I never like to rain on a parade, but sometimes a word of caution is in order. Sharing is so much fun, and I often talk about how sharing is good and important. But there is a darker side to sharing, and I am not talking about those people who weary us by endlessly sharing what they ate for lunch. The excitement of sharing should not blind us to the possible unsavoury ways our sharing can be misused.
Most people like to share, and nearly everyone is concerned about their privacy online. But typically when I see people expressing concern about their privacy it is in the terms of not wanting Big Brother or Big Corporation to know what they are doing, or sharing their activities. A real danger the seems often overlooked is not what other people might share against your wishes, but what you willingly share with the world and what the anonymous person down the streets sees, not Big Brother.
A few years ago when Twitter was first starting to go mainstream I recall reading a tech article about how Twitter was being used to commit crimes. Criminals were using some sort of program to filter through the tweets coming out of Twitter, locate people based upon information they were providing in their tweets, and then robbing their houses when they tweeted the time and dates of their vacation. Very few people provided all of this needed information to give the thieves with an easy opportunity, but it was painless for these robbers to use an automated program to sort through tweets and wait for all of the right information to come up. With the right technical know-how it is fairly simple to sort through a lot of information that is thrown up on the web by people sharing the bits of their daily lives. Most of that information is harmless, and meaningless. But not all of it.
I was a bit nonplussed recently when I discovered that Twitter was keeping track of the geographic location from which I tweeted. The only information I explicitly gave on my profile was that I was from “Upstate New York” which is sufficiently vague to encompass a lot of area. I couldn’t understand why Twitter was recommending people for me to follow who I didn’t know at all, and didn’t share any interests. Why were all of these teenage girls coming up as recommendations for me to follow? I did a bit of poking around and discovered that all these young ladies attended local high schools. Now, I hadn’t previously attended the high schools in my area (I was home schooled) so the only association I could figure out that Twitter had to work with was that it noticed we were accessing the site from the same localized IP address and so made the guess that we might want to follow each other based upon our physical locations.
Now I like to think I’m a fairly decent guy and wouldn’t do any harm to young naive high school girls chatting on Twitter about the mundane details of their lives. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable that Twitter was specifically gathering people in my physical vicinity and suggesting I follow them. Then we have such girls posting personal information like, “Sick today. Staying home from school.” These young ladies are posting pictures of themselves on Twitter along with their actual names and information about their daily activities. It is not that hard to put the pieces of such a puzzle together. Do people realize who might be reading about the fact that they are staying home sick today and decide to pay them a visit?
Twitter is not the only problem in this regard. Sharing on FourSquare can be fun, but that is another service that makes me very uncomfortable with the amount of information being handed out. The places of business–restaurants, hotels, etc–love FourSquare because it is a great social form of marketing for them, and friends like FourSquare because it is a convenient way to discover the place your friends use, and like. But I can’t help thinking every time I see the trail of Foursquare updates on someone–lunch here, supper there, checked into hotel Acme–about how it is a wonderful tool for a stalker.
Call me paranoid but I really wonder if people are thinking about these possibilities and implications enough. Yes, it is fun to share where you have been, what you are doing, but are you confident who is seeing that information? Would you be comfortable if the entire world could see that information? The more you become a public figure the more pointed these questions become. Authors want to use social media to get their name out in the world, but there is a negative side to that greater visibility. Sometimes you attract the attention of less savoury characters. Do you share on social media with that possibility in mind?
Share. Express yourself on social media. Have fun with FourSquare. But in all of that consider what you are doing, and what might be done with what your share. Remember to be careful.