Over the last five years, a plethora of social networking sites (SNS) has appeared, offering internet users new ways to communicate with friends, coworkers, and even strangers. The most popular of these sites are currently ranked as some of the most-viewed websites on the internet, attracting millions of users around the world. The top three social networking sites in the U.S. according to Alexa’s traffic rankings were MySpace (No. 3 overall), Facebook (No. 5) and LinkedIn (No. 34), as of December 1, 2007. The value of these sites is contingent on users voluntarily sharing various forms of personal data such as contact information, work and education history, and photographs. However, each site provides unique features to control what information gets shared with other users in a given network. For instance, there are notable differences in the default privacy settings when a user initially creates an account, and differing requirements for the minimum amount of information a user can display. However, it is important to note that users can provide fake information in many of these fields, thus further obscuring their identity if they wish to do so.
The Pew Internet Project has reported extensively on teenagers’ use of social networking websites, finding that 55% of online teens have created an online profile and that most restrict access to them in some way. Looking at adults, creation of social networking profiles is much lower (just 20%), but those who do maintain profiles appear to do so in a much more transparent way.
Looking at all adult internet users who maintain an online profile, 82% say that their profile is currently visible compared with 77% of online teens who report this. Among adults who say they have a visible profile, 60% say that profile can be seen by anyone who happens upon it, while 38% say their profile is only accessible to friends. However, teens with visible profiles appear to make more conservative choices with respect to visibility, just 40% said their profile was visible to anyone, while 59% restricted their profile to friends only.