The Cost of Social Networking

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Following on from yesterdays post detailing how Facebook has now overtaken Myspace in unique UK visits, I started thinking about the impacts of this explosion of social networking across the interweb.

The key factor that people find most luring about social networking sites is that they enable users to seek old/ new friends and extend existing social networks onto the internet. They provide way of communication that fits modern lifestyles; it is convenient, fun and free. But although financially free, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a price to pay.

The catalogue of social networking sites on offer cater for a diverse range of audiences, but the interaction they offer within an online social network is fundamental to all of them. To participate users have to provide a certain amount of personal information so they can become a part of these constructed networks, and this is seemingly a price that users are increasingly willing to pay.

Subsequently there are vast amounts of personal data stored within these sites, protected only by the policies that each site chooses to adopt at any one time, understandably becoming a concern for some. Perhaps more concerning in the short term are the stories of how various established internet brands have, or intend to muscle in on the success of the social networking craze. Recently Facebook confirmed it intends to open up user profiles to search indices, enabling user profiles, and all the personal data within them, to be indexed by search engines such as Goolge. These profiles will then become publicly available to all web users. Currently only members can search the Facebook database, and only then see a limited profile before a friend’s confirmation.

In its defence other sites such as Myspace already do this, and Facebook has put in place the chance to restrict profile access to Google, but by default this is not activated and users only have a month to change their privacy settings. Although this option is provided, it defiantly shows a shift away from the once restrictive privacy policies that Facebook adhered to, and in my opinion was a core reason people opted to use the service over other less restrictive social networking sites.

These concerns can only be further reiterated with the news that Microsoft have also announced it is in discussions for taking a 5% stake in Facebook. This would reportedly cost around £150m – £250m, and certainly be part of an overall strategy to use Facebook profile information in the development of more personalised ad delivery or search engine results. This is merely speculation at this point, but clearly demonstrates how social networking sites may not be as free as first thought for those that respect their right to personal privacy.


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