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2008/06/30

"Social networking" sites and online chat media

I had been trying to track down one of my best friends from grammar school in Llanrwst, North Wales, and had made contact in Facebook with a school alumnus who recalled him. This alumnus asked me if I had tried FriendsReunited.



This was my reply (I thought it could be generally useful):



No, I have not joined FriendsReunited - and I shall try to avoid doing so. Being relatively computer-literate (I have depended on and developed my IT skills and knowledge to make a living for years), I am acutely conscious of the risks of so-called "social networking" sites. The risks include:

  • Risk of loss of ID (from "identity theft") - so I am thus wary of most of the these sites.

  • Risk of unwittingly contributing to spamming sites, or sites that sell your email address to spammers.

  • Risk of invasion of privacy.

  • Risk of the sites starting to make one feel compelled to provide increasinly large slices of one's cognitive surplus and time.

  • Risk of being bombarded with unsolicited advertising.

Notwithstanding, I have for several years been a member of RealContacts and later LinkedIn, for professional association. Against my better judgement - after avoiding them like the plague - more recently I joined the social networking site Facebook and very recently Plaxo- because several of my friends encouraged me to join.
There have since been some gaffs, issues and concerns relating to the potential for loss of ID/privacy on Facebook - these seem to have been mostly addressed for the moment - but I feel that Plaxo is still pretty dubious (based on the dodgy-looking manner in which it was originally started up), so I have put very few details into my profile on that. I am becoming somewhat desensitised to these social networking sites clamouring for my profile details. Why do they want those details so badly? It's all about advertising revenue, and there is often no clear benefit to me as a user.



It is similar to the evolution of "chat" media - e.g., ICQ, AIM, MSN Messenger, Yahoo!, irc, etc. Initially, users were obliged to have a separate proprietary application running for each chat medium being used. I was an early (about 1997) adopter of ICQ, and started to use the other media because my friends used them. However, I then started to use Trillian instead, which caters for all five media, and I was thus not able to be held captive by the chat media providers and thus could not be subjected to their otherwise compulsory manipulation and advertising.



When Trillian was establishing itself, it was a case study in the exercise of corporate control and fascism - amazing to see how the big four of these media providers (ICQ, AIM, MSN Messenger, Yahoo!) kept changing their proprietary program code or data formats on an almost daily basis to frustrate Trillian from interoperating with them. This, of course, seriously pissed off the Trillian users who (like me) wanted to use Trillian instead of the separate proprietary chat media applications. The Trillian user forum made interesting reading on these points, at the time. Eventually, perhaps after seeing how pissed off their users were getting and what asses they must have been making of themselves by trying to overtly manipulate and control their users, the big four seemed to get a grip on themselves and arrive at some form of agreement whereby Trillian has now become an accepted (or at least tolerated) fact of life.
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