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Too much information

Sat., Jan. 26, 2008

Just after her honeymoon last March, Wadooah Wali took the de rigueur next step these days: She changed her status on the networking Web sites Facebook and MySpace from “in a relationship” to “married” and posted pictures of her partner – another woman.

The well-wishes from friends and family poured in, stoking Wali’s happiness. Then came a note that jolted her, noticeable for what it didn’t say. No congratulations. Just: “Nice pictures.”

It was from a professional contact Wali hardly knew – someone to whom she never would have sent something as personal as a wedding announcement, let alone pictures. Wali likes to keep her personal life separate from her professional acquaintances, wary that some might react negatively to her sexual orientation. But suddenly her social circles had collided.

Talk about awkward.

“I was worried that the repercussions of TMI – Too Much Information – was going to be a problem,” says Wali, 33, director of communications for a Los Angeles-based Internet company.

The episode was a reflection of how the walls that separate parts of a person’s life can be knocked down in the emerging world of online social networking. Everyone you know – high school and college classmates, business associates, someone you met in a nightclub – and even total strangers can become a “friend” on your personal Web page and gain access to all sorts of information and discussions about you.

Online networking sites – used by 86.6 million people in the United States last month, according to Nielsen Online – have long been the focus of concern about teenagers posting too much information about their lives. But as a growing number of adults are learning, giving too much information online isn’t just a problem for teenagers.

On MySpace, Facebook and other social networks, a user can join another member’s “friends” list simply by asking. Many people allow new friends without a second thought. Social networking sites vary in what kinds of privileges come with friendship, but for the most part, it opens virtual doors to all sorts of personal information.

A user can revoke friendships at any point, but many people have long lists of dozens of friends on their Web pages, and don’t monitor their list of friends that closely.

On MySpace, all friends are treated equally – unless you change your privacy settings – so your best friend might see the same information as an acquaintance who works in your office building. Certain friends can be blocked from getting information, but only through a cumbersome process.

On Facebook, friends can be designated to have limited access to your profile.

In a few weeks, Facebook users will be able separate their “friends” into social circles and decide which kinds of information about the user they receive, says Chris Kelly, chief privacy officer.

“We don’t think all friends should be equal,” Kelly says. “Our goal is to accurately reflect the social infrastructure.”

MySpace plans to make similar changes in a few months.

In the meantime, social network users gradually are learning to be careful about their communications on personal Web pages.

‘They can write what they want’

Facebook and MySpace send headlines about your activities to those on your friends list, announcing changes you’ve made in your personal profile or notes that friends post on your page. Unless you turn them off, those headlines are generated automatically by your actions, such as making a new friend or joining a new group.

So, for instance, when your minister logs onto his Facebook page, his newsfeed might tell him about a gift you just received: a pixilated G-string sent by an old boyfriend, perhaps.

Or your mom might call, concerned after being informed via headline that you’ve just (you thought jokingly) joined an online discussion group called “Heavy Drinking.”

And remember that day you called in sick? Your friend just posted pictures of you at the beach that day. Your boss got the story.

You might control the groups to which you belong and the pictures that you post. But if a “friend” posts something on your public wall on your page that you don’t like, others might see it before you can remove it.

“You have no control over what other people write about you and what other people choose to say,” says Larry Rosen, author of “Me, MySpace, and I: Parenting the Net Generation.” “They can write what they want.”

Rosen says he recently sent an e-mail to a former high school classmate he grew up with in the 1960s, asking whether he remembered “how we used to get loaded before physics class.”

That former classmate now happens to be a college dean.

“Could you imagine if I made that comment online and a president or dean saw this – and all of a sudden your reputation is down the tubes because of something that was innocent from 40 years ago,” Rosen says.


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