I never really "got" Social Networking. I'm not on MySpace, Bebo or Facebook and I don't feel at all disenfranchised as a result. It's not that I'm a fuddy-duddy technophobe : I have my own blog for heavens sake.
Now it seems the bubble is bursting and people are bailing out. I'm sure the tide turned a long time ago, and a lot of so-called active accounts are owned by people who can't work out how to close the accounts. I have heard tell that the process is purposefully made excruciating difficult. And you just know it's like Gym Membership - a load of people sign up for the year and stop coming after a week.
People are finally working out that the pain of membership outweighs the rewards. Your details are pimped to advertisers, your potential employers and journalists
can dig up dirt on you and your family, and identity thieves can have a field-day. And for what ?
It constantly surprises me how little I.T civilians understand about how exposed they are online. Forgive me if I don't go into detail, but you should always assume that all of your online movements are an open book to the government and to too many people inside your Internet Service Provider's I.T department. It gets worse if you use the likes of Facebook - your movements within that site will be available to whoever they fancy. And they don't seem to be particularly fussy who they share that information with.
Even with respectable sites like Google there are issues. There have been cases where Google China has shopped dissidents to the government. Of course that couldn't happen here, right ?
Wrong - they're a commercial organisation that is likely to cave in to an American or British government request. Why would they make a stand for you ? You're just one of a billion customers to them - you're not even paying them any money ! Balance that against upsetting the government that could stop them operating in a particular jurisdiction. Never, ever believe that you are protected and anonymous.
So what do I recommend ?
(1) Act as though you are being watched online. It's similar to assuming that you are on CCTV when you're walking down the street or shopping.
(2) Think about what information you give online. People who shred their bank statements before disposing of them at home will quite freely give their name, date of birth and address and to a faceless organisation online. At the extreme, I recommend inventing an alter-ego for online use. It's a lot of fun - everyone should try it at least once.
(3) Don't be a sheep - quit the social networking sites today and start your own blog. You get to control the look and feel of the site, no details are sold to advertisers and you're not a clone of a million other sites. Start with the blog publishing systems like blogger.com and either stay there (like me) or learn HTML and PHP and move into the world of build-your-own (like m'colleague Kenny). I can't guarantee you'll make more online friends that way - but it'll be a better quality of online friend.