How Many Social Network Identities Is Too Many?

There are social networks for every application, from location-based services like FourSquare to photo-sharing networks like Instagram. Liz Gannes, senior editor at AllThingsDigital, explains the way Internet users are splintering their online identities to exploit the strengths of different platforms.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

Okay, so you're on Facebook and Twitter, and you tweet and you blog and you think you're, oh, so courant. But faster than you can lay off half the staff of MySpace, up pops a new specialized social community like Beluga from Mobile messaging, with just a private group of friends. That's a cool one. And Instagram, for sharing photos; or how about Path, a so-called personal network, limited to just 50 friends; or Audioboo for sharing audio? Using any of those?

Well, if so, you - do you have a different personality for each one, different networks for all those different things? And how do you manage that? How do you decide where to post that snowman picture that you just took in the blizzard? Better for Facebook or Tumblr? Where do you post your Super Bowl commercial pick this year, Second Life or Twitter?

Confused? Well, it's just the beginning because things are going to get a lot more complex. If you'd like to talk about social networking and what to do about it, give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Or you can tweet us at scifri, @S-C-I-F-R-I.

And here to help us on that road map that's coming up is Liz Gannes. She is senior editor of AllThingsDigital in San Francisco, California. She joins us by phone. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. LIZ GANNES (AllThingsDigital): Thanks. Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: That layoff of all those employees from MySpace, does signal a turning point, do you think?

Ms. GANNES: Well, I think it signals a turning point in the fact that these social networks sometimes don't last very long. They're the popular thing for one minute, but then they're not the next, and that's what's happened to MySpace.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. How many identities do you have, Liz?

Ms. GANNES: Well, since I try just about everything I write about, I would guess 10, maybe 100, if you count identities by the number of accounts I have on different, various social services online and on my phone.

FLATOW: I'm quiet because that number is just sinking in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GANNES: Well, I think, as we express more of ourselves and live more of our lives online, we're more self-conscious about what we say and who we say it to, and that's normal. We do that in real life too. But increasingly there's ways to do that online.

FLATOW: And do you - so you use these for all different - well, you say you test these (unintelligible) that's part of your job. But people use these to do different things with them.

Ms. GANNES: Yeah. So when you're looking for the right space for yourself, you might consider how personalized you want it to be. You might want to choose something like Tumblr, which is an incredibly easy-to-use blogging platform that you can customize to look just how you want. Or you might want to choose something like Facebook, where it's relatively bland by comparison, but the your whole network of friends is probably already using it.

FLATOW: Let me ask you a question that gets bantered about a lot on Facebook and I'm sure other places. Should you friend your boss?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GANNES: Well, it really changes what...

FLATOW: You've heard that one before, right?

Ms. GANNES: ...you say when you friend your boss, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GANNES: There's some things that - you start thinking about, well, should I really post these pictures from that party last night? Or maybe even before that boss employs you, should I really post these pictures now since I'm out on the job market?

FLATOW: Yeah. And you can't talk about your boss if your boss is your friend.

Ms. GANNES: Yeah. Though, I think that things like that are going to change. Obviously there's something you should keep to yourself. There's some things you should say in an environment that you think is private. But we're ever living so much of our lives online. You want to express those feelings. You want to talk to your friends. And maybe the way that you talk to your friends is through one of these services, so sometimes you might want to set up a private group or go on a different - an entire differently network where the communication is much more intimate.

FLATOW: And Facebook used to be pretty strict about people using their real names and real identities. Are they loosening up that a little bit?

Ms. GANNES: That's something I've noticed over time, and this is just an observation. But for instance, when I first joined Facebook, I was in college. And our college mascot or unofficial mascot was Keggy the Keg. And I remember someone set up a profile for Keggy the Keg and it really quickly accumulated a lot of friends. And it was deleted by Facebook. Facebook would prefer that real people connected to real other people, and replicated the networks that they have offline online.

