Two very different stories in the news this week speak volumes about an ongoing conflict in social media – a conflict that has been pushed aside for some time, but will undoubtedly come into the picture more and more in the near future.

On one hand, social networking continues to blaze trails deeper and deeper into the possibilities of what we thought feasible about the Internet – or more so, how we thought we would possibly ever use the Internet.  For example, this week’s South by Southwest festival in Austin, Tex. marked the one-year anniversary of Foursquare, a mobile location-tracking application that allows users to “check-in” with others on the Foursquare network and broadcast where they are in real-time.  Since its debut at last year’s SXSW, the wildly popular app has attracted more than 500,000 users and averages over 1.6 million “check-ins” per week, as per The New York Times.

And Foursquare is just the tip of the iceberg.  Google has a similar service called Latitude, Twitter has Twitter Local, there’s Loopt, MyTown, Gowalla and Whrrl, and (surprise, surprise) Facebook is preparing a grand debut of their real-time location-sharing application to their 400 million-plus users in the coming months.

Social networking is becoming more than a conversation; it’s becoming something physically real, more traceable and tangible on increasingly complex levels, as more and more information is streaming at a faster and faster rate.

But on the other hand, a story was also published this week in The New York Times that continued a discussion I began a couple weeks ago: analyzing the changing definition of privacy in the digital world, and how the laws that protect personal privacy haven’t been able to keep up with the advances in technology by a long shot.

An interesting dichotomy, isn’t it?  It’s like social media is a rubber band being stretched in two opposite directions: those pulling it forward to continue its rapid advance into more intricate features to “see what we can come up with next,” and those pulling it back to question and challenge the implications of those features, put the realm of social media in a more rational perspective of “yes it’s all very neat and exciting, but just how far should this be taken?”

The most unnerving part of all this is that everyone knows when stretched too far, all rubber bands will eventually snap.

And is that snap on the horizon?  Possibly.

As more and more of these information-sharing applications, like Foursquare, become popular, there is an increasing amount of personal information being spread (and embedded) all over the Web.  What people may not be keeping in mind, however, is that sharing seemingly harmless personal information online these days – be it through a Facebook status update or video download – is like shouting out that same personal information in the middle of a crowded street.

If you’re thinking you wouldn’t be embarrassed if all of Times Square knew your girlfriend dumped you or you got a new job, think about this: computer scientists are now increasingly collecting and reassembling these bits of personal information to help create a distinct picture of that person’s identity.

Still don’t mind?  Well, what if they knew your Social Security number?

As Maneesha Mithal, associate director of the Federal Trade Commission’s privacy division, told The NY Times, “Technology has rendered the conventional definition of personally identifiable information obsolete.  You can find out who an individual is without it.”

Here are some unnerving facts:

  1. Last year, Netflix held a contest awarding $1 million to a team of computer statisticians who analyzed the movie rental history of 500,000 subscribers to improve the predictive accuracy of Netflix’s recommendation software.  They won because they were able to show that by examining similarities between various online accounts (social and others), they could identify more than 30 percent of the users of both Twitter and Flickr within Netflix’s user network, even though the accounts had been stripped of identifying information like names and email addresses.
  2. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University published a study last year in which they could accurately predict the full, nine-digit Social Security numbers for 8.5 percent of the people born in the U.S. between 1989 and 2003 (who basically grew up using social networks).  That’s 5 million people.
  3. Privacy controls aren’t enough; more information can be rendered and measured from the collective actions of the social network.  For example, researchers warn that you may not disclose your personal information explicitly, but your online friends may do it for you.  It’s these patterns that are the true revealers, as bits of information collected together from multiple social platforms shape a person’s unique “social signature.”

It is this social signature that is so coveted by everyone from advertisers to identity thieves.  It’s your distinct fingerprint, and like the real thing, it tells a whole lot about you.

The F.T.C. and Congress worry that as new technology continues to develop, and a wider audience continues to willingly disclose this seemingly innocent information about themselves, bigger frontiers of data collection, brokering and mining will go increasingly unregulated.

They began a series of meetings about this very issue on Wednesday, in an effort to analyze the real implications (and not just scientific studies) this could have on personal privacy.

So it seems that as technology delves into more advanced, intricate features, we as users are blindly following it through deeper, murkier waters, (possibly) giving up our privacy, safety and commonsense all in the name of social interaction.

What do you think about the great social media debate?  Leave your thoughts below!