Technology and Libraries: A Brief Introduction to Social Networking and Privacy
This piece is meant to provide a short introduction into some of the privacy features on social networking websites that newcomers might be unaware of. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list. Please send any feedback to: MihlraL@mail.amc.edu.
You’ve likely heard about some of the more popular social networking websites:
- Facebook (http://www.facebook.com)
- Flickr (http://www.flickr.com)
- FriendFeed (http://friendfeed.com)
- MySpace (http://www.myspace.com)
- Plurk (http://www.plurk.com)
- Twitter (http://www.twitter.com)
Perhaps you are curious to see what they are all about and experiment with the sites, but are uncomfortable with the idea of strangers seeing your personal business.
Though not universal knowledge, all of these sites have privacy settings that let users restrict the visibility of their postings. Most don’t require you to use your full name; many let you use any name (or non-name) that you want. The bigger social networking sites typically let users specify which segments of their profile (such as research interests) they want the public to see, while setting others (such as photos or videos) to private.
Many also let you set privacy settings at a very granular level. For example, each photo uploaded to Flickr, a photo and video-sharing website, can be set to be viewed by only you, your friends/family (as defined by you), or anyone. So if a librarian wants to post photos of their library’s recent renovation to their web site to show the world, but keep personal photos private, they can (see image below):
Facebook’s privacy settings are a bit more complicated than Flickr’s, mostly because the site contains more types of information than Flickr. Each profile contains certain default segments, such as contact information, personal information, status update, etc. Users can also add external applications to their Facebook page, such as games or quizzes. Both Facebook-created and external applications’ privacy settings can be set via Facebook.
The first step is setting a blanket privacy setting for an entire profile. Typical settings (as permitted by Facebook) include making your entire profile visible to everyone, only those in your network (a city or college affiliation selected by a user), or just friends. Beyond that, each profile segment’s privacy setting can be customized (see image below). Facebook also permits users to set up groups. One use for this might be to set up two separate groups, friends and colleagues. If someone wants to prevent colleagues from seeing their photos or status updates, for example, they can do that by typing the group’s name by the appropriate privacy setting.
Settings as viewed in Facebook under Settings -> Privacy Settings -> Profile:
Twitter, a micro-blogging web site, works a little differently. The user can either make their updates (“tweets”) public or private. If the tweets are set to private, the person must individually approve each user (“follower” in Twitter) who wants to view their page. Otherwise, this is what the person sees:
From a beginner’s perspective, this allows them to experiment and use Twitter without worrying about anyone seeing what they write. They can “follow” as many other users as they’d like without worrying about their posts being seen. However, one cannot comment on another user’s postings, and vice versa, if they are not mutually following each other on Twitter. This could limit social interactions on the site. Unlike some of the other social networking sites, Twitter’s restrictions are all or nothing – either someone can freely follow you, or they cannot without approval.
Another privacy issue related to social networking sites is that the contents of many of these sites are now picked up by search engines. If anything is posted in your real name, this could be picked up by a search engine and publicly available on the Web. For example, Twitter tells its users that its pages rank high in Google searches.
However, by utilizing common sense and some of the privacy features listed here, individuals can experiment with social networking websites and interact with friends and colleagues, while still keeping private information private.
Systems & Technology Librarian
Albany Medical College