Social Networking Sites and the Issue of Information Overload

How to manage various social networking sites (SNS) and what is the impact of information overload on managing and using these SNS?

Social Networking Sites (SNS):
Social networking sites are a web-based service which allows its users to create a profile in the site that can be viewed by other users of that site. The users of a certain SNS can make connections within the service and meet acquaintances and strangers as well. A social network can also be a map of relationships between individuals and organizations.  The nature of these connections may vary from site to site since there is a SNS for almost every subject. The users and usage of these sites may also vary.

The main purpose of creating a SNS is to stay in touch with family and friends. Users stay in touch through sharing pictures, videos, music and other material. Users also participate in special interest groups, invite people to events, and communicate with group members on class projects. Very rare it is when people create SNS to meet new people. That is often done on dating sites where people are ready to meet new people and are comfortable with sharing personal information with complete strangers.

SNS have implemented a variety of technical features in the form of applications, but the major part of an account consists of visible display also known as user profile. Profiles are pages where users can enter their personal information. They can also play around with the settings to restrict the information that is visible by public.  After joining an SNS, an individual is asked to fill out forms containing a series of questions. The profile is generated using the answers to these questions, which typically include questions about age, location, interests, and an about-me section. Most sites also encourage users to upload a profile photo. Some sites like MySpace allow users to enhance their profiles by adding multimedia content or modifying their profile's look by coding in HTML or CSS. Others, such as Facebook, allow users to add applications to their profile.

Other features of a profile include adding/removing friends, commenting on friend’s wall, private messaging, chatting, writing notes, posting links/videos, etc. SNS vary greatly in their features and user base. Some have photo‐sharing or video‐sharing capabilities; others have built‐in blogging and instant messaging technology. There are mobile‐specific SNS, but some web‐based SNS also support limited mobile interactions (e.g., Facebook and MySpace).

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SNS Issues:
Where social networking sites are a way to keep in touch with family and friends, and socialize, it also poses a threat to privacy and security concerns. Different SNS have different levels and settings for privacy; thus, make it even harder to keep track of all the information being shared in multiple SNS. Some of the major issues of any SNS are:

Identity: A digital identity is the electronic representation of a real-world entity. It also means the online equivalent of an individual human being, which participates in electronic activities and interactions. Some sites are designed with specific ethnic, religious, sexual orientation, political, or other categories that are identity-specific. There are even SNS for dogs (Dogster) and cats (Catster), although their owners must manage their profiles. This use of multiple SNS creates multiple identities or also leads to the issue of lost identity.

Privacy: The visibility of a profile varies by site and according to user discretion. This poses some privacy issues. By default, some profiles are made available to search engines, making them visible to anyone, regardless of whether or not the viewer has an account. These settings range from everyone or no one in the world being able to view the profile. Alternatively, LinkedIn controls what a viewer may see based on whether she or he has a paid account. Sites like MySpace allow users to choose whether they want their profile to be public or friends-only. Facebook here takes a different approach where by default the users who are part of the same network can view each other's profiles, unless a profile owner has decided to restrict permission to those in their network.

Security: Security of the content and personal information shared in the SNS makes a site secure in the eyes of the viewer. Many incidents have been reported where a user steals personal information of another user by copying pictures and personal content and making similar accounts, or hacking into other user’s accounts or making fake accounts to flirt or meet under-age girls and boys for inappropriate intentions. Issues of this sort have posed some serious threats which have made these SNS more conscious about their privacy and security settings. The public display of connections is a crucial component of SNS. The Friends list contains links to each Friend's profile, enabling viewers to look through the network of friends by clicking on friends’ profiles. On most sites, the list of Friends is visible to anyone who is permitted to view the profile, but there are settings that restrict this viewership. For instance, some MySpace users have set their profiles to hide the Friends display, and LinkedIn allows users to opt out of displaying their network.

Trust: Various complex questions of privacy, identity, ownership and security surround the issue of trust. Information disclosure on these SNS also relies on trust. It is very hard to build trust for a networking service but it is only with time and credibility that a bond is developed. Security and privacy settings also play a vital role in developing trust for an SNS as a service allows its user to manage the content being shared with other users in the cyberspace. If users can successfully communicate with other users in the SNS without any violation of rights and unexpected results, trust develops between the user and the SNS.

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Various SNS: 
There are a number of different SNS available in the online world today. There is an SNS for almost every topic today. Some of the very common SNS are discussed below:

Facebook: It is a social networking site which was initially available to college students only but it was just a few years ago when it was made open to all public. The use of this site ranges from staying in touch with family and friends to meeting new people, sharing photos, comments, videos, links, etc. The user base for this site consists of professionals, students and older user population. It is one of the most trusted SNS among all the other ones.

