How and in what ways have social networks such as facebook changed the definition of private life?

Since its creation in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg, facebook has had an ever increasing number of members. Originally set up as a college dating site, and a place where Mark Zuckerberg and his friends could “rate” girls faces according to their “hotness”, it quickly developed into a major social network site available to all. Nowadays, it seems that “everyone” is on facebook, (approximately 500 million members are registered today) and facebook is often the place where events amongst friends are organised, information related to parties but also work and university lectures in exchanged. But it is not only written information which is shared, pictures are also posted, with no limit as to the amount of photographs that a single user can post. Users can also post pictures of their friends, sometimes in not so flattering situations, and post whichever comments they want, about whomever they want, thinking that these will never be seen by the people concerned. But some people have discovered the pitfalls of facebook to their great despair.

In December 2008 in France, three people where fired from a company after criticising their superiors and the company itself on facebook. Their pages where open for viewing to “friends of friends”, which is how the management of the company eventually saw the degrading and condescending comments, Similar stories have happened in the past. In the UK, an employee posted a comment on her facebook wall on a Friday stating that she hated her job and her boss and that she did not look forward to returning to work on the Monday. Her boss saw this comment. His reply was quick and to the point “oh yeah? Well you won’t be coming back on Monday anyway, since you’re fired. Goodbye!”. Similarly, company owners have declined to give someone a job offer based on information or pictures they have seen on candidate’s facebook pages, if they believe that what they have seen there does not give an appropriate image of the person in question. This is the problem with many social network sites such as facebook, MySpace, Hi5 or similar. People do not realise that all images uploaded on facebook become the property of Google, and that once published on the internet, if their settings are not carefully privatised, these pictures can end up in places never before imagined, such as in the hands of a future employer for example.

Recently, it has been revealed that 92% of the babies under 2 years old in the USA are either on facebook or on other social networking sites pictured on photographs uploaded by their parents! In France, this number is only slightly less, with 73%. 33% of babies already have their photo published on the internet at the time of their birth! These statistics are of course alarming, and perhaps we are not that far away from pictures and videos of the actual births themselves being posted on facebook in minute detail, with people “liking” them and a few years later “tagging” themselves in the picture of them coming out of their mothers womb! People have even started posting scans of their foetuses on facebook.

Another quite extreme case was related by the Swedish newspaper Expressen during the summer of 2007. The article spoke about a woman who had divorced her husband, and, a few weeks later, had met another man, which she had immediately married. As a consequence, she changed her facebook status from “single” to “married”. When her ex husband saw this, he became furious, went over to her house and killed her. One may of course say that this man was perhaps unstable in many ways, and even if facebook had not been there to tell him the news, he would perhaps eventually have found out through another source, and will most likely have killed her anyway, but this example, and the others discussed above definitely prove that it is perhaps not that wise to put every single detail about your private life up on facebook and on social networking sites, as after all, any information you put on facebook, by the second it is up there, it in effect is no longer private, but becomes public information. Thieves may be able to plan hits on a wealthy person0s home because he sees on their facebook page that they are abroad for a month for example, and the statistics about a person0s private life, which are stored in the facebook database, can be transmitted to organisations such as the FBI or similar if they where to ask for it, as well as to advertisers, which, in some cases has happened in the past. Indeed, even if you delete the information from your profile, it is not permanently deleted from the databases. The website openbook.org enables you to search any facebook profiles which do not have strict privacy settings, and shows that even criminals if they wanted to, could potentially access private information of unsuspecting victims.

Nevertheless, if you are careful with the way in which you use social networking sites, they can be very useful planning and communication tools, and many big companies and TV channels such as CNN for example now also have their own facebook page, for conveniently sharing information with colleagues and the general public. So in conclusion, social networking sites have definitely changed the definitions of private life both in a positive and a negative sense, but if used wisely and carefully, they can prove to be very helpful tools of communication indeed.

Pontus Wallstén

AJM

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