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.

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Simplistic chat

Facebook has a rudimentary chat system that lets friends talk to each other in real time within Facebook's interface. But this feature offers few ways to sort your friends list, switch among multiple chats or log conversations. Chat windows also obscure the Facebook page, unless you dedicate a separate tab or window to chatting.

The fix: Use a chat client. Facebook chat is powered by the Jabber protocol and is compatible with any third-party chat program that supports Jabber, including iChat, Adium and Pidgin. Follow Facebook's instructions to configure your software accordingly, and you'll be chatting away in a familiar and fluid environment.

A lost address book

Your cell phone, laptop or other device in which you maintain all your contacts has been lost or stolen, and you don't have a backup. How do you recollect everyone's phone numbers without spamming them with a request to provide you with data they've already given you once before?

The fix: Use Facebook's phonebook. A little-known feature of Facebook lists all your Facebook friends and their phone numbers, assuming they have included that information in their public profiles. Just go to your "Phonebook."

Whatever you do, don't participate in a public listing of your data. For some reason, some Facebook users create groups called "I lost my cell phone and need your number!" then invite their friends to join and write their numbers on the group's wall. Doing so creates a public and uncontrolled database to which anyone, not just the group's admin, has access.

Even if your friends are more discreet and only put out the call in their status, that still means that every one of their friends, who may not be your friends, will be able to see your personal data.

Problems that don't have a fix

Control over photo tagging

You got a bit rowdy at your friend's New Year's party. The next morning, somebody uploads a picture from said event to Facebook, tagging you so that all the people at work can see it.

Facebook offers no control over who can and cannot tag you in photos. The best you can do is immediately remove the tag (you can request that Facebook notify you via e-mail or SMS when you've been tagged by checking the appropriate boxes on the notifications page). Afterward, you can never be retagged in that photo. You can also request that the uploader remove the photo from Facebook entirely. Ask politely, as he or she may not have considered the ramifications of the upload. If they refuse to see things your way, they're a liability and should be unfriended.

You can control who sees photos tagged with your name, so even if anyone can tag you in a photo, you can decide who gets notified of that tag and has access to the photo. Go to your privacy settings and choose to customize your sharing settings. Under "Things other share," the first option is "Photos and videos I'm tagged in," which can be configured to enable any privacy you need.

Note that this will restrict access to any photos of you uploaded by others, be they complimentary or embarrassing. The photo owners' permissions will also be in effect, so if they have restricted access to their photos, your friends may not be able to see the pictures anyway.

Searching fan pages

Companies that manage their brands on Facebook may find themselves with thousands of fans -- but without the ability to find any one fan. Clicking "See All" lists fans a hundred at a time in no apparent order and with no search or filter functions. Facebook groups support member searches, but pages do not; and, unlike personal profiles, Facebook pages cannot be downloaded for an administrator's offline perusal or archiving.

Being automatically added to groups

Facebook's new Groups feature is supposed to be a way to sort your friends by category or interest. But these lists are public and do not require your consent before your friends apply these labels -- which could be anything from "Family" to "Weekend drunks."

What other features do you wish Facebook had -- or didn't have? Let us know in the comments.

Ken Gagne covers Macs, retrocomputing and electronic entertainment. Follow Ken on Twitter at @IDGagne, read his Computerworld blog, or subscribe to his news and features RSS feed.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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