Social networks are amazing tools for making new friends. It doesn't matter if you're separated by dozens of miles or thousands -- you can build great relationships on message boards, Facebook, Twitter -- anywhere online you can connect with other people. They're just as good at helping you stay in touch with old friends. But like any other tool, social networks need to be used responsibly. There are always scammers out there, and it can be difficult to distinguish between reality and lies on the Internet. Is someone really who they claim to be, or are they using a fake picture pilfered from elsewhere on the Web? Is their personality an act, or are they genuine?
The murder of a 16-year-old girl in early 2012 drove home how easy it is for people -- especially young people -- to be tricked or manipulated online. The girl was murdered after meeting a fellow member of social networking site Mbuzzy, which claims to have more than 7 million profiles [sources: CNN, Mbuzzy]. Mbuzzy is more of a "hook-up" site than a general interest social network like Facebook. It caters to young people with smartphone apps for Android and iOS, which makes it especially difficult for parents to monitor their teenagers' activity, and it uses chat rooms to promote topics like "flirtation."
Yes, there are risks to using any social network. Let's take a look at why some sites are dangerous places to share personal information, and how you can distinguish between dangerous sites and safer social platforms.
Mbuzzy Profiles, Chatrooms and Secret Stashes
Signing up for Mbuzzy requires very little information. There's no confirmation e-mail, and anyone over the age of 13 is allowed to register, even though the site is aimed at flirtation and romantic connections. This premise is promoted through most of Mbuzzy's features. For example, the profile puts age and gender front and center and displays several user-uploaded pictures and a list of "basics," including body type, marital status, smoke/drink, children, etc. Profiles can be voted on by other users, and "sexy" and "cute" are the most common designations. Users can "crush" on other users and propose relationship statuses like talking, flirting, dating and exclusive.
Users can also send instant messages to one another or participate in public chat rooms themed around various topics. The majority of chat rooms, dedicated to simple defining locations or groups such as "newbies" or "midwest" or "south," are empty. The "flirting" chat room is the most popular. Anyone who visits the site can browse by pictures, but users are able to post "secret stashes" of personal photos on their profiles that are only accessible by other users who pay with currency called "coinz." To get coinz, users have to verify their accounts by registering their phone numbers and downloading the Mbuzzy app.
Despite claiming more than 7 million profiles, Mbuzzy has far fewer active users. Most of the chat rooms are empty and the busy rooms number in the dozens or hundreds of users. If you browse through the profiles highlighted on the front page, you're likely to find many are empty or haven't been updated in years.
None of the information above necessarily conveys a specific risk, but there certainly are risks to using the Mbuzzy Web site, just as there are risks to using any site where you're encouraged to share personal information. At the very least, you could find that someone has misrepresented themselves on the site. And as we mentioned in the introduction, the Mbuzzy smartphone app makes it harder for parents to track who their children are interacting with.
Mbuzzy Smartphone App
The Mbuzzy app is a free download for iOS and Android. Once it's installed, users can log in and buy coinz through Google Checkout or a service called Zong, owned by eBay, which bills to your mobile phone number. The app offers most of the functionality of the Web site: Users can send instant messages, view messages and alerts about their accounts, browse profiles, and view the secret stashes of other users (for a coinz fee, of course).
Mbuzzy's app doesn't allow users to connect to chat rooms, and the number of positive reviews on the Google Play Android store are suspicious. Most of the five-star reviews are extremely short comments like "love it" and "it works well" or include no comment at all. By contrast, the negative reviews cite real problems, like the app crashing or freezing on certain Android phones.
Because smartphones are very personal objects, there is a risk that parents will not be able to properly oversee their teenagers' activity on Mbuzzy. The most obvious risk of using Mbuzzy is simply wasting money on an unfulfilling service. Paying coinz to see who visits your profile for a month, for example, is one obvious way to spend money with little return for the investment.
Mbuzzy and Other Hook-up Sites
Perhaps the most confusing thing about Mbuzzy is that it's a hook-up site that doesn't quite advertise its purpose. Features like the secret stash, which seems intended for pornographic content, and the adult nature of most chat room messages make it clear the site is designed to promote sexual relationships. So why isn't that made clear up front? Perhaps more members are attracted through ambiguity.
The real risk of using sexually charged social networks is getting scammed. The sites themselves may use images of porn stars to lure in users. The users on the sites may misrepresent themselves. And the companies running sites of this nature usually build in some way to get money from you, be it from messaging fees or purchasing specialized currencies like coinz. The mainstream media often covers stories about the dangers of online dating. It's an easy target: Online dating sites are a relatively new phenomenon, and it's easy for unscrupulous people to lie online. It's also easy to overlook the fact that danger existed before the Internet.
The bottom line is that it's always important to be cautious, no matter the site. Even if you use a site like Mbuzzy with innocent intentions, make sure you're aware of how much personal information you're putting online, and think about whether you're comfortable with that information being accessed by strangers who may not have the best intentions.
Mbuzzy isn't a service I would ever use. In fact, researching it felt like stepping back in time to a pre-Facebook Internet. Even before Facebook was around, MySpace was popular. Who would still be using a site like this today? I spent enough time with the app to understand its features and compare it to what other "hook-up" sites claim to offer. At least the app is well designed.
- CNN Wire Staff. "Slain Arkansas girl was 'trusting' and loving, mother says. Feb. 24, 2012. (May 22, 2012) http://articles.cnn.com/2012-02-24/justice/justice_arkansas-girl-killed_1_affidavit-lloyd-jones-arkansas-river?_s=PM:JUSTICE
- Golokhov, Dave. "Top 10: Hookup Websites. (May 24, 2012) http://www.askmen.com/top_10/dating/top-10-hookup-websites.html
- Mbuzzy.com. "Mbuzzy.com - Home." (May 22, 2012) http://www.mbuzzy.com/
- Muir, David. "Match.com Serial Rapist Jeffrey Marsalis Speaks Publicly for First Time." July 15, 2009. (May 24, 2012) http://abcnews.go.com/Primetime/story?id=8069223&page=1#.T774FnlYtBG