Monday, November 30, 2009

Taking on The Facebook

Recently, this status update appeared on my facebook newsfeed from one of my friends:

Today, Facebook will start using your photos in ads that will appear on the profile page of your contacts. If you want to prevent this from happening, do the following: Settings => Privacy => NewsFeed and Wall => Facebook Ads => Choose "No one" and save changes. Copy this and use in a status update to spread the word!
Alarmed, I followed the directions closely. I have no idea what Facebook could possibly advertise using pictures of my fiance in an apron or my recent trip to Sonoma County, but I'm willing to bet they could figure something out. Facebook is a valuable tool, but anyone who's stopped to examine their eerily targeted advertising, or the ease with which one can connect everything from the recipes one looks up on to how much weight one has lost with SparkPeople, will know that Facebook possesses a dangerous amount of information about all of us, and doesn't think twice about using that information to its advantage. I'm not saying Facebook is evil. I'm just saying they're a company like any other, and it is to their benefit to know absolutely everything about you and me and everyone we know, so it is best to be wary of how much and what kind of information we provide, particularly when one takes the workplace into account.

For example, the #1 result of a Google search of the word "Facebook" just today was a story from the L.A. Times about a woman who had her health benefits revoked after it was determined that she was having too much fun in her Facebook photos to receive benefits for the severe depression that had kept her from working.

I am astonished by this sort of thing mostly because I find it amazing that anybody gives a darn about the information I put up on my Internet profiles (well, profile, now that MySpace and Friendster have gone the way of . . . well, MySpace and Friendster). When filling in those little boxes with copious, accurate information about my favorite TV Shows and Quotes, I couldn't help but feel a little foolish, knowing in my heart that nobody, not even my 200 or so "friends," really cared. I never read that sort of information on my friends' profiles, and had kind of resigned myself to the fact that I was essentially providing these personal tidbits as a sort of general catalog of my existence. Let the Great Universal Record show that in the early part of the 21st Century there did live a young woman by the name of Francesca Fiori who did, on occasion, enjoy the television show Fear Factor, though this fact caused her some degree of shame. Somehow I could sleep easier knowing that I'd made my virtual mark. That, and I was just flattered that someone had asked, even an anonymous, indifferent Internet someone.

However, once we'd all been lulled into this sense of secure anonymity among so much connection, Facebook figured out a way to use this knowledge. They could take our interminable lists of interests, and try to sell us things based upon them. Knowing that my favorite band is Counting Crows, they could alert me when a new album came out, and when the band would be touring in my area (since they also know exactly where I live)! Recovering from the enormous sense of elation I felt upon realizing that SOMEONE ACTUALLY CARES, there came the uneasy knowledge that someone was actually watching. Facebook was not an uncaring and benevolent database service, it was and is a company, and my social networking tool is more akin to extremely clever market research.

OK, so now what? I'm not one of those people who runs screaming from supermarkets when asked if I want to receive discounts by allowing them to keep track of what I buy with my handy key chain bar code tag. I think it's a valid system, and I don't see what they could learn about my green bean-buying habits that could possibly harm me. The kind of information Facebook possesses, on the other hand, could really be damaging if taken out of context, or seen by the wrong eyes, so I needed to figure out a way to continue to enjoy the good parts of Facebook, without having to constantly look over my virtual shoulder.

For guidance, I turned to this article from The New York Times:

5 Easy Steps to Stay Safe (and Private!) on Facebook

I know, I know, taking on the whole Internet last week only took three steps, but Facebook is a different, and very specific animal, so let's jump in!

Step 1 is Making Friend Lists. Ugh. So boring. Extremely important, but also incredibly dull. I started by lumping people together by how I knew them (Family, College Friends, etc.) but quickly realized that what I really wanted to do was just have two lists, one being "wheat" and the other "chaff." That is to say, "People I Actually Know, Like, and Trust," and "People to Whom I Don't Mind Being Connected, But May Not Have Seen for 10 Years, and May Not Actually Care For." This speeds the process up considerably. I may need to refine them at some point, but for now this will do to keep me feeling secure.

Step 2 is determining who can see what. I was astonished (just now!) to note, even though I thought I'd pre-sanitized my Facebook in preparation for this blog post, that when I checked my Privacy Settings not only my Friends, but anyone in my Networks as well could see just about everything about me. Now, I'm pretty careful about who I friend. I don't like to offend people, but I absolutely ignore requests from people I don't actually know. I assumed this meant that only people I know could see my profile. Not the Case. Everyone who went to my college, grad school, or lived in my hometown could see my every last detail. Disconcerting, Facebook, though I suppose I should not have been surprised. OK, look out chaff. The grain is about to start flying.

My personal Chaff list consists of past and present employers and co-workers, past school friends I don't really know all that well, and people whose political beliefs I know to be vastly different from mine. These folks will no longer see my status updates or photos of me, and probably won't notice or care. Cool. I'm starting to feel powerful. Moving on.

Step 3: Who can see your address and phone number. Ah, good call. Same restrictions. Done and Done.

Step 4: Who can Find You Via Search. This one sounds eerie, but now that I've got my lists all in order, I'm not too concerned about people finding me out. I can always just ignore them or put them on the Chaff list if I feel uncomfortable. However, it can't hurt to limit this as well. I'll leave it so that everyone can search for me, but there is an option regarding whether or not a search from a general Internet search engine will bring up your profile, and that particular box is getting un-checked. I don't need Google all up in my Facebook business.

Ok, last step: Stop Sharing Personal Information with Unknown Applications. Ah, yes. Those darn Mafia Wars. They know everything about me, because I said that was okay. I had no choice! I was intimidated. Ah, the heady first days with a Facebook Account, when every Bumper Sticker seemed too hilarious not to share, and no Super Wall could be Super enough.

I went through my list of applications and deleted all of them that I didn't care about (Little Green Patch was driving me insane, anyway), and I must say I feel a lot better. Not only am I more secure, I don't have to cringe when I remember what level Pirate Vixen I am, and how that information is proudly displayed for all of Facebook to see.

What the article doesn't mention was the part of cleaning up my Facebook that I was really looking forward to: un-tagging pictures. A couple of years ago, my status actually read, "Francesca Fiori will eventually have to do something about all of the unflattering pictures of herself on the internet." With this step, I didn't want to make myself more secure so much as eliminate all evidence that I have a double chin in certain lights, and that sometimes I don't wash my hair as often as I should. Gleefully clicking through pictures of myself, however, I began to notice a trend. There's me at a party with a drink in my hand. There's me at a bar holding a glass of wine. There's me with my old roommates and a large plastic cup of beer. An astonishing number of Facebook photos of me feature alcoholic beverages. I won't say how many, but the percentage is much too high for comfort. Or rather, was.

This was kind of a lark to begin with, as I didn't think anything terribly incriminating existed with regard to my identity on the Internet. I thought the worst the 'net could do to me was embarrass me with a couple of old LiveJournal entries and bad haircuts. Clicking through my Facebook pictures, however, I saw myself through the eyes of a potential employer, and found myself to be distinctly undesirable as an employee.

Now, you know and I know that the amount of alcohol featured in our Facebook pictures is a natural consequence of the convergence of Events at Which Photos are Taken, and Events at Which Alcohol is Served, but Facebook fails to provide this kind of context and apology for one's Internet image. Facebook simply serves it up the way it is, and allows the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions. This little adventure in Personal Public Relations has taught me a valuable lesson in managing the kind of information I put out there, and what I allow others to provide. You never know who might decide to care.

OK, next week: on to the actual working part of work! See you then!

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