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  • Social Networking Web Sites & Secrets
    The Ups and Downs of Sharing Your Thoughts Online
    by Phillip White

    It started with your MySpace or Facebook page, where you would spend hours exchanging messages, photos, and video clips with your close friends. Next, you wrote an album review on iTunes, and discovered a forum for home theater lovers. Before you knew it, you had an “online presence”—a new way to keep in touch with old friends and find new friends you'd never meet in person.

    Then you discovered that one of those new friends—whom you'd never expect to meet—lives just two miles away and knows someone you know. Small world, you think, and then you quickly look back to see what you'd revealed to this stranger.

    Maybe your life is an open book, and you're comfortable revealing anything, or maybe you're frantically trying to delete an old post. The question is, Do you know who you're talking to?

    I'm Sorry, Have We Met?
    Things Our Parents Would Have Told Us about Online Communities 
    If you've ever had your home broken into, you already know this: the feeling of security most of us enjoy on a daily basis is a very fragile thing. Suddenly, the friendly man who walks his poodle by your house daily makes you think, if anyone knows my comings and goings, it's him, and you lock the doors. Are you being prudent, or paranoid? Sometimes it's hard to know.

    Maybe you've experienced this same panic on the Internet. With so many online social opportunities—sharing photos, commenting on blogs, organizing parties—it can be easy to forget where you are and who you're talking to. All it takes is a single slip to bring you back to reality.

    So, here are a few pointers. It's all common sense, if you think about it, but most of us are fairly new to the concept of online communities, so a little refresher may be in order.

    Picture Your Audience
    It boils down to these three scenarios:

    • The dinner table with your friends
    • A party with friends and friends-of-friends
    • A televised news conference picked up around the world
    Yep. That last step's a doozy.

    When you get ready to post a message, picture, or video, you need to know whether it will be open to the whole world or a select few. Most social networking sites that give members their own pages allow you to restrict access to those you've invited. That's the first division: either it's completely open, or somewhat closed.

    If you're on your own page and you restricted access to it, knowing your audience is easy…you picked them. We'll call this The Dinner Table. You have a personal relationship with everyone there. That's about as safe as you can get.

    If you're on a friend's page, you may or may not know everyone who's a part of the group. This is The Party. You're trading jokes with your best friend, but anyone who's at the party can listen in. And wallflowers often have great hearing and better memories.

    Finally, there's The Whole World. If the conversation you are contributing to isn't by-invitation-only, you might as well be talking to the whole world via satellite. Anyone could be listening…Hannibal Lecter, your malevolent Ex, your boss, your mother, your next-door neighbor.

    Know Who You're Inviting
    Occasionally I'll receive detailed emails from people who think I'm someone else. The messages have been about funeral arrangements, council meetings, apologies for social mishaps, and vacation plans. I usually write back to let the person know they have the wrong email address. What's surprising is how often they make the same mistake again.

    Inviting someone to view your online profile or discussion often comes down to typing their email address into a form. If you type the wrong email address, the wrong person gets the invitation. If they accept it, a total stranger may have just joined your quiet little group. So, be careful, of course. But you may also want to confirm the identity of any new members. Strike up a conversation with them, give them a call. But don't just let them lurk quietly.

    The Audience Can Change
    Together with your online companions, you are essentially creating a scrapbook�possibly a very personal scrapbook. But unlike the racy chat you and your friends had over drinks the other night, this conversation is recorded in black and white (and maybe even full color at 30 frames-per-second).

    If this is your personal page, the list of who eventually gets to see it is somewhat under your control. If it's someone else's�not so much.

    Don't Rely on Security by Obscurity
    There was a time when you could be safe posting personal details on the Internet simply because the likelihood of someone finding the information was relatively low. But if you keep up with technology news you know that a very hot topic is search technology. There are vast resources behind devising new ways to find needles in haystacks. Even if you come up empty when you Google yourself today, you could be an easy catch tomorrow.

    Decisions, Decisions
    So, now that you've compartmentalized your online conversations, you have some decisions to make. How much are you comfortable sharing in each scenario? What are the risks, and what are you willing to do to avoid them? Yes, you know that someone could break down your door even if it's locked, but is a bodyguard really necessary? You decide. It might be helpful to sit down and make a short list of what you don't want to reveal in each situation. Once you have the list, stick to it, whether you feel that the world is beautiful today, or full of dirty rotten scoundrels. And then relax�you've been smart about it, now you can have fun.

    Your list might look something like this:

    The Whole World — Hannibal could be listening

    • My real name, and names of family and friends
    • The city where I live, contact information, birthday
    • Unique places I go frequently
    The Party — others may join in later
    • Disparaging remarks about others
    • Personal information about family members
    The Dinner Table — safe
    • Anything I would never want to see or hear of again

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