PrivacySocial media is now commonplace. You see FourSquare stickers encouraging you to check in when you arrive at your favorite cafe. You see people checking Facebook on their phones while waiting for the bus. You yourself may even pull out your smartphone to live-tweet while at a baseball game.

By the same token, there are many who actively avoid these platforms. People like a good friend of mine who won’t get on Facebook because she fears that an unstable ex would track her down. People who are often concerned about privacy issues.

The problem is that while social media has become more and more ubiquitous, the “social cost” of not using these networks has continued to increase. As it does so, the polarization on the issue of privacy seems to be deepening along with it.

Bob Sullivan, the multiple-award-winning journalist who covers Internet scams and consumer fraud for MSNBC’s The Red Tape Chronicles, recently wrote this on the subject:

Alessandro Acquisti, an economist who studies privacy at Carnegie-Mellon University, says the privacy issue may be polarizing because the penalty for avoiding social networks is becoming more severe over time.

‘Not having a mobile phone now would dramatically cut you off from professional and personal life opportunities. It’s the same story with social networks,’ Acquisti said. ‘The more people use them for socializing and for their professional life, the more costly it becomes for others (who aren’t members) to be loyal to their views.’

The cost in some ways is basic. Many Facebook users now assume all their posts are common knowledge, and skip old-fashioned ways of communicating even important events now. That leads to awkward, ‘What do you mean you didn’t know I was engaged’ conversations.

There can be consequences to the job hunter as well. Those who do not make use of LinkedIn or Facebook can be at a huge disadvantage when seeking work. I know that I have gotten work on a number of occasions simply because someone found my CV on LinkedIn. Indeed, when I first made the jump to being a professional blogger it was because of the connections I’ve made through LiveJournal.

In economically distressed times, this aspect of the growing gulf between users and non-users of social networks is especially troublesome. The fact that this is becoming such an issue, when the Ponemon Institute’s recent survey indicated that only 42% of Americans classify themselves as “active users” of social media, should be a wake-up call. With the incredible speed at which social media is being adopted, thanks in no small part to the proliferation of mobile devices, I can see the “social media divide” getting steadily worse.

Those who embrace it will comprise a greater portion of the population, leaving those remaining falling further and further behind the curve. A good analogy would be the person without a telephone in the 1970s.

Of course, increased usage of social media brings with it increased risk. If you post a picture from “that office party that got out of hand” on Facebook and a friend shares it, the thing can rapidly snowball. That friend’s friends can now share it, and the circle of viewers gets wider. Since it is a pretty fair bet that some of their friends (or some of your own) have very loose settings on their privacy, it won’t be hard to find that shot of you with a lampshade on your head if your prospective employer does some Googling.

MSNBC does a grea job of covering the spectrum of opinion on this subject with a recent series about online privacy. There are three articles aimed at both the extremes as well as the middle ground — all with practical tips and advice. I highly advise reading all three in their entirety, but first I’m going to share a few pertinent snippets.

Since I tend to support extreme transparency, let’s start with Wilson Rothman’s piece geared toward “the nothing to hide crowd,” as Bob Sullivan calls it. Rothman’s stance is simple and pragmatic:

Even if you regularly reassure yourself that you don’t give a fig about privacy, there’s a difference between open and at risk. I don’t want you to lose your job, break up your marriage, get denied healthcare or get kicked out of school because you didn’t know the difference.

Rothman then goes on to detail the basic steps you should take in order to avoid the less obvious risks of social media. From the common sense of “wait before posting,” to blocking third-party browser cookies, he provides info that everyone should know in these modern times, no matter how “open” their Internet presence might be.

Then there is Helen A.S. Popkin’s piece for “the privacy elite” (again, Bob Sullivan’s term). She writes,

Unwillingness to join a social network or engage in the Internet will get costlier over time — socially, personally and professionally, as our colleague Bob Sullivan points out. Increasingly to live in the world, Internet access makes life much easier and is, in some cases, required. And yes, this includes membership on a social network, be it an online dating site, Facebook or LinkedIn.

I’m here to say that even the most basic steps can go a long way to protecting your Internet experience — not all of it, but a lot. The trick to living with the Internet is learning to leave the smallest and fewest footprints possible.

Her list of proposed measures includes links and resources on things like surfing anonymously, knowing your privacy settings, and learning to balance your risks. Again, I advise checking out the resources she shares, it only takes a few moments and can circumnavigate a number of potential online headaches in the future.

Lastly, we return to the words of Bob Sullivan. His entry in this trifecta on privacy is geared more towards the average user, the person standing firmly in the middle ground:

If you are in this middle group — you care about privacy, but don’t know what to do about it — there are some very simple steps you should consider. Despite all the negative things privacy experts say about Facebook, the site does offer some important tools for erecting walls around the information you post there. Spend 10 minutes getting to know them — it’s probably the most important 10 minutes you could spend on privacy protection.

Here’s a link that will help you: “10 privacy settings everyone should know about”

And here’s another: “Manage Facebook’s privacy and security settings”

Sullivan goes on to provide more valuable tools, coupled with encouragement to get involved in the debate about online privacy.

All in all, I deem this series required reading for most social media users. The majority of these tips are things I do as a matter of course and encourage my clients to do the same. It really only costs a few minutes a day, a few minutes that would probably be spent dealing with SPAM anyway.

Surf safely!

Source: “New concern: The social media divide,” MSNBC, 03/16/11
Source: “The big difference between ‘open’ and ‘at risk’,” MSNBC, 03/10/11
Source: “Don’t freak out: Paranoids can go online too,” MSNBC, 03/10/11
Source: “Why should I care about digital privacy?,” MSNBC, 03/10/11
Image by alancleaver_2000 (Alan Cleaver), used under its Creative Commons license.

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