How does one tweak the privacy and other settings on the world’s most happening social network to play it safe and smart? Karthik Subramanian shares lessons learnt the hard way

Facebook is too hard to resist. But it can become too much to bear too. In recent times, a few of my friends have completely shut themselves out from Facebook after being trolled by strangers. A few others have blocked one another from their respective accounts over arguments that could have easily been avoided had they simply tweaked their settings. And then there are those, who have jumped in rearguard action, over a Facebook ‘friend’ tagging them on a post or photo.

Rapid growth

The world’s largest online social network is growing fast in India, and is among the five fastest growing demographies for some time now. Popular culture brims with Facebook references. The ubiquitous middle-aged ‘Maami’ in formula ‘masala’ movies has started discussing Facebook posts with the heroes and heroines. Lyricists are writing about ‘single’ statuses.

And all of this is contributing to an incredible boom in users. The only problem is not every one who is on Facebook is savvy enough to even go beyond basic tweaking of settings. And by design, Facebook encourages users to share more and more information, and the more personal it gets the better. In fact, its business model is based on this “social recommendation” system.

But here is the problem: privacy and other settings in Facebook are not the easiest to figure out. (Refer info graphic where we try to provide a survival guide.)

Friend or not?

The basic question here is whether the people in your Facebook list of friends are the ones you would consider friends in the real world? Or are they more like acquaintances? Are a few of them just the same as the ones you meet at a conference and exchange business cards with?

Facebook was originally inspired by the College Year Book, an American cultural icon, and sought to connect long lost friends.

But for many, especially after the advent of Twitter, Facebook has become a place to get to know people. Facebook allows users to have 'followers' too. Now there are positive aspects to this too. I know of a few journalists who identify sources and with some diligence even trends on Facebook.

But here is the flipside: you sometimes end up sharing personal information with acquaintances, and involuntarily subject yourself to getting stalked. The ‘newsfeed’ App constantly feeds information to your friends about your activities. Not only is this a joy for stalkers, Facebook itself is also engineered in a way to keep people on your list engaged with the content you share. In the simplest terms, the idea is to encourage users to spend more time on the site. (‘Time Spent on Site’ is an important metric to attract advertisers.)

Facebook seems to have kept its ear to the ground, and has started taking rearguard action in the past year, especially in the wake of pro-privacy lobbies in the U.S. and in Europe. Culturally, they seem to care a bit more about their personal data.

Survival tips

For starters, the social network has revised its lists to allow users to segregate their friends into different categories: close friends, acquaintances, restricted profiles and even user-generated lists. Different categories will get a different peek at what you do: close friends will get to know the most, ‘acquaintances' a bit more but not everything, and those on ‘restricted profiles’ will only learn the public posts.

It is possible now to classify your friends even while adding a friend request. Just click the drop down box to see this option.

In terms of what we share via status messages, Facebook has brought in a layered approach. Users can share their status messages with the 'public,' ‘friends’ or ‘friends except acquaintances’.

(Refer the infographic on how to do this.)

So where to start, you might ask, having soaked in all this information. Start where I did. I reviewed my list of friends. I had 665 friends in all. Within half-an-hour, I was left with 15 ‘close friends,’ 50 ‘friends’ and 600 ‘acquaintances’. It was a bit laborious and repetitive. But it was the most useful time I have spent on Facebook yet.