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Using Facebook effectively

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With over a billion users, and with 90% of college students in the US using it, Facebook is an important place for maintaining your personal identity. Using Facebook effectively is important for avoiding future embarrassment.

See also maintaining your online presence.

Your profile

Expect that anybody will be able to access your Facebook profile

Facebook has offered options that allow people to delist themselves from search, but these options may be removed. Even if you are not searchable, anybody can access your profile if they find a link to it, unless you explicitly block that specific individual. Do not rely on security by obscurity.

Choose a good name

Facebook offers you the option of choosing a personalized URL for your Facebook profile. However, this choice is not subject to modification. The usual guidelines for online handles apply, but be extra careful because it's hard to change again. If in doubt, wait for a while before selecting your online handle.

Your online handle should preferably based on your real name. This makes it easy for people to locate you. Preferably do not choose handles that are related to specific political or religious beliefs or cultural icons. Your beliefs may change over time, and in any case, it's not good practice to make your beliefs and affiliations scream out at people every time they visit your profile. Under no circumstances should you use swearwords, exhortations to violence, or controversial cultural terms in your email address or online handles.

What to fill in the "about" section

If you fill in any of the following, please keep access restricted to friends or even further, so that scammers scraping for data are not able to get information on your identity (there may sometimes be reasons to make some of them public, so the sugestions below are only a starting point):

  • The names of your family members.
  • Your home address.
  • Your phone number (keep contact information restricted to an email address and social media accounts).
  • The names of employers for part-time or full-time jobs that you are doing (unless the employer gives consent, or your public persona requires you to associate yourself with a particular employer).
  • Information explicitly attributed to others that is conveyed by them to you in private fora (online or offline), unless they give you consent.

Basically, your online persona should reveal those parts of you that help people get an idea of what you're thinking about and your opinions on specific issues, but should not be a way for them to track you down or get information about your real-life friends (except if they contact you personally).

Profile photograph

It's highly recommended that you choose a profile photograph that shows your face clearly in a sober expression. Avoid the following:

  • Pictures where you are making funny faces or with your tongue sticking out.
  • Pictures with other picture, so that it's not clear who you are.
  • Pictures of celebrities.
  • Pictures of political symbols or other institutions.

It may be appropriate to choose such pictures for a brief while, for instance, to express solidarity to a cause, but be sure to change them back. Also, be aware that your profile picture is publicly visible, so anybody who comes across your profile will see it.

For more on learning how to effectively choose profile photographs, it may be useful to read the article "Don’t Be Ugly By Accident!" on OkTrends (the research blog of popular online dating site OkCupid). While it is important to keep in mind that the post was written with online dating in mind, some of the advice on there may transfer to profile photographs on social networking sites in general. Knowing that a better camera produces significantly more attractive photographs, or that using flash can expose wrinkles and other effects of aging (and thus make one look older), might be helpful to know.

Your posts and photographs

Be aware that your posts could be leaked

Facebook offers different privacy settings for sharing your posts. In October 2013, Facebook started allowing people under 18 to post publicly, so now all users have access to the full range of sharing options.

Keep in mind that, unless you are highly selective about who you friend, sharing with friends, or with friends of friends, does not offer that much additional security relative to sharing with the public. Further, high selectivity in who you friend is probably not sustainable over the long run, particularly if people you want to impress send you Facebook friend requests. Therefore, it is better to post everything assuming it could be made public. That doesn't mean everything you write should be of the quality that a piece for the public would be, but you should be comfortable standing by what you wrote publicly if somebody leaks it.

Discuss controversial issues in restricted friend lists or in appropriate closed or secret Facebook groups only

Civil discussion of controversial issues is often admirable. But it should be done with care. Even if your original post is civil, the reactions to it (if you allow comments) could be uncivil. Even if you're not personally hurt by such reactions, these could get you into trouble. Colleges and potential employers generally steer clear of people who get enmeshed in controversies, even if those people aren't objectively at fault.

If you want to discuss controversial issues, you could choose to do so either to:

  • A restricted friend list, where you have to manually add new members. This means that friending new people doesn't automatically give them access to the list.
  • A closed or secret Facebook group that is explicitly devoted to discussion of related issues.

If you want to discuss issues that are not controversial in a troublesome sense, but are still far from the interests of your friends, consider posting them to Facebook groups (open, closed, or secret).

The older you get, the better your sense will be of how to handle and cope with controversy, and the more daring you can be with raising issues. Start cautiously when young, and observe your surroundings closely.

Use decent language, spelling, and grammar

Avoid the use of swear words, derogatory ethnic terms, exhortations to violence, or overtly confrontational language, even in private messages or posts to restricted lists. Use proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Unlike Twitter, Facebook allows you to make long posts, so you do not need to use unnatural abbreviations to fit a character limit.

Be careful about photographs you upload

Your profile picture is public, so special care needs to be taken for that, as discussed above. For your other photographs, you can be a bit more lax, but you still need to be careful. Do not post, or allow others to post, photographs showing you doing anything that is illegal or considered immoral or indecent by a wide range of people, unless you are willing to stand up for your beliefs publicly and have thought through the consequences. Avoid posting photos, even to friends, that could be embarrassing if leaked. If others are tagging you in such photos, opt out of allowing others to tag you in photos.

Form connections

Why have (more) Faceboook friends?

  • A large number of Facebook friends means that when you post questions or requests to Facebook (related to personal logistics or of academic interest), you're more likely to get answers quickly.
  • Being Facebook friends with more people gives you access to their posts that are shared only with friends, and also gives you access to some profile content for their friends (because many people restrict privacy of content to "friends of friends"). In particular, being Facebook friends with people who have large numbers of friends can be useful for the latter purpose.
  • Others may consider you more legitimate if you have a mutual friend with them.

Some ideas on building friends

Many high school students are friends primarily with people in their high school or geographical neighborhood. This is fine, but unless your high school colleagues share your interests and future goals, these friendships will not be of much use later on, either on Facebook or outside it.

Instead, consider the following:

  • If you visit other schools for inter-school contests or for other purposes, and get to know like-minded people there, try to formalize the relationship by friending them on Facebook.
  • If you have good interactions with people on Facebook groups you participate in, send them friend requests (possibly with accompanying explanatory messages). Do so particularly for people who you notice already have a much larger number of friends than the set of people they are likely to know personally or meet regularly -- these people are likely to accept friend requests based on shared interests.
  • Convert connections made outside Facebook, such as people you meet at physical meetups or in other online forums such as Quora or LessWrong, to Facebook friendships.

External links

Pages on getting started with Facebook and tweaking its settings