Thursday, October 28, 2010

Mission

I've spent the last couple of hours talking with Røyrvik about this Facebook/Friends issue. It has sort of ignited my dormant journalistic instincts. It hasn't just been talking; we both spent a fair bit of time looking at the profiles of the people we don't know, who have become our 'friends' just so both parties can progress at whatever game they play.

There is one very obvious thing - the entire practice of making friends with people you don't know is irresponsible, frighteningly so. And it just isn't the people; it's the actual applications as well. While none of these on-line games actively encourage people to befriend complete strangers; it also doesn't discourage them.b Which, I suppose, is okay in many peoples' eyes and I'm sure all the games developers will be the first to say, "we don't encourage young people to make friends with strangers", which, of course, is the stock argument of any entrepreneur who is trying to make a profit from something as morally dodgy as this. I'm betting our current government would actively encourage people to make money this way, because it stops the government from having to fork out any money...

Just about every Facebook, MySpace or any other social networking application have games on them and the more of your friends playing this game the better you are rewarded. All of these games do make a point of saying that if you get more of your friends to join then you'll get more credits, a higher bonus, more chances to do this, that or the other. Obviously they fall short of telling you to befriend any Tom, Dick or Harry; but you don't need the IQ of Wayne Rooney to realise that this is actually exactly what they're doing (or suggesting).

Now, to digress slightly and turn the focus of this to Social City. It would appear the developers of this game (its the only one I can relate to in this specific fashion) seem to have got a way around this indiscriminate friend making. For starters, Playdom - the creator of this and many other games - has a Privacy Policy, a statement of Rights and Responsibilities, Developer Principals and Policies, Payment Terms, Platform Terms, an entire section on their relationship with Facebook, etc., In fact, they cover their arses so well you couldn't actually have them on anything apart from unenforceable moral grounds. Of course, most people aren't going to wade through the pages and pages of legalese; especially not a large percentage of our young and uninitiated. I mean, why do paedos target kids? Because they are considerably more trusting (and easily led) than adults...

Now, I'm not suggesting that Playdom or any of the other games developers using Networking applications are kiddie fiddlers; but they actually use a similar grooming technique. But, we'll come back to that, I need to finish showing how developers cover their arses:
On Social City, you can circumvent the need for befriending total strangers. You can buy something they call 'City Bucks', which is a form of virtual money. You can expand your cities two ways - by having a lot of friends who become your 'neighbours' or by purchasing 'land'. Obviously 'City Bucks' actually cost real money, which means that you have to send the developers your bank details. There are lots of people who do this; so Playdom are probably raking it in - trust me, I've been playing the game for about a year and I'm not obsessed with it, but I still manage to spend about 4 hours a week on it. My 'city' looks like a pathetic village compared to many other peoples' huge sprawling Metropolises. Many of these massive cities are jam packed with what Playdom call their 'special items' - buildings that can only be purchased using City Bucks; some of these special items cost hundreds of CBs and when I tell you that 25 CBs cost $4.99 and 1010 CBs cost $149.99, you can see what I mean.

If you're not leaving yourself open to potential crooks and creeps; you're throwing your perfectly good money for something that exists no where but on a server somewhere. The game, I should point out, is actually a boring version Sim City. When I say boring, I mean just that. It sort of inveigles its way into your psyche yet apart from continually expand, does nothing else. Your cities aren't even subject to aging or decay. It is, totally boring and yet it won an award this year for being one of the most popular social network games in existence. How fucking sad is that?

So, it doesn't matter if you play Social City, Bejewelled Blitz, Farmville, Texas Hold'em Poker, Farkle or any of the other games where the more friends you have on Facebook means the more bonuses you get; the developers have their arses covered and can hold their hands up, without any guilt, and say that they don't encourage the use of their games to be used in anything other than the spirit the game was originally intended. That sort of diminishes my whole point - because I can't really blame these people... Or can I?

I have 190 friends on Facebook. Of those 190, 48 of them are total strangers to me, they are people I have befriended to progress on Social City. Yet, equally, these 48 people don't know who I am and if they're anything like me they'll have me blocked from their news feed and in a little subgroup called - People I don't know. However, of these 48 people, there are at least half a dozen girls who appear to be under the age of 18; all of these 48 people, not just the girls, have full photo albums; in these albums are their entire photographic lives and some of them are quite personal. I'm not talking rude (although some are bikini or beach shots), but they are there for anyone to right click and save to their own computer.

Then there's the business of Facebook Privacy. I belong to a group of people who are concerned about this and have set my own personal privacy settings accordingly; of the 48 strangers I 'know', I have access to all their on line information; more frightening, their friends are maybe not as diligent about their privacy settings, so I can click on Person A's profile, then click on her friends list and more than 75% of these have settings that allow 'Friends of Friends' to have access to personal information and photos. In the space of 10 minutes, I had linked to a person who had put over 100 photos of a pool party attended by mainly school girls. Now, on the humorous side, this might be regarded as a number of funny or comically perverted things, but on a serious note, I could then click on the tags and I then get taken to a specific girl's info page. What it does is polarises the 6 Degrees of Separation theory.

Because Person A befriended me for her Social City advancement, I've not only got access to Person B, but persons C through to V, and also Person C1, C2, C3 etc. If you don't understand the equation I'm driving at, by knowing one person, I've managed to find out more information about her friends than I should be able to. If I was clever at deceiving people, this could allow me to do all kinds of nefarious deeds, just by faking a Facebook page and then approaching these people armed with enough relevant information for them to believe I'm nothing more harmless than a friend of Person A or B or C. Do you see what I mean? This is how young people get groomed...

Now, I have nothing specific on my Facebook page. Nothing that can be used by anyone wishing to pull a scam on me. But over 75% of the connections I looked at through my own list of friends - actual people I know as opposed to people I just befriended for the sake of a game - have details ranging from mobile phone numbers to status updates that announce such gems of information such as 'Loving the Weather here in Tenerife' while giving anyone their telephone number, announcing where they live, what school they went to, what job they do, etc. How much of a stretch of imagination does it take a dodgy geezer to find out where this person lives and burgle them? Or save their holiday snaps and create an entirely fake identity using someone else's life? Or eventually making friends with that person using a social networking game as an icebreaker; and then arranging to meet up with them somewhere a little away from the beaten track? I am more than aware that a lot of people meet their dream partner on line nowadays; I'm also pretty sure people advocating the dating qualities of the Internet don't want to make an issue out of the number of kids who are killed or abducted using the same method...

I know, it all could be really horrible. But it does happen! You read and hear about it all the time. For all of Facebook's posturing and all of these developers arse covering - it isn't safe and even if you're not bothered by it; surely the fact that your children or your friends' children use these things like we used to climb trees or play in parks must have some impact on your conscience? We've already heard about pervy men in their 40s pretending to be teenagers on Facebook. Do I need to remind you all that the last thing on these dirty old men's minds is improving their Social City property portfolio?

I'm not trying to scaremonger; I'm being realistic. If you don't know someone, you shouldn't really befriend them. Even if you don't care and you don't think you have anything to worry about; you might have friends who do care and do have information on their sites that if it was to fall into the wrong hands could have tragedy written all over them.

I'm bored. I have found that Social City has been a real boon; but I've decided that its time for me to call it a day with it. I think its dangerous. I know that people who I don't know can look at my friends list and click on my 10 year old great niece's photo and get all of her info and possibly all of her friends' info. I don't want that on my conscience. Do you?

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