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Social Networking - Are Facebook and MySpace a Positive Influence?

Jul 9, 2008
Bebo, Facebook, Flickr, Friendster, LinkedIn, MySpace and Twitter. Chances are if you're reading this you're a member of one or more of these websites or any of the other plethora of social networking sites out there on the net. They seem to have become unavoidable, and spring up wherever you go. Without doubt the fastest growing here in the UK is Facebook. Starting in September 2005 Facebook linked students across US universities. Through 2007 Facebook experienced exponential growth as it opened up for everyone to join and now has in the region of 80 million users worldwide.

The birth of the social networking phenomenon has seen a shift in the way that many people browse the web, and especially in the way that people interact socially. Facebook has even changed the way that people interact offline with many social events being organised solely through the web.

For the sake of this article I will primarily talk about Facebook as it seems to be the most widely used social networking site (SNS) among people that I know.

Facebook has taken a generation by storm. It has enabled long-lost friends to connect to each other again, and made it easy for friends living apart to keep in touch. The site adheres to the common formula among all SNS in that it gives the user the chance to make a profile of themselves and then add profiles of their friends to their friend list. You can post messages to your friends profiles and join many different groups that are specialised around a common interest. Where Facebook is unique is that it enables users to install a wide variety of plugins to enhance their pages, enabling them to take movie quizzes against friends, or play scrabble and similar things.

With sites such as Facebook becoming ever popular the era of the egocentric web user has arrived. Everything about social networking is based on the self, the profile. People spend hours updating their profiles just to let the world know that they're cutting their toenails or whatever other mundane things they happen to be doing. Suddenly it seems that everyone must know your intimate details on everything from your address and date of birth to your musical tastes. There has been a significant shift away from topic based communities on the web such as discussion forums to communities based around user profiles and the e-persona.

With this free willed disclosure of all kinds of personal information comes risks. Social networking sites can be seen as a hacker's paradise. So far social network sites haven't been hit by anything too major, just relatively harmless worms, adware and phishing attacks. However, with the amount of personal data so readily available it is certainly feasible that these sites could come under a serious attack and people's data could become compromised. Your name, address, date of birth and in fact just about everything about you could become available to hackers to use as they please.

The worrying thing about this however, isn't just the fact that this data could become available, but it is that sites such as MySpace and Facebook could become platforms for more serious Trojan attacks that can sit on the system and then log online banking data and other more sensitive information. With many people using Facebook and not being up to date and knowledgeable about computer security there are certainly a lot of gullible people out there that are just waiting to install that new plugin that is actually a disguised Trojan virus.

There is also the worrying thing that so much data is out there in the public domain and it can lead to vigilante-like attacks. In China this is quite a severe problem. For example, the 21 year old Gao Qianhui posted a video lambasting the coverage of the earthquakes in China. While her views are questionable and worthy of derision she was hunted down and eventually she had to be detained by police. The only reason she was found was because of data found on social networking sites. While promoting free speech on sites such as YouTube we are also exposing ourselves to attacks from extremists by posting so much personal data on Facebook.

They're an interesting phenomenon, people scramble to get as many friends as they can, even if they've never met the person, they add a vast swathe of plugins while bloggers and YouTube video makers are all trying to score as many hits as possible. It seems that everyone is trying to live as their own mini celebrity and gain social acceptance through the web. The desire to have the most friends, or the most hits, comes from the need for acceptance. While the user generated content definitely produces some of the best things on the web it is almost getting to the point where the good parts are getting lost in the sea of friend request emails, add plugin spam and videos of dogs on skateboards.

Security risks are perhaps the biggest threat to these sites, but I genuinely believe that they are an overall positive influence on the web. The ability to keep in touch so easily with your friends no matter where they live is most definitely a positive thing. MySpace has proved to be a positive influence on the music industry, whether the record companies like it or not. It is so much easier for bands to push out their music to new fans via the Internet than it has ever been at any point in the past. In fact, many of today's big acts were discovered by word of mouth through social networking sites.

The ability to so easily carve out your own webspace has really opened up the Internet to the masses and released it from the grip of the computer geek. The Internet is the most important invention for a very, very long time and I believe that it will play a massive role in our future. By unlocking this to everyone and enabling it to play a significant part in the everyday lives of everyday people then the Internet will continue to grow and prosper.

What social networking needs to do now is to push for a much more streamlined and secure approach. I just hope that eventually the hype will die down and my email inbox won't be full of requests to virtually give people cake or poke them. Given the power of the net it does sometimes seem disheartening to see it used in such a trivial manner sometimes.
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