Facebook, social network sites (SNS) and web-identity related issues

May 7, 2010 at 7:09 pm 2 comments

More than ten years ago, when I first discovered Internet, I had no idea about how big and widespread it was going to become ! But ever since my first steps, I noticed that, as Internet grew bigger in popularity and access, more and more issues (technical, ethical, economical, political, law-oriented, …) were brought out.

Similarily, when social network sites (SNS) first appeared (in the West), there were no real issues raised at any national level at first (as far as I’m aware of), especially because they were not yet used worlwide equally (Myspace was mostly used by US youngsters, while Facebook was first restricted to Harvard students and then to US students only, for example). Now that they’ve become a part of everyday life for many people (mostly young) around the world, several issues are regularly raised in the media, mostly regarding “security” issues (privacy, personal data, …).

It seems that the media try to have us see social network sites as real threats for our lives. When the media investigated how some people got fired or got into troubles at work because of things posted on social networks, some people started to freak out. Should they stop all kind of networking activity and keep an eye on what’s being posted about them on Internet ? Well, kind of… but no need to have a too dramatic reaction !

With some basic knowledge and common sense, everyone can use social network sites without too many risks. People mainly need to be aware of how these things work and what kind of impacts a good or bad use of these tools can have on their lives. But that’s just what social networks sites are : tools. Nothing more, nothing less. And, as for any tool, people need to learn how to use them properly if they don’t want to harm themselves or others, right ?

What are social network sites ?

Social network sites are websites aimed at enabling you to share all kind of things (information, personal data, pictures, music, tastes, videos, articles, …) with either everyone (anyone using Internet could access these information) or a selected number of contacts (eg your close friends only) if you set up your privacy settings appropriately.

The most famous “general” SNS are Myspace and Facebook in the West (both from the USA), and Mixi, Cyworld and QQ in the East (even though Facebook is also gaining popularity there).

You can suscribe with any e-mail address on most of these networks, except for those like Cyworld, that control every account’s identity through the National number for Korean citizens, of passport control or similar data for non-Korean people. This way, if there are legal issues, the Korean authorities know who is involved.

There are also thematic SNS, such as Viadeo (France mostly) and LinkedIn for professional social network sites, Flickr for photos, and so on.

What are some issues that it raises in terms of personal data, employment, … ?

The main issue raised by these tools is the respect of the users’ privacy, and security of personal data. Actually, the social network that is blamed the most about these issues is the extra-popular Facebook.

Originally designed by students to be only a true “face-book” (like the paper Yearbook used in US High schools and Universities), only available to students in US Universities (and only Harvard at first), its success had it conquer the world and it became available to everyone – not only students.

Facebook is mostly blamed for the evolution of its privacy policy (interesting overlook here) : it seems like the company just wants to take advantage of its popularity, and to have the right to use ANYTHING its users post on it (that is pictures, videos, personal data, …) in order to make money. And the changes in the privacy settings are usually not really well-advertised, so most users aren’t really aware of how Facebook can actually use their data. As always in such cases, only the cautious users, who keep an eye on how the system works, really know how it works and what to do to protect their privacy and their data, but the main crowd, who mostly uses it for fun (especially pre-teens, teenagers and young people), isn’t aware of all these issues and doesn’t always use it carefully.

Apart from this issue, especially related to Facebook, the general use of any social network site raises some concerns about web-identity. People aren’t aware of the basic acknowledgement that “assume that anything you put on Internet could be found by anyone”, or “don’t put on Internet something you wouldn’t like to see exposed to everyone (like in a magazine)“. So, people tend to post things that could be embarassing for them or their friends, or that could be seen as libellous, or that reveal strategic information, and so on … and that can lead to troubles. No wonder companies tend to look for information about their applicants on Internet as part of the recruitment process, in order to get an overview of their personality for example !

And some employees got into trouble with their employers regarding data posted on Internet : anything you post could have an impact on your company. Every employee is some kind of ambassador for its company (when they put this kind of information online). Posting your opinion on Internet has much more legal implications than just sharing it with your friends, but, from what I observe, many people aren’t aware of that.

People’s reaction to these pieces of news was something like “That’s shocking !” ….. but what REALLY is shocking is that people aren’t aware of the fact that Internet is a PUBLIC space, not their friends’ private circle… The troubles led by an unwise use of social network sites mostly shows that everyone needs to be educated about the use of Internet and its tools.

