First off - I love Facebook.

But it is also dangerous.  Dangerous enough to keep you from getting a job.  Dangerous enough to get your fired.  And, frankly, dangerous enough to get you killed. 

Ironically, Facebook can be even more dangerous to you if you're NOT a Facebook user than if you are.

Facebook is like a sexually transmitted disease

I would make the argument that the risks posed by Facebook are similar to the risks you face when you have sex.  Even if you are disease free, your risk of getting a sexually transmitted disease is proportional to the sexual history of YOUR HIGHEST RISK PARTNER and the protections you took in your contact with them. 

Yes, the more partners you have, the higher your risk of getting an STD.  Having more partners does just one thing for your likelihood of getting an STD: it increases the odds that you will have sex with someone who is infected. 

You could have sex with a thousand partners.  If none of them are infected, none of you will get an STD.  Or you could have sex with just one person and find yourself HIV positive.

Facebook is like that. One 'friend' identifies ('tags') you in a picture of from college or with your arm around an opposite sex colleague or dressed in a risque Halloween costume.  Their privacy settings are set to 'public' - anyone can see.  Suddenly a casual Facebook search by a potential employer keeps you from getting a job.

Facebook risk is also like the risk of getting a sexually transmitted disease in that it does not increase linearly with the number of friends you have.  In the picture below, you have added two friends to your Facebook network.  But, looking at the 'friends of friends' you've added, you now have a network of twelve.  Unless you set your privacy settings properly, anything you post, and anything they post about you, will be seen by all these people. If their settings are 'public', anyone with a Facebook account can see.

If your Facebook friends are like mine, some of your 'friends' are quite 'promiscuous' and have 'friends' numbering in the hundreds.  A few 'friends' like that - especially with low privacy settings - and you are very exposed indeed.

Unless you trust each and every one of them with all the material you and your 'friends' have up there on Facebook, you should change your privacy settings.

You've added two friends, but gained a network of twelve

Why Facebook Is Dangerous

This point was brought home to me forcibly as I was going through the Facebook page of a group of Peace Corps volunteers.  I was looking for pictuers of someone I knew.  His Facebook account was locked down pretty hard because he had been on the job market the year before.  A casual search of the internet brought up no untowards mentions of his name and no pictures at all.  A Facebook search brought up his page - with a completely innocuous photo of a muppet and just enough information to know where he had gone to school. 

Once I friended him, however, I realized he was in serious trouble.  Photo after photo of him showed pictures that would not have given his mother pause, but WOULD have raised questions from a potential employer, or a supervisor, or a 'friended' acquaintance from a very different cultural context.

Clicking through his 'friends list' - which was visible to me now as a fellow 'friend' - I saw many similar pictures on the sites of people he knew.  Typical college pictures of parties, a bit of drinking, and kids just fooling around.

His site was locked down more tightly than those of many of this high achieving, clean cut group of young adults.  I only saw his problem photos as a 'friend'.  Going through HIS list of 'friends' (which are often visible to casual browsers) I saw many photos I wouldn't want to show to someone who didn't know me and who I was hoping would hire me. Or to the parents of a girlfriend or boyfriend. Or to a potential housemate. Or an ex-spouse.

Typical young adult photos.  And easily misinterpretted.

Just because you haven't posted pictures of yourself, doesn't mean 'friends' haven't tagged you.

When I talked to my friend and expressed my concern, he was honestly puzzled.  He hadn't posted one picture of himself.  Not even a Profile picture.

Where had the problematic pictures come from?  People he knew had 'tagged' him.  And Facebook had helped.

His old girlfriends, roommates from college, and random acquaintances from his dorm had all posted pictures on THEIR Facebook pages.  And, by default now, Facebook looks at those pictures, uses facial recognition software, and suggest that they tag you.  Then 'friends' put tags on them so they can share photos with you.  Or friends of friends go on the site, see the pictures, and add tags. 

  • If their sites are set with high privacy settings, you would never know that - especially if you haven't 'friended' them.
  • If their sites are set with low privacy settings and your site is set up properly, you would know (and could remove the tags if you chose), and they wouldn't show up on your own profile.  People could see the photos, but they'd have to find them through the other person (they couldn't be searched), and they'd have to recognize you themselves.
  • However, if their privacy settings are low and so are yours, everyone who you 'friend' sees every picture anyone out there puts on their site and labels as you.
  • And if their privacy settings are low enough, anyone can search for your name and all those pictures of you show up, whether they have friended you or not.

Your boss.  A co-worker.  Your ex-boyfriend.  A potential employer.  The bigoted landlord who says he won't rent to 'those types'.

And that's a scary thing. 

With Facebook, you can lose your ability to shape the self that you present to the public.  And Facebook as a VERY long memory.

Not being on Facebook increases your vulnerability

Many people - both young and old - have told me that these dangers are the reason they're not on Facebook.  They think staying off Facebook means they're safe.

They're wrong.

If you have an account with Facebook, you can tell them to notify you every time someone 'tags' (identifies) you in a photo (see below).  You can leave the tag or remove it (go to the offending photos on your page, and click on it to see the options).  You can leave it, but have it not appear on your site.  You can request the person remove the photo.

Being on Facebook gives you control:  Here's how

Just as you can get a sexually transmitted disease if you have sex, you can get in trouble on Facebook.

