Science, Maths & Technology

Facing an invasion of privacy

Updated Tuesday 18th December 2007

Social networking comes with strings attached.

A Facebook 'dongle' Creative commons image Icon Rob Ketcherside under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license A Facebook dongle Am I alone among my friends and colleagues in not having a Facebook profile? Surely not, but lately it certainly feels that way. Even my partner has one. And, as the programme pointed out, sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Friendster are not just for the coveted 18-35 age bracket any longer: one of my colleagues, who has reliably informed me that she's closer to retirement than I am, asked me just yesterday why I didn’t “do Facebook.” I’m beginning to feel positively old-fashioned (though I prefer to think slightly retrro.)

The programme raised some interesting issues about the potential benefits and drawbacks of social networking sites like Facebook. There's no doubt that information and communication technologies have changed the way that people connect with their friends and loved ones. Many of my friends and family live in North America, and it makes a huge difference to be able to keep in touch with them almost instantly with the click of a mouse. But these technologies are also beginning to change how we conceive of our relationships. Someone you've met once only briefly at a party probably wouldn't traditionally be called a "friend." So it seems that as these sites make it easier to keep in touch with each other, they also have begun to expand our social spheres. I have a hard time keeping up with my relatively small group of friends. How can anyone really keep up relationships with a hundred, or two hundred, or sixteen hundred?

"companies like Facebook will want more and more information about us"

It's brilliant that these sites are often free for users to register on and to use. But just because we don't pay a subscription fee doesn't mean there's no cost to those of us who use them. After all, it costs the company a lot of money to buy the massive computer servers and Internet bandwidth that these sites use, and to pay the people who write the software code and who feed the octopus and starfish in the virtual aquarium. As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg explained, quite simply, these sites are based on a business model of selling targeted advertisements. Targeted advertisements, unlike traditional broadcast adverts, rely on information about their targets. And we--the users--are the targets. It's inevitable that companies like Facebook will want to gather more and more information about us as users, because it is that rich mine of data about us that advertisers are willing to pay for.

Information that people make available to the public on sites like Facebook can be used in strange and unintended ways. The recent tragic death of British exchange student Meredith Kercher provides one chilling example. When Meredith’s roommate Amanda Knox became a suspect in the case, her Facebook profile provided a wealth of information for the media. Her photos on MySpace and Facebook, and her online details (including her nickname of “Foxy Knoxy”) were published by news organisations around the world. Suddenly her youthful, party-girl persona, no doubt only intended to be shared with her friends, became her primary public image. Meanwhile, people from all over the world posted messages of grief and sadness on Meredith’s public Facebook page, which became a sort of online memorial.

A few people I know have already experienced what one of my friends calls “faceache”—they’ve just given up on Facebook because it takes too much time and energy. But I suspect that, whatever happens to Facebook itself, online social networking sites will continue to grow. These sites make it easy and convenient to keep in touch with our social circles in a fast-paced and busy world. So it seems inevitable that, one day soon, I’ll be on Facebook too. If you happen to see me there, give me a poke!

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