But I don't think that they're quite as strict about it anymore. Maybe they're just busy. They have 600 million active members. But I see all sorts of people using pseudonyms on the service - for instance, a teacher who doesn't necessarily want their students to be able to search and find them. Or some people - I've heard of an artist doing it because he likes his kind of stage name to be known. He - I even have a Facebook account for my dog, which I know is not really kosher by the terms of service. We he has a whole network of friends there too and he's definitely not a real person.

FLATOW: How did he get through those terms of service?

Ms. GANNES: Well, no one is watching as much as anymore. And I think this is actually a good behavior for Facebook to foster, because you start to realize that once you collect your high school friends and your college friends and your work friends and maybe someone you just met at a conference or something like that, maybe someone you used to date, you have different relationships with all those people. And one option is to go - get a profile and offer it to different services, which I think are increasingly available, and they're starting to be really good and they're really accessible. But it's also a problem that Facebook recognizes. And I think they're starting to offer tools. For instance, they introduced a new product called Groups, where you can kind of segment your communication with different sorts of people.

FLATOW: But can you change the privacy on each group?

Ms. GANNES: You can. Yeah. I mean, Facebook has...

FLATOW: Perhaps try to find - how to find - how to do that. I'm wading through.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GANNES: Yeah. That's - configuring your Facebook settings should be something you can get a degree in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GANNES: But that's not Facebook's fault, entirely. This is a really hard thing to just lay out, you know, to say this is what I say to so and so. This is what's not permissible in this environment. It's not something that you think about and you can anticipate every way that -everything you're going to say and who it's appropriate to say it to, or even who's really reading your posts.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. GANNES: I mean, when you post something on Facebook - you know, I'm always surprised to see who ends up being the people commenting or who brings it up when I see them next a couple of months later. You don't really know who's out there.

FLATOW: Yeah. Are there - do you think things are going to be strictly for mobile devices soon? Like already, we're seeing things like Instagram that are mobile-only, or apps like Foursquare that rely on the GPS on your...

Ms. GANNES: Yeah. The mobile is a great environment for social, because we have our phones with us all the time. And especially these smartphone apps are really great.

I think Instagram is an example of a photo-sharing network. The way it works is you take a photo - iPhoto only for now. And the cameras on there are pretty good, but, you know, we're not all great photographers. And Instagram offers some kind of fun filters, so you can put your photo into - photo in like a sepia tone or make it look kind of old-fashioned. And then you share it, and it gets posted to the feeds of all your other friends who are - you're connected to on Instagram. And I've noticed, when I post a photo on Instagram, I'll get feedback within seconds, and my little notifications pop up on my iPhone, telling me someone has liked my photo or someone has a comment on my photo.

And we have a real - I have started to have a really tight relationship with those people. And I find myself turning to my phone more often than not. Like when I'm walking down the street, it's - my new multitasking is kind of glancing down at Instagram, though I know that's not really safe.

FLATOW: Yeah. Not very good. I know what that's like.

Jacob in Iowa City, are you concerned about this GPS stuff?

JACOB (Caller): Well, yes. I actually - can I respond to a few points that she made?

FLATOW: Sure.

JACOB: I first would like to bring up these - okay. So, a little bit ago with this WikiLeaks fiasco, the Department of Justice even released a statement saying that if potential new hires would like to, you know, keep their potential employment, to not post anything that had anything to do about WikiLeaks on Facebook. And I think that, in itself, is a huge, huge statement of lack of privacy across the whole network.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

JACOB: But the reason I called in was actually more specifically to talk about the things that Facebook's policy does not address, such as these photos that you were just talking about. I work in the computer repair industry, and I tend to get a little bit involved. And I've learned about how these image files have things called EXIF tags. And they contain all sorts of great data about you, such as on your iPhone, like you said. It takes an actual snapshot of what your GPS is at the time of taking this photo. So when you upload these photos to, you know, Facebook or anywhere else, I can then download them and find out your trend of habits, where you go to, places that you normally take pictures at, stuff like that. I think...

