When social networking goes wrong

I like to think of myself as being pretty comfortable with technology. I have to use a lot of new and newish stuff for work. And I’m interested – partly from a gadget-boy angle but also because forms of communication hold a genuine fascination for me. So this is potentially a bit embarrassing.

On Friday night I was out with some mates who happen to work in search and marketing. (I’m such a groovy media type, obviously). A new social networking tool called Foursquare came up in conversation. It sounded worth checking out. So on the way home, I did.

I’m usually pretty careful about setting these accounts up, so what I wanted to do was sign in with as low a profile as possible and see who else I knew was on the network. So I checked the option to let Foursquare scan my address book in order to see if if any names matched its database. It’s the sort of thing I’ve done before on networks such as LinkedIn and it allows you to slowly build up a presence and measure the usefulness of the network without being annoying to those of your contacts who will not be interested.

Big mouth strikes again

At least, that’s what I thought I was doing. What I actually seem to have done was mailed EVERYONE in my contacts book. My contact book contains a good number of people who will either be confused by the faux-chummy language giving them a ‘heads-up’ about ‘hooking up’ in some bar in NYC, or who will think anyone who send such a message is a total cock. It contains business contacts who could well be seriously questioning my professionalism.

I NEVER do mail alls. I hate the assumption that just because a load of people are in my contacts book they necessarily want to be connected. I like to be thought of as careful with people’s details. Foursquare has screwed that entirely. No doubt the company is covered. No doubt they would ask whether any beers were consumed during the conversation in which they were mentioned. And I would have to answer that yes, I did a have a few, but not enough to impair my judgement sufficiently to make me decide to spew my entire address book all over the ether.

I have already had to deal with quite a few mails asking ‘what the hell is this?’ One sent me a very informative, and worrying, article about Foursquare which is well worth a read. And which made me feel even worse.

No leg to stand on

The fall out from this will probably take up a lot of my time. I’m hoping that it doesn’t do any lasting damage to friendships or my professional reputation. I’ve deleted my account. And I haven’t linked to Foursquare in this post because I’m bloody annoyed with them. Several people who contacted me have said the ‘mail all’ option is on a hair-trigger, and that’s certainly my experience. I know I haven’t got a leg to stand on with any sort of complaint. It’s just my own fault. But I thought that posting this might go some way to alleviating the effects, and also serve as a warning that even the most confident of us need to be vigilant when it comes to social networking.

You might wonder why I’m so bothered. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is one who most certainly would. In the latest UK edition of Wired he talks at length about his philosophy on privacy and his view that the personal and the professional should not be separate online. He thinks that ‘total’ transparency will make the world a better place because no one will be able to hide anything or be dishonest. I think that’s frighteningly naive.

Worrying questions

Like most of us, I present different sides to different people in different circumstances not because I have anything to hide, but because some things are more or less appropriate with some people in some circumstances than others. Learning that is a lifelong experience that makes us more rounded human beings. And there’s also a genuine fear – labelled paranoia by new-tech libertarians such as Zuckerberg – of turning ourselves into banks of data, constantly detectable and under surveillance, that the growing use of social networking is bringing.

Of course the world is changing, of course much of what’s happening is positive. I would operate far less effectively with email and broadband access, and the fact that i am posting this on my blog is evidence that I am not a dinosaur. But my experience with Foursquare has made me wary of how far the default is being pushed to a level of ‘openness’ that many more people would be uncomfortable about if they thought a little harder.

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