Unless you’re living in North Korea, it’s more than obvious that social media has taken over the internet. Facebook is predicted to reach 1 billion users by August. Sites you once knew and love are now asking their users to get “social” by interacting with one another and having everybody “follow” each other (looking at you, Springpad). Some websites now are even requiring you to grant the site access to your twitter or facebook accounts before you can even use the site’s services. Web 2.0 is upon us, and like it or not, we all have to share. At least, that is what we are increasingly pressured to do. If you like something you read, you better “like” it on facebook too. Did your friend say something witty on twitter? Well you’d better retweet it. How was that new restaurant you tried last night? Why don’t you type up a review on foursquare and share it on Google+.
Social networking may be ubiquitous now, but not everyone has been given an equal opportunity with it. With much of what happens on the internet, in the media, and during our daily lives influenced by people’s interactions over social networking, it is just understood that we all know and use sites like facebook and twitter. If you were late to the game, or if you’ve held out on signing up for social networking services for one reason or another, you likely feel out of the loop. Even those of us who use social media everyday can at times lose focus on why such sites exist and what we stand to gain from spending so much time there. Believe it or not, there was a time before social media (I have to remind myself of this weekly). We can live and exist and function without it. Still, social networking provides and facilitates opportunities and connections that would have been near impossible 5 years ago. These are just some of the reasons I wanted to write a sort of introduction to social media. I’d like to offer some risks and benefits associated with social networking, because web citizens everywhere can benefit from knowing what it means to store your life online.
Risks of using social networking
The risks of using social media sites can be classified into three main categories: privacy, security, and time. Signing up for and subsequently using social media opens one up for rather unique concerns relating to the privacy of personal information and intellectual property. Further, your physical, personal, and computer security should be considered when using facebook, twitter, and the like. Finally, there are a few temporal concerns brought up when discussing the risks of social networking.
Anything you post online can be read by at least one other person, and this is the root of all privacy concerns. Even if you sign up for a facebook profile, select the strictest privacy controls, and have yet to gain a single “friend” on the network, someone can read your first post. Maybe it’s a Facebook technician, or maybe it’s a consumer researcher, but anything posted online can legally be seen or read by at least a couple of people. So remember: if you don’t want something going public, don’t put it online. Don’t even privately share it with one person. Some sites like Google+ make it easy to selectively share posts and content with certain groups of people, so you can show your friends stuff that you don’t show your employer. Still, lots can happen that would allow your content to make it to the eyes of the very person you were hoping would never see it. As long as you keep this in mind, you’ll be just fine sharing everything you’re proud of.
Accessing and customizing your privacy settings for any given site can be difficult and confusing, and often people are unaware of who can view what on their profiles. Many problems with social network privacy could be resolved if users were made aware of their security settings from the get go. Sure facebook has the ability to customize exactly who can see what on your page, and who can make comments on things, and who can find your page and send you messages, but each of those has to be setup by the user. Next week I’ll publish a step-by-step guide on how to setup your security settings on facebook so that you have control over the content you post and who can access your site. In that post, you’ll see just how involved the privacy settings can be. Yet, even if you’ve got your profile’s privacy set exactly the way you want it, privacy settings require regular attention and tweaks. Because social networking, by definition, is on the cutting edge of online interactions, the sites are making changes constantly. With facebook especially, things are changing almost weekly. Some changes are bigger than others, and big changes often affect privacy settings. So, to truly have a handle on one’s social media privacy settings, he or she must repeatedly check his or her settings and make adjustments. I know what you’re thinking: sounds like a lot of time and effort. Honestly, it kind of is.
Keeping your identity, information, and intellectual property safe and private is always a primary security concern when using social networks. We all know how much of an issue identity theft is becoming, and the widespread use of social media only contributes further. If your facebook account is not private, anyone can access it, download your photos, copy your personal information, and even steal your posts. Thieves often make false facebook profiles from the information that they steal from other people’s legitimate profiles. While not everyone is out to steal identities and photographs for malicious intent, some people do look to steal other people’s work. If you post something funny, original, interesting, etc. it runs the risk of being hijacked. Your newest poem about summer may sound beautiful, and you may be proud of it, but if you leave you accounts open to the public, there is nothing stopping some lazy high school student from plagiarizing your work and turning it in as their own. Privacy is a big concern on the internet in general, and an even bigger one on social networks. I’m not saying this to scare you, but I’d rather not have to say I told you so. No matter your experience with social media, you need to be aware of the potential privacy risks, and the ways to protect yourself. Be smart and you won’t be a victim.
