Online social networks more hazardous than we think

REXBURG, Idaho – A new social networking site launched last month that seems so different than all the others, but also so much the same. Although it has not yet gained quite the following as sites such as Facebook and Myspace, there are already 1,923 users from all over the world.

The site is called www.UnitedDogs.com. Lola, a blond female born on 26 October, likes to strut around the neighborhood and calls herself “very playful.” Given the nickname “Hipitty-hop” by her family, she weighs a mere eight pounds. Lola is a 1-year-old Pomeranian – a dog.

Although it may initially seem a waste of time and server space to have a social network dedicated to dogs (complete with photo albums and dog blogs), it may not be any more absurd than many people who have accounts on human social networks.

For those of us who have lived under rocks for the last few years, social networking sites are Web sites where anyone can create a page that tells other people about him or herself. Social networkers can add pictures at their leisure or write blogs (that’s like a diary, rock dwellers). As time goes on, the pages are becoming progressively more customizable.

In the sense that you can “Google” something by looking it up on Google, you can also “Facebook” someone by posting a comment on another person’s Facebook page.

These social networks are progressing quickly for many reasons. It is a good way to keep in touch with friends and to share pictures. You can also do things like delve into the private lives of friends and enemies alike. These are all good things.

But keep in mind, behind those screen names and zany profile pics lay real people. And not everyone is as friendly as the title “friend” might imply.

Apart from the obvious danger of sexual predators and digi-stalkers, social networking can present other problems. What it does is present false solutions to real problems.

Everybody wants friends, and an easy way to get them is through social networking. It is as easy as sending an electronic invitation asking, “Will you be my friend?” If the person clicks “yes,” then you have a new pal. There are people on Facebook from BYU-Idaho who have over 500 “friends” listed. Likely story.

“Friend” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as, “A person whom one knows, likes, and trusts.” But in the world of social networking, a “friend” is no longer necessarily someone with whom you have a personal connection. It can just be a name next to a cheesy profile picture.

This seems like a sad and impersonal way to live life, but it gives people a sense of belonging, false as it may be. Sending out a mass of invitations requesting friendship seems like an easy way to solve the complex problem of lacking true bon amis.

On the surface, it may be a temporary solution. It may seem like an easy way out. However, this easy way out on a virtual plane can ruin lives on a real one.

One BYU-I student saw her sister’s marriage fall apart because of a nasty case of Facebooking. It started out innocently enough, keeping in contact with a friend of the opposite sex through periodic postings on the site after she was married.

Although it started out innocently, it became a growing temptation and an insidious digital distraction from the real problems of married life.

In the end, what started as casual conversation through a network of wires turned into the destruction of a marriage that was once real, a marriage that was once eternal.

This is just one example of how real relationships can be compromised for the ease and satisfaction of an impersonal network of “friends.”

Social networking can be a great tool, but as with all good things, it has to be used in moderation. The resource of an online social network should be used only as a supplement to a real network of friends.

If these social networks become our primary social romping grounds, we are no more than Lola and her “friends”: a profile picture without personality or opposable thumbs.