Fixing Facebook: Tips and tricks for handling common complaints

If you like Facebook but don't like the way it handles privacy and annoying applications, here are some simple fixes.

Facebook users have a love-hate relationship with the world's most popular social network. Facebook's community is unmatched in size, providing an unparalleled opportunity to remain in daily contact with friends, family and co-workers. Yet confusing and lax privacy controls, controversial redesigns and annoying applications make it a struggle to carve out a useful experience from the service.

There are many ways to optimize Facebook lurking beneath its occasionally Byzantine interface. What follows is an explanation of some of the most common complaints -- and what you can do about them.

Many of these fixes are made possible by third-party Web browser plug-ins, such as Better Facebook or F.B. Purity; both plug-ins run in Firefox, Safari, Chrome and Opera on Windows, Mac and Linux.

We've also encountered a few flaws that still can't be circumvented -- at least not by users. Since Facebook is constantly trying to improve its service, we're detailing these annoyances in the hope that Facebook will eventually address them.

Problems that can be fixed

Unwanted friend requests

You joined Facebook to connect with friends, and it's flattering when old chums send you a friend request. But getting one from an ex-girlfriend or a boss you hated puts you in an awkward position. Do you accept their requests and let them into your trusted circle? Or do you say no, sending a clear if rude message of your disinterest in befriending those people?

The fix: Block people preemptively. Before you start searching for potential connections, make a list of the people you don't want to befriend. Search for their profiles (you can narrow the results by e-mail address, location, education or workplace). Once you find a profile, use the link in its lower-left corner to "Report/Block this Person." Be careful not to accidentally report users for something they haven't done, such as an inappropriate profile photo, fake profile, inappropriate profile info or unwanted contact. Simply block them, and you'll forever be invisible and unfindable to them, no matter how hard they look or how many mutual friends you have.

If the people you want to block aren't on Facebook yet, use the "Account" dropdown menu in the upper-right corner to go to your privacy settings and click "Edit your lists of blocked people and applications." You can then enter their e-mail addresses in the appropriate fields. If they ever sign up for Facebook with those addresses, they'll be automatically added to your block list.

If you prefer to block all friend requests, leaving you to initiate them, that option can also be found in your privacy settings. Under the section titled "Connecting on Facebook," click "View Settings." Here, you can manage what information and actions, if any, are available to people searching for you, including the option to allow only current friends to search for your profile.

Note: Blocking people works best if your profile isn't already being publicly indexed; otherwise, you'll turn up in a simple Google search. To ensure you're not included in search engines' results, go to your privacy settings and edit those for applications and Web sites. On the next page, for the option titled "Public search," click "Edit Settings." Finally, you'll be presented with the box "Enable public search," which you should uncheck.

It's impossible to fully block one's Facebook activities from Google, though, unless you're using the "ultimate fix." (See sidebar for details.)

Too many applications

You've reconnected with your college buddies and second cousins on Facebook. You're interested in knowing what they're up to these days -- but all they want is to send you virtual strawberries, engage in a digital mafia war or trade stickers and decals. Such applications can be fun diversions or annoying distractions. If you encounter the latter, the newsfeed offers a "hide" button, but that doesn't stop an application's updates from appearing on your friends' walls, or stop friends from asking you to join the fun.

Blocking an application means you will never give it another opportunity to interact with your profile.

The fix: Block or filter the applications. Blocking an application means you will never give it another opportunity to interact with your profile, be it via friends' invitations or posts on other people's walls.

To block a Facebook application that has appeared in your newsfeed, click on its name, as if you want to engage in whatever activity it's inviting you to. The next page should be a "Request for Permission." Click on the app's name and you'll be brought to the app's home page, which has "Block Application" among the list of options in the upper left-hand corner. (The F.B. Purity plug-in makes this process easier by adding a "Block App" button next to any application updates in your newsfeed.)

One Draconian alternative is to disable the entire Facebook application platform, a step that will not only preemptively block all Facebook applications, but also uninstall any app you've ever used. Under the "Account" menu, click "Privacy Settings" then "Edit your settings for using applications, games and websites," which will bring you to a screen with the option to "Turn off all platform applications."

If you want to retain access to applications but not be bombarded by updates, Better Facebook can be configured to remodel the newsfeed into a tabbed interface that separates applications from actual news.

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