Government Report Says Social Networks Are Changing Who We Are

By Khurram Aziz email: | Jan 22, 2013 01:35 PM EST

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Constant Internet connection is blurring distinctions between online and offline identities, as well as public and private, according to a report published by the British government's chief scientist,  Prof. John Beddington.

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The 71-page study, Future Identities, brings together a variety of academic research and concludes that people who refuse to participate in social networks such as Facebook and Twitter could find themselves marginalized as the majority increasingly express their identity online.

"This can be a positive force, exemplified by the solidarity seen in the London 2012 Olympics or a destructive force, for example the 2011 riots," says the report. "Due to the development of smartphones, social networks and the trend towards (greater) connectivity, disparate groups can be more easily mobilised where their interests temporarily coincide."

"For example," it says, "a 'flash mob' can be mobilised between people who have not previously met".

Much of this change is being driveny by "hyperconnectivity" which keeps people on the Internet 24/7. The result is the blurring between work and social identities, so that people check their work emails, Twitter and other social networks when they're off the clock and employers start to look at social online presence as well as professional qualifications for prospective employees.

Beddington led the study as part of the Government Office for Science's Foresight program, which looks ahead to highlight emerging trends in science and technology with a view to informing policies across government departments.

"The most dynamic trend (in determining identity) is hyper-connectivity," Beddington told BBC News.

"The collection and use of data by government and the private sector, the balancing of individual rights and liberties against privacy and security and the issue of how to tackle social exclusion, will be affected by these trends," he said. "I hope the evidence in today's report will contribute to the policy making process."

The report undertook 20 separate reviews of areas affected by identity including social inclusion and mobility, education and skills, crime and mental health.

It warned that those who do not nurture an online identity, particulalr the elderly, could be left disenfranchised in the future.

However, it says there are plenty of positives social networks offer as well as a negatives, and policy makers need to be aware of both.

"You saw for example, two things that have happened in the past couple of years: first of all the [London] riots, which we had in various cities but also we had the [London] Olympics," Beddington told the Telegraph. "Both these generated new sorts of identities and social groupings and so on. I think, therefore, that government needs to be very agile in monitoring how these things are developing.

He concludes that there is a real potential for using these sorts of social networks for good and there is a "potential to cause harm."

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