Page last updated at 13:12 GMT, Thursday, 24 January 2008

Social sites prove hard to leave behind

Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology correspondent, BBC News

Screengrab from Kris Athi's MySpace page, Kris Athi

Computer science student Kris Athi got in touch with the BBC's Your News when he had problems quitting the MySpace social network. Here he tells his story to technology correspondent Rory Cellan Jones.

Thousands of final-year students who've put a lot of information on social networks are starting to worry about what potential employers may find if they take a look.

But one student at Nottingham Trent University has found just how hard it can be to leave one of the networks, MySpace.

Kris Athi wrote to the BBC after trying since early December to delete his MySpace account. "As I am graduating in the summer," he explained, "I decided to it was time to grow up and remove any job-threatening information from the internet."

His profile does not look that job-threatening - just the normal collection of mildly embarrassing photos and obscure messages from fellow students. It does reveal that Kris is studying computer science and wants to develop video games or be an astronaut "when I grow up".

Kris explained that he had performed the "cancel account" procedure, and confirmed time and again that he did want to delete his account. But to complete the process you then need to reply to a confirmation e-mail from MySpace. That e-mail has never arrived.

"I tried to receive this e-mail about fifty times over three weeks," Kris said. "As I am studying computer science I like to think I am quite "tech savvy" and understand where to look for such an e-mail should it be sent."

But he could not find it and attempts to contact MySpace customer service proved fruitless.

MySpace logo reflected in glasses, AP
MySpace leads the pack among social network sites
Earlier this week we forwarded Kris's complaint to the MySpace press office. Within twenty-four hours, his profile suddenly disappeared from the site, six weeks after he started trying to delete it.

In a statement MySpace told us, "Kris had no need to cancel his account, he could simply have set his profile to private so no one would have been able to view it without his approval."

The company went on to explain why Kris may have found it difficult to get hold of the cancellation e-mail. "In some cases e-mails confirming cancellation will be sent to "junk mail" by e-mail providers. E-mails from MySpace can sometimes be blocked entirely because the ISPs block e-mails based on volume."

But Kris is not impressed: "I think removing your personal information from a site should be less of a pain and performed much more quickly."

Privacy please

Students who do try to wipe out traces of their web activities before they enter the world of work should be aware that it's harder than it looks - and not just because of the challenge of leaving MySpace.

We asked a private detective Richard Martinez to have a quick scour of the internet to see what traces Kris had left behind. There was nothing particularly damaging but enough to provide a potential employer - or a fraudster - with lots of information.

"We have found his music interests, his hobbies, his qualifications and his date of birth," said Mr Martinez.

"With that information I can use other websites used by employers to make sure his qualifications are legitimate," he said. "By obtaining a small piece of information you can use it as a stepping-stone and eventually build up a fuller picture."

Kris Athi is confident that there is nothing out there on the internet that could cause him real embarrassment. But he feels that sites like MySpace should make it easier for young people to wipe the traces of their web history.


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