How to avoid making one of the 10 worst Facebook mistakes

It's easy to drop your guard while socializing with your friends on Facebook, but careless friending, posting, liking, and sharing jeopardizes more than just your reputation and privacy -- it can also cost you your job.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
8 min read

People use Facebook in very different ways. Most Facebook users update their status only a couple times a month or not at all, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center Internet & American Life Project. In fact, one in six Facebook users has never posted a status update.

On the other hand, women on Facebook average 21 updates per month, and men six updates each month, according to the survey, which was published last May.

As many Facebook users quickly learn, the social network is not without its risks. This is especially true for people whose Facebook profile reveals personal details to strangers. You owe it to your friends and to yourself to prevent your Facebook activities from having any negative consequences.

Here are 10 ways to ensure a trouble-free Facebook experience.

1) Don't friend your coworkers
Everybody knows you have to keep your work life and private life separate, yet people's Facebook friends lists often bridge the two worlds. You can create a separate group for work friends and post accordingly, but the possibility of an unflattering post circulating at your workplace makes this an iffy proposition.

A safer approach is to maintain separate Facebook accounts for your professional and private lives. Then again, you could reserve your professional social networking to LinkedIn, which is tailored to your work life.

2) Don't fall for the scams
In the past week friends have posted the fake lotto winner's alleged offer to share his millions and the equally fake Facebook copyright declaration. When a friend falls for one of the many Facebook scams, I usually send the person a private message, but I often comment with a correction.

Facebook scams will only proliferate and get more clever as the service's popularity increases. The best way to avoid falling for a fake Facebook post is to search for corroborating information about the post's topic before you like, comment, or share. The general rule of wishful thinking applies: the more you want to believe the post, the less likely it is legitimate.

Of course, this advice flies in the face of the Facebook click-jerk response mechanism: people tend to click as an emotional response to the things their friends post. Perhaps their guard is down because Facebook feels like a private network, especially if you've made your profile private (see the next tip for more on preventing strangers from viewing your Facebook profile).

3) Don't over-share personal information
Last Friday a Facebook friend sent me a message following an unpleasant exchange he had in a Facebook forum. Someone my friend didn't know took offense at something he said and then found out where he worked by accessing his public Facebook profile. My friend was concerned that the person would contact his employer.

I sent him a link to a post from last August titled "Five-minute Facebook security checkup" that describes how to tweak Facebook's privacy settings and how to view your profile as the public views it.

4) Don't friend strangers
As I mentioned above, people use Facebook in very different ways. Lots of folks consider their Facebook profile an open book. They share the details of their lives liberally with anyone who cares to listen.

Most of us are more circumspect, to varying degrees. In March 2011 CNET's Don Reisinger reported on a Harris Interactive survey that found 18 percent of men accepted a social-network friend request from an unknown woman, 7 percent of women accepted a friend request from an unknown man, and 5 percent of all social-network users accept any friend request.

Even if you avoid friending strangers, you might have reason to think twice before adding people you know to your list of Facebook friends. Last week CNET's Tim Hornyak reported on a study by the University of Edinburgh School of Business (PDF) that found more Facebook friends equates to more stress.

5) Don't become an unpaid product promoter (unless you want to)
When one of your friends likes a Facebook ad, a post to that effect may appear in your news feed. As the Facebook Help Center explains, each time you like a Facebook ad, the connection is shown in your timeline. You may also appear on the vendor's page and in ads about the page.

In addition, the advertiser can then post content to your news feed and send you messages. The connection may also be shared with third-party apps. Facebook points out that you can unlike most ads right away and control your connections via your profile and privacy settings (see #3 above for instructions on tweaking your Facebook privacy settings).

A post from last May titled "Limit your participation in Facebook social ads" described the social-ad opt-out options in Facebook's privacy settings. Here are the steps in a nutshell:

Click the down arrow next to Home in the top-right corner of the main Facebook screen. Choose Privacy Settings, scroll to Ads, Apps and Websites, and click Edit Settings to the right. Scroll to Ads and click Edit Settings again. Select "Edit social ads setting" under "Apps and friends," choose "No one" in the drop-down menu, and click Save Changes.

Facebook social-ads settings
Select "No one" on the drop-down menu under "Ads and friends" to opt out of participating in Facebook's social-ads program. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Note that this setting won't block your friends' ad likes from appearing on your news feed. To manage the posts you receive from a friend, use the inline audience selector that appears when you hover over a post and click the down arrow in the post's top-right corner.

