NOTE: On December 9, 2009, Facebook made additional changes to their privacy settings. Please see an updated ProfHacker post on the subject.
A reader recently asked: “Could ProfHacker do a piece on how to manage Facebook accounts so that I could remember how to keep my privacy settings up to date? I keep losing track of how to shield chat and newsfeed.”
Facebook has made at least three, if not more, fundamental changes to their service in the past nine months. You can usually tell when Facebook changes something because a) it will be big news and b) some people will be ticked off about it (and that will be big news). Call me old and jaded, but I’m so used to Facebook changing things seemingly for the heck of it that I really don’t care anymore—I check in on Facebook when someone plays a move in Lexulous and that’s about it; if you want to find me online, find me on Twitter.
As you can probably tell, I have no great love for Facebook or the way in which they go about their business. However, one thing has always been true: Facebook does give you the tools to manage the security of your profile. Do they always tell you when there are new tools, or remind you that a new feature might affect security settings, or tell you that the default is usually the least secure of the possible options? That’s a big fat no. However, there’s a point at which the user has to take responsibility for taking care of their own data, especially on a site when the data is all about you—a phisher’s field day, if you will.
The image at the top of this post points to the omnipresent “Settings” link in the top navigational bar that appears when you are logged in to Facebook. The “Settings” link has been there for as long as I can remember, and the “Settings” link should become your best friend. If you could Facebook-friend your “Settings” link, I would recommend you do so.
There are three Settings categories:
- Account: your name, your e-mail address, how you’d like (or not) to receive notifications, language options, etc. Nothing particularly security-related here, unless you have your credit card stored for payments.
- Privacy: this is the big one; so big that it’s split into four sub-categories:
- Profile: select who (everyone, networks, friends, friends of friends, etc) can see the core content of your profile. You can fine-tune these settings and also check to see how a particular Facebook friend sees your profile.
- Search: a lot of people don’t know that Facebook content is open for searching from the outside as well as the inside, unless you change the settings in this section.
- News Feed and Wall: these settings control which of your actions are placed into the news feed or put on your wall.
- Applications: this is another area that people tend to ignore, but you can control both the information you make available to applications, as well as the actions applications take on your behalf. The Privacy->Applications settings control overarching settings-related things, such as “What Other Users Can See via the Facebook Platform”.
- Applications: this area allows you to see the applications you’ve authorized for use on your account, and you can control how each particular application works with regards to posting to your wall (or not), being visible to sets of users, and so on. It’s often an eye-opening experience to visit the applications settings and see just how many different quizzes and applications you’ve opened (and thus authorized).
As for the reader’s question about how to remember to keep privacy settings up to date, my suggestions would be first to ensure that you understand the various nuances of the settings and just set them the way you want, now, so that you are starting from a good place. Facebook will do a lot of things, but it won’t unset your settings. Then, every time you add an application, think about whether you want to adjust the settings for that application, and do so. Similarly, every time you add a friend, ask yourself if there’s something special about that friend that would make you want to limit their view.
This is the point at which Groups come in to play. It is far easier to place security settings on groups than it is to change the settings for each friend you have. Personally, I have three groups: one that I call “oklist,” meaning they have a place in my news feed; the other I call “students,” because they were or are my students; and the third is just the default no group/everyone else. I don’t change security based on groups (that is to say, all people can see the same things on my profile), but I use groups so that I can filter my news feed. When I log in to Facebook, I only see the feed of people on my oklist. You can imagine that the “oklist” is made up of particularly boring people like myself who post status updates, links to news, photos of their pets or kids, and similar items. Maybe the occasional Mafia Wars notification. If I want to, I could switch to the “students” filter and see all student updates. Or, I could switch to the built-in Network filter, or the “all Status Updates” filter, and so on. My point is that I’ve managed the information so that I only see what I want to see.
My news feed is further organized by using the “Hide” button for particular people or types of content. If someone is way too into quizzes at the moment, or just generally annoying, I’ll hover my mouse over their entry in the news feed and use the drop-down menu to hide them from the feed.
I didn’t really hide Jason. But if I had, I could un-hide him by using the “Edit Options” link at the bottom of the page.
The reader also asked about “shielding chat,” and I’m not really sure what that means. You can’t opt-out of chat, unfortunately. However, you can go permanently offline, or appear online selectively to certain groups of users (groups come in handy yet again).
In this image, you can see that I am online (green dot) but I appear offline to all three groups. One warning: if you use a chat aggregation client and include Facebook in your list of services, changes you make through that client could affect your settings in Facebook (since the client is simply making changes on your behalf from outside the web-based application).
If you are a Facebook user who is concerned about privacy settings, I recommend you spend some time going through the various levels of settings that currently exist. You might also want to spend some time organizing your friends list into groups that will make it even easier to manage in the long run. If you use a feed reader, I recommend subscribing to the Facebook Blog for the latest information about changes—bearing in mind there’s often little to no warning of these things. Finally, if all else fails, there’s always the Facebook Help Center.