Social Networking Websites – are you making the most of them?
Networking communities are not a new concept – Edinburgh has for centuries been the home of many learned societies and professional associations. Unlike our predecessors however we are able to tap into technologies which give us access to almost unlimited opportunities to interact with like-minded others via online communities and social networking websites. Young people have flocked to websites such as MySpace (the biggest), Facebook, Bebo (the kids favourite).
The host websites allow users to create a profile for themselves, join groups that share common interests, upload media such as photos and videos,and hold discussions in user groups or forums. Many enjoy the sense of community that this interaction can bring. The sites are also used to maintain contact with friends who might be moving away or maybe even to rekindle long lost friendships.
This isn’t just a young person’s domain – us oldies have been catching up recently with the growth of the Twitter messaging service. Twitter is a free service that enables its users to send and read messages known as ‘tweets’ via the Twitter website. Tweets are text-based posts of up to 140 characters displayed on the author’s profile page and delivered to subscribers known as ‘followers’. Senders can restrict delivery to those in their circle of friends or allow open access.
Because social networks can connect people at low cost they can also be attractive for commercialand political organisations looking to expand their contact base. Companies often seek to use social networks for advertising in the form of banners and text ads. Many hopeful 2008 US presidential candidates set up MySpace profiles, presumably in an effort to reach out to younger voters as ‘cool’ politicians. Barack Obama went to the Whitehouse in a blaze of Twitter publicity, prompting other politicians such as Gordon Brown to follow suit in order to improve their credibility with the younger generations.
Commercial use has however given rise to concerns regarding users personal information or the information of interest downloaded by a user being hijacked for other purposes – e.g. producing a profile on an individual’s behavior. Users need to be aware of the potential for data theft or the transmission of viruses. Users often try to “collect friends”, or try to be linked to as many friends as possible. It isn’t uncommon for users to receive friend requests from people that they do not know. In most social networking services however, both users must confirm that they are friends before they are linked to share information.
Also it has been widely publicised that many schools have restricted access to sites because it has become such a haven for gossip and malicious comments. Some user behaviour has given rise to concerns and the threat of predators. Many problem users are identified by the communities on the basis of self-policing. Reputable service providers will always work with users to attempt to stop anti-social behaviour
and, if necessary, with appropriate agencies to try to prevent incidents of predator activity.
For most individuals the rewards outweigh the acknowledged risks and by using responsible sites and by taking a few sensible steps over the personal information uploaded we can join the ever increasing numbers enjoying the benefits of the social networking scene.