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For some, social-networking has a downside: too much information about friends

There's little consensus among Facebook and Twitter users on what's inappropriate to post and what's not. Do you really want to know about your pals' weight loss, pregnancy or binge drinking?

November 30, 2010|By Kristena Hansen, Los Angeles Times

Eugene Hwang, a 41-year-old marketing executive from Westwood, uses a smart-phone application to record the distance he runs and calories burned, and then to share the information on his Facebook page with friends and other runners.

He lost 20 pounds over the summer, a feat he said he accomplished only because his online friends were there to hold him accountable. But not everyone was supportive; Hwang said he occasionally saw comments accusing him of being a showoff.

"I know some people get upset," he said. "I just call them haters."

The expanding online world of social-network sites, blogs and smart-phone apps has allowed people to share the most intimate details about themselves. Information that was traditionally whispered among close friends — struggles with weight loss, misadventures in dating, psychic anguish and the like — is now relayed as news flashes on Twitter and Facebook.

But as personal information is more frequently broadcast, some — like Hwang's critical friends — are saying enough is enough. Too much information.

Take Patrick Faulds, who lives near Macon, Ga. The 27-year-old detailed his struggles with a troublesome toenail to his Facebook friends.

"So three months after stubbing my toe so hard as to make the toenail bend upward, the nail finally gave in and fell off yesterday," Faulds wrote.

Jeanette Reischman, 60, broadcast her battle with shingles. "I just want to rip my skin off," Reischman, who lives in Lincoln City, Ore., said on Facebook. "Looks just like that chicken pox I had as a kid."

The trend has caused a backlash among some, including Ashley Dischinger, a 22-year-old graduate student at Elon University in North Carolina.

A self-described social-media junkie, Dischinger said she updates her Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Wordpress blog via her BlackBerry apps daily — and takes care to ensure the content is not offensive. She isn't happy when her online friends don't practice the same etiquette.

"What makes you think it's OK to post a whole album dedicated to documenting your binge drinking? Do people really care?" she said. "I see this all the time, and sometimes people's ignorance really annoys me."

Unfortunately, no one really agrees on what the protocol should be, said Lee Rainie, director of Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, and an expert on social media.

"We're in a de-wrenching period of what's appropriate to disclose and what's inappropriate to disclose," Rainie said. "These are the tensions that are playing out both in the professional and personal parts of people's lives."

Most likely, Rainie said, social-networking habits will evolve to where people have separate Facebook accounts for business and personal use, something many people do already.

Until then, many control their postings through privacy settings and self-censorship.

Felicia Carter, for example, used an iPhone app that gave weekly updates on the progress of her recent pregnancy and the baby's development. The app also allowed her to post those updates onto Facebook and Twitter, but she opted out of the feature to protect her friendships.

"Some of my other friends post updates on their pregnancies, but I think for me that would be insensitive" said Carter, a high school counselor from North Carolina. "Some of them can't have children or are trying to, and I wouldn't want to make them feel bad."

If people are sharing too much information, it's partly because smart phones and apps make it so easy to do so.

Social networking takes up more than 10% of the time that Americans spend online, ranking second only to e-mailing as the most popular mobile Internet activity, according to a survey released in September by the Nielsen Co.

A Stanford University survey last year of students who use iPhones found them virtually addicted to their devices; 75% said they even fell asleep with their phones.

Tanya Luhrmann, the anthropology professor who conducted the survey of about 175 undergraduate students, said they are intensely attached to their iPhones largely because they're able to stay connected any time, anywhere and with a device in the palm of their hand. And being vulnerable online builds friendships, one's reputation and a sense of belonging to niche communities, which will be increasingly valuable to future generations.

"Now you're basically socially outcast if you don't participate in things like Facebook," said Luhrmann, referring particularly to the 18-to-30 age group. "The short-term rewards of sharing online outweigh any long-term consequences for them."

Selby Jessup said he doesn't know how he would function without his iPhone, let alone his Facebook app. The ability to share photos and comment on one another's posts almost instantaneously has enabled him to rekindle relationships with family members around the country.

"I have family I haven't communicated within in years," said Jessup, a paralegal from North Hollywood. "It's unbelievable how much I've expanded my family connection because of the Facebook app on the iPhone."

Hwang said sharing such a personal portion of his life with a group of strangers for everyone to see has improved his health and self-esteem. So if his posts about his efforts to keep the weight off offend some people, they can just choose to look the other way, he said.

"I'm definitely more open to sharing things online about my life now," Hwang said. "Those other people are just jealous."

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