Friday, 27 May 2011

Everyone on Facebook is real?

Am I the only one to laugh when I read a report that Mark Zuckerberg said that everyone on Facebook is real? I hope it was a misquote.
I have a problem here, because, on the one hand I would like to give a personal, first hand account of hearing someone say that had set up a Facebook account using a fictional identity. On the other hand, if such a thing had happened, the person responsible would be guilty of all kinds of offences and certainly could be barred from all Facebook appearances, as that action clearly contravenes the conditions we all accept when we sign up to be one of the 600million. So I am not going to actually say that I heard this…
Let’s just say that I am pretty sure that it is absolutely not true to say that everything on Facebook is real and that everyone is who they say they are.
I remember seeing some 11 year old students at one the places I have worked, logging on to Tuenti, the Spanish networking site, to see silly photos posted by all their 10 and 11 year old friends . Its managers say the site is aimed at 14 to 20 year olds: http://www.tuenti.com/?m=login  Such is the reputation that Tuenti has established, that, according to this article in leading Spanish newspaper El PaĆ­s, it was bought last year for 70 million euros ( which is not 70 million dollars, but is still quite a big chunk of cash): http://www.elpais.com/articulo/economia/Telefonica/compra/Tuenti/millones/elpepueco/20100804elpepueco_3/Tes   
When you tell children that this site and others are restricted to 13 year old and over, and in Spain to 14 and over, they laugh their heads off and tell you they write whatever they want on their profiles and nobody ever checks. They use aliases and nicknames and somehow manage to follow each other’s tracks.
I think it’s quite funny, all these financial experts are spending millions to convince advertisers they can influence the outflow from  the bank accounts of young adults, and the audience they are really getting is a bunch of children with little more spending power than a couple bags of crisps (that’s potato chips in the USA...)
I suspect that getting behind many  Facebook profiles would tell a similar story of fiction rather than fact. You see, it’s a fashion among alumni of a certain school I know to write on their Facebook profiles, as their school: British School of Washington, when it is clear to hundreds of people who know them that it’s not true. So much so that on another Facebook page, two fellow students have written a message criticising the double identity fraudsters, and using a certain word beginning with F which the school in question is not happy to have associated with it....    
So what? Are we going to close down all social networks because a certain proportion of members tell porky pies (for US readers, porky pies is cockney rhyming slang for lies….)
For those who think impersonation started just after Mr. Z left Harvard, here are a couple of pointers from real life.
At a certain place I worked I found a piece of paper which had been cut and pasted and photocopied to use the  official  notepaper background, with a signature of a fictitious director in a stern To Whom It May Concern tone. The purpose of this prank? To take to a dodgy travel agent in the city centre who issues fake id cards showing an over 18 status to anyone with 30 euros, a photo  and any form of “official” documentation.  The precious over 18 id is the Open Sesame to late night discotheque sessions, and an escape from the alcohol free early evening discos where young adolescents are dropped off by parents who sit in their cars at 10.30pm on Saturday nights to pick their kids up, just like when they were at nursery school.
And do these fake id’s work? Yes, and no. Yes, when the doormen on the late night clubs just want to fill their place up. No, when, as in one case, a young man, clutching the ticket for over 18’s he had bought at great expense, was in a queue to get into a prized rock gig, and held the fake id card so tight in his hot, sweaty hand that the plastic peeled off: needless to say,  the gig went on without him. The question is, did his underage friend stick with him and forego the supreme pleasure of a close up experience with rock’s hall of fame glory, or walk in once the doorman had been fooled by his equally fake id? Can’t tell you, as the second young man in the story is well known to my family….
That was Madrid, and I can tell you in New York it’s more or less the same story. When I was with a group of students visiting a very prestigious private school in the Big Apple, I asked them if they had got to know how the local students spend their free time under the strict over 21 only alcohol laws. No problem, said my students, all the “clever” ones have fake id’s.  
Madrid and NY yes, but not in London: when I was with my 16 year old Madrid students in London, they were adamant they would get into any venue they chose, convinced their expensive clothes and expert make up would do the trick.  I took them to the night life area of their choice in the West End, and arranged a meeting point. I said we would meet in 10 minutes, after they had been booted off the front step  by the bouncers, they said they would see me in a couple of hours after a night of sophisticated socializing. Ten minutes later there they were, not physically bruised, but their pride was certainly dented: the bouncers hadn’t even got as far as asking for their id’s, they just laughed in their faces…
So, honesty did not start or stop with the Facebook. The same caution that we need now has actually also been needed before. If you want your children to be safe, talk to them, listen to them, care for them and teach them the right ways to behave. In the end, not everyone in the physical world is to be trusted, just as not everyone on Facebook is real.  
Here’s an article from today’s Guardian that I read on the way to work this morning and got me thinking about all this. You will find similar ideas much more elegantly expressed:


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