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Privacy Settings: Controlling Who Sees What

Facebook gives you some very specific settings for controlling what parts of your Facebook life are visible and who gets to see them.

Your home base for most of the settings you’ll want to change is the Privacy Settings page. To find it, choose Privacy Settings from the Account menu in the blue bar.

The current incarnation of the Privacy Settings page was launched after a number of high-profile controversies about privacy on Facebook, and in response to a widespread feeling that many users didn’t understand exactly how much of their profile info they were sharing by default on Facebook, or how to control that.

In creating this version of the page, Facebook had a difficult balancing act to pull off: serving the needs of two very different types of users. On the one hand, Facebook has a history of providing very specific, customizable controls for users who want to be able to choose the exact audience for each kind of content on their profiles. So Facebook wanted to keep those granular privacy controls available for those who’ve come to depend on them.

On the other hand, Facebook also needed to provide a solution for users who found those granular controls confusing and complicated.

Facebook’s solution to this problem is to provide two levels of privacy controls for content you share:

  • Simplified settings: Four easy options to choose from, setting Privacy for your entire account with one click

  • Customized settings: The advanced controls that let you pick and choose privacy levels for each part of your account

Additionally, Facebook provides a separate set of controls for what it calls your Basic Directory Information—which consists of information that can help friends find you on Facebook, such as your location, work or school, friends, and interests. I’ll cover all of those settings in the pages ahead.

To get us started, here’s what Facebook’s Privacy Settings page looks like by default when you first arrive at it, with a brand-new account:

How to Customize Your Basic Directory Information

The very first item at the top of the Privacy Settings page, Basic Directory Information, consists of a bunch of information and settings that Facebook assumes you’ll want to make public—primarily because doing so helps your various friends and acquaintances track you down and connect with you on Facebook, so your network can keep growing.

By default, then, these settings are all set to “Everyone”—meaning that anyone on the Internet can see the basic information here, and contact you via Inbox messages or friend requests. And if you’re fine with that, you don’t have to do anything with these controls.

But of course, not everyone on Facebook wants to be found by people they’re not already Facebook friends with. So by clicking the View Settings link in this area, you can set a specific level of privacy for each of these controls.

Here’s an example: Scroll down to the control labeled See My Education and Work.

By default, its pop-up menu is set to Everyone, which means that your Education and/or Work information is visible to the general public. If you want to restrict it, click the pop-up menu and you’ll see four choices: Everyone, Friends of Friends, Friends Only, and Customize.

The next step down in visibility from Everyone is the Friends of Friends option: This information will be open to all of your Facebook friends, plus any friend of one of your Facebook friends. It’s more restrictive than Everyone because a person has to share at least one mutual friend with you before this info is visible to them.

The next setting, Friends Only, is fairly self-explanatory: Only people you’ve added as a friend on Facebook will be able to view your information.

The fourth setting, Customize, opens the Custom Privacy dialog. The settings here are a little more complex but very useful, giving you more options for controlling who can see your information. If you want to slice up your profile information and serve different segments to different audiences, this is the place to do it.

The top part of the Custom Privacy dialog controls who your information is visible to: You can choose Friends of Friends, Friends Only, Only Me, or Specific People, which will open a field where you can type the names of specific friends or any Friend Lists you’ve created. Your info will then be visible only to those people.

The bottom part of the dialog allows you to exclude specific people—which effectively hides the info in question from those people. Just type the names of the people or Friend Lists you want to hide your info from. When you’re all done, click the Save Setting button to exit the dialog.

How to Control Whether You Show Up in Search Results—on Facebook and on Search Engines

The first setting on the Basic Directory Info Page controls who can find you by searching on Facebook.

The default setting is Everyone, which means anyone who searches Facebook can find you. (This doesn’t mean they can see your profile—just the search result itself.) You can restrict your search visibility with the other choices in this menu, which work the same way as the privacy controls already discussed. (But note that there’s no Customize option for this one—the three choices in the menu are Everyone, Friends of Friends, and Friends Only.)

