Facebook is hot, but I’m going cold on it. Maybe it’s an age thing, but the buzz has waned to the point of disinterest. News that almost half the UK population now uses Facebook, 30 million, is mind-boggling. What is even more daunting is that more than half of them use Facebook daily. Haven’t they got better things to do?

It’s not just the UK. France is reporting 20 million users and Italy 16 million. No wonder businesses are now jumping on board trying to attract the interest of a massive market of people that use Facebook as their conduit to the internet as well as their friends. And there lies the conundrum. Social networking is all about social interaction with ‘friends’ but how long before over-commercialization starts turning people away.

The way Facebook works is viral. The only way you can view somebody else’s entries is by becoming a member yourself. That’s how I got hooked in. Once you’re in you sense the pressure of having something that others can view so you don’t feel square of left out. What follows is the inevitable flood of ‘friend’ requests from people in your past, not always a good thing, and people you’ve never heard of.

If your ‘friends’ have children that also request to be friends with you (apparently it’s cool to amass thousands on your list – like some sort of social status rating) then you suddenly find you are connected to loads of teenage girls. Probably not the sort of image an aging male should be generating!

Then comes the inevitable flood of comments on the ‘wall’, requests to compete in ‘Scrabble’ competitions online, the thousands of baby photos, book recommendations, daily routines broadcast online. Aaaaargh, the list is endless. I don’t give a toss and who really cares about what you had for breakfast? If it’s important I’ll get a phone call or an email or, I dread to say it, a Tweet!

However, the killer blow for me personally was receiving a request from one real friend to view a video. Unfortunately, that friend’s list of friends had been accessed by some malevolent piece of software that then infected my list of friends and so on. At least on my own PC I am able to protect myself from viruses, bots, trojans et al, but on Facebook I have to rely on protection at the source that apparently does not exist.

Closing down the account was the only viable option, but even that is not possible. It just goes into limbo until somebody sends you another link to their Facebook account and bang, before you know it, it’s back, like a recurring nightmare.

Privacy is something that we should all cherish but unless you know how to make use of the privacy settings on Facebook and other similar sites you may find vital facts being made available to anyone that knows how to get them.

Mashable reported that Facebook announced an update to its platform in a January 14 blog post that would allow Facebook apps and other external websites to access this information if the user gave them permission. Mobile phone numbers and addresses were given a permission category separate from “Access my basic information” that would ask users to approve third-parties to “Access my contact information”.

Controversy over the new feature is the latest in a long history of Facebook’s dubious privacy policies. Facebook recently took the opportunity to defend its policies in a 26-page response to the FTC’s proposed privacy policy framework. Recently, the social network rolled out a trial format of its privacy policy that is easier for consumers without legal backgrounds to understand.

Well, that would probably be the vast majority of users one would expect. There were also reports that employers were viewing Facebook for potential employees and even a case where the employer demanded access to a prospect’s profile presumably to see what they got up to in their private lives.

Most social networking sites are free and they have to make money somehow. The service you’re signing up for could simply be tracking your clicks for their own internal measurement tools, but it could also be gathering data to sell to marketers and advertisers. It could be selling your contact information to a third party, as well.

Since the entire goal of social networking is to help you connect and communicate with other people, the privacy settings on most default to ‘Wide Open’. Macworld put it succinctly in a recent article stating that, “maintaining privacy on social networks is like hanging your dirty laundry on a highway billboard and asking your friends to look. While you can maintain some degree of privacy on social networks, it takes a lot of effort and is often contrary to the goals of the services. Remember these services a free because they are selling access to you.”

Most ignore scrolling through miles of legalese and click on the “I Agree — Sign Me Up!” button without reading a single word of what they’re agreeing to. Most of the time, there are no negative consequences, but every now and then, not knowing what you’re getting into can end up biting you.

It’s down to ‘user beware,’ but for this particular ex-user, it’s more a case of what you don’t know about should be avoided.