Social Media and Social Network Privacy

How does privacy work on social media and social networks?

Privacy on social media is a rather delicate balancing act.  On the one hand, the idea behind social media is to put yourself out there and share interests and things in common so that you can make friends.  On the other hand, social networks are relatively public forums, and so there are sometimes ways for people to see certain content that may have been intended to be private.

For example, many social networks allow you to control who can see your original posts, such as how Facebook does:

While this is useful, it's by no means foolproof, since someone who was supposed to see your content can potentially share it with someone who wasn't supposed to see it.  And, like many other websites, social networks themselves can track your activity while using them, and use the information that they collect on you to show you certain posts and advertisements while hiding others.  See our Privacy Policies article to learn how this is spelled out for you in the privacy policies of websites, and our Case Study: Facebook Privacy Policy article for an example of how it's spelled out on a social network like Facebook.

Anyway, in addition to taking some of the privacy precautions that we went over in our Tracking and Sale of Internet Usage Data article, here are some extra things to think about when trying to protect your privacy while using social media.

Tips for staying private on social media and social networks

1. Remember: once your information is shared, you aren't in control of it anymore.

This is the number one thing to remember on social media.  Even if you restrict who can see the original content that you post on social media, many social networks have the ability for people to copy and share content that someone else has posted.  So, someone could potentially see something that you post that you intended to be private, and easily share it with other people whom they know (whether you know them or not).  Those people could share your information with people whom they know, and so on.

Few social networks have settings that restrict this sharing activity, and you often aren't allowed to delete these copied posts (since you aren't the one who made them).  This makes information posted on social media virtually impossible to erase, so think carefully before you post it in the first place.

2. Don't post any optional information if you're not comfortable doing so.

Some personal information is necessary on most social networks, such as your email address, birthday, or real name.  This is largely to prevent people from abusing these types of websites by repeatedly creating fake accounts and using them to harass others.

Many other types of information are not mandatory and are simply used to help people get to know you better.  However, this information can sometimes be seen by people whom you didn't intend to see it, and by companies that track your data to sell you advertisements or show you certain posts instead of others. 

Remember, you're by-and-large in control of whether or not your information makes it onto the Internet in the first place.  As a general rule of thumb, if you don't have to post information about yourself, and you wouldn't feel comfortable telling someone this information at a party attended by friends and strangers alike, then don't put it on social media.

3.  Use the privacy settings that are available on a social network.

While they're nowhere near a guarantee, privacy settings on social networks can help to keep your information away from people who aren't supposed to see it.  For example, on Facebook, you can choose to make your posts visible by the public, by only your "friends" (i.e. people you've connected with), or just by you.  You can even sort your "friends" into categories, and make certain posts visible by some categories of people and not others.  Or, on Twitter, you can force people to request to connect with you (which you can allow or reject), and only show your posts to people whom you're connected with.

4. Don't make yourself a target for negative attention.

It's okay to have disagreements and perhaps give a bit of constructive criticism from time to time.  However, don't go out of your way to insult, criticize, put down, or offend other people on social media.  Remember, they can easily share what you post with their friends to show everyone what a jerk you are, and then people may start feeding your nasty behaviour back to you.

And even if you think you're hiding behind an anonymous user name, there are often hints that you leave on social media that can let people figure out who you really are.  Some may even use your online behaviour to get you in trouble in real life with your employer, or even the police.  So the best policy is to treat everyone you meet on social media with as much courtesy and respect as possible.

5.  If you have something private to say, consider alternate channels.

If you really need to say something privately to someone, you probably shouldn't do so over social media.  Granted, there are some private messaging and chat tools on social networks that allow you to communicate privately with other users, but you should probably only use these if you don't know the person well enough to know some other contact details about them.  If the person is familiar enough to you that you know another way to reach them, consider sending them an email or having a phone call with them instead.

Private social networks

Certain people believe that major social networks -- such as Facebook and Twitter -- have tipped the privacy balance too far towards catering to advertisers and other snoopers at the expense of keeping your personal information and interactions manageable.  Some of these people have decided to do something about that by creating their own social networks with better privacy features, such as:

  • Not tracking your activity

  • Not forcing you to use your real name

  • Not showing you advertisements

  • Not giving any information that you provide them with to anyone else

  • Limiting the number of people whom you can connect with

  • Creating miniature social networks that run on independent server computers

Some of the more well-known private social networks include:

 

And that's a brief guide to protecting your privacy on social media and social networks!

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