Social Networks: Is It My Information, Our Information, or Theirs?
John R. Burch, Jr.
In prior incarnations of the World Wide Web, most people had to either learn a significant amount of computer code or buy expensive software if they wanted to construct visually appealing Internet sites. That barrier has been largely removed by the rise of social networks such as Friendster, MySpace and Facebook. These social networking sites provide a basic platform that can be superficially modified by users interested in creating what they believe to be their personal website. In many ways, it is a personal website. In other ways, the site belongs to whatever networked groups the individual user chooses to join, such as friends, classmates, or co-workers. Unbeknownst to many subscribers, the social network itself has an ownership claim to your site too. Each person considering constructing a personal site on a social network needs to consider how their information can be potentially used by everyone who has an ownership stake of some type.
How do you choose what type of information to post on your site? If you are unsure, social networking sites provide you suggestions through the prompts that are available to you as you set up your profile. On MySpace's Profile Edit for instance, space is specifically provided for users to provide their date of birth, occupation, town where they reside, ethnicity, employer, income level, and schools.1 This type of information is particularly valuable for identity thieves, who often troll these social networking sites for potential victims.
It is up to the individual to protect their privacy, but people seem to be much more publicly open about themselves and their proclivities than ever before. As observed by Elli Langford, a student at Auburn University:
"I guess my generation puts a lot less stock into privacy, I mean every other celebrity couple is letting movie cameras into their houses. And you've got shows like The Hills and Laguna Beach where they're in high school, but they're letting cameras follow them around and putting their lives on TV. I guess it's just like a generation thing."4
People use their Internet site(s) to share all aspects of their life. Writers use their blogs to communicate with others about their lives. Some individuals provide podcasts to orally tell their life story. Many choose to use pictures and videos to highlight aspects of their lives. The technologies themselves are powerful authoring mediums that are quite valuable communication tools. It is how those tools are used that should give some people pause. As previously mentioned, many people provide information about their personal lives at the initial stage of creating their website that is probably best left private. It is quite common to find personal sites that have people providing pictures or videos of themselves engaged in sexual acts or using copious amounts of alcohol. Many people choose to celebrate their illicit drug of choice both visually and in their blogs. Among your "friends" and social peers, such behavior can be presently construed as "cool." Will that data still be cool ten years from now? Are there items on your website that you would be ashamed for family members to see? Have you provided documentation of any kind that could be used as evidence against you in a court of law? These questions may not seem applicable to you because you can just delete the information and it is gone, right? In truth, once something is posted on the Internet, you should probably assume that it will always be available somewhere. Some data is just about always archived by the host of your site. Most search engines utilize "spider" technologies that index websites all over the Internet. During the spider process, those search engines make copies of the information that they are indexing and make that content available as a cached page. Thusly, you can delete embarrassing items on your site but there are probably multiple copies of the page floating around cyberspace that can be easily accessed through search engines.
This information can really come back to haunt you once it is made publicly available on the Internet. For example, would you ever go to a job interview wanting to share with the potential employer that you use illegal drugs recreationally and that you may have a severe drinking problem? Of course not, but your website can convey that information to potential employers for you. According to a survey by the United States National Association of Colleges and Employers conducted in July 2006, 27% of employers admitted using Google or social networking sites to evaluate job applicants.5 An employer's use of these Internet tools to discover information that could potentially disqualify a job candidate is not a privacy violation or an unethical act because the information was publicly available via the Internet. Anything an individual chooses to share on the Internet should thusly be considered a part of their résumé.
Belatedly, many new college graduates entering the workforce are attempting to clean up the information that is available about their personal lives on the Internet. According to a 2006 survey conducted by College.Grad.com, nearly half of the recent college graduates surveyed had either already removed unflattering information from their sites or had plans to do so.6 But, as previously mentioned, if that information was ever available over the Internet it can still potentially be found. New Internet entrepreneurs have been developing online services, such as Rapleaf and Spock, which build files on individuals with information they have mined from social networking sites and other information sources on the Internet. Many of these companies do so under the guise that they provide a service by providing one place where people can check what information is available about them and repair any inaccuracies.7 Whether or not these companies are sincere about the purpose of them seizing your personal information without your permission, it is not hard to see the market potential of these services once they begin openly selling the data to companies vetting job applicants.
