Maintaining Multiple Personas Online

Online social networks have allowed people to easily stay in touch with large groups of friends, but the flip side has been well publicized. Some users have struggled over what to do when certain people--such as a boss or an ex-boyfriend--ask to be listed as a friend on their profile. Adding someone as a friend gives him access to the user's profile, photos, and daily musings. Worries about privacy were renewed recently when Facebook's Beacon advertising initiative began broadcasting information about users' purchasing habits throughout its networks. (See "Evolving Privacy Concerns.") Now Moli, a recently launched social-networking site, aims to win over concerned users. President and COO Judy Balint says that the site is intended for a more mature audience than the teenagers targeted by many social-networking websites. Directed at users who are trying to balance personal and professional networks, Moli offers multiple profiles--with different privacy settings--within one account.

"As we get a little bit older in our lives, none of us have the time anymore to spend going to 5, 10, or 15 different sites," Balint says. "So what we tried to do was combine the functionality into one account, so that you can go there and do everything that you need."

Users of Moli can set up as many profiles as they want, and they can choose to make them public, private, or hidden. Anyone, whether he has signed up for Moli or not, can search for and view a public profile. A private profile will show up on searches, but to access it, a user must be a member of Moli and must have approval from the profile's owner. A hidden profile is invisible in searches and can only be viewed by people invited by the owner. Balint says that users are free to set up multiple profiles of various types, with the requirement that they must designate at least one public profile.

Balint says that the site is also intended to appeal to small-business owners, who can use it to set up an intranet and extranet for free. For a fee, businesses can run a store through Moli.

Alessandro Acquisti, an assistant professor in information systems and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, says that, while it's not clear how people will behave on Moli, his research has shown increasing attention to privacy among Facebook users. Studies that he performed on Facebook privacy settings in 2005 and 2006 showed that the vast majority of users left the defaults in place. However, more recent studies have shown that users are now much more likely to adjust those settings than they were in the past. "It's probably because of media attention [to privacy concerns], and more mature people coming into Facebook, and because more time using the technology makes people more sophisticated about data," Acquisti says. However, he notes that, although users may be getting savvier about online privacy, a social network geared toward privacy will still be made or broken by whether it can attract a critical mass of users to the network in the first place.

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