Unscrupulous individuals like to target the new and naïve, especially on social networks. Simply by getting a late start, signing up for a brand new facebook or twitter profile today puts one at slightly higher risk than those who opened their accounts two years ago. If you’re new to the service, hackers and thieves may assume you are uninformed on safety and privacy risks and unaware on how to combat them. It doesn’t have to be this way. These opportunists come in many forms: hackers who use brute force to get access to your account and personal information, spammers who hope to take over your legitimate profile to gain access to your address book, and seemingly helpful and friendly individuals who ask you seemingly innocuous questions in order get close enough to you to eventually guess you password reset questions. The point is, you have to be wary of suspicious individuals. Personally, I don’t accept facebook friend requests from people that I have not talked to, in person, in the last two years (with obvious exceptions for distant loved ones). This just keeps me a little better protected from those who wish to access and use my accounts or information for whatever reason. Once a hacker gets access to one of your accounts, it is just a mater of time before they gain entrance into your other accounts, your banks, your computer, etc. With Web 2.0 running all around and linking up our presence in various places across the web, letting the bad guys have access to your username and password on one single site can be enough for them to launch a full-out movie-script heist of your identity.
In addition to jeopardizing your online and computer safety, having your social network security compromised can also compromise your physical safety. Because our social profiles can contain personal information such as addresses and phone numbers, an online identity theft can lead to an actual threat of your physical wellbeing. Those malicious individuals we keep talking about can get your address and come to your house to steal items, money, identifying information, or worse. Even if you don’t make your address or phone number available, criminals in your city could read your posts or look through your pictures to get context clues as to where you are located, what you do, and what you have. I’m not at all saying this is common or likely, but the technology is certainly there. Again, I don’t want to scare you off from using social networks, but I want everyone to understand the very real risks associated with privacy and security. Be smart and be safe and you won’t get hacked (or hacked up into pieces).
Though not as obvious as threats to privacy and security, using social networks can also lead to temporal issues. Social networks are often described as addictive. Many people, young and old, spend much more time interacting with people online everyday than they do interacting face-to-face in an entire week. It’s easy. It’s instant. It’s fun. Even people who aren’t addicted to facebook can likely use it too much, or at the wrong times. Jobs, schools, internet cafes, etc: these are just some of the places that have begun banning or blocking facebook and other social networking sites. Social networking is fun, and likely a lot more fun than your job, or your professor, or your dentist. For this reason, people are being asked (and sometimes forced) to stay off the sites when they should be doing other things anyway. I’m sure some of you are so put of by the idea of social networking at this point that you couldn’t imagine the sites being addictive, but some doctors and psychologists have even started acknowledging the intense habit-forming nature that facebook can have on some users. Are you going to get hopelessly and helplessly addicted to facebook or twitter? No, probably not. But it can happen, it has happened, and I don’t want it to happen to you.
In order to have a full user experience, social networking requires participation and upkeep. This is often how the unhealthy obsessions begin. To get more out of facebook or twitter, you have to put more time and energy into it. You have to add more pictures. You have to post more tweets. You have to follow and friend more people. You have to start and continue interactions. All of these things take time. It’s a vicious cycle: the more time you spend on a social network, the more fun and rewarding it becomes, thus making you want to invest even more time. My advice here is kind of two-fold: if you’re bored with your facebook, do more. However if you find yourself spending too much time there already, maybe start setting some limits to the amounts of time, comments, pictures, posts, or whatever you contribute per day.
Benefits of using social networking
Still here? Good that means I haven’t scared you away yet. That is a pretty daunting list of risks associated with social networking, but that doesn’t stop me and millions of others form using several of the sites daily. Social networking has revolutionized the way we connect to people, information, and our surroundings. In fact, it is these connections that comprise the foundation of the benefits associated with using social networks: connecting with people, connecting with news and events, and the ability to share (and the nature of the sharing itself).