FLATOW: And you think that's just a...

JACOB: ...that not being stripped from this content is an extremely concerning fact.

FLATOW: And you say, you're worried about that's a security problem...

JACOB: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...people knowing your - yeah.

JACOB: And also, to quickly address those Facebook apps, those also do similar things on your phone. They find out how much you're looking at certain friends, you know, et cetera, et cetera.

FLATOW: Let me get a reaction from Liz. That's a good point. Liz?

Ms. GANNES: Yeah. Well, we're definitely creating a lot of ways for people to stalk us and a lot of ways - a lot of information that could be abused. I think that there's definitely going to be negatives that come out of it. There already are. On the alternative side, though, I think that having multiple and splintered online identities is potentially a way to reduce the impact of any one piece of information about you being damaging or defining you.

So I think a counterpoint to this is someday we're going to have to elect a president of the United States who had a blog when they were a 13-year-old, and it had - you know, we all did embarrassing things when we were teenagers, but maybe they weren't recorded online for posterity. That's going to be the case now, and it may be that that surplus of information makes any one detail less important.

FLATOW: On the other hand, they'll be able to - nothing will be secret anymore if it's posted online. Somebody will have a copy of something that you said sometime in your lifetime.

Ms. GANNES: Yeah. I think that's a really reasonable assumption. And it's something that young people are not as naive about anymore. They are understanding that what they communicate - as they're experimenting, they're doing silly things, but yes. But, you know, I see all sorts of people who are friends with their parents on Facebook who have more open relationships with them because of that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. GANNES: Obviously, though, there are downsides.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to Daniel in Jacksonville.

Hi, Dan.

DANIEL (Caller): Hey. Yeah, I've really enjoy talking about - or listening to this because, I, for one, have not been somebody who's been in to social networking until recently. And I found out what was referred to as having, like, multiple accounts and things along these lines is very beneficial to somebody like myself who has interest in a number of different hobbies. And I'm able to micromanage those hobbies effectively by, say, having one account on Facebook that's for a band or for musical interest, while I can have another account elsewhere, say, on Twitter that deals primarily with my interest in films or just goofing off with friends. And yet others that I use just for my close acquaintances.

And it allows me to keep tabs on them a little bit more organized - I guess not just on paper, but also mentally. I know that this account is for this, and that account is for that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's get a reaction. Liz?

Ms. GANNES: Yeah. I think that, in a way, we're all sort of acting like celebrities have to act, where you have personal persona and a public persona. You think about what you want to share with your fans. I know that's how a lot of people feel about using Twitter, where, by default, most everything is public. So when you decide to share a detail of your life, what you're eating for dinner or something that surprised or excited you, you're thinking about how are people you don't know going to react to it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. GANNES: How is your audience going to feel about what you're doing? And I think that there's - we'll have to see what happens in terms of people combining those identities or keeping them separate. It's a matter of personal choice. But there are services that allow you to combine all your different online identities.

There's a couple called About.me, which just got bought by AOL, and Flavors.me, which are places where you can kind of create a business card for yourself, that lists all different places you can find yourself online. So you can say, this is me at the center of all this places, even though, you know, maybe a lot of people have your same name...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. GANNES: ...but you can kind of unite your identity.

But then, on the other hand, I mean, I find I have a lot of contacts who are on - who have a blog - some are on Twitter, who are on Facebook -and they syndicate all of their updates around to all these different places. So I get kind of annoyed seeing all these redundant updates that were maybe intended for a different environment, but just to cover all their bases, they're sending them everywhere.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Talking about social networking this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

Talking with Liz Gannes, senior editor at All Things Digital in San Francisco.

Do you see a pendulum swinging here, or a bubble inflating that's going to burst about all the social communities? Because there are so many happening so quickly, and maybe a shakeout is going to happen and...

