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But at the same time, the websites operate for profit. If you use one of these websites--Facebook, Google, Twitter--without paying, you are the product. So while Google can offer its extensive suite of applications for free, users balance out the relationship by allowing an exhaustive record of their usage, habits and information to be recorded by the California search giant. The more information users divulge, the more each user is offered in the form of hyper-contextual results, turning oversharing into behavior that is encouraged and even rewarded.
The average person is given this platform to broadcast to a large group of followers or friends whom websites like Twitter and Facebook, by design, make you eager to please. Companies push users to share without thinking of the consequences.
A built-in reward system is even included in the form of digital tokens--each notification or mention on Twitter is a form of reward, a kind of digital merit badge. A post about eating a sandwich receives far fewer rewards than gossip about a mutual friend. The result is response that nets the companies more advertising power and users a written-in-stone, uneditable catalog of their activities, thoughts and feelings.
Greenwald admitted he finds the potential for interaction flung far and wide useful, like its use by rebels during Egypt's Green Revolution, who connected via Facebook and mobile phones to coordinate efforts. But he admitted that when users don't understand the risks, technology isn't always beneficial.
"We are social beings. We're sort of political animals, and so we're not going to live our lives with total privacy. There's conflicting drives, of course," said Greenwald.
It's those conflicting drives that come to a head online, particularly when there are social ramifications for not joining the club, so to speak. Think of that friend, the one who periodically deletes his or her profile, only to pop back up with a new account and a fresh friend request months later.
The key behind FourSquare and Facebook, behind all the popular social media tools we take for granted, is the idea that information is valuable.
"If you've ever noticed on Facebook, the ads sort of know what you're in to," said Leigh Ann Dufurrena. "That information can be used for advertising."
Dufurrena is the voice behind the Twitter handle @lilivonshtupp--an identity that made her a local celebrity, even netting her the 2010 Best of Boise award for Best Local Twitterer. For advertising and media professionals like Dufurrena, Facebook is a huge well of information that companies can tap. Similarly, it's a platform for consumers to put themselves in touch with the products they buy.
"Very few people really understand that by opting into an app--you can make your information private but as long as you're opting into those apps, you're making it available. On my end, I'm sort of one of the consumers of that information," said Dufurrena. "For me, it's more of a tool."
Dufurrena's personal profile shows a picture of her cat, her birthday and a "like" for Scentsy candles, In-N-Out Burger and more. To a business, this information might serve as a way to better connect with a specific demographic.
Professionally, Dufurrena would use that information, like the details on a Facebook page, for targeted advertising. Socially, she might strike up a conversation about a shared interest.
People find the data valuable. Wall posts with gossip, Facebook check-ins, work history, education and more all reveal things about a person. Any entity paying Facebook to use the data has its own intentions. While my intentions were for a story, other people using the information aren't always so forthright.
Boise attorney Lisa McGrath sometimes tackles this issue. She has made a career out of her passion for social media, creating a practice with a focus on the Internet. Her Facebook profile for "Lisa McGrath LLC" is a clean, white page devoid of burger joints or personal photos.
"I was heavily involved with social media and people came to me with legal questions," said McGrath.
According to constitutional experts like Greenwald, Harvard law professors and attorneys in Boise, they're all talking about the nebulous questions the Internet begs us to try to answer.
"If you went to my Twitter stream, and they admitted something against me--maybe I checked in on FourSquare--it's all admissible," McGrath said. "Facebook is the No. 1 place that attorneys are going to for evidence. There was actually a recent case involving Facebook. It involved a post being used as an alibi."
The implication: It could be used to incriminate, too, a problem given the clicks made my millions of people every day, from their desks and now from their palms.
"The issues that I'm seeing coming up--these are pretty much the biggest areas--is the social media and the workplace," she said.
McGrath said she is constantly asked about professional social media decorum.
"I've had HR people come up to me, 'If I see somebody that's African-American in a profile picture on Facebook, I don't have to hire them, do I?'" She paused for theatrics. "Yes, the employment laws still apply."
Some employers are requiring new hires to divulge all their social media account login and password information. Employees have been fired for complaining about their jobs on Twitter.
"I've even seen attorneys jumping on Facebook and waving privilege," said McGrath.
Employers know this, and to dig up the dirt, they are Googling potential hires, looking for that one piece that would disqualify the candidate.
"Online reputations--essentially your resume is your online presence these days. If you are going for a job, it's absolutely time to clean up those accounts," said McGrath.
The problem comes down to what that information says about a person, and how much access you have to changing your online identity. Furthermore, while each new digital fad calls for more information, the record a person leaves behind online grows more exhaustive.
As sharing becomes the default, people lack a real identity if they choose to forego social media. In extreme cases, teens have been bullied into suicide for posts on social media. Fringe communities and groups bear the brunt of showing their otherness to the world on Twitter and Facebook.
A British neuroscientist, Oxford University Professor Susan Greenfield, told the U.K. tabloid The Daily Mail that the basic system of reward for social sharing is rewiring the brains of American youth, creating a Pavlovian response to posts with drama, gossip and malice, which bring more "likes" and comments.
We're conditioning youth to obsessively compete for followers, viewers and friends, turning them toward performance on stage in order to net appreciation. YouTube viewers become a status symbol, and success is measured by fame. For the most vulnerable of society, particularly children, this reward system influences social behavior and development.
Given the ease and dexterity youth show in getting online and finding information, including others to talk with, it's not surprising that unmonitored teens turn to the Internet to connect with strangers--sometimes older men and women with intentions of their own.