Connecting with people
Social networking facilitates communication between people in new and innovative ways, and overcomes previously restrictive barriers of location, time, and “losing touch”. The entire purpose for building social networks was centered on connecting people. You can connect to new people you’ve never met, your best friends, long lost high school sweet hearts, family, influential celebrities, athletes and politicians, etc. Before facebook, we were all reportedly 6 friends-of-friends away from knowing Kevin Bacon. In the last 12 months, estimates say that online, we are each only separated by 4 degrees: we’ve cut out two middlemen. In other words, you’re probably pretty close to getting a friend request from Kevin Bacon as you read this. It doesn’t matter where you live, what time zone you’re in, or what language you speak. As long as you have internet access (and social networking sites aren’t blocked where you are) you have the ability and infrastructure to be connected to nearly a billion people. You can even connect to multiple people at once. Facebook and Google+ both tout features that allow you to instant message and video chat with a group of people simultaneously. We are all closer (and also further apart, strangely enough) because of the advent of facebook.
Connecting with news and events
In addition to facilitating connections between people, social networks have made connecting with news and events easier, quicker, and more efficient. Today, news stories hit facebook and twitter hours–sometimes even minutes–before they reach news channel websites or papers. That’s logical: whenever something happens to anyone, the reporters and journalists have to be told about it, they don’t possess Spidey-sense. The people that the event is happening to or with know about it at the time, and many of them have phones, tablets, and laptops capable of sharing the event as it happens. Major news stations now even comb through twitter feeds or even ask twitter users to contribute to developing stories. When major marches and arrests happened in New York during the Occupy protests, coverage came largely from the activists and observers taking part in the events. CNN and Fox were relying on social networking for their reporting, as many of the images and videos of Occupy protests were from shaky smartphone cameras. Social networking doesn’t mean news stations can work less: on the contrary they now have many more sources to check and track. Further, social media provides new opportunities for news sites to share their stories with readers. On facebook, twitter, and google+, users can subscribe to their favorite news sources in order to be provided with breaking news and stories as soon as they’re released. In general, social networks allow you to be up to date and in the know. Event planning has also gotten a lot easier due to facebook. It’s super easy for anyone to create an event on facebook, invite people to it, and get real-time feedback on who plans to attend and what the guests are saying about the event. Many of the events that I went to in college I wouldn’t even have known about were it not for social networks. In my opinion, the biggest advantage of using social networking for event planning is the ability for feedback before, during, and after the event. When Indianapolis hosted the Super Bowl this past February, staff took to facebook and twitter to answer any and all questions associated with the event. When guests were lost downtown and wanted directions to a certain tent or attraction, they could ask for what they need on social media and receive an answer almost instantly. In this case online social media actually helped to enhance the event as it was taking place.
The sharing paradigm
Sharing on social networks has changed the way we create and access content on the web. Facebook is the dominant social network simply (arguably) because it’s the place where users share the most. While Google+ has been busy adding hundreds of millions of users, it is still considered a digital ghost town because of the lack of content on the network (when compared to facebook). Facebook users share more pictures, comments, statuses, videos, links, stories, etc. than users on any other website. Anyone can share anything they create or like. This has changed the types of information available online. On today’s internet, being popular or highly read means having an active social presence. There is so much value placed on social sharing and interacting that sites like Klout have popped up simply for the purpose of ranking ones social impact, that is, the number and kinds of responses that other leave on things that you share. if you want to make a difference in the online social world, people have to like what you share. This means that content creators are now looking to create information that people like to share on social networks.’”Internet trends” change on a whim, and social networking is usually always the driving cause. The things we create and the things we like have to be shared to become popular, or go viral. The things we see and things we like we first shared by others. It’s always sharing sharing sharing…. Whoever knew kindergarten would come back to bite us like that.
If you have any comments or questions about what I’ve said, here, feel free to leave them in the comments below. I’d love to continue the conversation. And stay tuned for a follow-up article on how to setup and maintain facebook privacy settings. If you have any other social networking related comments or questions, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, post a question in the DCT forums, or better yet, contact us directly in facebook or twitter (yes, those are links to our social sites!).