Saturday, March 29, 2008

Facing the Facts About Facebook

To find out more about Social Networking in my community I began asking a range of people about their choices and reasons for using social networks. Facebook seems to be the choice over MySpace, because friends are also on Facebook. Generally people from 16 to 40 years of age use Facebook to communicate with friends, share photos and keep track of old friends. Few of the people over 40 that I talked to participate in social networking and most parents of students under the age of 16 prefer their students not use Facebook because of what they consider its public nature. Neither of my children have social networking accounts. When asked why, they expressed concerns over the way they have witnessed Facebook being used to ‘anonomously’ harass other students. My children are also reluctant to share personal information on the internet, having concerns about how that information may be accessed and misused.

Whether or not students approve, adults and teachers are signing on to Facebook. At the beginning of this master’s level course, we were asked to create a Social Networking account and develop a personal profile to learn about Social Networking. While I understand that participating is the most valuable way to learn, I remain reluctant to set up this kind of profile on the internet (especially after my failed attempts at trying to delete my membership with Jumpcut). A 19 year old friend of my daughter gave me access to his Facebook account, sharing his password so I could explore and participate in order to prepare this blog. Although I needed to do this if I was going to have a true understanding of how social networking works (without creating my own account), this illustrates just how easy it is for those not “invited as friends” to access information.

I am not willing to set up a profile on Facebook, nor any other social networking site, partly because of what I have read in Why You Should Beware of Facebook, by Tom Hodgkinson, who claims “the global rise of Facebook is a matter for concern rather than excitement.” This article takes a close look at the stakeholders in Facebook, their politics and their combined agenda. Hodgkinson concludes there are two options:

“Now, you may, like Thiel [a part owner of facebook] and the other new masters of the cyberverse, find this social experiment tremendously exciting. Here at last is the enlightenment state longed for since the Puritans of the 17th century sailed away to North America, a world where everyone is free to express themselves as they please, according to who is watching. National boundaries are a thing of the past and everyone cavorts together in freewheeling virtual space. Nature has been conquered through man's boundless ingenuity. Yes, and you may decide to send genius investor Thiel all your money, and certainly you'll be waiting for the public flotation of the unstoppable Facebook.

Or you might reflect that you don't really want to be part of this heavily funded program to create an arid global virtual republic, where your own self and your relationships with your friends are converted into commodities on sale to giant global brands. You may decide that you don't want to be part of this takeover bid for the world.”

I for one, don’t want any part of this capitalist venture where, as Hodgkinson says, "Share" is Facebookspeak for "advertise”. I agree with Hodgkinson, when he says,

“Sign up to Facebook and you become a free walking, talking advert for Blockbuster or Coke, extolling the virtues of these brands to your friends. We are seeing the commodification of human relationships, the extraction of capitalistic value from friendships.”

Adrienne Felt, a fourth-year student in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at U.Va., feels all of Facebook’s users should be concerned about security. Ms. Felt leads a research project on privacy issues surrounding social networking platforms and is investigating the information sharing that occurs when users download a Facebook application. In her study, Felt has found that use of these applications increase the user's vulnerability. An application appears as if it is part of Facebook's platform when it is actually running an on application developer's server. When a user installs an application, that application's developer is given the ability to see everything the user can see — name, address, friends' profiles, photos, etc..

"The Facebook privacy policy always seemed unsatisfactory to me," said Felt, an experienced Facebook application developer who found that 90.7 percent of Facebook's most popular applications unnecessarily have access to private data. Felt proceeds to warn us,

“There are currently no restrictions on what applications (and their developers) can do with user data, and though the Facebook "Terms of Use" warn developers not to abuse the data they have access to, Facebook cannot enforce this rule…In fact, when a user installs an application, the user's computer communicates with the Facebook servers and the Facebook servers then communicate with the application developer's servers. Once users' private data leave the Facebook servers, the company has no way of knowing what happens to it.”

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