There's no doubt that social networking has made our lives easier in so many ways. Whether we're at work, on holiday or in the pub, we can access Facebook on our phones, swap jokes and comments with friends, plan nights out and post photos and clips of events as they happen.
And then, of course, there's Twitter – where anyone and everyone, from celebrities to politicians and tabloid journalists, is just 140 characters away. As a result, you can find yourself swapping recipes with your favourite soap star, taking up customer service concerns with the head of a company or telling MPs how to run the country.
So yes, social networking has made life easier – and more fun – but we're starting to realise that it's also made things much, much more complicated.
Last year trainee accountant Paul Chambers was left with a £3000 legal bill after losing his appeal over his conviction for a tweet in January 2010 in which he jokingly said he was going to blow Robin Hood Airport "sky high".
And last week, in a landmark ruling, the Press Complaints Committee (PCC) said that we have no reasonable grounds for privacy when posting to Facebook or Twitter and anything can be re-published without asking for our permission or breaking any rules.
This was very bad news for Sarah Baskerville, a civil servant who claimed invasion of privacy when journalists picked up on a number of negative comments she made about the coalition government and re-printed them in the Daily Mail and The Independent on Sunday.
Ms Baskerville, who is a Department for Transport manager, had published a series of tweets where she was critical of government cuts, described policies as "spin" said that the leader of her training course was "mental".
In her defense, she said that the information was meant to be seen only by her 700 followers, but the PCC rejected her complaint and ruled in the newspapers' favour, largely because tweets are publicly accessible on the web.
It's very easy to forget that we have such a huge audience when we post online. And even though we refer to them as 'friends' there's a good chance that many of the people we're connected on Facebook - and certainly on Twitter - are total strangers.
Just think, five or six years ago, when Facebook and Twitter were still in their infancy in the UK, and blogging wasn't popular, most of us relied on telephone, text and email for one-to-one personal conversations – which, unless you're of particular interest to the News of the World (ahem) were all likely to be reasonably private.
But a survey by the Online Publishers Association (OPA) found that use of email and instant messaging sites declined by 47% between 2003 and 2009. Researchers speculate that this is because people can now carry out these activities more efficiently on social networking sites - which, we've now discovered, aren't private at all.
If you use social networks, you only have to google yourself to see just how many of your casual ramblings are out there in cyberspace for all to see. Join them all together and you might just find that they create a patchwork person who bears no resemblance to you. And if that one-dimensional person doesn't seem very nice, very professional or very friendly then imagine how you'd feel if she was quoted in your HR file, on a television programme or in a national Newspaper?
According to last week's ruling, if you make a great joke, share details about your brilliant idea or make a nasty comment about someone you don't like, you've got no right to say who reads or repeats it.
Your online comments can take on a life of their own, independently of you, and you'll have no right to complain or explain that you were being ironic, sarcastic or 'only joking.'
So how much of your online self do you really own?
Well, just like in the real world, you have some control how you look (provided you untag any unflattering photos!) and although you have complete control over what you say, you have no control over how people interpret it.
After that, pretty much everything's up for grabs – so an off-hand, bad-tempered or bitchy comment could cost you your job, your friends and your reputation.
Which means that if there's any chance that your posts could come back to haunt you, it's probably best to hit delete.
By: Ceri Roberts
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