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Thoughts about privacy and social networks

Could we be moving into a stage of civilization where not to share our thoughts and experiences with the entire world will be seen as antisocial behavior? For those who invest time in social networks, this is already somewhat true. Those who only re-tweet or share what others have said, without adding anything of their own are exposed to criticism, and I've read of twitter software that helps to spot those who only retweet or post links.

Although it would require research in order to prove it, I have noticed that friends in social networks tend to reward expression of emotion and particularly the revelation of what has traditionally been regarded as personal information or private feelings.

Facebook - as the network that initially encouraged interchange with real life friends - has been instrumental in getting people to speak about themselves openly - mainly because members felt somewhat protected within the network’s walled garden. Now Facebook is making incremental shifts towards encouraging its members to share information more publicly. It is encouraging greater openness among its members, by leading them to share more about themselves to more people.

We may already be reaching a time when all of this publicly available information will permanently determine an individual's chances in life of receiving a good education or career. And while it may still be possible to opt out of social networks, this may not be the case fairly soon, as much of our interaction with people and colleagues is transferred online. There will simply be no place to hide.

Everyone has heard horror stories of Facebook members who have lost jobs, lost out on renting apartments, been expelled from school, ruined their marriage, or even lost their lives as a result of being too open about themselves on Facebook. Lately there was the case of a woman whose insurance claim for depression was challenged because she appeared to look happy in photos she had posted.

However, such cases blur what is actually happening, by presenting examples of behavior that can be easily avoided. In fact, the analysis of data from social networks is becoming much more sophisticated.

There is no way to be a member of a social network without impacting personal privacy. From the moment we join, we begin to construct our social graph: Who are our friends and how many of these do we have? or, in the context of twitter, who do we follow and who follows us? How do we interact with these friends and followers? Do our friends hold us in esteem? How many times are we retweeted or listed on twitter? Do people tend to comment on our posts, and do we comment back? Are we charitable in our comments? Do we show good judgment or intelligence? What groups have we joined? What applications or games have we added, and how long do we spend with these? What websites do we visit? Do we click on ads? Do we spend money online? There is a mine of information here, stretching back years. Combined with the matrix of other information outside, such as medical records, credit card records, and the rest, everything that could be of interest to an employer, a bank, or a government becomes knowable.

What kind of influence will all this have on us and on our society? Will the knowledge that personal information is publicly available influence us to cultivate a fabricated public personality in order to help us in our careers or relationships? I think there will be some of this happening. But I also see this as just another stage in society’s move towards greater personal openness.

Whereas in the past it was much more necessary to hide behind a façade, keeping sexual predilections, religious beliefs and many other matters private, there is a greater acceptance of diversity than before. As interaction with social networks become gradually more prevalent, and everything that is worth knowing about us is literally out in the open, we will learn to live with this fact more easily.