Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Facebook and digital litter

Just yesterday we were discussing in class the fact that Facebook profiles are not accessible through search engines like Google, Yahoo or myriad others. But today a news alert popped up on my Facebook home page telling me that in one month that would change.

According to the Facebook blog post,
"Starting today, we are making limited public search listings available to people who are not logged in to Facebook."
Facebook users will still have the ability to control the degree to which their profiles are viewable to the public. Only users whose privacy settings allow "everyone" to search for them will be viewable through search engines. Even then, a user has the ability to control how much or how little of their profile can be seen by the public.

While it may seem relatively benign, this move by Facebook generates a couple key questions regarding privacy on social networking sites and the Internet in general.

Om Malik uses the term "digital litter" to describe all the little bits of information we leave about ourselves on the Internet. Stefanie Olsen examines the degree to which digital litter abounds; it is not limited to just social networks, but to any site where an e-mail address is cataloged. Those bits will only increase with Facebook opening up to search engines. But is the public aware of the amount of personal information left scattered across the Internet?

Steve O'Hear suggests that Facebook being open to Google gives users more control over their digital litter because users can control what is seen on his or her profile, whereas users cannot necessarily control the other bits of personal information on the Internet. Because Facebook accounts would be one of the top hits for Google search of someone's name, that person would have a greater ability to control their own press. But do people and businesses really understand how much an Internet life can impact real life?

There are indications that digital litter and Internet image control are becoming better understood. It is generally known that many employers check social networking sites during the interview and hiring process. Businesses are becoming more savvy about their own online presence, having tapped into a two phenomena known as "social media marketing" and "search engine optimization."

Yet while employees are becoming more savvy about their individual online presence and businesses are beginning to understand marketing through social networking sites, do employees' individual sites reflect well upon the companies they work for? And are people really aware of the amount of information that can be found on the Internet?

I do not think the implications of digital litter are fully understood by the public, or even public relations professionals. The technology is too new for public relations professionals to have completely grasped the implications of social networking sites like Facebook and of digital litter in general. With the supposed amount of privacy and control users have over something as obvious as a Facebook profile, when advisors to a candidate for the most prestigious job in the nation miss something as simple as his daughter's Facebook support of his opponent, it is clear that digital litter is not as easy to control nor as private as previously thought.

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