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Twittering can be hazardous to your health

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. —People will say you’ve got to use Twitter, an Internet social networking tool that’s currently all the rage.

“Come on. Everybody’s doing it,” they’ll tell you.

These are the same people — friends, co-workers, relatives — who earlier twisted your arm to join other networking platforms such as Facebook, MySpace and Friendster.Dan Costa isn’t one of them.

As executive editor for PCMag.com, he’s well-versed in social networking technology. He’s also a devoted Twitter head.

But he doesn’t proselytize. Instead, he wants people who decide to try out services like Twitter to appreciate their power — for both good and bad.

In a recent interview, Costa warned that many people don’t understand that sharing too much personal information can lead to serious consequences. That goes for all of the services, MySpace, Facebook and Twitter, he said.

“The thing that’s so unusual about Facebook is that it does seem so personal,” Costa said. “Some of this information you are sharing is so personal. It does make people say, ‘Wait a minute. What information is out there?’ The answer a lot of times is a lot more than you know about. A lot more.”

That painful lesson was learned by a Newport News, Va., police officer whose expletive-laced blog postings got him in hot water last month. On his MySpace page, he wrote about his dismissive feelings about homeless people, complained about the city treasurer and bragged about how the city paid him “to basically drive around and burn their gas while I pick on and harass people who are littler than me.”

The officer said he thought his posts were private — just intended for a circle of friends — and not widely available on the Internet.

Costa wasn’t surprised by this story.

“The rules have changed, and it’s not just about social networking either,” he said. “Right now, online, anything you do is being recorded. That’s the default position you have to take. ... Whether you’re blogging or using Twitter or even sending an e-mail, you have to assume that it will live forever. That’s a fundamental shift in how we view our privacy.”

What’s more, social networking sites might be the least dangerous, he said. By their very nature, users can share their complaints and push those who control the sites to make changes.

The social networking services tend to be more open than many other online enterprises, he said. Any time you make a purchase over the Internet, for example, someone is probably compiling information about you.

“The information is moving whether you know it or not,” Costa said. “The thing about social networking is it tends to be more public, more out in the open. But people who aren’t used to using instant messaging, or using Twitter, or Web pages and blogs still think of it as a little like letter writing or talking to friends.

“It’s very different when you publish something and it’s out there for all the world to see. Many times you can’t really take it back.”

Setting aside its dangers, Costa does believe that social networking is here to stay. He cites a statistic from a Pew Internet & American Life Project survey that said 11 percent of online American adults use Twitter or some other service that allows users to share short updates about themselves — called “tweets” in the Twitter universe.

“That’s a pretty remarkable number,” Costa said, noting that the figure includes both Twitter and Facebook users. “I think Twitter’s audience is a little smaller than that full 11 percent. But certainly, it’s really picking up now, it’s growing pretty quickly.”

He said that Twitter’s audience is changing as it grows. It’s fast becoming less of an insiders’ club.“Twitter used to be very elite, very edgy,” Costa said. “Technology enthusiasts, investors and so forth were getting together on it. Now it’s much more mainstream. The audience still tends to be younger, more connected, more into wireless technologies, heavier cell phone users. They’re pretty much your average early adopters.”

Significantly, users have found ways to use Twitter that extend well beyond describing what they ate for lunch or the television show they’re watching.

“The interesting thing about Twitter is, it’s really just a tool like any other medium, like e-mail or chats, or instant messaging,” Costa said. “You can use it for whatever you want to use it for. It has multiple uses.”

While one woman in his office uses it to exchange witty banter with friends, another co-worker uses it as a business tool for connecting with sources, sharing information, seeking answers to questions.Social networking services like Twitter and Facebook do represent an important change in how Americans communicate, Costa said.

“We’ve never been in the place we are right now,” he said. “There’s usually nothing proprietary about the technologies, and if there is, there’s always the chance that something else could rise up and replace it. The difference now, is that there is huge scale. There are more people than ever who are actually using them.”

He said the online world is moving toward an attention-based economy.

“It’s more about where our attention is focused. That’s what advertisers want, what media companies want, what journalists want. We want people to pay attention to us.” He said Twitter helps readers find his columns — something his employer is very happy about.

“This idea of focusing attention, there is a huge amount of value in that,” Costa said.

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