Beware your Friends of Friends

Earlier this week we had a speaker at church on Internet Safety: The Anti-social Side of Social Media. His focus was on the ways the internet can misused by the ‘bad guys’. In fact, an example of what he was talking about showed up in the news the very next day.

My takeaways from the presentation can perhaps be summed up by

  1. Know who your friends are (‘cull’ or ‘weed’ your list if needed),
  2. Set your privacy so only your friends can see information about you (more information about this one below),
  3. and (perhaps my favorite) ‘teenage boys are stupid‘ … in other words, if you send them something provocative it WILL be shared with people you don’t want it shared with. Once you post (or private message) something it is out of your control.

What the speaker did not cover so much was the how-to of managing your privacy, and I know that is something parents are looking for … so here are a couple of my suggestions:

Understand the Privacy Icons

Privacy IconsYou see them all over Facebook … including under posts, beside pictures, and at the bottom of the status update box. If you hover over them they will usually pop up a description. Before you can manage your privacy, you need to understand what the most common settings mean.

Public is simply everyone that uses Facebook. If a post has the globe symbol next to it, anyone can see it. If your friend posts a photo or status with a public setting, and you comment on that public item, your comment is also public. If you don’t want your comment to be public, don’t comment on public items.

Friends of Friends looks like 3 people, and is the most misunderstood setting. It doesn’t sound like a problem … we tend to relate to real life friends of friends (like coworker’s brother, or neighbor’s babysitter). Online, it is more like acquaintances of acquaintances, or even random connections of random connections.

Networks like this fascinate me (I recommend this Coursera class if you really want to dig deep) … bear with me a minute …

A user with with 100 friends is likely to have 27, 500 unique friends-of-friends (from this 2011 study, page 8). The average Facebook user has, according to this 2012 study, 245 friends. Take into account a phenomenon known as the friendship paradox, which says that your friends are likely to have, on average, more friends than you do (this holds true in real life, not just online). Add it all up, and the 2012 study found that a Facebook user’s friends-of-friends can easily number 31,000 (median) to 156,000 (average) or way more (of just 269 users in the study the maximum friends-of-friends found was over 7,000,000).

If you are posting something to friends-of-friends you probably should have a good reason for doing so. If you are commenting on a photo or status that your friend or a friend of your friend has set to friends-of-friends, then each of those friends of friends can see your comment.

Friends looks like two people, and is the people in your friend list. For many Facebook users this is a good default choice for their own posts. Do be aware though, that when you are commenting on a photo or status of your friend, and they have set their post privacy to friends, it is *their* friends who can see your comment.

Custom looks like a cog, and lets you specify friends who will be ale to see a particular post.

Use Privacy Settings

In many ways, Facebook does let you fine tune who can see the things you post. Click on the padlock icon at the top right of your page,  [Who can see my stuff], then [see more settings] to get to the privacy settings. Here are some details to check and tweak:

  1. Make sure [who can see your future posts] is NOT set to public or friends-of-friends. As mentioned above, friends, or possibly custom would be a good option. This becomes your default setting for future posts, you can still specify a different audience for particular posts.
  2. If you are in doubt about what you might have posted publicly in the past, click on [Limit the Audience for Old Posts on Your Timeline], [Limit Old Posts], and then [Confirm]. Be aware that his is a global change which can’t be undone in one click.
  3. Turn search engines off.
  4. Check your Activity Log. Everything listed here shows up some place on Facebook with your name attached to it. In some cases the Privacy icon on the right side will have a drop down menu to change the privacy right from the log or at least indicate what the audience is. In some cases the Edit icon on the right side will have options for you to delete or unlike or untag right from the log. You can also click the word [timeline], [status], [link], or [photo] on the left side to go to the item in question.
  5. Next, go to the Timeline and Tagging section (accessible from the left menu of the settings page) and turn on / enable [Review posts from friends…] if you have friends who might post something objectionable on your wall or tag you in a post or photo you wouldn’t want to be tagged in.
  6. Return to and click on [Edit Profile] under your name. When you click [Edit] on each box, you will find that each individual item has a privacy icon next to it. Work through each item and tweak the settings to suit your comfort level.
  7. Click on the padlock and [Who can see my stuff] again, this time click on [View As]. This will show you what your page looks like to a non-friend (such as a potential employer or creepy stranger). You can also click on [View as Specific Person] and enter any friend’s name at the top to see what they see.

Ignore the Hoaxes

I’m sure you’ve seen the posts … it usually goes something like ‘Hover over my name above. In a few seconds you’ll see a box that says “Subscribed”. Hover over that, then go to “Comments and Likes” and un-click it,” and how it will supposedly ‘limit hackers from invading our profiles‘.

Your friends probably mean well … but they don’t know what they are talking about. It doesn’t work that way, it doesn’t help anyone, and it leads your friends to think they’ve taken the proper steps to protect their privacy, when all they have really done is hidden your comments and likes from their own feed, and only their own feed. The actual culprit is that friends-of-friends privacy setting … if you don’t want your comments and likes showing up in the sidebar of strangers, check that privacy icon and don’t comment on or like posts that are set to friends-of-friends or public.

Read more here and here and here, and please, don’t repost this type of ‘warning’ unless you have checked it out and understand it. Pretty please.

Use Lists to Manage Friends

If you have a large number of friends you might want to manage them with lists. Lists allow you to easily publish content to selected friends. Keep in mind, you still don’t want to post the kind of thing that would embarrass you if it spread all over the internet, but some things might be of more interest to some friends than others. For example, you might have a ‘friends’ list and a ‘family’ list … in my case, I have a ‘Church’ list. I won’t go into all the details right now, but start with this help page.

About Tagging

tagging exampleThe comment was made at the presentation, that once you are tagged in a photo you cannot untag yourself. Well, this is partly true.

If you are tagged in the ‘normal’ way, you will be notified that you were tagged, your name next to the photo will be blue and linked to your profile (Angela and Steven in the example).

Here’s how you remove that tag (these instructions vary slightly with different views):

  1. Go to the photo in question
  2. Click on [Options] at the bottom
  3. Click on [Report/Remove Tag]
  4. Select [I want to untag myself]
  5. Click [Continue]

What happens sometimes is that someone who knows you but is not your Facebook friend can tag you by name without linking to your profile. In this instance your name net to the photo will be black and not linked to your profile. You won’t be notified, since it isn’t linked to your profile, and you can’t untag yourself, since it isn’t linked to your profile (Debra and Jason in the example). You probably won’t even know about it.

If you do find this, and it bothers you, I would suggest commenting (if you are able) or messaging the poster with a request to untag you … they are the only ones who can do so. If that doesn’t work and it is especially objectionable you could try the [I want this photo removed from Facebook] option under [Report/Remove Tag] (disclaimer … I’ve never tried this and I don’t know how effective that would actually be).

About Twitter

Kids (this is mostly for the youth) … I just want you to know three things:

  1. If you block someone (say @ZionYouth or your parents) from following you, but your account is not set to Protected … we can still navigate to your page and see your posts … and plainly see why you blocked us
  2. If you have multiple accounts, but both follow or are followed by the same friends … it probably isn’t accomplishing what you think it is.
  3. Before you update Twitter (or any other social network), think twice. Would you use that same foul language in person with your teachers, parents, employers and pastor? Have you considered how that same flirty comment intended for your friends or a cute classmate might be seen differently by some sleazy stranger? And before you retweet (or like), remember that  comment now shows up with your name next to it, as if you had said it yourself.

And the Links

Finally, here are two of the links mentioned at the presentation

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