Facebook friends: how much is too much information?

Posted by Ryan Davies on Dec 10, 2009 | Tagged as: Tags: , ,

How long does it take before you consider someone a friend, the kind with whom you would share personal information and private details about your life? A day, a week, a month? Would you share details with a friend sight unseen? Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But according to a recent study in Australia by IT security firm Sophos, Facebook users are not only extremely friendly, they are also extremely trusting.

In 2007, Sophos conducted a study in the UK to determine how willing Facebook users were to give out personal information. The result, 43% of UK Facebookers become friends with a complete stranger, a fake Facebook profile setup by Sophos. This year the study was moved to Australia, and given that two years had passed and that much has been made of privacy and the dangers of revealing too much information online, Sophos expected Facebook users to be much more cautious than before. They were wrong.

Two fictitious accounts were set up, one for a 21-year-old single woman – Daisy Feletin – and one for a 56-year-old married woman – Dinette Stonily. If you’re wondering at the unusual names, they are anagrams of false identity and stolen identity. According to Mashable, Daisy was represented by a beaming rubber duck and Dinette by two cats lying on a rug. 100 friend requests were sent out to random, age-appropriate Facebook users and it turns out that young and cute – Daisy – beats older but still cute – Dinette.

46% of users accepted Daisy’s request, 41% friended Dinette. When it came to personal information: 89% of Daisy’s new friends shared their full date of birth compared to 57% for Dinette; 100% gave their email address to Daisy compared to 88% for Dinette. Encouragingly, only 4% gave Daisy their full address and 7% gave up their phone number, 6% of Dinette’s friends gave up their full addresses and 235 their phone numbers. Which seems to indicate that wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with age. Worryingly for those who are friends with those who friended the fictitious accounts is that 46% shared information on family and friends with Daisy compared to 31% for Dinette.

The Sophos study shows that despite warnings and bad experiences we’re all still idiots when it comes to divulging sensitive information online. Without any effort at all, scammers and assorted bad people can access enough information to steal your identity and make your life a living hell.

The big question is why: why are we so trusting online and so circumspect in real life, why are we so open online and so tight-lipped in real life?

I think that the relative anonymity of social networks plays a role. Like a child who thinks she disappears if she hides behind her hands, there is this perception that if you can’t see them, they can’t hurt you. The tacit intent also lends to a trusting environment, after all, why would someone want to be your friend just to hurt you? Then there is denial, we want to believe that people are good and that nothing bad will come from interacting with others. We need to believe that otherwise we would never meet, make friends with or trust anyone.

But we also need to realise that amongst our real friends and all the good people of the world lurk baddies, who just don’t care about anyone else. When it comes to online mingling, caution is just as important as in the real world. It’s all about balance, blind trust is bad, but so are undue skepticism, cynicism and isolation.

Remember that your real friends are likely to know almost everything about you anyway, all online social networks really need to do is serve as easy means to keep in touch.

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