Websites known as "social networks" or "social media" have become popular lately as a way to stay in touch with family and friends, old and new, as well as to connect with the things that we care about in life. However, there are some who would caution that social media is bringing us too close together, causing people to rather carelessly share information that they normally would keep private. This is not only due to the nature of social media and its emphasis on sharing, but also sometimes because many think that social networks are more private than they actually are.
Like we have said before, this is not at all to suggest that social networks are dangerous places. We are only asking you to remember that social networks are largely public forums, and that a desire to express yourself and connect with others has to be weighed against your preference to keep certain information private. It may seem difficult to strike that balance when you're having fun chatting with new friends and people you know on social media, but there are a few common-sense things that you can do to make sure that you aren't being overly candid when you use a social network like Facebook or Twitter. The following are five important tips to consider.
Before you post anything on social media, you should understand this fundamental rule. Even if you limit what personal information you put on social media, or who can find your information at all, not everyone with whom you interact on social media will be as privacy-wise as you. For the most part, as long as you keep things respectful, people will generally be good about not incessantly sharing information that you post on social media (often only doing so when they find it personally interesting and, of course, appropriate).
However, just remember that once someone else shares your information, it can be shared with anyone whom that person knows, and any people those people know, and so on. Information shared in this manner is nearly impossible to erase, mostly for the sole reason that you can't control what other people do (or have done) with it. Therefore, if you're unsure about whether you should post something on social media, ask yourself these two rule-of-thumb questions:
Would I be comfortable saying this at a party attended by people whom I may or may not know?
Would I be comfortable if someone at the party overheard what I said, and told it to someone else whom they know?
If you can't answer "yes" to both of these questions, then it's probably not a good idea to post whatever you were planning to post on social media.
There are certain credentials that you have to enter when you sign up for a social network account. You will usually be asked for your email address, but depending on the particular social media website, you may also be asked for your gender, birthday, phone number, or even your real name. Generally, this information is requested in order for the website to verify that you're a real person, and not just a computer program or other fake account whose intention is to cause trouble.
However, sometimes this information is optional, and is used to fill out your profile so that people who visit you on social media can get a sense of who you are. If this is the case, then it is perfectly fine to avoid posting this information if you feel that it will impact your privacy too much. At the very least, if it is possible, adjust your settings on the social network to control who can see the personal information on your profile, regardless of whether said information is optional or mandatory (see the next tip).
Of course, it should go without saying that if you wouldn't share something about yourself on your public profile, you probably shouldn't share it in a regular post, either. In the same vein, respect the privacy of your friends and family. Don't post personal information about them on your social networks, and if they post something personal about themselves out of carelessness, don't compound their mistake by sharing that information with anyone else.
Many social media websites have settings that allow you to control who can find and view the information that you post on them, including your profile information (mandatory or otherwise). For instance, you can let everyone see it, only people whom you have personally connected with, or just yourself. Or, you can share your information and posts with specific lists of pre-approved people.
In addition, many social media websites also allow you to control how people can find you on the website if you haven't already connected with them. For example, they may be able to look up your profile based on your email address or phone number, or even find you by using a search engine such as Google Search or Bing. If you aren't comfortable with people finding one of your social network profiles in this manner, adjust these settings to disallow it.
Facebook and Twitter are two popular social media websites that have features like this. To learn how to control who can find and view your Facebook profile or posts, see our How to Change Facebook Privacy Settings and Facebook Lists (for Privacy) tutorials. To learn how to control who can see your tweets (i.e. messages) and other information on Twitter, see our Twitter Privacy tutorial.
Finally, some social media websites have the ability to connect your account and/or profile to your account on another website, and vice-versa. This can be useful, for example, if you want to copy information from your email service to a social network to see if anyone you know through email uses that social network, and save yourself the trouble of looking for each person manually. You may not want to use this capability, however, as it may result in you connecting with certain people whom you normally wouldn't want seeing your activity on social media, such as your boss or doctor.
Generally, you won't run into problems on social media if you're nice to people. It's okay to have differences of opinion, and maybe even a healthy dose of debate or constructive criticism once in a while (if you feel that it's called for). But you should by-and-large stay away from posting information or comments that are deliberately insulting or offensive towards a certain person or group of people.
By the same token, it's also usually not a good idea to impulsively express your anger at something that you find insulting or offensive on social media. It's difficult to convey tone over text messages or comments, so what some people say or post can easily be taken out of context. Plus, the subject matter is almost never directed at you personally, so you might stand out in a bad way if you get angry at something when nobody else who is commenting on the subject does.
Another thing to remember is that social media generally isn't an appropriate place to complain about your personal life. This includes your job and your relationship with your co-workers or clients, or your home life and your relationship with your parents, spouse, siblings, children, or other family members. Even though the people you're complaining to may generally be your "friends", they may also have a reason to report what you say to the person you're complaining about. For example, they could also be "friends" with that person. Or, they just generally think you're a jerk, and embarrassing you by exposing something mean that you did is their way of putting you in your place.
If you act nasty or grumpy around too many people on social media, you can quickly gain a bad reputation. This may cause your friends -- and even their friends or anyone else who knows about you -- to turn the tables on you and start ignoring you or otherwise treating you with disdain. In addition, people have been fired from their jobs in the past because they complained about or were mean to someone on social media. The moral of the story is to make sure that your behaviour on social networks is courteous for the most part.
Many social media websites have functions that allow you to quickly send private messages back and forth between you and other people or groups of people, without anyone else being able to see what you wrote. This can be one way to share information over social media without allowing other people to snoop on it.
Again, Facebook and Twitter are two popular social networks that feature these kinds of private messaging systems. To learn how to use the ones on Facebook, see our Facebook Chat and Facebook Messages tutorials. If you'd like to learn how to chat privately through Twitter instead, see our How to Direct Message on Twitter tutorial.
An even better alternative, however, is to not use social media at all for conveying this kind of information. If you want to share something private with someone you know on social media, find the person's email address or phone number (if possible, and assuming you don't already have one or the other), and send them an email or give them a phone call. Of course, before doing so, make sure that the person whom you're trying to contact is someone whom you trust to tell private information to in the first place!
There! Now you have some common-sense guidelines for how to use social media websites properly. Don't post any optional information that you're not comfortable with revealing, be respectful of the other people whom you interact with (both on and off social media), and consider alternate communication channels if you really need to say something private to someone. Now go make some new friends!
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