There are over 206 social networking sites ranging from academia through photo-blogging to online language learning and include almost everything imaginable in between. Of course the list of defunct sites makes for interesting reading. The recent unfortunate experience of young accountant Christopher Ally in South Ruimveldt apparently started when he hooked up with “Princess Lisa” on Facebook. Subsequently, an online relationship of sorts blossomed to the point where the young man did not deem it imprudent to accept an invitation to visit the purported young woman’s ‘aunt’ in South.
There is no gainsaying the fact that social networking allows parties to connect with individuals and groups with similar interests. The news media have their uses, but social networking surely is in contention for utility value. Twitter was instrumental as a platform in the eventual release of American graduate student James Karl Buck after word spread that he was detained while covering an anti-government protest in Egypt. People have been known to keep informed with the activities and progress of friends and acquaintances, as well as renew long-forgotten friendships from youthful days. Some sites even facilitate the recruitment of skill sets that are needed but unknown in terms of who possesses them and where they can be located. This column will not dwell on the propriety, wisdom or otherwise of Ally’s decision, but will attempt some reflection on the disadvantages of that form of communication.
One major inhibitor that is seemingly given little consideration is that of identity theft. People desirous of enjoying the benefits of social networking are expected to create a profile of themselves on these sites. However, not all sites require extensive personal information; many allow users to determine what and how much to share. But based upon the various scams that are perpetrated on the unwary, hide options are not taken, and people place sensitive information like birthdays and email addresses with the result being identity theft or an abundance of scam spam. It could – and no doubt will be argued that without certain personal information no one will be able to contact prospective members which for obvious reasons will defeat the whole purpose of networking.
One serious potential threat that electronic scam artists pose is their ability to understand one facet of human nature, namely curiosity. Some people have been known to unquestioningly download a link purportedly coming from someone they know only to find that they have infected their entire system with malicious software. Unfortunately, it does not end there, and to their horror they find out that the scammer has used their contact list to spread the malware even further, thereby corrupting many personal computers and making a mess of people’s personal and business lives.
Interestingly, perhaps, is the addictive influence social networking has in the daily lives of people to the point where routines are constantly disrupted while persons check for updates – sometimes from many sites. It is quite easy to imagine the cost to employers in terms of man hours lost cumulatively from these update checks when employees should be performing tasks for which they are being paid. Of course, some employers make it a point to monitor certain sites and some employees (and prospective employees) to their chagrin have found themselves unemployed and unemployable because they posted inappropriate and embarrassing items on social sites.
One inescapable fact about social networking sites is that the originator of a post has absolutely no control of who will see and react to a posting, and therefore is in no position to limit the degree of negative fallout that may ensue as in the case of stating an honest opinion about the boss, or posting sexually explicit photographs. Another disadvantage is that some sites cater for like-minded thinking and opinions, and therefore the scope for divergent views and interests are limited thereby creating entrenched and inflexible opinions which might well be based flawed reasoning.
On the whole, social media is a positive development tool, but users should make sure that they use it for the right reasons to avoid problems. Prospective and current members have this responsibility since there is no guarantee that they will not become targets for abuse, identity theft or much worse.
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