You can also control whether your Facebook profile shows up on search engines like Google or Bing. By default, Facebook creates a Public Search Listing for all personal profiles belonging to users who are over the age of 18. By default this listing doesn’t display your entire profile—just a preview showing some of your basic directory information. The privacy settings you choose for the various parts of your profile determine what can be accessed by search engines—only those parts of your profile for which you choose the Everyone setting can turn up in public search engine results.

But if you don’t want your profile to be found on search engines at all, you can make it completely off-limits to them by turning off your public search listing. To do this, go to the main Privacy Settings page (Account > Privacy Settings) and look for the “Applications and Websites” area.

Click the “Edit your settings” link to go to the Applications, Games, and Websites page and scroll down to the Public Search area.

Click the “Edit Settings” button to go to the Public Search page.

On the Public Search page, deselect the “Enable public search” checkbox shown above, and your public search listing will be removed.

If you’d like to see what your public search listing looks like, you can take a look at it by clicking the “See preview” link. (It’s semi-hidden at the end of the paragraph of text just above the checkbox in the shot above.)

How to Control Who Can Contact You on Facebook

There are two settings toward the top of the Basic Directory Info page that control how (and whether) people can contact you if you aren’t already friends with them on Facebook—by sending you friend requests or Inbox messages. Like the search control, there’s no Customize option for these controls—your choices are Everyone, Friends of Friends, and (for Inbox messages) Friends Only.

As you can see, Facebook does a pretty good job of explaining right on the page why it’s helpful to leave these controls set to Everyone. You might be tempted to restrict the ability of people you’re not friends with to send you Inbox messages in order to prevent spam, but that isn’t really a problem—Facebook is pretty aggressive about preventing users from sending Inbox messages to large numbers of people.

How to Control Who Sees Content You Share

Now that you’ve got your Basic Directory Info locked down, it’s time to look at the main part of the Privacy Settings page: the Sharing on Facebook area. This is where the two levels of privacy controls (Simplified versus Customized) I talked about earlier come into play.

In the shaded column on the left, you can see the four Simplified settings: Everyone, Friends of Friends, Friends Only, and Recommended. Over on the right, you can see a table listing the various elements of your profile that are controlled by these settings: everything from content you post on your Wall (the “My status, photos, and posts” item) to your birthday and contact info.

The Recommended option shown here is chosen by default, and it applies the settings Facebook thinks most people will want. The bullets in the three columns of the table (Everyone, Friends of Friends, and Friends Only) show you who can see which parts of your profile using this option:

  • Everyone can see your status, photos, and other Wall posts; your bio and favorite quotations; and your family and relationships
  • Friends of Friends can see photos and videos you’re tagged in, your religious and political views, and your birthday
  • Friends Only are allowed to comment on your posts, can see places you check into using Facebook’s Places feature, and can see your contact info.

Clicking any of the other Simplified settings on the left-hand side will move the bullets around in the three columns to reflect your new setting. For example, if you choose Friends Only, then all of these profile elements will be visible to only your friends (and you’ll see all of the bullets appear under the Friends Only column heading). Choosing Everyone moves all the bullets into the Everyone column. But note that the Friends of Friends setting behaves somewhat unexpectedly here: Some of the bullets move into the Friends of Friends column, but a few of the most sensitive pieces of data, such as your birthday and contact info, remain in the Friends Only column.

That covers the four Simplified settings. But what if you want precise control over each one of these profile elements? What if you’d like to choose exactly which column each bullet goes into? That’s where the Customized controls come in.

To tailor your settings exactly the way you want, click the “Customize settings” link at the bottom of the table. You’ll arrive at the Customize Settings page, where you’ll see a separate Privacy control for each of the items in the table, with a pop-up menu just like the ones on the Basic Directory Info page. From there you can assign the exact level of privacy you want to each kind of information.

