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.

Michael Zimmer, a fellow at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, says that he thinks the type of privacy controls offered by Moli will be useful to a certain part of the population. "I'm sort of surprised that it's taken someone this long to let me, through one login, manage multiple identities and personas online," he says. Zimmer notes that it's important for users to feel at ease with privacy controls: he says that he considers some of Facebook's controls, for example, too complex for many users. However, he says, managing who sees what profile information is only "one half of the coin." The other half, as brought out by Beacon, involves what information the site itself has about users, and what the company does with that information. He notes that Moli's strengths in terms of profile management may lead users to trust the site with more personal information than they might otherwise give, and the company would have that information linked to a common e-mail and a common login. Zimmer says that for maximum privacy control, he would like a site to allow him to view what data is being stored about him and to opt in and out.

While Moli does store demographic information about users' activities on the site, Balint says that information is not stored in a personally identifiable way. The site keeps track of how many users of a certain age, for example, access a profile. Users (particularly small-business owners marketing through Moli) can also access this basic demographic data. Balint says that the company developed its own technology to extract demographic data from people visiting profiles without also extracting personally identifiable data. For example, she says, the company keeps statistics on how many females visit a profile, and how many people visit who are in their late twenties, but it does not combine the variables.

Moli recently announced nearly $30 million in new funding from a group of private investors. The company plans to make money through advertising, as well as through small monthly fees paid for premium services, such as the checkout option for small-business owners.

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