Yesterday I saw an ad for a car whose primary selling point seems to be that it offers real-time Facebook updates. In the spot (voiced by Tim Allen), a young man uses the feature to see if his new lady love has posted to Facebook about their date.

What is extraordinary about the popularity of Facebook, the social networking site that has arguably expanded the public square while redefining the nature of “friendship,” is that the site has become so deeply enmeshed in popular culture after only a few short years. Facebook recently turned just seven years old.

The benefits of social networking are obvious. Setting aside their entertainment value (Facebook offers videos, addicting games, time-wasting quiz applications, real-time chat and so on), such sites allow friends, family and old acquaintances to stay in touch and share their daily lives. Brief updates and uploaded photos make such a large volume of information manageable and digestible. Facebook is also a cost-effective way to promote businesses and social causes, used by everyone from politicians and talk-show hosts to retailers and hobby clubs.

The powerful influence of social networking as a catalyst, communications tool and rallying point for agitation has come to the fore as the world watches Egypt’s social upheaval. The very Internet kill switch about which I have previously warned you in Technocracy has been used by Egypt’s government in an attempt to silence Twitter and Facebook updates concerning the protests there. It was no surprise when the totalitarian nation of thieves that is China blocked its population’s searches for information on Egypt. It is also not a surprise that Obama’s regime continues to press for the same oversight.

Facebook is so powerful, in fact, that college newspapers have dubbed it and sites like it a “worldwide weapon” that has been “instrumental in sparking protests that may oust powerful government forces.” This is occurring despite Facebook’s inflexible policy insisting that users sign up with their real, full names. Joe Fay of the U.K.’s Register writes that this “is great when it comes to stopping cyberbullying or harassment, but not so good when it comes to expounding political views that your government doesn’t like.”

You don’t have to be a political dissident for Facebook activity to endanger your well-being. Jobseekers in this tough economy have long been cautioned to avoid posting material to social networks that could give prospective employers reason to turn down these applicants. Information about your personal life could conceivably be used against you by everyone from divorce attorneys to insurance companies, according to the Sacramento Business Journal. A Connecticut woman learned this when she lost her job for criticizing her boss on Facebook. While she has since won a settlement, the issue of whether you are free to compare your boss to genitalia on Facebook remains anything but settled.

Facebook’s popularity means it is fraught with other dangers, too. The applications running on the site may be appropriating your personal data … inappropriately. Facebook’s often-revised privacy policy and terms of use have raised ire among users over the site’s official conduct, but creators of third-party applications have admitted to misuse of profile data. Ryan Naraine of ZDNet reports that the rogue-application issue is worse than you think: Hackers are selling an inexpensive software “toolkit” that provides “a template for spreading malware, directing users to click-fraud accounts and for pushing Facebook users to bogus surveys to hijack personal information.” Naraine calls this the “commoditization of Facebook malware,” wherein the misuse of Facebook and software running within it generates profit. Add the profit motive to the usual motivations for creating viruses and malware, and you have a potent personal data security problem.

Profit motive has certainly driven real-world crime to Facebook’s venue. One report claims that sex-trade traffic removed from the classified advertisement site Craigslist (when that site removed its adult services sections) simply reappeared on Facebook. A Columbia University professor estimates that something like 83 percent of prostitutes have Facebook pages that are used to garner at least 25 percent of their illicit business. No doubt many other forms of contraindicated activity have cropped up in social networks, too. Criminals, like everyone else, naturally migrate to environments where the most customers and opportunities exist.

Even using Facebook as intended produces dire consequences. At least, it does so according to some high-school journalists, who have declared it a “detrimental distraction.” In Israel, they’re worried that Facebook somehow causes eating disorders. Even if you aren’t worried about the “evil health consequences of overindulging oneself on the globo-dominant social webbening site,” you had better be careful what you say on Facebook in Ireland. There, simply saying something “offensive” can get you prosecuted under what’s called the “Telecommunications Act.”

If you’re experiencing a sudden fear and loathing of Facebook after all this, don’t. As fast as Facebook appeared and insinuated itself into our lives, it could disappear. In Japan, for example, competing site Mixi is much more popular. Don’t forget, too, that Facebook itself essentially killed off the beleaguered MySpace to get where it is now. If it isn’t this network, it will be another. Social networking will continue to be both macrocosm and microcosm of our daily lives, trials, troubles and terrors for fast-moving years to come.

So. Should you join Facebook or not? Should you leave if you have? Is the site inherently dangerous to you and yours?

Social technology necessarily moves apace with society. As citizens, criminals, political activists and bored teenagers alike take to the same virtual space for varying reasons, they will, alone together, experience the benefits, the risks, the fun and the consequences of social networking. If we join these networks, we must do so fully cognizant of what we wager. If we opt out, we must acknowledge the losses we incur in social connectivity and convenience. Every one of us must make this decision – not from fear, not from worry and not with casual disregard for the dangers … but with honesty and awareness.

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