People do not tend to join social networking sites to create a website for themselves. The site is created to share information with people that you choose for your personal network. Through the conscious use of privacy features available on most social networks, users can restrict the members of their networks to groups such as friends, classmates, or business associates. Unfortunately, many people do not use the available functions to limit who can join their personal networks and thus give access to all of the information on their site to individuals that they may not know well, if at all. That is unfortunate because anyone that you give access to your site is, in a sense, an owner of your personal information. These are individuals who can copy your blogs, pictures, and videos. They have access to information such as your birth date and home community if you made that information available. You have thus invested a great deal of trust in these individuals. Unfortunately, many people discover that their trust is misplaced as their supposed network buddies utilize that information for their own purposes.
One such individual was Amy Polumbo. She had posted some pictures of herself partying with some college friends on her supposedly private Facebook site. At the time many of the pictures were taken, she was just another student at Wagner College. Three years later, on June 16, 2007, she won the 2007 Miss New Jersey beauty pageant and the $10,000 scholarship that came with the title. She also won the opportunity to compete in the Miss America pageant. After only ten days as the titleholder, someone attempted to blackmail her by demanding that she relinquish her crown or photographs of her would be made public. Since her contract with the Miss New Jersey pageant include a morals clause, pictures that reflected badly on her public image had the very real potential of leading to the loss of her title, including the scholarship and chance to become Miss America. Packages including the photographs were sent to Miss Polumbo, members of her family, Miss New Jersey Education Foundation, and Miss America pageant officials. It turned out that the original source of the photographs was Miss Polumbo herself, since she had been the one to post those pictures on her Facebook site in the first place. It should be noted that she was not the author of the lurid captions that accompanied many of the pictures and obviously was not the person who was doing the blackmailing. Suddenly this young lady was thrust into the national spotlight as she pleaded her case on news outlets all over the United States in order to be able to retain both her pageant title and all that came with it, as well as her personal reputation. Ultimately, while the pictures proved to be somewhat embarrassing, Miss Palumbo was allowed to retain the title of Miss New Jersey and compete in the Miss America pageant. Her experience proved a cautionary tale how personal information on the Internet posted on private sites in the past can come back to impact your present day circumstances.8
From a practical standpoint, the presence of so many digital devices in the hands of friends of any kind should be cause for concern as you think of how to protect your privacy. Just about anybody with a cell phone can take photos or videos that can be uploaded to the Internet. If you put yourself in a compromising position, do not be surprised if someone takes advantage of the situation. Imagine the surprise of many young ladies who found that their pictures were included in the more than 4,800 images that were posted under the title "30 Reasons Girls Should Call It a Night" on Facebook. The largely unflattering images depicted women who were so inebriated that they were pictured in the worst possible fashion, including being hunched over toilets in filthy public restrooms. By the looks of many of the faces, these individuals were probably not in the shape to even be aware of what was going on around them. Due to the sheer number of images included in the collection, it is quite possible that at least some of the pictures were taken by people that were at least acquainted with the female victims. Familiarity of any kind with the young woman in question certainly did not prevent them from publishing the information on Facebook and subsequently sharing it with the people in their personal networks.9 Although names are not associated with the images in question, there are people who know the ladies and can identify them. The act of posting the pictures on the Internet anonymously is just as much a violation of the privacy of the victims as that perpetrated on Miss New Jersey, Amy Polumbo.
In many ways, social networking sites have redefined the definition of a "friend." In a traditional sense, it is not uncommon for many people to have a small circle of close friends that they would trust with their innermost secrets. These are the people that end up standing beside you as groomsmen or bridesmaids should you ever decide to get married. Outside of those people are another group of friends that you hang-out with socially but do not necessarily know all that intimately. There are lines with that latter group that are not crossed because they fall into the category of "too much information." In society today, people have a whole new category of "friends" that is defined by the Internet in general, and increasingly by social networks in particular. These friends tend to fall into two categories; people you meet in cyberspace and individuals using friendship for marketing.