But protection reduces risk. 


Important note: the suggestions I am making will tell you where to look to control your settings.  One of the more frustrating things about Facebook is that they keep changing how it works.  So check yourself to see what the options are.  What I wrote was true on the day I wrote this post.  It changed last week.  It may change tomorrow.  BE CAUTIOUS.


First, look at the PRIVACY SETTINGS under ACCOUNT in the upper right part of your screen and set your DEFAULTS.    

  • There are three major options. These control who sees most of what you post
    • Public means everything you post can be seen by anyone on Facebook
    • Friends means what you post can be seen only by your friends
    • Custom allows you to choose who to see or not see a post. By default, it opens all your posts up to friends of friends.

Next,  change HOW YOU CONNECT

This is really important if you are looking for a job or to protect yourself from people who you do not know well .

In this section of PRIVACY SETTINGS, you can change who can FIND YOU by searching, who can send you FRIEND REQUESTS, and WHO CAN SEND YOU MESSAGES.  If you want to use Facebook as a way of contacting old friends and acquaintances, you can keep these options fairly open (or public) because they are things that you control.  You can always 'ignore' friend requests from people you don't know, like, or want to share information with.

WHO CAN POST ON YOUR WALL is more dangerous, in that these posts are out of your control and can potentially be seen by people other than yourself.  Unless you change your settings, you have no control over them. 

You  probably don't want random strangers to post on your wall. 

Depending on how wide your circle of 'friends' is, you might want or might not want to limit access.  Who sees those posts is determined by the next option "Who sees Wall Posts By Others" on your Profile.  If you're comfortable with anyone seeing them, make them Public or allow Friends to see them.  If you're not, you can set it so you can get messages, but no one else can see them. 


Tags are notes identifying you in things that you or other people post.  For example, my sister put up a picture of our family and 'tagged' a picture of me as a 13 year old.  She has also 'tagged' me in posts to her own Facebook page that she thought I might be particularly interested in (I was). 

By default, Facebook notifies me when someone 'tags'  me.  That's good.  It means that I get to look at pictures of myself that have gone up.  And it also draws my attention to things I might be particularly interested in.

THE DARK SIDE OF TAGS is that tagged photographs automatically go up on your profile for your friends to see unless you stop it from doing so. (Look at the left side of your screen and you'll see all the pictures of recently tagged friends.

  • To stop others from freely tagging you, go to PROFILE REVIEW. Click ON. The tags and pictures are still there (whoever the tagger was controls who sees their material). But it isn't immediately shared with YOUR Facebook friends unless you say it's okay.
  • TAG REVIEW makes it so that if someone adds a tag to something you posted, you have to approve it before it goes public. This keeps you from being part of the problem. For example, if I put up an embarassing picture of my kids, no one can go to my site, tag them, and have the picture show up on their Facebook page unless I approve that tag.
  • PROFILE VISIBILITY controls who sees items tagged for you. For example, say a 'friend' tagged me in an post on (pick your favorite taboo topic). Or they tagged a photograph with my name.  That item would automatically be posted to my profile for others to see UNLESS I CHANGED PROFILE VISIBILITY. I could change it to Public, to FRIENDS OF FRIENDS (a potentially huge number of people), to FRIENDS (who you have personally approved), or to a custom setting (ONLY YOU, for example).
  • TAG SUGGESTIONS allows you to turn off the facial recognition feature of Facebook. By default, when your 'friends' put up pictures, Facebook tries to identify them by searching its database - which is pretty darn good. If other pictures of you have been tagged, it is likely it will recognize you and suggest your name. UNLESS YOU TURN THIS FEATURE OFF. In that case, your face is out of database. I would turn this OFF.
  • FRIENDS CAN CHECK YOU IN. Do you really want your friends be able to announce where you are? Even if you're not there? Turn this OFF.

You can make all these changes retrospective by LIMITING THE AUDIENCE FOR PAST POSTS.

FINALLY, REVIEW YOUR PHOTOS.  If you click on your Profile picture and look at the list of items below it, you'll see something that says 'photos'. THIS IS A MAJOR DANGER ZONE you won't see unless you look for it.  My Peace Corps friend had never checked, because he knew he'd never posted pictures.

When you click 'photos' you'll see both all the pictures YOU posted, but also pictures that other people posted who they tagged as being you (they might or might not be).  Think of the most embarassing picture ever taken of you.  It could be there.  If you don't look, you'll never know.

Your own photos will be up top.  Ones others have posted of you are below.  If you click on them, you'll see options.  You can ADD tags.  You can also remove them. 

  • If you click on 'remove from profile', your friends won't see it, but whoever the poster shared it with will.
  • If you click on Remove Tag (it's way down on the bottom), you can remove the tag that tells people that photograph is you.  Clicking on it allows you to:
    • Remove the tag (the picture stays, but it can't be found through a search for you)
    • Ask them to remove the photo (always an option if you find it truly offensive)

For most typical college photos, removing the tags and removing them from your Profile page will do the trick. 

And, while you're at it, make your 'friend' list invisible to others.  It keeps people from browsing for dirt.

Changing those settings radically reduces the odds that Facebook will get you in trouble.

At least a little.

For more tips on Facebook Privacy

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