Don't you have a blog? What about a MySpace page? These are questions that might make some of us feel a little behind the times. But are they what they're cracked up to be?
In what seemed like overnight, blogs and social networks have become an instant hit - especially among the younger crowds. It didn't take long for large networks like Yahoo! 360Ã¯Â¿Â½, Facebook and MySpace to appear on the map.
Smaller, niche-oriented social networks like LDSLinks (for Latter-day Saints) and Flickr (photography enthusiasts) have even sprung up.
Social networking, by its very definition, is supposed to bring people together into organized electronic communities, where people can share various types of content and discuss common topics.
There's no question that blogs and social networks allow people to more easily express their personality, feelings about people, politics, passions and even religion, with other people - worldwide. It's an amazing medium that allows people to meet other people they may never meet otherwise.
An additional reason social networking has become so popular is because they've been designed so that pages can be easily customized and personalized without any web design or technical skills. With a few clicks, members can write messages, post comments, change the site's wallpaper (background), upload home videos or post photos.
But there's a flip side to this story. Many forget that content they post is often publicly viewable and searchable by anyone, which isn't necessarily a good thing.
For example, a recent study showed that many employers use search engines like Yahoo, MSN or Google to dig up information about job applicants.
If the applicant has a blog or MySpace site, for example, there's a good chance the employer will find it.
If the employer finds something questionable or unfavorable that the applicant has written or posted online, the job may end up going to someone else.
It could also make or break candidates of public offices, based upon how the candidate uses the Internet.
With each election year, more and more candidates are using the power of Internet to reach younger voters by maintaining personal blogs or becoming members of popular social networks.
But, unlike the spoken word, written words on blogs and social networks are much harder to recant or alter - especially if they were created before the person decided to run for a political office. In other words, negative content posted now can really hurt a potential candidate in the future.
But by far the most serious danger resides with Internet stalkers and identity thieves who prey upon naÃ¯Â¿Â½ve, unsuspecting people who frequently put too much of their personal details online. Minors and the elderly are particularly at risk.
The reality is that it takes very little effort to dig up information about a person if they've shared a lot of personal information online, even if it isn't on the same website. In many cases, criminals can simply cross reference one website with several other search results and put two and two together.
For example, suppose a pedophile is trying to determine where a certain child lives. Based on the kid's MySpace page, the pedophile may know that the kid lives in Carbon County, but may not have an exact address. After a web search with their favorite search engine, they discover the same kid mention on a separate message board, forum or blog that he or she is the child of a county commissioner.
It wouldn't take long for the pedophile to put two and two together and determine who the county commissioners are and where they live. It might even be possible, based upon details posted on the blog or the MySpace page, to determine exactly which commissioner is the parent of the child. And when that happens, the pedophile has their target. It doesn't matter who the parents are. The criminal simply needs an identifiable trait or detail that they can hone in on.
An identifiable trait could be a commonly used handle or user name. It could be an email address. It could be an ICQ number or IM account name. It could even be a nickname.
So it's important to think twice before posting personal details on the Internet. Certainly being expressive can be a really good thing, and many online social networks can bring positive experiences, but it's also important to remember who may end up reading the words or viewing the pictures that are posted online. The Internet has a way of making questionable words, pictures or videos hard to retract or erase.
It's also very important, as parents, to be aware of your children's online surfing habits and to protect them from potential Internet-related threats. Educate your children about what Internet related activities are acceptable and what are not. Teach them to refrain from sharing quantities of personal information.
As with all things, the Internet has its good and its bad. It's important to understand the Internet is a powerful and broad communications medium. Consider the risks and potential consequences that posting content may bring.
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