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Who owns your social network?

Your social network is your most valuable asset. But who will own it?

The more we learn about social networks, the more awesome they seem to become.

Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist at Harvard University, has compiled a lot of data that demonstrates that behaviors – both good and bad – spread through our social networks. For example, you’re more likely to take up smoking if your friends smoke. Conversely, you’re more likely to give quitting a try if your friends are quitting.

The same seems to hold true for obesity and slimming: you’re more likely to be overweight if your peers are overweight, and more likely to go on a diet if they do. Given that obesity and smoking are the two big public health issues of the 21st century, these discoveries have given policymakers a handle on how to healthfully change the behavior of the public.

It gets weirder. Just a few months ago, another study definitively proved that divorce also spreads through social networks. It revealed that if you split with your partner, it’s more likely that many of the other couples you know will have their own marriage problems. Divorce is not a public health issue, though there are some people who consider it to be both a moral and ethical issue.

Does this mean divorcees should be quarantined, kept far away from happily married couples, for fear of infecting them with the disease of their own disaffection? That’s certainly one conclusion that could be drawn from this study. Perhaps it means that when a couple does call it quits, all the other couples around them should immediately sign themselves up for couples therapy. Every divorcing couple presents a ‘risk’ to the marriages of others they know, a risk that could be converted into an opportunity to improve those partnerships.

‘You’re better off with complete control over your social network, revealing it only as needed, and only to people and organizations whom you trust’

The spy agencies of the world – the CIA and MI5 and ASIO and FSB – have software in place that can analyze your social network to determine whether you represent a threat. Exactly what kind of threat?

That’s revealed in the people to whom you’re connected. Know too many of the wrong people and you’re likely to go onto some sort of watch list because it’s been proven that people who have lots of suspicious connections are themselves deserving of suspicion.

All of this has developed in the last five years, the same time span that saw Facebook grow from a few thousand university kids into over half a billion people from nearly every country on the planet. That’s a massive social network and a wealth of data that reveals all sorts of things about you that you wouldn’t normally choose to reveal. Yet these things can be ferreted out from an analysis of your connections.

Your social network reveals if you’re a vegetarian, a Buddhist, a lesbian, or a cat fancier. This means that, on the whole, you’re better off with complete control over your social network, revealing it only as needed, and only to people and organizations that you trust. You don’t have that kind of control over Facebook, Twitter, or any other social network. They own that data, and because of that, they own you.

I quit Facebook because I realized I couldn’t trust the company. Who do you trust? And do you trust them with something that reveals everything about you?

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