It's been a couple of years since Facebook pummelled its rivals MySpace and Bebo into submission, turning them into the graveyards of Web 2.0 and crowning itself the king of social networking. Even with the much-hyped rise of Twitter, the micro-blogging site that allows users to follow celebrities and friends as they go about their daily lives, Facebook never really seemed threatened. Recent months have seen the site valued at over Dh36 billion and its profits soar in spite of the economic downturn. So Facebook's status as the top dog of social media, with an unshakeably loyal following, must be assured for at least a few more years? Perhaps not.
Although the number of profiles on the site is still growing, as are the visitor numbers, there are increasing reports that Facebook's base of early followers are fleeing like rats from a sinking ship. Put the question out there and you will find a small, but significant number of people choosing to commit Facebook suicide. The first exodus came in 2008 when the much-loved Scrabble application, Scrabulous, was removed amid copyright issues. Then there were complaints from users that the owners' constant tinkering with the site was making it less user-friendly.
In recent months, discontent has mounted around the site's attempts to sell the information it gathers on users, integrating advertising, intellectual property and people's social lives in a way that has never been seen before. Others just don't like how nosy they have become since they started using Facebook, or how the site has made them content to interact with friends electronically, instead of in person or on the phone. A recent study in the UK suggested that one in every eight minutes that web-users are online is spent on Facebook, cutting into time that could often be better spent elsewhere.
Those who are still fond of Facebook may be shocked to learn that the site could be proving a useful tool for burglars, with some insurers even considering higher premiums for users. With millions of members posting all manner of details about their homes, work hours and holiday plans on the site, a report commissioned by the UK insurers Legal & General says that Facebook could be acting as an invitation to web-savvy criminals.
"Just bought a shiny new home cinema system. Still in the box, will unpack after two weeks in the sun. Flying tomorrow," would be a less than sensible status update, particularly if followed by: "Still need to get downstairs toilet window fixed." The Digital Criminal report polled 2,092 social media users and found nearly four in 10 - or 38 per cent - were posting details about holiday plans and 33 per cent wrote details of weekends away.
"There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that burglars are using social networks to develop relationships with people to identify likely targets," said the reformed burglar Michael Fraser, who helped compile the report. "I call it 'internet shopping for burglars'. It is incredibly easy to use social networking sites to target people and then scope out more information on their actual home, all from the comfort of the sofa," he said.
Slapping Facebook users with higher premiums could be a tricky business however. Some have claimed that the idea is just an excuse to increase premiums and asked whether it is fair to penalise homeowners if their children are the ones using social networking sites. "It's a challenging one for the insurance industry. Just because someone is burgled, you can't prove that it's down to details posted on Facebook," said Malcolm Cooper, the director of pricing and underwriting at Legal & General.
The study also tested how readily users accepted "friends" on social-networking sites. After sending out 100 friend requests to strangers selected at random on Facebook, 13 per cent were accepted without any checks. Men were found to be far more relaxed about sharing personal information online than women. The study showed that 13 per cent of male users include their mobile number on their profile, compared with seven per cent of women. Some nine per cent of men were happy to post their address online, compared to four per cent of women.
If criminals really are keeping tabs on residents through Facebook, perhaps it's time homeowners began using this knowledge to their advantage. Taking a few snaps of your friend's rottweiler in your living room might do the trick.