Danah Boyd (PhD student at U. Cal., Berkley) points out why online social networks violate typical assumptions we have about friendships and friendship networks. See: ” Social Network Sites: Public, Private, or What?“.
The main reasons are: persistence; searchability; replicability; and invisible audiences.
1. Persistence. In most offline conversations, memories fade and the truth of what was said gets hazier. While having it in writing eases communication with others not currently present, it also ensures embarrassment when your words from your youth haunt you decades later.
2 Searchability. Danah Boyd notes that “My mother would’ve loved the ability to scream ‘Find!’ into the ether and determine where I was hanging out with my friends. She couldn’t, and I’m thankful. Today’s teens’ parents have found their hangouts with the flick of a few keystrokes.”
3 Replicability. Since content is easily copyable (that’s the main virtue of ‘digital communication.’), it’s hard to ascertain whether content observed is real or doctored (whether this is a conversation or a photo).
4 Invisible audiences. In real space, we have a good idea of who is or might be listening in on our conversation. Sometimes our expectations are violated in real space by someone sitting in the row behind us in a train or standing on the other side of work cubicle. But in what Boyd calls ‘mediated publics’, she writes that “not only are lurkers invisible, but persistence, searchability, and replicability introduce audiences that were never present at the time when the expression was created.”
And the fact that most people participating in social networks are often less guarding of their privacy, and often unawares of the permanence of their words and the invisible lurkers that may listen in on their postings now or years from now, makes the potential for harm all the greater.
[Thanks to SharonB of Mindtracks for alerting me to Danah Boyd’s work.]