07.20.12

How to Stay on Facebook and Protect Your Privacy at the Same Time

Facebook has shown repeatedly that it won’t protect your personal data, but that’s no reason to give up on the site. Jesse Singal explains how you can make your Facebook experience smoother.

Earlier this month, Reuters reported that police in South Florida arrested a 30-something man who was trying to meet up with a 13-year-old girl. How did they know? The two had had a conversation about sex over Facebook that the social-media giant flagged and passed on to police.

Sure, it’s a happy outcome in this case—a young girl is safe and a creepy man is off the streets, for now. But it highlights how Facebook has doubled down on its assertion that it owns everything we share on the site, and can do with it whatever it wants. Given Facebook’s previous privacy controversies, is there any reason to think that this monitoring won’t become broader—if it hasn’t already?

The problem is that once you’re on it and using it even semiregularly, Facebook is a difficult site to leave. Plus, most of your friends are already there, and as a result there’s a lot of social pressure to remain a member (and even if you do try to leave, there’s a good chance Facebook won’t fully honor your request for a separation.

So I propose a new way to deal with this dilemma, based on what I call the Chubby Toddler Theory of Facebook.

The idea is simple: If you have a chubby toddler with an insatiable sweet tooth, you don’t put him up for adoption—you just keep him away from the sweets. Empty the pantry or put the candy in a high cupboard or simply keep a closer eye on the kid.

A similar logic can be applied to our relationship with Facebook. We should be treating it like an out-of-control toddler that gorges itself on our data—all of it, from our photos to our musical interests to our ostensibly personal and private communications. Some of this can be chalked up to the pressure on Facebook to better monetize its services in the wake of its IPO—pressure that has already led to plenty of tension between the site and its users.

So for those who don’t want to kick Facebook to the curb, the guiding principle is straightforward: for each decision you make about your use of the site, simply ask, “Does this feature benefit me, or does it benefit Facebook?” With that in mind, here are five ways to make your relationship with Facebook less dysfunctional.

1. Cull your friends list. This has been suggested before, mostly as a way to declutter our lives. The sad, borderline-mentally-disturbed part is that I often click into, say, the honeymoon photos of a couple I talked to once and will never again see in my life. I don’t think I’m alone in this strange habit, and it fits neatly into research suggesting that rudderless Facebook browsing may make us unhappy.

But Facebook benefits from all this: more connections between people means more content means more clicks means more ads means more revenue. So ask yourself: do you benefit from having 1,400 “friends”? Probably not. So delete away—there won’t be any awkward emails, because they don’t know you, either.

2. Get rid of your interests. One of the most chronic symptoms of being 20 years old—which I was when I signed up for Facebook—is the delusional belief that people care what music and movies and authors you like. My Facebook page still reflects that—Modest Mouse and Cursive and El-P. So exciting!

But who cares? And what do I gain from having this information listed? My actual friends are all too aware of my taste in music. Facebook cares: this stuff is marketing gold.

3. Stay away from Timeline. For months, Facebook has been trying to get users to activate its new Timeline feature, in which users build a chronological list of basically everything they’ve already done.

Nothing better illuminates why the chubby-toddler calculation matters. As a user, you have nothing to gain from putting a massive chunk of detailed information about your life onto Facebook. Unless it’s very, very important to you that friends and sort-of-friends know that in June 2006 you went to Cabo, this one’s tilted entirely in Facebook’s favor. Remember: more information means more money.

Step 1: Cull your friends. More connections between people means more content means more clicks means more ads means more revenue.

4. Check your settings every month. Facebook has an unfortunate history of messing around with users’ settings, including their privacy settings—the one part of their experience that you would think would be sacrosanct. So set a reminder to yourself to go into your settings on the first of every month and make sure no one has monkeyed around with them. Boring? Yes. Important? Also yes. Unless you want your email address to be listed as an incomprehensible string of numbers @facebook.com.

5. Participate in as few Facebook tie-in apps as possible. Facebook wants to know what music you’re listening to (via Spotify) and what articles you’re reading (via The Washington Post and countless other news sites). Don’t sign up. If you already have, uninstall them.

First of all, these apps are annoying and intrusive. As Slate’s Dave Weigel put it in a Tweet: “ ‘I really like Facebook social reader apps!’ —No one ever.” But more substantively, they reflect yet another opportunity for the chubby toddler to reach for the cookie jar, to stuff its face with all of our online habits and sell them to marketers who target us with ads.

That’s all you have to do to continue enjoying Facebook and protect your privacy at the same time.

It’s pretty easy, given the warm glow of new technological innovation and cool-seeming new features and apps, to forget that software like Facebook is allegedly about us, about making our lives easier and more fun and better organized. Everything we do on the site should benefit us, not a giant company that appears to have little to no interest in protecting our privacy.