6) Don't try to be ironic or sarcastic
As a medium of communication, the Internet leaves much to be desired. It's just too easy to be misunderstood, especially when making off-the-cuff comments in response to other people's posts. And particularly when you're trying to make a joke.

Way back in the primordial Internet era of 1995, software engineer Tom Van Vleck devised a code of network behavior he calls the USENET pledge. Van Vleck explains the reasons for online decorum in his astute essay on The Risks of Electronic Communication.

Tom Van Vleck's USENET Pledge
Software engineer Tom Van Vleck composed his seven rules of online behavior in the early days of the Internet, but they apply more broadly today than when they were created. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Three of Van Vleck's points bear repeating: jokes often fall flat online because they depend on tone of voice; even when you add a smiley or "just kidding" qualifier, someone will take your attempt at sarcasm or irony literally and be righteously offended; and when you're angry, walk away from the keyboard -- once you're thinking clearly you'll see that there's almost always a better way to get your point across.

7) Don't let friends tag you in embarrassing or unflattering photos
In June 2011 I described how to remove embarrassing YouTube videos and untag Facebook photos. Earlier this year Facebook added the ability to review the photos friends tag you in before they're posted.

To access Facebook's Profile and Tagging controls, click the down arrow next to Home in the top-right corner of the main window and choose Privacy Settings. Scroll to Profile and Tagging and click Edit Settings. The options are described under "See your profile as other see it" in "Five-minute Facebook security checkup."

8) Don't send private messages via wall posts
Last September Facebook users in France thought their private messages were appearing on people's timelines. As CNET's Zack Whittaker reported, the French government's data-protection agency determined that no breach of private data occurred.

The agency concluded that the messages were in fact Wall-to-Wall posts that the Facebook users may have thought were sent as private messages. It seems many people simply can't distinguish wall posts, status updates, and messages.

Being unclear on the Facebook concept leads to some embarrassing moments, such as those described on Website Blueprint. I cringed when I read about the person who stated in a status update that she hated her job and her boss but forgot that she had friended her boss, who fired her in his comment.

Even worse was the person who found out his parents were divorced when his mother changed her Facebook relationship status to "single." Perhaps there should be an automatic delay for Facebook updates about such life-changing events.

9) Don't let Facebook jam your inbox with notifications
According to a recent Statcrunch survey, women Facebook users visit the site an average of 8.2 times each day, and men 7.8 times per day. The median number of daily visits is four times for women and three times for men, which indicates some people open their Facebook account dozens of times a day, while many others rarely do so.

Considering that you probably check your Facebook account at least a couple of times a day on average, do you really need Facebook to send you e-mail notifications each time one of your friends posts something?

To adjust the frequency of Facebook notifications, click the down arrow next to Home in the top-right corner of the main Facebook window and choose Account Settings. Select Notifications in the left pane, click Edit next to Email, choose "Only notifications about your account, security and privacy," and click Close.

Facebook notification settings
Control the flow of Facebook e-mail notifications via the options in your Account Settings. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

You can also choose to receive notifications via e-mail, on Facebook, or not at all for activities by the people you've designated as close friends as well as for tag notifications, group posts, and app notifications.

Granted, an overflowing inbox is not usually a serious threat to a Facebook user's quality of life, but consider the time you'll save by not having to delete or scroll through pointless notifications to get to your important messages. Doesn't Facebook already eat up enough of your spare time?

10) Don't let Facebook track you
When it was revealed last year that Facebook was tracking users even after they sign out of their account, the company's response was "trust us," as CNET's Chris Matyszczyk reported in the Technically Incorrect blog.

Facebook reportedly altered its tracking cookies subsequently to prevent such snooping, but the Facebook cookies still retain some non-personal information, as researcher Nic Cubrilovic explains on his New Web Order blog.

In a post from August 2011 titled "Five ways to avoid being tracked on the Web," I described several browser add-ons that let you allow or delete ads and tracking cookies on a site-by-site basis. The post also explained how to set Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Google Chrome to delete cookies and other trackable information automatically when you close the programs.

A post I wrote in June 2011 gives step-by-step instructions for disabling third-party cookies in IE, Firefox, and Google Chrome. Cookie management becomes even more important as Facebook prepares its View Tags tracking program for advertisers, as Josh Constine explains on TechCrunch.

Read Lance Whitney's take on Facebook's View Tags program and other new features planned by the company on the Internet & Media blog.