Plus, social network sites can now be seen as tools for everyone to build up his/her own web-identity, by choosing what they want to show about them. This is sometimes referred to as “personal branding”. Individuals and companies try to control what appears about them on Internet (especially in Google results). This led to the creation of digital companies specialized in erasing inconvenient data about their clients (individuals and companies) from Internet. Data found on SNS are fully part of this process. That means that, if someone uses all these tools very wisely, he/she can make himself/herself look like someone “clean” and talented in his/her field … and the opposite if he/she doesn’t know how to use these tools wisely ! And this can have a tremendous impact when you try to make a good first impression to someone … who, unlike before, can already have some idea about who you are from the information he/she gathered from Internet.

A threat or an opportunity ?

So, are social network sites a threat or an opportunity ? Social networks aren’t new, since human people aren’t made to live alone, but with SNS, they took a wide turn, as we are now talking about social networks linking at a world scale !

It seems pretty clear that they can be a great opportunity, as long as they are used wisely. Social network sites, and not only professional ones, enable people to have a better view of their overall personal network. And this is helpful when you are looking for a job, or a place to stay, or things like that, at least.

It is also an easy way to share interesting articles and spread information widely (the buzz effect) – but when the information is wrong at the start, it is a threat since the fake piece of information could spread very quickly all around the world !

SNS can also enable you to keep in touch much more easily (but in a more superficial way) with friends who live far away for example. But the threat would be that people no longer trully interact with each other, “in real life”, and only share unintersting information (instead of having a real debate). As long as people still communicate “in real” with their inner circle of friends and relatives and with people at work, social network sites on Internet won’t break human bonds.

Plus, social networks may help people to be more “clean” about themselves. With things like web-identity and personal branding appearing, people may slowly start to be aware of their “public” image (usually only famous people have to worry about that), and then try to be clear about who they are and how they want other people to see that. They will start to work on their image, but they won’t be able to lie that much, as people who know them would notice that immediatly. So, what I mean is that social network sites could allow a better transparency and honesty – that is, if used wisely of course !

So, SNS are neither evil tools or perfect magical tools. Only the use we make of them makes them trully interesting – and educating, or not.

A few basic tips

As I have outlined several times in this article, I think educating people to the uses of Internet and social network sites is very important. Like we like to say in IT : “most of the time, the problem is located between the keyboard and the chair.” – that is to say, the main problem is the user ! Everybody should learn about Internet good uses.

People like me learned through experience and at University (because it was part of our studies), but most people aren’t really properly taught about how to use Internet wisely, and it is a real concern when it comes to children and teenagers, who expose themselves way too much, unaware of the potential consequences (don’t forget that Internet has a loooooooong memory).

So, here are a few basic tips to reduce the risks while using Internet :

  • Internet is a worldwide PUBLIC space.
  • Therefore, think before you put anything on Internet : assume that anybody could access your content. What if your boss/Mom/enemy/friend … found it ? Even if you run away, anyone around the world could find it and throw it back at you. If it would make you uncomfortable, just forget about putting it online !
  • Check out regularly the privacy settings of your account, in order to see if there are any changes, and react accordingly.
  • Set up your privacy settings wisely. Make groups of contacts according to how close you are to them (close friends, school friends, friends of friends, etc…), and set your privacy settings accordingly (this photo album only viewable by close friends for example, this other one open to everyone, etc…). Sometimes you can choose to prevent search engines to retrieve data from you profile : choose this option if you are really cautious about your privacy.
  • Let your friends know that you care about your web-identity, and that you would appreciate if they respected that (by not tagging photos inapropriately, posting comments on your public page that could be understood wrongly, etc).
  • Do not accept anyone as your “friend” or contact, and ask them why they want to be in contact with you this way, and then choose to accept them or not.
  • Do not share information that is too personal, and be careful about how you phrase your opinions.
  • If you want to cancel your account, make sure you delete EVERYTHING beforehand, to be sure there won’t stay any “floating” data about you that you could no longer remove afterwards.
  • Simply don’t use social networks if you’d like to be “different”…. after all, nothing lasts really long on Internet … but be aware that you may miss out on interesting things (like shared articles, buzz, etc…).

Everyone, what are your thoughts about all these issues ?

Note : Personally, I’ve been using Myspace since 2005, Facebook since 2006, Cyworld since 2007 (Korean version), and Viadeo since 2008 (I’m still not attracted by LinkedIn, even though I tried), among the ones I mentioned in this article.
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Fiche pratique #1 – Organiser un événement Marketing in Korea – Hyundai “Shouting Korea”, with KIM Yuna and BIGBANG

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