You’re probably sharing more than you think on Facebook

If you’re thinking about Facebook privacy right now, you’re probably thinking about Cambridge Analytica, which collected information about hundreds of thousands of Facebook users and tens of millions of their Facebook friends back in 2014, then sold that info to certain political campaigns.  Shady?  Very.  But collecting that kind of data wasn’t actually against Facebook’s policies at the time.

In a much less nefarious use of online data, I’ve been using Facebook as a tool for a family genealogy project.  In addition to tracking back my direct ancestors, I am (in a private, offline format) mapping out my various great-aunts and second cousins and half-cousins once removed.  As a category, these are “people my mom sends Christmas cards to; I might have met them but I don’t really know them.”  My goal here is mostly to be able to remember who they are the next time my mom talks about them.  I’m just collecting basic family tree data: where and when they were born, when they got married and to whom, and if they have any kids.

A lot of this information is available pretty directly on Facebook in people’s public profiles and public posts.  But there’s rather a lot of information available indirectly, too.  For instance, you might have set your birthday to friends-only, but if your timeline is public or friends-of-friends, that annual blast of “Happy Birthday!” posts gives away the day and month.  Add in a few “Happy 49th Birthday!”s, and the year is just basic math.  Another example of indirect sharing: setting your profile picture to a wedding photo to honor your anniversary.

Other potential information leaks:

• The “Family and Relationships” section of your Facebook profile.  Let’s say you’re linked to your niece Jane.  You have that info set to friends-only, but Jane doesn’t, so anyone looking at Jane’s page will know that you’re her aunt.

• Friends lists in general. Very often public, and useful for mapping relationships.

• Your current/past location.  Lots more data, from basic phone book stuff to marriage details, is discoverable from non-Facebook sources once you have a place.  (Fun fact: a great many U.S. counties have publicly searchable marriage license databases.)

• The classic oversharing relative.  I got the full name of one of my cousin’s kids from a hospital picture posted by her mom.

It’s not necessarily bad to have some of your information public, as long as you know about it.  I choose to keep my maiden name publicly visible on my Facebook profile because it helps me connect with friends from college. It’s the information you don’t realize is public that could be concerning.

[Note: I’m really not interested in hearing any more smug takes about how you quit / never joined Facebook; that’s nice, now go congratulate yourself somewhere else.]

Anyone else use Facebook for family history research?

Trimming the social fat

I just finished a thorough purge of my Facebook friends list, leaving me with about 25% fewer “friends.”  It feels marvelous.

In what I imagine has been a fairly common experience this week, the first ones to go were those who, in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, revealed themselves to be racist bigoted jerks.  Once upon a time I might have just hidden these people’s feeds, hoping to check back in on their lives after the storm of hate has blown over, but not anymore.

Because why waste my time on such people?

Recent events might’ve been the nudge that finally pushed me over, but this has been a long time coming.  I joined Facebook back in college, at an age when “friending” everybody you met was the thing to do.  To someone whose life has largely been spent on the outskirts of social groups, this felt like a good thing.  I could connect with people!  I could follow the lives of others and imagine myself a part.

But I’m much pickier now, and more cynical.  There are indeed a number of folks whose lives I enjoy keeping up with, even if it’s just baby announcements and graduation pictures.  There are a modest number of people who appear to enjoy doing the same for me.  We “like” each others’ posts, we smile in passing, we feel a little less alone.

Honestly though, most of my college acquaintances?  I really don’t care all that much about them anymore, and there’s no evidence that they have any interest in me.  We networked, we tried… and it turns out we’re just not friends.

It’s been a non-trivial personal journey to get to the point where I’m OK with that.  I’m shy and anxious and introverted—I don’t have that many real, close friends—so I’ve had a tendency to cling to the faux ones in the subconscious hope that the passage of time will bring us closer.  But in doing so, I use more of my my limited social energy; that energy would be better spent deepening the connections to people with whom I actually connect.

Developing my pseudonymous presence on the web has been very informative in this regard.  Outside the weird social pressures of using my real name, and the automatically reciprocal nature of Facebook’s friend button, I’m free to follow those who interest me and ignore those who don’t.  I’m also free to say what I want, without fear of setting off someone to whom I feel I’m supposed to be “nice.”  It’s freeing, it’s empowering, and I love it.

Facebook’s never going to be that kind of venue for me, in no small part because I’ve chosen to use it to connect with family.  But I can definitely make it a more positive experience, and that starts with sticking up for myself and my time.

Readers, what’s your approach to social media?  Do you keep it small or connect with everyone?