While it claims its roots in dorm rooms, Facebook has become a diverse place, like it or not. With 150 million users, the social networking site claims those people 30 years old or older as its fastest-growing age demographic. More than half of Facebook's users now are outside college. With the diversifying user base comes more complex Friend lists — a reality that presents opportunities and dangers as you blend your work and personal contacts in one place.
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Many professionals may find themselves sharing intimate details of their lives with not only best friends but also work associates. Maybe you've got customers in your Facebook mix too, or even more dangerously, gabby family members who don't understand the merits behind the common term "too much information."
How you manage your Facebook profile, and what information you put into it to satisfy the desires and etiquette rules for all of these groups, while fulfilling your own wish to share, can be quite difficult.
CIO interviewed two experts who shared their insights on building a Facebook profile that keeps these issues in mind. Above all, most people need to look more closely at Facebook's under-utilized privacy settings, our experts urge. Here are five steps to improve your Facebook profile now, before you run into trouble.
Know Who You Want to Friend
Kirsten Dixson, a reputation management and online identity expert, says you should first carefully decide your criteria for adding Friends on Facebook. Friends, itself, is a pretty loaded word now. For most people, "contacts" is probably the more apt word.
If you're someone who strictly wants Facebook to be for only your close personal friends, while leaving a social network such as LinkedIn to connect with your professional contacts, then you need to be clear on that up front and hold to it. These are the people who will post something on your profile, or tag you in a picture.
"Your friends have such an impact on your Facebook profile," Dixson says. You need to ask, 'am I going to connect with social friends? Mix social and professional?' Will you friend anyone? There are no rights and wrongs. It what's right for you."
If you are someone who wants to reserve Facebook for close friends, Dixson says, then you need to draft a cordial response to work people who try to friend you.
"Just be polite and say while you value your working relationship with them, you reserve Facebook for your personal life," she says.
Look — No, Really, Look! — at those Privacy Settings
Many of your Facebook profile management issues can be solved with utilizing the privacy settings in Facebook. After the Beacon advertising incident, where Facebook was criticized by privacy advocates such as Moveon.org, they went back into the workshop and built some of the most sophisticated privacy settings in the social networking market. Unfortunately, says Dr. Mariann Hardey, who pens the blog Practising a Proper Social Demeanor: A Guide to Facebook Etiquette, not many people use them.
"Whilst the level of the privacy in terms of settings is indeed now fairly sophisticated, even to the level where you can specify particular individuals to be included, or distanced from a particular network or information, there is an almost disregard or only latent awareness about the significance of such settings," she wrote CIO in an e-mail.
While it's impossible to know how many Facebook users tinker with the settings, most privacy experts share Hardey's sentiment. Check out our how-to slideshow to learn how to use the Facebook privacy settings in detail).
For starters, the privacy settings can be changed by scrolling your mouse over the "settings" link in the upper right corner of your Facebook home page after you log in. Click on "privacy settings" and then on "Profile" to control who can see what.
It gives you general options to limit views of certain information to groups such as "Only Friends," "Friends and Networks," or "Everyone" on Facebook. A fourth option, and we recommend utilizing it, is "customize," which allows all your friends except certain Friends on your list (such as your boss maybe?).
This could be especially helpful for those "Pictures Tagged of You" category, which tend to lead to the professional horror stories we read about in the news.
"The examples of individuals posting lewd and rude photos to Facebook to then be sacked by their employer is just one example of this," Hardey says. "On the one hand such images represent a personal portrayal of social life intended for only friends, on the other the 'open' access means that such images can be taken out of context and take on new meaning depending on who is looking through them."
Build Up Your Bio
All that being said, Dixson says if you're going to be on Facebook and Friend professional contacts, you shouldn't be afraid to express yourself a bit with interesting content. Otherwise, there's really no point to friending anyone outside your immediate friend circle, she says.
"You need to be somewhat personal on Facebook or people think you're using incorrectly," she says.
So you might compromise a bit, excluding highly personal information while sharing some of the safer stuff. In the basic information fields, Facebook gives you the option to include your religion and politics. Because (in most lines of work) you wouldn't touch those two hot-button topics in a meeting or on your resume — and let's face it, your close friends know your affiliations in those categories anyway — there's really no point in including it, Dixson says.
But, on the other hand, you should feel free to have at it a bit more in the fields for things like music, interests, movies, activities, etc. Yes, a very discerning Friend could read between the lines of your choices here, but it's a risk worth taking if you want to appear social and build social capital.
Many times, Dixson says, you might find some common ground in these areas with professional contacts, leading to a better relationship that can help you in business.
Personal Relationships Matter
There's one other category that's a bit of judgment call, and that's the "relationship status" field in Facebook. On one hand, you must choose whether or not you want to share if you're married or in a significant relationship.
If your spouse or significant other is on Facebook, you have the option to link to their name and profile: "In a relationship with Jane Smith," for instance.
Dixson says some people, even if in relationships, don't fill out the field altogether. Others, she says, choose to add "In a relationship" or "Married" but not add the link to their spouse's or significant others name, believing it's nobody's business.
If you're single, or find that you have relationships not on solid footing, Dixson says, it may be wise not to fill out the field at all. If, for instance, you leave a relationship and that bit of information is broadcasted in your Friends' newsfeeds (which, again, you could shut off in the privacy settings), you don't want a co-worker correlating you being irritable one day at work to that event.
Watch Out for Guilt by Association
Though it's not right, you can be judged professionally by associating yourself with people who behave badly. Voters saw this in Barack Obama's run for the toughest job interview process in the country as his opponents tried to tie him to the 1960s anti-war activist, William Ayers.
On your Facebook page, your friends (even the ones you adore) can be the biggest wild card. In particular, Dixson says to watch for wall posts with inside jokes that someone on your friend list might find offensive.
One way to monitor this: keep yourself updated on key actions that happen on your profile so you can react to them in real-time. Since many of us keep e-mail in our pocket, you can set up e-mail notifications to let you know that someone has commented on your wall or status, or tagged you in a photo from Saturday night. Often, these e-mails include what was said. So if something looks like it doesn't belong, you know to quickly log into Facebook and delete it.
(To set these notifications, go to the "settings" link in the upper right hand corner of your homepage, click on "account settings," and click on the "Notifications" tab).
However you decide to regulate your profile information, Hardey says, it's a work in progress for all of us and, again, remember the power of your privacy settings.
"We are still coming to terms with how to control our own social information," she says. "So the addressing of privacy is in the power of the many, but only on the radar of the few. Which is why this continues to be such a popular topic for my blog."