By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, July 19, 2007
Social-networking sites like the big three -- MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn -- act as a sort of shared address book, letting people post profiles, leave notes for one another and find out whom they know in common.
That concept is nothing special, so numerous companies have made a run at it. But competition among networks has allowed people to engage in a kind of multiple-personality disorder, confining personal and work lives to different sites. You could stay in touch with your drinking buddies at MySpace, then schmooze with your business partners at LinkedIn.
But life isn't always that neat. And when the private and professional overlap at these sites, you can spend more time worrying about your image than building your network.
That's a hazard with all of these sites, but in particular with Facebook, which hit the 30 million-user mark last week .
I'm dealing with this issue myself. I was once a purely recreational user of Facebook: All of the friends I had listed there were people I'd known and trusted for years, whether I'd met them at school, afterward or on the job. But now my job is spilling over into my space, so to speak.
I initially liked Facebook in part because its rules gave me a comfortable level of privacy. Unlike MySpace, which normally exposes a person's identity to all visitors, Facebook reveals your details only to people who have a connection with you -- a degree from the same school, a paycheck from the same company, an acquaintance in the same city.
Facebook also differs from MySpace by looking suitable for business as well as pleasure. If MySpace -- a junkyard of blinking ads and badly organized links -- is a frat house, the clean design of Facebook makes it a coffeehouse. (The fun-free LinkedIn might as well be the airport.)
So I shouldn't have been surprised when my co-workers started becoming Facebook friends too. It would have been rude to decline their requests, not least since some were my bosses. My Facebook exposure kept increasing, and my Facebook social life started getting broader and shallower than the real thing.
Earlier this year, I began receiving friendship invitations from people whom I'd never met outside of work: publicists, marketers and lobbyists. Are they friends, too?
By the book definition, no. I may break bread with these folks and enjoy talking with them, but that doesn't mean they'll be invited to dinner at my house. Then again, denying their friend requests outright -- in effect, saying "I don't know you" -- doesn't seem an appropriate response to this situation.
We deal with this in real life by using words like buddy, acquaintance, source and contact to distinguish different levels of closeness. But on the Web, it's too easy to be reduced to a binary universe of "friend" or "not friend."
Facebook says that it still caters to nonbusiness relationships. "It's much more about actual friends," said Chris Kelly, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company's chief privacy officer. (Disclosure: As my Facebook profile shows, he and I go back to college.)
For those who find their work and home worlds merging, Facebook provides a long list of customizable privacy settings. (MySpace and LinkedIn offer much less flexibility. MySpace only permits three levels of profile visibility: public, over-18 users only or friends only.)
The most useful Facebook option is the "limited profile" that you can present to certain people -- a Work Me in the place of the After-Work Me my friends might get to see.
But Facebook also lets users fine-tune dozens of other aspects of your online identity, including which parts of your profile are visible to whom and what sort of communication you'll welcome from others. You can also hide applications you've added that, for example, map your travels or graph your political leanings, if you prefer to keep those private.
Most Facebook users, however, don't touch those options. Kelly said only 20 percent of them "have made any tweak to their privacy settings," adding that he thought most of the remaining 80 percent were fine with the defaults.
The number of different privacy preferences -- at least 135 in my account -- may also explain where that apathy comes from. With so many options, Facebook risks bureaucratizing itself, like an office that's grown too big.
Yet not one of these options allows you to categorize Facebook contacts as close or distant friends. (Kelly suggested that was coming but wouldn't be specific. )
In the meantime, the best option may be to avoid the temptation to put all your information at any one site. Put your work credentials at one place, but present the party photos at another, less public location and schedule the potluck dinners at yet another.
Should you find it easier to center your online life at one place, though, remember this: Good social-networking sites help you meet other people, but great ones also help you avoid other people.