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Mar 06

Social networking is here to stay. Virtually everyone reading this has an account with one of these sites, if not more than one. And who are we to criticize? We have "share" buttons on every page of this website. Social networking sites are how humans interact now, and it will continue until the day the zombies eat through our network cables.

That's what makes increasingly annoying and/or invasive social networking practices so much harder to swallow. We want all of the below to stop and, barring that, at least not get any worse. But if they don't, what are we going to do? Ditch our computers and go live in the woods?

Insisting They Can't Protect Your Private Info Without More Private Info

Recently, many Facebook users have been getting this message:

If Facebook is telling you your private information isn't safe, you know it's time to worry -- Facebook is still one of the few places on the Web that 100 percent connects you to your real-world identity. And you don't want strangers looking at those revealing baby photos your mom tagged you in, do you? So you click "Increase protection." But how can Facebook make sure that you and only you can see your personal information? By verifying your identity -- by asking for even more sensitive information.


And here is the paradox of the social networking age. It's like a bank saying it can't afford to put locks on its vault unless you put more money into that vault. First Facebook asks you to give it a second email address, in case, you know, someone hijacks your other email and changes your password when you really need to water your fake crops. That's reasonable enough. But then it asks for your phone number.

In case someone hijacks both email accounts, changes all your passwords, and you really, REALLY need to water those freaking crops.

The problem is that you might not even have any sensitive information on Facebook, but if you follow these "security-enhancing" steps, you will. Information that can be leaked the next time Facebook has a security breach. Oh, and if you have Facebook Mobile, it's apparently very easy to accidentally post your cell phone number to your public profile, as numerous users found out only when friends asked them if they'd suddenly gone insane.

We're not just picking on Facebook here -- any competitor that replaces it will eventually do the same. Already, Gmail has started asking for phone numbers as a password-retrieval measure. And if you have a Gmail account, you can scroll down to the bottom of the page and see this:

Click on "Details" and you'll see a list of all the locations from which your account has been accessed recently, which is pretty cool because it lets you know if someone in North Korea is reading your emails right now. The only problem is ... do you remember telling Gmail it could track your location to protect you? You probably don't, because it didn't ask (check the last section of this page for details on how to turn it off).

Tracking Where You Are (Whether You Like It or Not)

There are two important reasons why constantly announcing your location on the Internet is a bad idea, the first one being that it makes you an easy target for burglars. The second reason is that it's really annoying. Seriously, shut up for a second.

But mainly, burglars!

Location-based social networks are riddled with privacy issues. And you don't even have to do anything. If you're using Foursquare, for example, and your account is connected to Twitter, when your friend checks in at a location you've checked in at, their post will automatically say they're at that location with you. Even if you've set up your profile so that your location is visible to friends only, there are still ways for it to become public, like making your frequent hangouts available to anyone who figures out your user name or being randomly featured on the page of a place you've been to.

"You've been ousted as the mayor of erotic baking."

But that's the whole point of sites like Foursquare, right? To let people know where you are? So if you have a problem with that, the obvious solution would be not to use them. This works perfectly fine with Foursquare, but not so much with Facebook Places.

When Facebook offers you the feature, you have two options: "Yes" and "Not now." If you click "Not now," you think you're not using it, but you actually are: It still lets your friends tag you anywhere. And even after you've declined being tagged, it will still keep tagging you in the future.

Apparently, asking you whether you want to share your location simply isn't a thing anymore: Both Firefox and Chrome come with geolocation features turned on by default, using wireless networks to triangulate your position and bring you "personalized" search results. It gets worse -- at least Google and Firefox let you turn this off. Recently, Apple updated its privacy policy so it can create location-aware ads for iPhones and such. For example, it might show you an ad for a store or franchise that happens to be near you at any given moment.

So if you live in Manhattan, your iPhone looks like this 70 percent of the time.

If you don't agree with Apple's new privacy policy, tough shit -- you can't use their products. Which is pretty ironic coming from the people who once ran the "1984" ad.

Reading (and Censoring) Your Private Messages

You probably already knew that Google has been using your personal emails to create personalized ads for a while now, right? Like when it scans your messages and chatlogs for keywords and then shows you ads based on your messages. It was all spelled out in the privacy policy, remember?

