Learn to use the privacy controls on your online social networks. Every website with a social component (Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, etc.) gives you some measure of control over who sees your updates. You should use them, even if they aren’t foolproof.
After all, not everyone wants — or needs — to see your daily shirtless self portraits. Or your latest Super Lawyers nomination.
Rule no. 1: Everything you do online is public
Privacy controls do not make your updates private. Anyone who sees your updates can preserve them and share them with anyone else. They can do this by taking a screenshot, downloading the media, or copying the text. Then, they can put it anywhere they like, public or not.
No matter what you do online, you should assume it is public. Essentially, it is, starting with the fact that you have entrusted your update to a third party (the company providing the service) in order to distribute it.
But not everyone is interested in everything you have to say
So why bother with privacy controls? For one thing, because not everyone cares about everything you have to say.
I am e-friends with a lot of people I don’t really know. I am also e-friends with a lot of people I kind of know. And, of course, I am e-friends with a lot of people I know really well, like my close friends and family. (I think “e-friends” is funny to write.)
But on Facebook, for example, I usually post updates about my kids and pictures of espresso and cocktails. Nobody but my friends and family probably care about those things, so I rarely include anyone else in my updates.
Flooding your friends and followers with information they don’t care about is a great way to get them to un-friend you or turn off your updates. You probably don’t (or shouldn’t) care about people you don’t know un-friending you, but you probably will care if your actual friends shut you off. It kind of defeats the purpose of social networking if you can’t brag to your friends about your 1-year-old’s latest accomplishment (counting to 6, if you want to know, although 5 is sort of optional).
Facebook has a convenient Friends except Acquaintances setting that has become my default. Acquaintances get added to that list when we connect, and they don’t see any of my personal updates. Google+ has Circles that are easy to use the same way. Flickr has built-in Friends and Family relationship for your contacts.
Spend a few minutes sorting your contacts, so that you aren’t posting your law firm updates to people who don’t care about them, and so people you don’t know very well (or at all) aren’t seeing pictures of your latest thrift-shop acquisition. Unless that’s your thing, for some reason. The fewer groups you have, the easier they will be to manage. (Note that Facebook auto-sorts, as well. It’s easy to find everyone you know in the same town, for example. I don’t think any other online social network does this, yet, but I wish more would.)
(n.b.: Twitter doesn’t have much in the way of privacy settings. You can protect your tweets (make them invitation-only), but that kind of defeats the purpose of Twitter.)
And some things aren’t any of some people’s damn business
For another thing, you may not want some people to see what you are posting, even if it wouldn’t be horrible if they did. It’s none of your boss’s business that you ordered margaritas at the wet bar in Jamaica and took pictures of the cabana boys in Speedos, but maybe it wouldn’t be a big deal if he found out.
My wife and I have decided not to publish pictures of our kids on Facebook. Instead, we use Flickr to share our family photos, and we use the built-in privacy controls to limit the people who can see them. We know Fickr’s privacy controls are no guarantee, but they make it less likely our pictures will “escape” while still making it easy to share photos. If you aren’t a friend or family member, pictures of my daughter sitting on the toilet for the first time are just none of your damn business. But if you saw them, it wouldn’t be a big deal, either.
Don’t post anything online you wouldn’t want anyone to see
Remember, though: nothing is private. It is one thing to segment your social networks so you aren’t pissing off your friends or showing honeymoon pictures to strangers; it is another thing entirely to post pictures of yourself doing body shots at your old frat house during homecoming. Unless, I guess, you work at a particular sort of place.
If you don’t want the world to see something, don’t put it online. If you decide to put something online, take a moment to think which part of your online world you want to see it, and set your privacy controls accordingly.