A wonderful use of social networking sites is to connect with people residing in different locales who may share common interests. Genuine friendships are often formed through these connections in cyberspace. Collaborative relationships are also formed that are quite unique, as evidenced in the ways that Flickr is being utilized. Professionals, in the business sense, have made excellent use of social networking sites to expand opportunities within their field. A significant portion of the populations engaged in these types of endeavors are cognizant of what they want to achieve through these types of contact. Their websites facilitate these contacts by providing information about themselves that puts them in the best possible light. For instance, someone using their website for business purposes is not going to include information that makes them look irresponsible. These are sites that are used as a means to reach a definable goal. People using their site for specific purposes are probably going to be somewhat selective about whom they provide access to their site on the network. They recognize that their choice of friends can reflect on themselves.
For others online, collecting "friends" is a badge of honor. The number of one's online friends is sometimes perceived as a validation of one's importance. On a narcissistic level, your "friends" are the audience for your blogs, photos, etc. One cannot discount the role of narcissism evident in many interactions because your online friends will contact you when they have posted new pictures or have written new entries on their blogs. In many cases, they initiate the first contact with you to become a member of their personal network. Unfortunately, many people do not give much thought to who they become friends with as long as it gives them another person to claim as part of their personal audience. Thusly, they unwittingly give these people access to themselves and their personal information.
Cybercriminals exploit this naïve desire to have a large number of friends to exploit their victims. Identity thieves not only get access to personal information available on the site, but are often given access to communicate directly to the targeted individual through instant messaging, chats, or email. Since people are inclined to freely share information on the Internet, experienced criminals glean additional information that they can use to target the individual. This means of gaining victims is not unique to the crime of identity theft, as many other criminals, such as sexual predators, use the same gullibility as a means to gain access to many of their victims.
Some enterprising individuals, most notably through MySpace, brilliantly realized that the concept of online friends could be exploited as a marketing tool. Bands, both established and looking to get a record deal, found a venue to market their music. Suddenly, users could be friends with the musicians that they idolized. Unknown comedians, such as Dane Cook, built a buzz about themselves that brought them fame on an international scale. Hollywood's movie industry used social networks to build anticipation of a number of motion pictures, most notably Snakes on the Plane. Director Kevin Smith promoted the motion picture Clerks 2 by naming many of the people who registered as "friends" on the film's MySpace page in the film's credits. In exchange, his friends provided his film free word-of-mouth advertising and the sale of tickets from individuals who wanted to see their name on the big screen.
Although the marketing began on the website established by the entertainers, the friend connection meant that these individuals carried their marketing directly to individual websites. Among the most successful individuals marketing themselves through MySpace were people working in the pornography industry. This gave them a venue to market their wares to a more mainstream audience. It was also an audience that included a large number of people under the age of eighteen, thus ordinarily inaccessible to the porn industry. As people made "friends" with individuals from the industry, they provided access to their personal site for aggressive advertising on the part of the porn industry through the section of their web page reserved for public comments. Since one's web page serves as a public résumé, how do you think this type of content reflects on the perceived owner of the site?
The influence of the market on social networking sites cannot be discounted because, at the highest level, the market is the primary consideration. The corporate owners of the various social networking sites are not offering their services just because they want to enable their members to network with each other, they do so in the hopes of making money. It is the profit component that has effectively eluded those who hope to profit through social networking. Numerous social networking companies, such as Xanga, Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook, have been able to accumulate large numbers of members. It is the number of members that they have that determine their economic futures. Thus far, no social networking site has been able to develop a model to make money consistently without alienating its membership base. This is the challenge facing both MySpace and Facebook today.