You read every word!

Gmail's software has filters to prevent spam or viruses, but instead of protecting you, they're meant to make you buy shit. That's why whenever you mention going on a trip, Gmail will conveniently show you ads for airline tickets. The filters are weirdly specific: For example, send yourself an email with a bunch of random U2 lyrics (why?) and Gmail will show you ads for U2 concert tickets. Gmail doesn't recognize every song by every band ever, though we're strangely pleased to report that it seems to know Queen's entire catalog.

Way to jump to conclusions, Google. We could be saying that under a different context.

Gmail users can't opt out of this feature -- the only way to stop Google from turning your conversations into ads is to repeatedly mention sensitive topics like "suicide," "murder" or "9/11" in the body of an email. Unless you're willing to have the creepiest email signature ever, that's not very useful. Still, this is a relatively harmless feature, since no human Google employees actually read your messages. Only the robots.

As usual, Facebook takes things to the next level. Back in 2009, The Pirate Bay added a feature to share torrent links through social networks. Facebook reacted by banning users from linking to the site -- not just publicly but also in private conversations. Facebook claims that this isn't so different from email providers filtering junk mail, but those other providers at least let you read the email and reply to the Nigerian prince asking for your help, should you choose to do so. Facebook simply forbids you from even sending the message, showing you this notice instead:

They're hoping the use of the word "spammy" will endear them to you.

Also, maybe it's just us, but doesn't the fact that Facebook is monitoring private messages sort of disqualify them from being called "private"? And this isn't a one-time thing: Last year, Facebook banned users from linking to Lamebook.com, a website that posts ridiculous or stupid Facebook exchanges, including in private messages. Who knows what it will ban next? Lamebook isn't an illegal download site or anything like that; it's a humor website that makes fun of Facebook. Uh, if writing articles mocking Facebook gets you blocked, guess who else falls under that definition?

Removing Your Ability to Say "No"

Hey, remember last year when Google Buzz enabled itself on every Gmail account and decided who you should follow, causing a huge Internet shitstorm? Fun times. Maybe not so fun for the woman whose information Buzz made available to her abusive ex-husband, though. Or for Google, which had to do some serious damage control after this fiasco. Or for everyone in the world who had to put up with every existing news outlet everywhere doing "Bad Buzz" puns.

But fun times still.

And hey, at least Buzz didn't email burglars with a list of your fears. Like MySpace.

A few years earlier, Facebook had done something similar when it unveiled Beacon, an advertising system that allowed external websites to show Facebook user activity without the user's consent. So, for example, if you bought The Erotic Adventures of Pinocchio from Blockbuster.com (one of the partner websites), that information could be posted to your wall, for all to see and you would find out only when your grandma disowned you (she freaking hates Pinocchio).

Like Google, Facebook apologized profusely and ended up scrapping the whole system, but it didn't change its "users shouldn't be able to say no" philosophy -- it just found more subtle ways to implement it. For example, Facebook recently decided to replace the "Ignore" button with a much nicer one that says "Not now." This essentially lets you put someone's friend request on hold without having to look at his stupid face every time you log in. Because Facebook is dedicated to doing everything possible to make you forget you're an awful person.

"Now I can get back to ignoring Todd until one of us dies."

In case you're wondering what happened to the "No" option -- well, uh, there isn't one anymore. At least not right away. You have to go looking for it. Before, if you clicked "Ignore" on a friend request, the other person would simply go away. But with the new system, when you click "Not now," the other person can see your public wall posts in his timeline. He's gained limited access to your account simply by sending a request. So when you decline that person's request, you're still kind of saying, "What the hell, let 'em stalk me." To permanently delete a request, you have to go into your Friends list, click on "Find friends" and go through all the hidden requests there.

Or, there's a faster way: When you click "Not now," Facebook will ask whether you know that person...

She does look vaguely familiar.

If you click that, Facebook will let you block that person from making any more requests. It seems that Facebook assumes there are only two options in life: knowing someone and being his bestest friend forever, or not knowing him at all and having no desire to ever interact with him.

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