Today’s post comes from Brian Babin, from Actiance’s product management team. Brian doesn’t blog very often, but we think, when he does he’s got some great things to say.. let us know if you agree! This blog was originally posted here.
Your friends are promiscuous, well at least on social networks. How do I know? Let’s just say a friend told me.
This story is about the birth and rise of this friend and the conditions that allow him to exist at all. Think that imaginary friends are just for kids? Not anymore. What’s interesting is that the kids know their friend is imaginary, but the adults with imaginary social networking friends do not.
We Are Social Creatures
People join social networking sites to catch up with old and current friends, to share life events and opinions, and in general to be part of a community. We all want to feel loved and appreciated. For some people, their sense of popularity is measured by the numbers of friends, connections, and followers they have accumulated on their online identities.
More friends means you’re more popular. People may start with the same intentions, such as only becoming social friends with people you really care about and then extending to others you know casually, but over time people can get corrupted. They want more friends. They need more friends. Social networking friends, that is.
An Illusion of Privacy
Social networking sites generally provide security settings to control who is able to view your posts and information. Even if you’re very strict about your security settings you aren’t protected.
Settings change and sometimes go away without you knowing. For example, Facebook used to have a setting to control who could view your wall, now called a timeline. With one change that suddenly no longer applied and people you prevented from seeing your wall could now see it. Did you know it happened? Probably not.
Try to keep up with all the privacy settings and new options. You can’t. The visibility of what you post is controlled not only by your own privacy settings but by the settings of the people with whom you interact. Translation: You have no real control over where the content you post ends up.
|A simple rule to follow is that anything you post on a social network can be viewed by almost anyone in the world.|
A Social Identity is Born
As an experiment, I created a Facebook profile for a fictitious person. A complete fabrication. Not pretending to be someone else, or similar to anyone. A whole new, yet imaginary, person.
The first step was to choose a name. I decided the person should be male because that’s what I know. His name needed to be rather bland and generic – forgettable, if you will. A name that makes you think that maybe you’ve met or known that person in the past. I won’t say which name I chose because that would blow his cover.
The second step was to choose a profile picture. I wanted someone roughly my age so I didn’t have to be concerned with time-sensitive references, for example, knowing the popular music or cartoons for someone born in a different decade. Not that I planned on using this identity to engage in conversations or discussions, but better to be safe in case the need arose.
I searched for a picture of someone on vacation, because people love to post vacation pics. The picture needed to show the person but from some distance so you couldn’t study their face too closely. And finally, I wanted a woman present as well to ease doubts for females who would receive my friend requests. Surely, if his profile picture shows a woman then he is in a committed relationship and not just out to meet and pick up random women online.
Setting up the Facebook profile took all of fifteen minutes – most of that finding a suitable picture. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, he is not friends with anyone that I am friends with on my social identities. That was one policy I established from the beginning.
Looking for Friends
Now that the profile for my fictitious identity was established, it was time for him to make some friends. You might think it would be hard for a fake person with no friends to find some. Au contraire. I started out with some random searches to find people with more than 1000 friends. I was pretty sure that these people didn’t really know over 1000 people. And I was right.
He started sending out friend requests to these “very popular” people. At this point I had no idea what would happen. Could my imaginary identity make even a single friend? The answer was yes. One by one his friend requests were accepted. Not all of them – it averaged about one in three – but he was no longer alone in this vast social world.
He was making friends: 1 friend, 3 friends, 7 friends.
With each new friend he made he would start to target their friends so his network would grow. Some people may not accept a friend request from a stranger, but if that person is friends with your friends then that somehow makes it acceptable.
|Have you ever accepted a friend request from someone you didn’t know just because they were friends with five of your friends, or twenty, or fifty? Maybe you haven’t, but your friends have. The same people who won’t accept a request from someone they don’t know with no friends in common will nonetheless accept requests if there are common friends. “If he knows Bill then he must be okay.” Well, it turns out your friend Bill is an idiot.|
Popularity and Pitfalls
Little by little his friend count grew: 15 friends, 25 friends, 40 friends.
I spent about five minutes each day sending out up to ten friend requests. I kept track of each friend request sent out and which ones were accepted. I had to make sure he didn’t send repeated requests to the same person. If the person rejected his first request then they might show up again on the suggested friends list, so I didn’t want to select them again because that would be nonproductive.