LinkedIn: It is a social networking site where professionals can meet and recommend each other. The use of this site is limited to sharing professional information e.g., past and present job experiences.  The user base for this site consists of graduated students or employed professionals.

MySpace: It is a social networking site where users can meet and develop friendships with strangers, socialize, post various multimedia content and and sharing thoughts. The user base for this site consists of teenagers or high-school students.

Orkut: It is a social networking site which is feature rich and the uses of this SNS are meeting new people, staying touch with family and friends, share music videos and photos. The user base for this site consists of college students and professionals but the use of this site is limited to social networking only, although there are several privacy and security concerns about this SNS.

Twitter: It is a social networking site where users can meet new people, update their statuses and become followers of their favorite celebrities. The only major features this site offers are updating statuses, sharing comments, and private messaging. Other SNS like Facebook have started to form their status update feature similar to the Twitter status update system.

MSN space: It is a social networking space offered by MSN where people can write on each other’s space and it is viewable to all public, status can be updated, and it offers photo sharing as well. The popularity of this social space is increasing.

Others: There are several other sites like Google Friend Connect, Friendster, Bebo, Hi5, etc which are becoming popular among users but the level of trust, security and privacy varies massively among these and above discussed SNS. The use of these sites has now expanded to doing class projects, advertising for products and conferences, politics, religious uses, etc.

If a user is using all the Google applications and the digital lifestyle of a person revolves around Google apps like Google calendar, G-phone, Gmail, Gmail chat/video chat/voice chat, Google Chrome, then they might use Facebook for social networking. The problem that users face these days is to consolidate these sites so that it becomes easy for the users to keep track of them. The meaning of using multiple SNS by different companies means remembering: different passwords, the amount and level of information shared in the different sites, add all friends, keep the same privacy settings, etc. The level of information these sites demand the users to consume is way more than what the users can handle. Thus, it gives birth to another problem of information overload.  

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Information Overload (IO): 
Information overload results when an individual is getting bogged down in emails, comments, messages, or inundated with tasks. While these symptoms are still relevant the term IO has developed into a more general concept that encompasses all information. Recent social networking sites (Twitter, Facebook, Orkut, LinkedIn, etc.) have all shared a common theme: the ability to disseminate and consume information to/from a wide audience, instantly. Consumers of information are becoming producers as well and there are criteria on who to trust.

When a user signs into an SNS, it provides the user with a list of notifications about how many times anyone else has interacted with the information the user had shared from the last time they logged into their account. At times it includes the result from online movie quizzes other people have taken for fun, or if someone else comments on the same photo the user has commented on, or if a user likes a status; Facebook will continuously bombard the first user who left a comment on that status or liked that status. This results in the generation of superfluous information, which many users, including myself, find very annoying. I have seen many cases where the users go back and ‘dislike’ the status just so that they do not keep on receiving continuous messages about other people liking the same status or leaving comments on that status.

People have started craving for immediate access to information in the form of headlines. There is another risk of context, perspective and truth being scarified for immediacy as a result of too much information generated through the numerous social networks and digital devices. These risks are not only minimizing the use of social networking sites but also changing public discourse behavior. Numerous digital tools and online services limit an individual's ability to effectively process information once a certain threshold is reached. Further, as the prevalence of mobile devices increase, a new sub-concept is emerging which is called Information Ambiguity.

Information Ambiguity: Information ambiguity means information that is hard to understand or seems confusing. The presence of scores of networking sites has made social sites very ambiguous in general. Each site and interface of electronic device is very different in its use and purpose which demands from the user to understand and mold their identity according to the device. This trend is dangerous in the sense that users try to grasp the gist of content by skipping details which leads to the limited use of the product. These networking services and various devices are producing ambiguities in communication, disorganizing data arrangements; thus, distorting information processing behavior. In order to function effectively and cope with the situation of IO, more research needs to be conducted to formulate design principles and theories that are valid and generalize-able across a wide range of virtual and real spaces. IO leads to the production and consumption of ambiguous information effecting user behaviors and public discourse in negative ways. It is limiting the use of these SNS and is also resulting in loss of trust towards a SNS.

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Effects of IO on SNS:
SNS are manipulating, controlling and influencing a user’s communication methods and public discourse behavior. Since many of these services ask users to enter a one-line status update, users have started demanding shorter and shorter messages. If any user writes a longer message, the message is truncated by the restriction implemented by SNS that messages cannot exceed a certain number of characters.

