‘Good fences make good neighbours’ – proverb
In the time I’ve been researching and writing about Facebook, privacy has come up as one of the most fundamental issues people have. Most people want to understand exactly how the basics work before they get started and they also want to know where the off-switch is. Even for people experienced in using Facebook to stay in touch with family and friends, the increasing pressures to use it as an engagement tool for work, politics and hobbies can cause discomfort.
The fact that Facebook has few rules is an advantage and a disadvantage. However clunky it is, it works incredibly well for a very wide range of people. It is also throwing up questions about how other people behave, made more acute by the public, permanent nature of content. Facebook is hungry for data to make it easier to make sense of our identities and the links between us.
This basic guide to creating zones in Facebook isn’t supposed to be a rulebook, but to make experimentation possible. Remember at all times that what you do and what you share on Facebook is up to you. Some of the links will require you to be logged in to Facebook.
Let’s start with you. Your profile (accessible where it says your name at the top-right, or click here for the Edit profile page) has all the information about you. Don’t feel you need to fill in every box! Facebook does not need to know your address and phone number. Facebook does not need to know your real date of birth, though if you don’t tell it your birthday you won’t get lots of nice messages on the day.
Your profile also links to your wall. This is where your status and other updates live. People can see these updates, or view your updates on their own Facebook newsfeed. Your newsfeed is the homepage when you login to Facebook, with status updates of your friends and pages you follow. In addition, you will see notifications including friend requests, group updates and private messages.
Next up, know your privacy settings. These are at the top-right of your page under Account (or this link will work if you are logged in). Facebook will make a lot of your updates public by default, so I suggest ‘friends only’ as a good starting point. You can customise all of the settings individually and even block certain people from seeing certain types of content, like Gran and your photos. This is worth exploring in-depth and making your own mind up about whether you think something is reasonable. For example, I didn’t like the feature that made it easier for friends report where I was (‘check-in’), so I disabled that. This doesn’t stop friends from saying that I’m with them in status updates, of course, but by disabling that feature I’m sending out a little signal that I don’t always want to make it easier for potential burglars to know where I am. Facebook quite often changes privacy settings, so keep a regular eye on this section.
Who to be friends with? You can be friends with nobody, or everyone. Most people go somewhere in the middle, making judgments on friend requests from people they aren’t particularly keen to speak to and going through the dilemma of wondering whether their gran will approve of the photos their friends might upload. Who your friends are on Facebook is one of the things you can’t hide, so don’t tell an angsty old schoolfriend that you only use Facebook to talk to your mother if you’re really friends with everyone *else* in your old class. It’s not a good idea to accept random friend requests from strangers unless your profile is separate from your real life and even in these cases be aware that these might be the people who leave spam all over your wall.
As I’m mentioned, controlling what you share is a lot easier than controlling what other people share about you. This is the case whether or not you’re on Facebook. Some interesting posts on Dana Boyd’s blog gives some interesting insights into different ways that teenagers deal with privacy in the networked world. It includes a teenage class’s view that just because a picture is online, doesn’t mean we deserve to have it paraded in front of the whole community or that it should be part of their permanent record for every potential employer to use against them. This is interesting as a lot of us have accepted the view ‘If you put it on the internet, it’s fair game’. Do we really want to move towards a point where everyone feels they must obsessively manage their online profiles like spin doctors? Maybe there should needs to be more honest acceptance that people live imperfect human lives. If increased transparency is constantly exploited by hysterical media and online bullies, people will quickly cease using the internet for good things like staying in touch and sharing pictures of cats.
That’s an aside and the world is beyond our control, so the main point is that if you end up with a mixture of family, friends and colleagues who are Facebook-friends with you, then proceed with a sense of caution. Learn how to group friends using lists, untag photos of yourself if you’d rather they weren’t on your profile and ask friends if they wouldn’t mind removing posts that make you feel uncomfortable. If posts cross other lines, you can use the X button to report them and you can use the same button to delete any that are on your own wall. Users can be unfriended or blocked, and reported for harassment as well as other unacceptable behaviour.
2: Events, groups and public pages
Now you’re comfortable with your personal sphere, let’s dip our toes further into that big sea of people. There are lots of ways to communicate with people without being Facebook-friends with them. As people often get hung up on the pros and cons of participating in online conversations, they often forget the value of just using Facebook to listen by searching for what’s happening around them. Watching local public pages or is a good starting point. Commenting on posts and liking them is encouraging for other people before you start initiating your own posts.
Depending on the settings of the page, you may have to join them before viewing or adding content. We had a discussion at the Talk About Local unconference about the wisdom of joining groups for research purposes when there is such an open trail of data about who is in them. Again, it’s all up to you but just be conscious that your actions on Facebook leave a trail and some affiliations like friendships and group memberships cannot be hidden. In addition, what you add in a public group is public.
Pages that you create are your way of interacting on Facebook at arms-length. For this reason, they have mixed results because most people’s objective on Facebook is to interact with other people. However, they have a useful place, particularly in enabling organisations to have a ‘face’ which many of its members can be involved in shaping and which people can ‘like’. Interaction is between pages now, rather than people.
There is more detail about pages, and the differences between them and groups, here.
One small but useful feature of pages is that if you are a page administrator for your organisation, you can switch to that persona under Account in the top-right. If you then click again on the Facebook logo, the newsfeed that will show will be that of the pages your page likes, not your Facebook-friends. This avoids the very real danger of being distracted by your friend’s engagement ring and all those kittens while you’ve got Facebook open to try and get something purposeful done.
With a number of organisations using Facebook to share news and content that they might not put anywhere else, a page’s wall can become a very useful channel to keep an eye on. Linking your page to other pages with common interests is also a good way of being sociable without overtly participating – again, have an eye on the affiliations you create: if your page is for a council department, for example, you should definitely connect with all the other council departments and local pages, but might need to exercise caution about liking political parties, commercial pages or campaigns against you – your communication department might have policies on this. Beware also pages with fun titles that could later be used against you… but other than that be friendly and connect!
Feedback is very welcome on whether these guides have been useful for you, or if there’s anything else you’re looking for, just leave a comment.