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Facebook, MySpace users will trade privacy for features

Research finds that users know security is lacking, but they still like social networks

By Heather Havenstein
September 18, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Facebook and MySpace users are willing to let the sites sell their personal data in return for access to the sites' social networking features, according to new research from Pace University.

Researchers at the university queried users of Facebook and MySpace in August, asking for their views of the privacy protections offered by the sites and their feelings about how much personal information they are willing to post on social networking sites.

Catherine Dwyer, a professor at Pace who worked on the study, noted that most Facebook and MySpace users said that they're willing to develop online relationships even though they believe that trust and privacy safeguards are weak.

Users seem to view the social networking sites as a way to get online profiles, photos and the like for free while the sites "can take all their data and do whatever they want with it," she noted.

"Both sites are really interested in monetizing this information as much as possible," she said. "They don't exist to give people ways to upload photos."

Less than 5% of MySpace users surveyed and slightly more than 5% of Facebook users surveyed said they believe that the personal information they put on the sites is strongly protected.

Still, the respondents told researchers that are willing to share personal details with others on the sites. More than 85% of respondents in both groups reported that they would share a photo of themselves on a social networking sites, and 91% of Facebook users and 62% of MySpace users said they use their real name on such sites, according to the study. 

In addition, 87% of Facebook users and 41% of MySpace users post their personal e-mail addresses on the sites.

And even though 32% of MySpace users strongly agree that other users exaggerate information in their profiles, nearly half of them said that they are willing to get together in person with people they meet online, Dwyer noted.

"Here is this site where they express …a high level of distrust in other people, yet 44% said they have met someone through the site," she said. "People have this bullet-proof notion about their own ability to manage themselves online. They don't really depend on the site to filter any of this stuff."

Dwyer also noted that users at both sites may be naive when it comes to their notions of how the sites may be using the data they provide about themselves. She pointed to a report in The New York Times on Tuesday about MySpace's plans to use data-mining techniques to gather information for advertisers seeking to market products to users of its site.

In the study, only 18% of Facebook users and 21% of MySpace users said that they strongly agreed that the site would not use their personal information for any other purpose than as part of their profile.

"There is a real disconnect between [the beliefs of] people using these sites and the way the privacy management is set," she said. "You transfer privacy to this digital realm and there are only two states - it is private…or it is public, and there is potential for every single person in the world to know about it."

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