When Janet Dudley-Eshbach, president of Salisbury University in Maryland, returned from a family trip to Mexico, she—like many others with a Facebook account—posted photographs from the vacation on the site.
One of the photographs depicted her wielding a stick at a Hispanic man who had his arms wrapped around Dudley-Eshbach’s adult daughter. Its caption read: “I had to beat off Mexicans because they were constantly flirting with my daughter.” Another photo caption referred to a tapir’s well-endowed body parts. A local television station broadcast the photographs, embarrassing the Latin American scholar. Although the photos weren’t considered distasteful, the accompanying captions offended some, including students at Salisbury.
Dudley-Eshbach removed the photos and her Facebook profile the same day the story broke, explaining in a statement that the captions were only intended to be humorous. She added: “Many of us are learning about the positives and negatives of public networking sites.”
The too-open information highway
Perhaps users need a Miranda warning for the Web before they add their latest musings on the Internet: “Beware of what you post. Anything you put on the Web may be used against you.” Much has been made of online identity theft, but people from all walks of life have lost careers, reputations, marriages and in some cases their freedom after participating in what they thought was just frivolous banter or, like Dudley-Eshbach, from simply sharing their experiences with family and friends.
Our thoughts, latest news, personal information, photographs and even dirty laundry now flap freely on the Internet. To grasp the size of this digital load, look at the numbers. Of approximately 1.6 billion Internet users, over 67 percent of them now visit social networking sites, according to a recent survey by market research firm Nielson Online. Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are well known, but there are hundreds of other sites that revolve around users’ interests such as finding classmates, photography, gaming and other hobbies.
Facebook alone boasts more than 250 million active participants. In early 2009, the number of women and men over 55 joining the social networking site had surged in just six months, growing by 175.3 percent and 137.8 percent, respectively. And it is this older demographic that has more, perhaps, to lose, considering they’ve had more years to create a reputation, financial assets, professional standing and personal relationships.
The explosive growth of social networking sites and online communities unwittingly allows complete strangers to probe your “private” thoughts, often without your knowledge or consent. Though many sites allow you to block some visitors with privacy settings or interact using an alias, you’re still vulnerable to harvesters of information. This includes everyone from law enforcement to organized crime to malicious hackers.