MySpace in June 2007 had more than 70.5 million members, making it by far the largest social networking site on the Internet. MySpace's number of "friends" is the reason that the company does not impose requirements that would address privacy issues, anonymity problems, porn marketing, and such. To impose rules that its membership might not like would probably lead to a reduction in number of members. That is the last thing the corporate owners of the site would want, because their members are their product. Many people might be surprised to know that MySpace is a sister company of the Fox News Network. Both are owned by News Corporation, whose chairman is Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch, who is publicly vilified by many as imposing ultra-conservative viewpoints through his media holdings, is not interested in changing MySpace's culture. He is interested in finding a way to profit from MySpace's members.10
The role of market forces is also apparent in the manner which Facebook developed. Facebook, which had 30.6 million members in September 2007, was founded in February 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard University. Thefacebook.com, its original name, was modeled as an Internet version of the traditional facebook. A facebook was basically a booklet that contained the name and picture of new students so that people would know who they were and thus help them acclimate themselves to the campus community. Just a month after its initial introduction to the Harvard University campus, thefacebook.com grew to include users at Stanford University, Columbia University, and Yale. Thefacebook.com subsequently grew extremely rapidly on college campuses across the United States. Its growth was aided by its exclusivity, since one had to have an .edu address in order to become a member. The obvious success of thefacebook.com led to Zuckerberg dropping out of school and moving his fledgling company to Palo Alto, California in June 2004. In August 2005, the company officially changed its name to Facebook. By that point, the company was already counting its membership in the millions and had already attracted a $12.7 million investment from Access Partners. The interest in the company by outside investors was an indication that the company was evolving into a business where making a profit was a priority.11
In order for Facebook to realize its financial potential, it had to grow its membership. Its requirement for its members to have an .edu address hampered its growth because there is a finite number of colleges and universities in the United States. In what many of its college and university members considered a betrayal, Facebook opened its membership to high school students in September 2005. A month later the membership was further expanded to include schools from around the world. Since Facebook had originally marketed itself as serving a college population exclusively, it had essentially sold its soul to market forces. On the other hand, one can understand the decision considering the company's membership had grown to 5.5 million by December 2005. All pretenses of serving a niche clientele were dropped when Facebook opened its membership roles to everybody in September 2006. This change resulted in Facebook having more than 12 million registered members by December 2006.12
Facebook continues to aggressively build its membership base without giving much thought to how their actions affect their members. For example, in September 2007, Facebook's administrators decided to make some member information such as name and picture available to people who were not registered on Facebook through sites like Yahoo and Google. Only those people who had their sites set to "private" were exempted. It was believed that people who were not Facebook members would discover that their personal friends or business associates were members through other Internet search engines and would subsequently decide to join them on Facebook, thereby growing Facebook's membership roles. While the strategy might work to increase Facebook's members, it alienated people who believed that their information was only available to people on Facebook but suddenly had to worry about personal information being available to everyone. Facebook's defense was that its members had the opportunity to opt-out of the program if they so chose. The problem was that there was an apparent assumption on the part of Facebook's administrators that no action on the part of the user meant that they wanted their information broadcast across the Internet. In the eyes of many Facebook members, this was a blatant violation of their privacy. Consider the implications of Facebook's decision; one does not even have to be a Facebook member to find out if information about a particular individual is available on the site. That is a valuable piece of information for those who are looking for information about people, such as potential employers. Facebook subsequently addressed the obvious privacy concerns by making it easier for people to opt-out only after angry members started publicly mobilizing against the company.13
One of Facebook's efforts to utilize their membership base to make money was to create Facebook Platform, which launched in May 2007. The platform provides a framework that allows outside companies to create applications, such as virtual gifts or online games, which operate within Facebook's architecture. Within a matter of months, Facebook had more than 70,000 developers creating new applications in hopes of striking it rich through Facebook's members. These partnerships create revenue for both Facebook and its business partners. In essence, Facebook is selling access to a captive audience, namely its members, and to other companies in order to generate revenue for its private investors.14