Ms. GANNES: I think one thing that is worth observing right now is that these services are growing more quickly than ever before. And I'm not just talking about, you know, in the last five years. It's in the last few months. For instance, Groupon - not exactly what we're talking about, but a commerce site - only started about two years ago, and has 50 million people on its list now. Zynga, which is the leading social game developer on Facebook, launched its new game CityVille in the beginning of December, and already has 100 million users.

So these things are growing faster than ever before, and it's possible that they will fall by the wayside faster than ever before. But we'll have to be watching.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And do you think that Facebook is going to survive? Or can Groupon take - can take it on? Or are we going to have one community?

Ms. GANNES: Facebook is definitely the leading contender. And in their six, seven years of existence now, I don't think they've ever really had a solid, direct competitor. You're right, at the beginning was MySpace. MySpace has been in decline for quite a few years now, and it never really was technically - it never really worked that well. It was always chasing - you know, chasing - it was always going down because it was used so actively. And Facebook kind of emerged as the solid contender for awhile, and then maybe Twitter came up and challenged it, but they have kind of separate identities now.

Next up, we're looking at Google, which is planning to release some social products probably this spring. But their - they - you know, people at Google realized that they're behind Facebook now, that there's already a leader in this space, that this is a way that a lot of people attention's online is going. So they will be hard to challenge. But, you know, the way of - this industry in particular is that change hits very fast. So I don't think that betting on Facebook to last forever is a...

FLATOW: It's almost like the telephone. The voice part has died.

Ms. GANNES: Telephone?

FLATOW: You know, hello, you know, the voice part, because everybody's texting and tweeting up messages and things.

Ms. GANNES: Yeah. Yeah. Our ways of communication are really evolving and becoming more subtle and ingrained into all sorts of the aspects of our life. You don't to pick up the phone and call someone. You already kind of know what they're doing.

I went to my 10-year high school reunion recently. And it was actually -I thought like it was kind of boring, because, you know, the level of talk that you have with people at a reunion is: What are you doing? Where do you live? What's your job? And I already knew all that from Facebook.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Had nothing else to talk about, except why, you know, why didn't you take to the prom? Or something like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GANNES: Yeah, bring up the old stuff, the pre-Facebook days.

FLATOW: Yeah. So what do you look forward to? If you had to create the perfect app, and I could give you a blank check or whatever, the best social network device that - what would you like to have? What's missing from this?

Ms. GANNES: Well, I think that a lot of the information that we're creating about ourselves is just our basic day-to-day kind of stuff. And I think that there is going to be opportunities to create - contribute to the Web information that's more lasting, to build our identities there in a way that's not just like slapping up your resume online.

One site that I - that's become kind of my addiction since it was -since I got on it about a year ago is a site called Quora. And...

FLATOW: How do you spell that?

Ms. GANNES: It's Q-U-O-R-A. And it's kind of like a Wikipedia for everything, but the way that it's phrased is in questions and answers. So someone says: I want to know why this started. And then people go on and answer, or sometimes, the very person who went and started it. Especially in the technology community, the level of expertise and the people answering is incredibly strong. And I see that as opportunity around building our social identities by kind of constructing them, you know, in a way, where you will tell a writer to...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. GANNES: ...to describe something, rather to show, not tell.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. GANNES: And I feel, like, Quora is a kind of way to do that, where you show your expertise. You talk about something that you're knowledgeable about. And then, maybe, you know, a future employer comes and finds you or a person who just becomes a fan of your work, not because you're famous already, but just because you have interesting things to say, comes and find you.

FLATOW: All right. Well, we'll look forward to that. And thank you very much, Liz, for taking time to be with us. Have a good weekend.

Ms. GANNES: Thank you. You, too.

FLATOW: Liz Gannes is a senior editor at All Things Digital in San Francisco. That's about all the time we have today.

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