Facebook doesn’t like it when you have too many unanswered friend requests, so I had to cancel his old friend requests that were still pending. Were these people afraid to say no to a request from a stranger? Maybe they wondered “How do I know this person?” and thought they might remember him later. Maybe they were too polite to outright reject a friend request. Who knows.
He received some warnings along the way from Facebook saying that he shouldn’t send friend requests to people he doesn’t know. Wrist, consider yourself slapped.
He plodded along, just a little each day: 60 friends, 75 friends, 100 friends.
The criteria for selecting friend targets became less strict. In the beginning he only considered people with over 1000 friends. In time that dropped to 750, 500, and even 300. Interestingly, the percentage of people who accepted stayed about the same, likely helped by the fact that he had friends in common with the new targets.
The Seeker is Sought
One day, not too long after starting, something quite unexpected happened. Someone sent him a friend request. Someone, in their infinite wisdom, decided to send a friend request to a fictitious person. And that wasn’t the only one – he received a dozen friend requests over time. Of course, these people were using the suggested friends feature of Facebook, just like I did. The point is they didn’t care that they didn’t know the other person. They wanted to grow their friend list. More friends on Facebook means you’re more popular in life, right? Being gracious, he accepted most though not all of the requests.
So what did he post as status updates while growing his friend list? Not much, really. Mostly inane comments in general, some observations on current events, and some comments and likes on other people’s posts. He generally kept a low profile, but wanted to show some activity for the sake of appearances.
And his friend list continued to grow: 130 friends, 160 friends, 200 friends.
He stopped pursuing new friends once he was well past 200. The point had been proven. It took about three months to get these friends using a made-up profile, more than I made with my real life profile in a few years. Then again, I chose to be friends with real people I actually know. At least I think they’re all real.
Another unexpected surprise came in the form of birthday wishes to my fictitious identity. I created a birth date for him because you need one to set up a profile. For kicks, I left it visible so people could see it. But still, I did not expect anyone to wish a happy birthday to someone who didn’t exist.
Not only did he get a few birthday wishes, he in fact received a large number of them. Many were the standard “Happy Birthday” and “Have a great day!” messages, but some people put more thought into it and posted a nice message. An actual message like you would send to an actual friend.
The next year he received even more birthday greetings. One contained a little heart icon. I found that one to be extra special.
So, feel good when your friends wish you a happy birthday, but know that they’re doing the same to people they don’t know and who don’t even exist. When a person you know from years and years ago that you never communicate with reaches out with a birthday message and you get to feeling special that they thought about you, then don’t. They probably send even nicer messages to people who don’t exist.
Fictitious, Not Malicious
I am continually amazed at what people choose to share online. Perhaps they don’t realize that it can be seen by almost anyone, or perhaps they don’t care. In my experiment I didn’t collect any personal information nor was that my intent. But were I so inclined, there was no shortage of personal and juicy tidbits to harvest.
And yes, I’m sure creating a fictitious identity violates the Facebook terms and conditions. Heck, they may even ban my real identity. It doesn’t matter to me, though. I’ll camp out on Google+. It’s much less crowded there, so I get more legroom.
Getting back to where we started, what lessons can we learn from this experiment?
- It doesn’t matter how careful you are at screening your friends because you can’t control who they’re friends with and how careful they are.
- Your friends are socially promiscuous. Not all, maybe not many, but I guarantee that some are. Just like sex, it’s not only who you sleep with but who that person has slept with. Which means that anything you post that can be seen by friends and their friends is public information.
- What you post online can be used against you in many ways. People have been fired from jobs for inappropriate online activity. Medical conditions you discuss could pose a problem. Posting about vacations while you’re away can lead to break-ins. Does it happen often? No, but it does happen. Why put yourself at risk?
- If you are one who puts faith in friend decisions made by your friends, then at least change your security settings so that non-friends are not able to see your friends list. Otherwise, someone who wants to target you can first target your friends and accumulate friends in common with you before sending a friend request to you. Now instead of receiving a friend request from a completely anonymous person, it is from someone who has friends in common with you. What you don’t know is that none of your friends actually know that person.
- The only way to be safe is to protect yourself. Assume that anything you post online can be seen by anyone in the world who cares to find it. No court order, subpoena, or government intrusion is required. Just someone with a few minutes a day, half a plan, and a search engine or two.
|Your PledgeRepeat after me…
My social network friends are promiscuous.
I will not share anything on a social network that I don’t want the whole world to know about.