If one day you met a long-lost school friend while out shopping, for example, you might spend a few minutes catching up on each others’ lives, exchanging news about common friends, sharing a few laughs and recalling good times. You might exchange phone numbers or even joyously arrange a get-together at a future date. But you probably wouldn’t automatically start rattling off every detail of every place you’ve been and every new friend you’ve made in the last decade. Imagine now that instead of walking up to that friend you found his Facebook profile just by chance and sent him a message and invitation. You’ve most probably just handed him not only an entire summary of the activities of your life, but also access to your photos and videos, personal thoughts, group memberships, and list of other friends—and all this despite not knowing the first thing about what he’s been up to and who his friends are.
A few days after he adds you, you see you have friend requests from a dozen other former classmates, none of whom you were particularly good friends with or would ever consider contacting yourself. They say your name pop up in their news feeds, since your old friend was on their lists. Now all of these semi-random acquaintances know you have an active Facebook profile, and you feel awkward about ignoring them… so you just click ‘Accept’.
Each one of them can now see every last detail about your life.
That one branch spawned a dozen branches, and each of those dozen could spawn another dozen. Like the roots of a tree, your online connections can quickly grow into a vast, overlapping, complicated network of interconnected strands, and you’ll quickly lose control over not only who you’re connected to, but who can steal your information to make your life miserable.
Your photos could be copied, altered and reposted online. Your email address could be harvested by spammers. Your boss could frown on evidence of you partying late last night. Your ultra-conservative co-workers could shun you for things that are none of their business. Or your grandparents could one day mortify you by leaving comments on your friends’ updates! All of this is possible with social networks expanding from young, net-savvy users to anyone and everyone—and very few are happy to adjust.
MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Hi5, Orkut, and dozens of other mainstream or niche social networks used to be vast, open playgrounds where people freely posted about the most intimate details of their lives. Today, doing anything like that is a pretty bad idea. There are a few major causes of concern: the fact that enormous corporations are building detailed databases and distilling your profile information into marketable slices is dangerous but abstract—you don’t worry about it that much because you can’t see it happening and you most probably can’t identify any incident that has disrupted your life as a result.
One the other hand, information about you can be seen by strangers, your updates can make information about your movement visible to undesirable people, and you expose yourself to a huge amount of liability even with friends, family and coworkers.