One potentially lucrative revenue stream for Facebook is advertising. Facebook, like just about any other major company on the Internet, harvests information about its users. Companies on the Internet not only have the information that you provide to them when you register with them, but they also keep track of your search habits. For instance, if you join groups for people who love chocolate or visit the websites of candy companies on the Internet that sell chocolate, the company knows you like chocolate. The company then uses the information they have about you and your love of chocolate and runs it through their databases using complicated algorithms to determine how they can best entice you to buy chocolate from their business partners. Then they bombard you with tempting offers that are specifically tailored to you. Facebook's users in November 2007 found out how efficient Facebook was in using the information they had gathered on their members to sell them products through advertising. Their Beacon advertising system shared personal information about Facebook members with business partners who then used that information to sell their products directly to people on Facebook. Those companies in turn shared the purchasing habits of Facebook members with Facebook, thusly providing even more information about users that Facebook could use in future endeavors. Once again, many of Facebook's users were incensed because they viewed this use of their personal information as a violation of their privacy. And, once again, the company defended itself by stating that it had given members the option to opt-out of the program if they so desired. Of course, not choosing to opt-out was viewed by the company as consent to use the information in any way that Facebook desired. This arrogant stance on the part of the company drew so much bad publicity that Facebook's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, had to publicly apologize and acknowledge that the company had made a mistake in how they used their members' personal information. While he may have been sincere in his apology, one cannot help but remember that this is also the same pattern that emerged after every other decision by the company that infuriated its membership, such as the previously discussed decision to make available the pictures and names of Facebook members on sites such as Google and Yahoo.15
One can be sure that Facebook will continue to develop models to make money in hopes of finding one that does not upset its members too much. It has to, because too many companies have invested in Facebook and need to see a return on their money. One such company is Microsoft, which is particularly interested in Facebook's advertising potential. Microsoft invested $240 million in Facebook in October 2007. This investment valuated Facebook's worth at $15 billion! Other than its members, what exactly does Facebook have that makes it worth that much money? The answer is potential. If Facebook, through its platform, manages to evolve into something like Google, then the investments made by other companies in Facebook will be a bargain. If Facebook's business potential is not realized, then those companies have lost money. Microsoft's vested interest will ensure that it, along with the rest of Facebook's business partners, will be working to devise ways of realizing Facebook's potential to generate money from Facebook's members.16
In fairness to Facebook, it should be noted that its competitors, like MySpace, are also using user information to try to find ways to turn their membership base into money. Like Facebook, each of these Internet companies has to discover a business model that does not offend its membership base but makes money. The one weakness that is obvious within companies constructing social networks, be they Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, etc., is that they cannot force their members to be loyal to their site. All of these companies are all susceptible to a new startup social network that becomes hot among the 12 to 30 year-old demographic. One only has to look at examples such as Xanga and Friendster to see social networks that were extremely popular, but then saw a rapid decline in membership as they moved to the new hot places on the Web, namely MySpace and Facebook. Since MySpace and Facebook are not only the largest social networks presently in existent, but also the most innovative in terms of the business acumen of their administrators, their innovations bear watching.
Now that the manner in which information is generated and used by individuals, groups, and companies has been briefly examined; who owns the information on your personal website? The easy answer is you, your friends, and whatever business entity owns or partners with the social networking site in question. Unfortunately, any consequences that arise from information on your site impact you, and not your friends or the provider of the space for your website. It is up to you to ensure that information posted on your website will not embarrass you now or in the future. It is up to you to monitor your site constantly for opt-out options that occasionally are posted in order to protect your privacy, because nobody else will. Social networking sites can be excellent places to meet and network with people, just be sure to do so in a manner that protects you and your interests.
1 MySpace.com, Profile Edit, Visited November 10, 2007, http://profileedit.myspace.com.
4 Quoted in Janet Kornblum, "Privacy? That's Old-School," USA Today (October 23, 2007): D1.
5 George Alison, "Things You Wouldn't Tell Your Mother," New Scientist 191:2569 (September 16, 2006): 50-51.
6 "Blackmail Claim Stirs Fears Over Facebook," Mail & Guardian Online (13 November 2007), Visited November 13, 2007, http://www.mg.co.za/articlePage.aspx?articleid=314064&area=/breaking_news/...
