prospects, safety of private information and for the sake of friendships, it was the most sensible thing to do! I thoroughly recommend it, I no longer have people who I have never met before knowing my name, age, university details and relationship status!!

  3. Gems

    I thought this was a very good article , and very apt. With the amount of students (50%) using these sites it is important to warn them of the risks. I know some universities refuse access to such sites from campus computers but you can still access everything you need at the library. I think people should have the freedom to use these sites but be warned about the information put on them, and if a page contains too much real information then it should be deleted. Good article :-D.

  4. Kayle

    I really liked this artical 🙂 Was really eye opening. I think these sites have become a lot safer over these past few years with all the news it brought up with it but i think there should be a default that means everybodies profile is private unless a band site that is used for promoting and various other things. Good artical, really good.

  5. Katherine

    Although i agree that social networking reveals potentially dangerouus details there is nothing that can be done to solve this because this generation don t want to hear about whether something is safe they want to be seen as popular and have fun.