Notice that there are even separate controls for each part of your contact information—your mobile phone number, your e-mail address, and your home address, for example—so that if you choose to share those things you can choose exactly who gets to see them.

How to Use Friend Lists to Fine-Tune Your Control

Privacy settings are one of the places where organizing your friends into Friend Lists (as I encouraged you to do at the beginning of this chapter) really pays off. As we’ve seen, many of the controls in both the Basic Directory Info and the Sharing on Facebook areas include the Customize command, which opens the Custom Privacy dialog. And by plugging your Friend Lists into the Custom Privacy dialog, you can make specific content visible or invisible to entire categories of people you’re friends with on Facebook. You could choose to set your work e-mail so that it’s only visible to co-workers, for instance, or choose to hide the photos you’re tagged in from certain family members.

Here’s an example: Say you want to set your mobile phone number so that it’s only visible to your Trusted Friends list. Go to the Privacy Settings page, click Customize Settings, and scroll down to the Mobile Phone setting in the Contact Information area. From the pop-up menu, choose Customize to open the Custom Privacy dialog.

Then, in the top part of the dialog, under “Make this visible to,” choose Specific People from the pop-up menu.

A field will open that lets you enter the specific people you want to be able to see your mobile phone number. You could type a bunch of friends’ names, of course, but it’s easier to type the name of the Trusted Friends list you’ve created for this very purpose.

The “Hide this from” field in the bottom of the dialog works the same way, only it subtracts people from the audience instead of adding them. This is where you get to put up the velvet rope that blocks access to specific parties. Anyone you enter there will be excluded from viewing the info in question, regardless of whether they belong to any of the categories or Friend Lists you granted access to in the top of the dialog. So if you already have a Friend List called Restricted Access, for example, here’s where you can put it to good use.

How to Preview What Your Profile Looks Like to Other People

Once you’ve got your privacy settings all set up the way you want them, Facebook gives you the ability to view your profile as any specific person you’re friends with will see it—so you can make sure you’re getting the results you intend. So, for example, if you’ve set your controls so that Uncle Leonard can’t see photos you’re tagged in, you can take a look at your profile through Uncle Leonard’s bifocals and make sure he’s seeing what you expect him to.

Here’s how: Go to the Privacy Settings page and click Customize Settings. At the top of the page, click the Preview My Profile button.

On the Preview My Profile page, type Uncle Leonard’s name in the field.

Presto! The profile preview shown in the lower part of the page will magically change to reflect the privacy settings that apply to Uncle Leonard.

How to Block People

If you don’t want any contact with someone else who’s on Facebook, you can block them on the Privacy Settings page. (This is an especially important step to perform if someone has harassed or threatened you in any way—right before you report that person to Facebook. See the upcoming section “Reporting Abuse” for how to do that.) Blocking someone on Facebook not only prevents them from using Facebook to contact or communicate with you on Facebook, it makes you virtually invisible to them—like Harry Potter’s magic cloak.

To block someone, go to the Privacy Settings page and find the Block Lists area at the bottom. Click the “Edit your lists” link to go to the Block List page.

In the “Block users” area, type the name or e-mail address of the person you want to block in the box and click Block This User. Facebook will show you a results page listing people who match what you typed, so that you can pick the precise person whom you want to block. Click Block Person next to the appropriate listing, and presto! You’re done.

What’s the Deal With Social Ads?

From time to time, you may see ads in the sidebar that mention the fact that one or more of your friends have (for example) Liked a certain Page on Facebook or have clicked to confirm that they’ll be attending a certain Event. And by the same token, your friends may see ads that mention your own actions. Facebook calls this form of advertising Social Ads.

It’s important to note that only people who are already your confirmed friends on Facebook will be able to see you appear in Social Ads.

From a privacy standpoint, this isn’t much different from the stories that show up in the News Feed mentioning that you’ve Liked a Page or will be attending an Event. The only differences are that Social Ads appear in the sidebar, and somebody somewhere has paid for them.

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