Could 2008 be the year of the social networking backlash?

First Facebook, and now Google: the giants of Web 2.0, it seems, are determined to share every aspect of your life with everyone you know – whether you want them to or not. But curiosity killed the cat, and the increasing level of privacy invasion by social networking software, not to mention the widely publicised risk of identity theft, are causing experts to question whether 2008 could be the year the social networking boom comes to an end.

Google angered users in December when it emerged that every user of its Reader content sharing system – a piece of software that lets its users share favourite blog extracts and web links with selected friends – would no longer be sharing content with only people they chose, but all of their contacts on the Google Talk instant messaging application – a list which could include colleagues, clients and family members. The resultant protest was fairly predictable: a link you share with your drinking buddies might not be one you want to send to your boss or your 13 year old cousin.

The change has caused a storm of angry messages on the Google Reader discussion group, but surprisingly, the search giant shows no sign of reversing its decision.

"My initial response to this feature was that it seems like a fairly brazen violation of privacy," wrote one user. "I've previously handed my shared items URL to a select few people, and have shared items based on the knowledge that only those people have access to the items, and then less than 24 hours after this 'feature' is turned on I find out that all of my workmates have been reading these fairly private shared items."

But Google remained unrepentant, saying in an official response simply that "we are aware that friends management is still very basic at this stage." It added: "Your Google Talk contact list is taken as an approximation of the set of people you're interested in communicating with, but you can remove people from that list as necessary if you don't wish to see their items." In other words, if you don't want to see someone else's shared Reader links, or you don't want them to see yours, you have to delete them from your contact list. Hardly an ideal solution.

Meanwhile, Facebook caused outrage when it launched its Beacon advertising system. Any Facebook user that made a purchase from a Beacon-affiliated website – a list that includes Sony, Ebay and Blockbuster - would find that their activities on the site would be shared with all of their Facebook contacts. Facebook reacted to the fierce criticism that greeted its November launch by tweaking the system to make it easier to opt out of, but concerns remain: specifically, that Beacon websites are continuing to share data with Facebook of users who have opted out of having the information broadcast to contacts, and that the activities of non-Facebook users are being tracked and sent back to Facebook. Furthermore, Facebook users are still at risk of being unwitting endorsers of Facebook advertisers through its "Social Ads" system, whereby any Facebook user who performs a "social action" in relation to an advertiser – such as accepting a friend request or becoming a "fan" – can have their name and profile picture used in advertising on the site.

Given the storm over these and other forms of intrusion by social networking sites, it won't be surprising if users start to migrate towards the growing number of non-commercial sites offering the same features. If 2007 was the year social networking hit the mainstream, it seems 2008 could be the year the bubble bursts – pricked by the pin of privacy.

Graham Taylor

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