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Narrowing Your Social Networking

Today's column may get me in hot water with my colleagues: Social-networking sites have been a huge help to reporters looking for sources, so advice on keeping your info private from strangers isn't doing my coworkers any favors. (Read after the jump for an anecdote about how we conduct this kind of research.)

But your exposure to random strangers is something that have to consider as we all herd onto sites like Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn--and especially the first in that list, as it can work well for both personal and business networking. You're increasingly likely to find that people want to be your friend, but it's not personal.

Today's column grew out of a conversation I had years ago with a friend who then worked at, the New York operator of a variety of online social hubs. We were talking about Microsoft's efforts to get everybody to adopt its Passport identity-management system (this ambitious project that now sees almost no use outside of Microsoft's Windows Live sites). Arul's theory was that nobody actually wanted a single online persona, even if that meant they could stop memorizing separate user names and passwords; people preferred to keep multiple identities--one for work, one for home, one for family and still others for particular interests and hobbies.

That conversation popped back in my head after reading Sam Diaz's Post I.T. note of the other week, which made me realize I was facing this exact problem at sites like Facebook. Deciding whether to befriend people who weren't quite pals, but who were still worth knowing, was like deciding who to share my home e-mail address with, but with more involved consequences.

Then I started exploring Facebook's privacy settings--yup, like most people I hadn't tinkered with the defaults. I quickly discovered that while they offered most of the flexibility I sought, there were so many of them that the site might only be replacing a privacy problem with a usability problem.

The answer isn't to drop social-networking sites altogether. Although it's easy to parody them--"if you didn't waste so much time on the Web, you wouldn't need a Web site that connected you with your friends!"--they serve a real purpose. They're tremendously useful for finding people you've lost touch with and, in particular, for letting friends know what you've been up to once you've found them. But these sites have to make it easier for you to manage different levels of relationship.

Otherwise, all these sites will wind up like MySpace. Not only is this site laughably ugly--seriously, can't somebody at least fix the random capitalization in "You Must Be Logged-In to do That!"--but its inflexible approach to privacy makes it a spam magnet. The minimal profile I set up there last year for a story has drawn a steady stream of bogus friend requests from the likes of "Misty," "Lily" and "Tara," all of whom just want me to check out the nekkid pictures they've allegedly stashed at another site. Suuuure.

Where do you do your social networking online, and how do you manage this issue? What would you like to see your preferred network(s) do to help you out with it?


The news-research department here did a presentation last month about how to find people on sites like MySpace and Facebook. The researcher explained how to craft a Web search to find somebody's profile even if it wasn't under a full name, then showed the Google query she used to locate the MySpace profile of a high schooler who had gone missing recently--something like "rachel sixteen years old wheaton high school" I'm just guessing here, but I might have a hard time explaining that kind of search to my wife were she to find it on the computer at home.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  July 19, 2007; 10:01 AM ET
Categories:  The Web  
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