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Social media — the online tools we use to keep in constant contact with friends and to spy on strangers — is something many of us believe makes the Internet a more fun, more personal place to be. It makes it easier to keep in touch with people we care about, and facilitates relationships with people we might have never met offline. But for all of its positive points, social media might also entice users (including me) into lowering our guard and sharing too much of ourselves with an audience of unknown observers.

The question “what are you doing?” — which I used to ask my friends on a fairly regular basis — has become obsolete to me. “Oh, wait, don’t tell me. You’re sitting at a cafe in the Nob Hill district of San Francisco, having a latte and reading an email from a colleague in New York.” How did I know? Because their lives are being broadcast, hour by hour (sometimes minute by minute) to me via the web application Twitter, which keeps me in the loop through text-message broadcasts about things I previously didn’t know (or needed to know) about my friends. I recently found out that one friend starts drinking gin and tonics quite early in the afternoon. Another can’t sleep because she frets over the price of good bedsheets. Who are these people?

Another question of days gone by is “what did you do last weekend?” A quick look at photo-sharing community site Flickr will not only tell me what my friends and associates were doing, but will show me what time the photo was taken, where it was taken (on a map, of course), what kind of camera they have, what exposure and focal length were used, and so on. Even art no longer holds a mystery.

This level of detail is what people reveal constantly in recounting their daily lives, in different ways and through different outlets, online through social media. Some of us may not realize it, but the bits and pieces of ourselves online paint a picture of who we are — a picture that is so clear one might question whether we aren’t letting too many strangers into our lives.

Where did this obsession with sharing everything about ourselves come from? In the early days of the Internet, we hid behind “handles” on bulletin boards, cowering in fear of the possible “freak” on the other end of our dial-up connection. Now we strip naked, offering up not only our real names but also our exact location and activity at that very moment. Do we think that just because someone is savvy enough to use Web 2.0 they aren’t up to something bad?

Seinfeld-esque Nightmare

My own shift from a private person to online personality came back in 2003 with the appearance of Friendster. I worked at a dot-com startup where everyone around me was obsessed with the new concept of social networking. Through Friendster I began the journey of knowing too much about the people in the next office, who I previously knew little — or just enough — about. Through “testimonials” on the site I learned that the buttoned-up middle manager was, after 5 o’clock, the leader of a “bicycle gang” and the mild-mannered graphic designer was a real ladies’ man. I was also made to meld my professional life with my personal, as co-workers flirted with my friends online and friends asked to be introduced to single colleagues. A Seinfeld-esque nightmare.

And it’s not just current co-workers who can become too close for comfort through social networking. Clients, potential employees or employers are no longer strangers either. We all know something about one another, whether it’s because of sites like Friendster or LinkedIn, or because the minute we schedule a meeting we are Googling the other person to dig up “dirt” about them.

Perhaps looking at one’s photos or hearing that they had tuna salad on rye for lunch isn’t all that harmful in and of itself. But what about the sum of each of these parts of one’s online life? If someone puts them all together, they might know more about me than my closest friends. And not getting into the obvious sinister possibilities of all of this information falling into the wrong hands (identity theft, stalking, etc.), isn’t one’s very identity — the one we try hard to manage — compromised by the version of one’s self which emerges in bits and pieces online?

Would clients be less likely to hire me because they know, through my blogging, what my political views are? Would a suitor have second thoughts if they found out, via LastFM, that my musical tastes mirror a late night Time-Life infomercial? Would a potential employer not call back because — perhaps worse of all — they see that I spend way too much time online, constantly updating the world about the banal details of my life?

In everyday life, we edit ourselves, with the intention of showing only the best or the most relevant part of ourselves to each person we meet. With so many tiny pieces of our lives online, we can’t do that. Putting it all together to really get the full, “fair” picture is probably a task that most of us wouldn’t take on, and someone stumbling upon just one “piece” of your online identity — something seemingly harmless or insignificant to you — could mean a change in how a person views you. Should we care?

Some web applications help along the “piecing” by aggregating all aspects of your online life into one place. Jaiku, a text-update service similar to Twitter, allows users to add feeds from their Flickr photos, LastFM recently played tracks, bookmarked sites on Reddit, and just about any other feed of their public Internet stuff to their profiles.

How about a record of every city I’ve visited, all the airports I’ve had layovers in, all the hairstyles I’ve ever had and the different types of offal I’ve eaten? Well, there’s a site for that, too. It’s called Meosphere”, and if it were to converge with the other services previously mentioned, we’d have all our bases covered.

While the average Web 2.0 junky might not be all that careful about what we share, teenagers who are practically being raised on social media are more prudent with their information than you might expect, according to a recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. The study found that most teens actively manage their profiles to avoid strangers accessing their information. At the same time, 63% of teens said they thought that someone who was “motivated” could piece all of their information together and endanger their online anonymity. Beyond anonymity, there’s also reputation management to think about, and perhaps teens have the most to lose as what they share today could come back to haunt them in the professional world in the future.

As a heavy user of social media, with a profile on most of the more popular sites and on beta lists for services that are yet to launch, I have to wonder: Is this too much?

What do you think? Is social media dangerous for our privacy? Which social media sites do you use and why? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.