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The up and down sides of social media

Juliana D. Norwood | 1/18/2012, 5 p.m.

Social networking, which seems to have magically appeared on the stage only about 10 years ago, virtually dominates many American lives today, from the way we receive information, communicate, interact with one another to the way we do business.

In many cases, we tweet, text, link-in rather than talk. We carry electronic tablets to read books, magazines and newspapers, and we scroll through the Internet to catch up on what's happening around our cities, nation and world.

Technology has indeed made the world flat. Our heroes today are often computer geeks--Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and, to a lesser extent, Google founders Larry Page, Sergey Brin.

Our lives are circumscribed by such social networking sites as Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, LinkedIn and numerous others.

A recent study by the Neilsen Co. found that social networking takes up more than 10 percent of the time that Americans spend online, with emailing ranking as the most popular mobile Internet activity.

Few would deny that a lot of good has come from these new forms of technology. Many businesspeople can say that even in the face of recession they have seen increases in sales due to their ability to reach untold numbers in cyberspace and better showcase their products and services. Long-lost family members and friends credit these sites for reuniting them. Some couples even meet their matches online.

But there are just as many downsides as upsides to social media--lack of privacy, loss of jobs to technology, the battle to maintain healthy human interaction, the inability to control what children see online and with whom they communicate, social media addiction, and the effects that it has on the environment.

Many people brush off any concerns about the lack of privacy, saying that people only expose as much as they want and insist that most forms of social media are equipped with privacy settings so individuals determine what strangers can know about them. But even with these nifty little privacy tools, it is still quite easy to get very private information on complete strangers.

Lately there has been a buzz arising for "Do Not Track" legislation. This isn't meant so much to stop Internet sleuths from tracking you, but more than likely to stop the giant companies who control these very forms of interconnectedness such as Facebook, Yahoo and Google from misusing your information.

Facebook has admitted that it tracks logged-in members, logged-off members and even non-members in a series of interviews with Byron Acohido in USA TODAY.

Facebook inserts a tracking cookie into your browser. If you have ever visited any Facebook page, even if you have never opened an account, Facebook keeps a running log of site preferences every time someone visits a webpage that has a Facebook "Like" button, or another Facebook plug-in. This plug-in works in conjunction with the cookie to alert Facebook of the date, time, web address of the page they went to, their IP address, screen resolution, operating system and browser version. In essence, by visiting Facebook they have just given Facebook the ability to create a profile of their Internet preferences, and Facebook can connect that to their computer's unique IP address. Google, Yahoo, and a plethora of other sites have similar capabilities.