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?!