I’ve been interested in this conversation over at Blogorrah. Not content with finding endless (and legitimate) humour in the staged publicity photos beloved of Irish PR agencies, they’ve started a “Bebo Of The Day” feature. The site is fairly popular these days, what with some glowing Irish Times coverage, and has recently started to take (large) advertisements.

Anyway, a couple of the selected Bebonauts* (they are loike, TOTAL ledges) are biting back. Humour comes from the wannabe journalists who respond with barely literate rambles. But more serious questions come from the third parties who wonder whether Blogorrah is taking advantage of (mostly) naive young people (mostly female, it seems) in a way that, while a source of humour to the Blogorrah readers, is abusive and meaning towards the profile authors.

While I can agree that some of the comments (by Blogorrah readers, not necessarily by the team of authors) are quite rude, playing as they do on stereotypes and on (private) information relating to random strangers they don’t konw, we do have to look deeper. There are, as I see it, (at least) four levels of engagement with social networking/profile-based sites:

  1. Do not engage, do not create a profile, etc
  2. Create a profile but make it ‘private’ (for most services, this will mean only direct ‘friends’ have access, you won’t show up on portal pages, your page isn’t indexed in Google … generally speaking, your profile is restricted)
  3. Create a public profile, but limit your information (i.e. basic contact details, few photographs, interests stated but not a personal diary, etc)
  4. Create a public profile, and hold nothing (or very little) back.

Those that end up as the butt of jokes (or more seriously, as the targets of more sinister abuse, stalking or whatever) are quite likely to be in category 4. While things like ‘cyber-bullying’ are commonplace from category 2 onwards, and ‘bad people’ can always abuse trust for the purpose of doing ill, sympathy for those who voluntarily disclose and publish personal information should be limited. Assuming there’s no deception about the nature of access to a site, we must assume that the author of a profile is aware of the circulation of their photographs and ideas. They are of course protected (normally) by copyright law, libel law and other legal devices and opportunities. But this isn’t really a legal matter, is it? The criticism of Blogorrah is one of a moral judgement, I think. And given a presumption in favour of freedom of expression, I think they may be justified, despite the occasional unpleasantness.

New York magazine has a brilliant (but lengthy) article on the social implications of open profiles and social networking more generally. It also touches on the question of ‘push’ profiles (like the infamous Facebook News Feed and mini-feed, which I’ve criticised in the past; read danah boyd’s incisive article here for an overview and critique) and the use of profile-related information in employment and other important aspects of the Myspace-teen’s future. Worth a read.

* I assumed that this word had entered the vocabulary, but Google gives me nothing. So I may have made it up. Then again, one of my brothers suggested that when I deleted my short-lived Bebo profile, I had ‘committed bebocide’, which is similarly absent from the Google database, but an excellent word nonetheless.