Facebook may be a way to stay connected, but it may also cause trouble

Thursday, July 29, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

Let's say a complete stranger approaches and asks you to give him the details of your personal life.

The answer would almost certainly be no.

Yet, social networking sites such as Facebook have become a forum for sharing intimate photographs and other private information, as well as simply connecting with friends.

Facebook can be an invaluable communication tool. It is not bound by temporal or geographical constraints and can be a great way to keep in touch with family during college.

Yet, it is important for users to understand its implications.

According to its most recent statistical data, Facebook has 400 million active users in over 180 countries. 

In addition, 100 million users access Facebook through their mobile phones.

On average, users have a minimum of 130 friends and log in at least once per day.

Columbia resident Tony Johnson said it has become difficult to avoid.

“It’s everywhere," Johnson said. "I even have it on my iPhone. I log on as soon as I get bored. It can be a real distraction.”

Oxygen Media and Lightspeed Research recently reported that over half of young women aged 18 to 35 spend more time conversing with people online than in person.

Approximately 39 percent claim to be addicted to Facebook and say they often check their account sometime during the night or when they first wake up.

Similar trends are increasingly permeating college life. MU student Yang Wang said she couldn’t live without Facebook, and she believes a lot of her peers would feel the same.

“All my friends have it and I like to know what’s going on. I would never even consider deleting it,” Wang said.

Facebook is likely to become a major part of a student's life on campus, which definitely can help networking capability.

However, because it acts as a vehicle for social and personal information, it is important to be familiar with its privacy settings.

All users should read the privacy guide at the bottom of every Facebook page.

This contains both the overall privacy policy and the latest privacy functions. It indicates how Facebook treats personal information, and the extent of control a user has.

According to Sophos, which markets web security software, Facebook recently announced that a user's profile content is fully available publicly if not otherwise set to private. This includes name, gender, profile picture and listed networks.

If you are unsure about your public profile, go to “preview my profile” on Facebook’s privacy settings page.

If you maintain the default privacy setting, your personal information is subject to third-party release. This includes those who cannot be identified or verified through the Facebook network.

Data can be indexed by third-party search engines and can be re-distributed without any privacy limitations.

Typically, this will result in advertising content from other sites you visit being tailored to your demographic and preferences.

Students have reported even more invasive side effects.

“I noticed I got more spam mail since I started my Facebook account, and people I don’t know started to contact me,” Johnson said. “I don’t know where else they would have gotten my details.”

In addition, users who connect with an application or website via Facebook  allow these sources to access some personal data.

These applications may access your user identification and your friends' names, along with your public profile. This is permissible because you are effectively agreeing to release this information upon interaction with an outside application.

Facebook may also make information available about your point of access and your age. If the application or website wants to access any other data, however, it will have to ask for permission.

Unless you trust the site, you should not provide any personal information.

Columbia resident Becca Anderson said she has experienced the adverse consequences of Facebook applications.

“Sometimes you get little pop up boxes, and just to get rid of them, I would click them and be like ‘OK, fine, you may run this,’" she said.

"But then they just go viral and don’t stop. So I’d recommend not clicking on anything other than the [application] you’re playing with.”

Alternatively, those who have no interest in accessing applications can block them entirely.

Go to the applications and websites privacy settings page to specify which applications have permission to link with your Facebook account.

Also, you can visit a specific application’s “about” page and change usage preferences.

“I just had no idea," Anderson said. "Honestly, though, since I cleared everything and blocked lots of applications, the crazy pop-ups have really slowed down."

Remember that Facebook is becoming increasingly integrated to the corporate realm. In many cases, it is used in interview processes to establish the character and personality of a potential employee.

Lauri Sybel, director of career services at Vermont Technical College, said all prospective job seekers should treat Facebook profiles like a resume.

She claims inappropriate conduct over Facebook is grounds for dismissal and could qualify as a basis for rejecting an employment application.

MU student Trevor Nichols said his peers may regret over-exposing themselves on Facebook.

As a senior, he recognizes that the nature of Facebook data gives it the potential to haunt someone later.

“Some people like to put up pictures from parties and stuff where they are not presented in the best light," he said. "Sometimes that can look bad on your character and cause some people to think poorly of you.”

Yet, just as networking is crucial to an active social life on campus, it can be useful in professional life.

“There are definitely some things to watch out for. But its uses far outweigh the risks if people were to think about what they’re doing and what they put on there,” Nichols said.

Facebook is only expected to grow. It has begun adapting to new regions by altering formats to suit varied international web connectivity.

Also, Facebook is currently working on establishing a model where content is searchable, via user permission only.

Avoidance is not the key to maintaining personal integrity and privacy online. It is simply important to be vigilant.



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