7 Heather Green, "It Isn't Your Space Anymore," Business Week 4051 (September 24, 2007): 13.
8 "Blackmail Claim Stirs Fears Over Facebook," Mail & Guardian Online (13 November 2007), Visited November 13, 2007, http://www.mg.co.za/articlePage.aspx?articleid=314064&area=/breaking_news/...; Dan Carnevale, "Celebrity Teaches Students About Internet Privacy," Chronicle of Higher Education. 54:2 (September 7, 2007): 42; Austin Fenner, "N.J. Miss in a Fix Over Her Pics: Hit By Facebook Blackmail Scheme," New York Post ( July 6, 2007). Visited November 13, 2007, http://www.nypost.com/seven/07062007/news/regionalnews/n_j_miss_in_a_fix...; Abigail Leichman, "Photos Online are Immune to the Delete Key," The Record (August 20, 2007). [Database online], Available from Newsbank: America's Newspapers; Bill O‘Reilly, "Miss New Jersey Blackmail Plot," O'Reilly Factor (July 9, 2007), [Database online], Available from Newspaper Source; Wayne Parry, "Girls on Film: Miss New Jersey Shows 'Private' Online Photos Really Aren't," The Advocate (July 13, 2007). [Database online], Available from Newsbank: America's Newspapers; "Yet Another Pitfall Found About Posting Personal Photos Online –Miss New Jersey Barely Escaped Being Denied Her Shot to be Miss America This Year," Portland Press Herald (July 16, 2007), [Database online], Available from Newsbank: America's Newspapers.
9 FoxNews.com, Drunk and Out of Control on Facebook, Visited November 8, 2007, http://www.foxnews.com/printer_friendly_story/0,3566,309505,00.html.
10 Spencer E. Ante, Ronald Grover, and Heather Green, "In Search of MyProfits." Business Week 4057 (November 5, 2007): 23-26.
11 Facebook, Timeline, Visited December 10, 2007, http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?timeline; , Press Room, Visited December 1, 2007, http://www.facebook.com/press.php; Brock Read, "A Week of Change at Facebook, as It Expands Its Membership…," Chronicle of Higher Education 53:5 (September 22, 2006): A35; Kevin J. Delaney, et al. "Facebook Riding a Web Trend, Flirts With a Big-Money Deal," Wall Street Journal 248:69 (September 21, 2006): A1; Michael Hirschhorn, "About Facebook," The Atlantic (October 2007), 148, 150, 152, 154-155; Sarah Lacy, "Facebook: Opening the Doors Wider," Business Week Online (September 12, 2006): 8.
12 Facebook, Timeline; Brock Read, "A Week of Change at Facebook, as It Expands Its Membership…," A35; Sarah Lacy, 8; Vauhini Vara and Kevin J. Delaney, "Facebook Opens Its Pages As a Way to Fuel Growth," Wall Street Journal 249:118 (May 21, 2007): B1-B2.
13 Brock Read, "Students Fret Over Facebook's Public Listings," Chronicle of Higher Education 54:5 (September 28, 2007): A23; Jon Swartz, "Soon Millions of Facebookers Won‘t Be Incognito," USA Today (September 12, 2007): B3.
14 Facebook, Timeline; Derry Miller, "Who Wants to Be a Facebook Millionaire?" Business Week Online, (October 9, 2007): 13; Riva Richmond, "Enterprise: Why So Many Want to Create Facebook Applications; Site's Growing Ranks Seen as Potential Source of Revenue, Customers," Wall Street Journal (September 4, 2007): B4. See also Brad Stone, "In Facebook, Investing in a Theory," New York Times 157:54087 (April 10, 2007): C1-C2; Catherine Holahan, "Facebook's Widget Middleman," Business Week Online, (August 15, 2007): 25; Darryl K. Taft, "Facebook Makes Pitch for Developers," EWeek 24:21 (June 11, 2007): D8; David Kirkpatrick, "Facebook's Plan to Hook Up the World," 155:11 (June 11, 2007): 127-130; Michael Hirschorn, 152, 154; Vauhini Vara and Kevin J. Delaney, B1-B2.
15 David Kirkpatrick, "About Face (book): CEO Mark Zuckerberg Finally Apologized Wednesday and Made Fresh Changes to the Site's Controversial New Ad System. Maybe Now the Media's Absurd Critiques Will Stop," CNNMoney.com (December 5, 2007), Visited December 6, 2007. http://cnnmoney.printthis.clickability.com/pt/cpt?action=cpt&title=Reports+of+Facebook...
16 Facebook. Facebook and Microsoft Expand Strategic Alliance: Two Companies Expand Advertising Deal to Cover International Markets, Microsoft to Take Equity Stake in Facebook, Visited November 9, 2007, http://www.facebook.com/press/releases.php?=8084.