Consumers of information are becoming producers of information as well. And there are no criteria to keep a check on the level of accuracy of the information shared among users. Often times, users from a credible SNS write international news as their status update on the site and other users of the site believe it without any confirmation. Overall, there is no process which can ensure or authenticate a news item or information being valid.

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Management of SNS: 
Management of these SNS has become very essential now since identity theft has been increasing rapidly in the past few years. Using multiple SNS makes it more difficult to manage the information that is publicly available on the web. Some of the solutions that SNS have started proposing for themselves is to provide an all-in-one SNS where users can find all the features they seek in different SNS such as emailing, chatting, photo and video sharing, posting comments, creation of groups or communities, private messaging, status updates, etc.

Data portability: It is a project for storing private information online which is available for SNS to extract relevant information to their sites. It is defined as "the option to use your personal data between trusted applications and vendors." The purpose of data portability is to use open source technologies (such as OpenID, OAuth, RSS, OPML, microformats, RDF, apml, and XMPP) to store users' data, media, contacts, privacy settings, etc and have it readily available to multiple social websites. This will ease the users by not having them enter the same information multiple times in different SNS.

Monthly Notifications: Some SNS have a daily or weekly notification system where user gets updates about activities that took place while the user was offline. For example, in LinkedIn, users get a weekly email notification about the activities and friend additions that happened in the last week. Facebook is trying to follow similar footsteps. But drawbacks with Facebook notifications are that it overloads the user with unnecessary and irrelevant information. This results in user not checking the notifications icon at all which could result in ignoring important information as well.

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Some recommendations that I want to make in the light of issues discussed above are as follows.There should be specific legitimate SNS which get some sort of license and approval from a team of subject matter experts. Those licensed sites should have an age restriction for the users to  join that site. There also should be restriction on the type of material that is shared on an SNS. Any activity which leads to the violation of the terms and conditions should be checked and appropriate actions should be taken to resolve an issue. A certain age group of students or users should use a specific SNS which is approved by experts so that parents do not have to worry about the safety of the child.

Similarly, these approved social networking sites should provide the users with all the applications one seeks in different SNS. For example, Facebook is trying to provide all the functionalities and features in one site. The features range from emailing, chatting, commenting, photo and video sharing, forming groups, adding applications, etc. If there are other sites which offer more attractive features and which cater the same audience, basic information about the user should be transmitted to that site through data portability. One main account should act as the hub account and all other accounts in multiple SNS should be linked to the hub so that when a user logs into one hub account, it automatically signs the user into the other accounts. This will help not only consolidate all the sites, but will also help user better manage the use of time and services. The user will also not have to remember all the passwords and it would automatically send friends-add notifications to all the contacts in the hub account.

Another possible solution is a slightly different approach from the above discussed week/monthly notification system. In this notification email, the users would get an email about all the activities performed by the user on the multiple sites. This will keep the users informed about their actions and will indicate how the information they post is being used. The current system with embedded notification icons in these sites carries extraneous information which overloads the users with even more information. Thus, regular emails of online activity of a user in an SNS will provide him/ her with relevant information.

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In the next five years, I see this problem -- managing multiple SNS and overloading the users with more information in these SNS -- getting more complicated. Users are rapidly overloading these sites with more and more information yet there are no criteria to rate the authenticity of the information posted. I also think that many organizations shall put their heads together to find a solid solution to deal with this issue. The need is to create filters through which the information can pass through and become credible and legitimate to share. Sharing general comments is one use of the SNS but using these sites for religious, political and humanitarian uses further complicates the issue.

I also think that these SNS will become even more feature-rich as time progresses. Various other new features and applications will be added into these sites e.g., webcam chatting, voice chatting, embedded blogs, group chat rooms, online calendars, sub-accounts created within one main social networking account for different uses i.e., one account for work, one for family, one for friends, etc and users will be able to change the their settings about who can see which account and so on.

Many organizations and big companies might start their internal social networking system through which employees will be able to meet and know each other. They might start having teleconferences over their organizational social networking sites for office meetings. The site could act as their main source of communication within the organization. The site could also keep the employees up to date about any information the CEO of a company wants to share with all the employees. 

The future of SNS is growing very vastly. Many more SNS will be created but only a few will be able to survive because of the increasing needs and demands of the users. And also due to the high standards set by some of the current SNS. The issues of security, privacy and trust are also important factors which will help decide which site is performing better than the others. Thus, higher standards, increasing user demands and issues of privacy and security will play key role in the formation of more SNS in future.

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