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     Volume 8 Issue 94 | November 13, 2009 |

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Food for Thought

Adventures Online
Friends, Fruitcakes and Folly

Farah Ghuznavi

In recent years, the number of so-called social networking sites spawned by the Internet revolution has been nothing short of mind-boggling. And a few of these have achieved a degree of prominence that is almost as incredible, so that you end up meeting any number of people who have their own Facebook/ Twitter/MySpace/HighFive page; and interestingly enough, the unlikeliest people fall into this category yes, I do mean your snoopy mejho khala! So beware of initiating conversations about your site activities unless you are prepared for the avalanche of friend requests that are likely to come your way; and don't take it personally if they do. Then again, many people seem to maintain such accounts almost for the express purpose of proving their popularity...

I would be the first to admit that these networks have a number of uses. For one thing, it can be extremely pleasant to re-establish contact with old school-friends or others whom you have fallen out of touch with. And if you're the kind of person who has friends scattered all over the world (as many people do, given the scale of the Bangladeshi diaspora these days), it can be a practical way of keeping in touch with people whom you might otherwise rarely meet up with. E-mail, when it arrived, totally revolutionised communication options relating to those who might be amongst your dearest, if not, sadly, your nearest. But of course, the ultimate genius of technology like Facebook and MySpace is that it allows you to maximise the contact with the minimum of effort; something highly valued in our "instant gratification" era.

In the initial period after the dawn of these networking sites, I was amazed by the ease with which it allowed me to stay in touch with close friends who had proved to be appallingly bad at writing e-mails, but magically found themselves able to find the time to take any number of ridiculous quizzes, as well as (thankfully!) occasionally updating their status lines. And to this day, I maintain that the best thing about Facebook and its competitors is that status line. When used wisely, it can allow you to provide your friends with a snapshot into your life, your day or your mood of the moment.

But in the end, it wasn't enough. Despite having initiated some of these accounts, I quickly found myself unable to keep up with the demands that came with them, as well as the volume of information they inevitably generated - much of it trivial beyond belief! As a result, while I think that these sites provide an excellent way for many people to express themselves and keep in touch with others, I have largely decided that they are not for me. As a result, my presence on my various pages (created as the initial result of a misplaced surge of enthusiasm) remains largely phantom, and they languish inactive. Having said that, I will admit that I DO still believe that e-mail is one of the most wonderful discoveries of all time.

There is no question that millions of people derive a great deal of joy and enrich their lives by participating in online networks. So unless you are a socially inept and somewhat curmudgeonly creature like me, is there any reason to be measured or a little wary in your use of social networking sites? To my surprise, I found out that apparently there is. For one thing, some Facebook users were shocked some months ago to find that the pictures they had posted on their individual albums, many of them highly personal, actually belonged to Facebook - it was all in the small print, which no one had read. That in itself need not have been a bad thing, but a serious problem emerged when people found their personal pictures used, for example, for advertising purposes on the Internet… without their permission!

While this has resulted in some serious ethical issues being raised and the site providers being forced to engage in discussion to clarify users' rights, some hidden hazards remain. There are enough excellent articles on how to manage your exposure on these sites better, so I will not repeat that information here. But in addition to these issues of privacy, what has also become evident is that the widespread use of these technologies has had some unexpected social consequences.

A few years ago, one of the dedicated "friend finder" sites was all the rage in the US. Not unexpectedly, many of the users turned out to be 30 or 40-somethings who had decided to take a walk down memory lane. Given American cultural mores and the importance of high school experiences, the most common trend turned out to be people reuniting with their old classmates. Harmless enough, one might think, but it turned out that getting back in touch with high school sweethearts led in a number of cases to a more literal walk down memory lane! After a number of well-publicised instances of infidelity, that particular site gained the fame (or perhaps more accurately, the notoriety) of actually having a documentary programme made about the number of marriages that had been torpedoed as a result of "old friends" being reunited after a couple of decades…

If that wasn't bad enough, some people also appear to think that participation on a social networking site frees them from the minimum levels of decency required to operate in civilised society. For example, in one case from the UK, 35-year-old Emma Brady found out that her husband was divorcing her only when he changed his status on a social networking site to read: "Neil Brady has ended his marriage to Emma Brady." To add to the humiliation, she only found out about it after a friend in Denmark saw the online posting and called to ask her how she was! We've all heard about how the wife can be "the last to know" but this is ridiculous. In any case, Neil was clearly not much of a "keeper", since these details of their breakup came out as he was sentenced at Blackburn Magistrates' Court for assaulting his wife at their home at an earlier point in their marriage.

Another of the unexpected consequences of excessive disclosure online relates to users who may be enthusiastically describing a forthcoming holiday (complete with dates) or a recently purchased (and very expensive) high-tech gadget. Since many people are fairly indiscriminate about whom they add to their friends list, there is a danger that they may actually end up telling not only their friends about these things, but also potential burglars!

The British-based insurance company, Legal & General, found in a survey of over 2000 people that nearly 40% of those using sites like Twitter and Facebook tend to post details about holiday plans. "Coupled with the finding that an alarmingly high proportion of users are prepared to be 'friends' online with people they don't really know, this presents a serious risk to the security of people's home and contents," stated the insurer. In a report entitled "The Digital Criminal" the company said that there was evidence that unscrupulous people were using social media sites to connect with others who were essentially strangers, the latter leaving themselves open to exploitation.

In a test of how readily people accepted "friends" online, a European market researcher conducted a survey on behalf of Legal & General that involved sending out 100 "friend" or "follow" requests to strangers selected at random. Shockingly enough, of those requests 13% were accepted on Facebook and 92% on Twitter - without any checks! Younger users appear to be most likely to give away information about their plans and whereabouts, with men also being more likely to do so than women.

But there's no need to panic just yet - even for those foolish enough to give up that kind of information, there is hope...! Joining the ever-increasing pantheon of stupid criminals recorded worldwide, we have the shining example of one 19-year old man in Pennsylvania in the US, who was nabbed after forgetting to log out of his Facebook account at the scene of the crime. This of course raises the question of why on earth someone would stop to check Facebook on a computer owned by the person they were robbing? But clearly, Facebook addiction is a serious problem, people. So as one commentator has pointed out, perhaps it's only a question of time before we will see some foolish felon deciding to provide a play-by-play series of tweets about a crime in progress.

opyright (R) thedailystar.net 2009