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MyFace: Self-Image Control (or the Lack Thereof) Through Social Networking

Posted At: April 9, 2008
by Anthony Greer

January 2003: In order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States, the federal government creates the Department of Homeland Security.

March 2003: The World Health Organization declares Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) a global threat to worldwide health.

April 2003: The Human Genome Project completes the final sequencing of the human genome, identifying nearly all of the 25,000 genes of the human cell.

But Fall of 2003 would truly change history forever as the world came to a complete stop. MySpace was launched.

With more than 300 million registered accounts as of 2008, MySpace’s self-proclaimed “online community that lets you meet your friends’ friends” has been a dominant outlet for people worldwide to post their innermost ideas and expressions.

In February 2004, innovators at Harvard University released what they describe to be a new “social utility that connects people with friends and others who work, study and live around them” known as Facebook. With currently more than 66 million active users and countless other dormant accounts, Facebook originally absorbed the free time of college students nationwide and now extends its arms to anyone with a valid e-mail account.

These two social networks, along with numerous imitators, are excellent methods of connecting and communicating with best friends or complete strangers. So what are these social networks’ equal but opposite reactions?

As public relations students, educators and practitioners, we are implored to serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent. But are we not also accountable for acting as responsible advocates for ourselves? What about how well or how poorly we represent ourselves in the public eye? Even those users who do not practice the same ethical codes as we do should be concerned with how they portray themselves to the public.

MySpace and Facebook allow a free flow of information, enabling users to post anything from their favorite bands, movies, activities and interests to private information such as phone numbers, addresses and personal photographs. An astonishing percentage of users insist on abusing these liberties by posting incriminating information and poor visual representations of themselves for the world to see. Perhaps they are not cognizant of the possible repercussions.

Despite whatever privacy settings a user may or may not have checked, that user may not have read the fine print as posted on the Web site. Facebook, for example, spells out the lack of privacy a user actually has in its terms of use: “By posting User Content to any part of the Site, you automatically grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to the Company an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, publicly perform, publicly display, reformat, translate, excerpt (in whole or in part) and distribute such User Content for any purpose, commercial, advertising, or otherwise, on or in connection with the Site or the promotion thereof, to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such User Content, and to grant and authorize sublicenses of the foregoing.”

This policy means that anything a user posts is fair game for Facebook or anyone who acquires a Facebook sublicense, including possible future employers and even police. Several recorded criminal cases have used social network information posted by a defendant as evidence against them. So before you post that picture of your latest, greatest keg stand conquest or the location of that tattoo that would probably get your dad’s blood pressure skyrocketing, perhaps you should consider what kind of self-image you are promoting.

How can we as public relations practitioners promote positive self-representation in a country that thrives on freedom of expression?

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