Understanding Web 2.0: Research Questions in Identity Management, Information Control, and Deception

by Oleksandr Komarenko

What has become known as the advent of Web 2.0 has brought us new computer mediated communication (CMC) and collaboration tools. They serve different purposes and may take different shapes and forms, including blogs, wikis, and online social networking applications. One of the most unexpected and interesting aspects of Web 2.0 is the introduction and incredible growth of online social networking. By now everyone who uses the Web, or at least occasionally watches TV or opens a newspaper, has heard of MySpace, Facebook, or YouTube. Millions of people across the globe are active members of these and other forms of online social networks - communities of Internet users connected by interests, activities, and other social bonds. Because online social networks are so popular, they have become the subject of numerous news reports. Reporters have looked at online social networks from a variety of perspectives, including business, social, privacy, and legal points of view. Academic research of online social networking, however, is just beginning to catch up. This essay provides an overview of several of the current issues of online social networking. Based on this overview number of questions for research are recommended.

Although not much is certain about online social networking, one thing is clear - college students constitute the bulk of online social network users. Online social networking has become an integral part of college socialization, identity formation, and management ("7 Things You Should Know About… Facebook"). Online social networks, as a form of CMC, allow students "to define a profile, find others with similar interests, and then reassess how well they fit," aiding them in their formation of self and helping them to learn "who they are and how they relate to others" ("7 Things You Should Know About… Facebook").

At the same time CMC in general and online social networking carry with them a number of risks. These tools present a platform for fraud and deception. College age individuals are already the "second-highest-risk group, after ages 25 to 34" for identity theft (Marklein). Participation in online activities, including social networking, may compound this risk. Research has shown that "the pervasiveness of pretense [in CMC] seems not to have sharpened people's defenses against it" (Burgoon 16). This factor combined with the false impression of privacy in online social networks (Stone and Brown; "7 Things You Should Know About… Facebook") can become a dangerous concoction.

Although fraud and criminal activity is easier to engage in online, particularly in online social networks, it is not as pervasive as invasion of privacy and plain old lies. Because "…interactants can use the medium to manage their self-presentation, putting forward an idealized self that is not countered by the flaws and foibles evident in real-world encounters" (Walther qtd. in Burgoon 16) it is much easier to dupe others and get duped. Cases of individuals creating fake profiles of real people have been widely reported in the media (see, for example, Laura Petrecca's "If you see these CEOs on MySpace …you might be…"). In addition, there are no guarantees that a MySpace or Facebook profile does not depict a completely fictional character. Educause overview of Facebook, for example states that "concerns about Facebook center on its being public even though it feels like a private forum. Moreover, there is little assurance that the people behind the profiles are who they represent themselves to be" ("7 Things You Should Know About… Facebook").

Nevertheless, millions of users are active participants in the social networking revolution. Thousands more register daily. It is safe to say that most profiles one would come across will represent real individuals, or, to be more accurate, online identities of real individuals. Oftentimes, owners of these online identities instead of presenting completely fake information, are likely to be very candid; sometimes too candid for their own good. Online social networking users often fall victim to the false sense of privacy. Frequently this sense of privacy comes into play when users fail to adjust their profile settings from their defaults. It has been reported that only "17 percent of [Facebook] customers ever change those privacy settings" (Stone and Brown). In addition, "some students understand how and when to separate private from public content, many lack the discretion to present themselves-and others-appropriately online" ("7 Things You Should Know About… Facebook").

In the meantime school administrators, parents, potential employers, and law enforcement have all used publicly available social networking profiles to make administrative, punitive, and hiring decisions, and even successfully search for missing persons (see, for example, Stone and Brown's "Web of Risks", or Walton's "In these online searches, lives are on the line").

It is apparent that online social networking is here to stay. Undoubtedly, it will continue evolving. As current college users progress in school and graduate, their purposes for online social networking are likely to change. This fact, combined with the ever growing number of new users, suggests that new unexpected applications of online social networks will appear in the foreseeable future. It is also indubitable that online social networking is changing many facets of people's lives, users and non-users alike. "Adults," businesses, professionals, and individuals in positions of authority, are also likely to find new uses for online social networks. These may expand from today's data mining and marketing to professional team building and collaboration. Only time will tell.

In the meantime, academic research has thus far lagged far behind this dynamic process, in part due to the novelty of online social networking. The latency of academic research is well known, yet time is working against us when it comes to dynamic and volatile phenomena such as CMC. From what we already know today some important questions for research can be formulated and should be rigorously pursued.

To begin understanding the potential of online social networks it is necessary to explore the ways users currently participate in them. Hard data concerning and careful analysis of how students currently choose (or choose not) to control their privacy, select information its level of detail to be presented would illuminate both future developments and inform professional and/or academic co-option of online social networks.

Additional questions may include how users manage and/or manipulate their online identities. Because of the ease of information manipulation, what are users expectations regarding trustworthiness of profiles of other online social networking users? Students tend to put forth their "ideal self" on their profiles and control various details of their lives. Where does information control cross over to deception? In addition, what are users' experiences with deception online? What are students' attitudes to their own use of deception? Is it the norm? What are users' expectations regarding trustworthiness of profiles of other users?

Since current users put so much time and effort into their online social activities, what impact on their real lives and identities do their online activities have now and how will they shape their social lives in the future? What are the implications for their values and attitudes? Specifically, is there a reciprocal relationship between users' current attitudes toward deception and their experiences with deception in online social networking?

The answers to these questions and their implications may change the ways we operate online and use online social networking for a variety of purposes. Moreover, they will help us prepare for communicating with future social networks users, students, and more importantly, the future workforce.

Works Cited:

"7 Things You Should Know About... Facebook." Educause Learning Initiative. September 2006. 6 December 2006

Burgoon Judee. "Truth, Lies, and Virtual Worlds." Carrol C. Arnold 2005
Distinguished Lecture National Communication Association. New York: Pearson 2005.

Marklein, Mary. "How to Keep Your Personal Information Safe." USA Today. 2 Aug. 2006: 06d.

Petrecca, Laura. "If You See These CEOs on MySpace ...You Might Be..." USA Today. 25 Sep. 2006: 05b.

Stone, Brad and Robbie Brown "Web of Risks." Newsweek. 28 Aug. 2006: 76-77, 2p, 2c. Academic Research Premier.
Minnesota State U, Mankato Lib., Mankato, MN. 16 November 2006.

Walton, Beth. "In these Online Searches, Lives are on the Line." USA Today. 7 Aug. 2006: 04a.

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