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.

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.

Keeping game updates private

Admit it -- you actually like FarmVille, Bejeweled and the many other game applications that Facebook offers. But you don't want to bother your co-workers with gaming updates -- especially if you're playing during office hours!

The fix: Control your app settings. Within your privacy settings, choose to edit the settings for applications and Web sites. The setting "Game and application activity" lets specific individuals see -- or be blocked from seeing -- application-related updates.

You may also want to check individual application settings. Facebook applications integrate with several aspects of your profile, and these permissions often can be enabled or disabled independently of each other. Check to see which applications have optional permission to "Post to my Wall," and disable as needed.

Showing your friends list

You're still friends with your former co-workers -- or with employees at your ideal next workplace. Such connections could translate into guilt by association, should your current supervisor see who your friends are on Facebook. The same holds true for segregating other parts of your life. "When I add a family member to my FB friend list, I might not want them to see my full list of friends," worries one Computerworld reader.

The fix: Hide your friends list. On your profile page, click the pencil icon in the "Friends" box in the left column, then click "Change Visibility Settings." You can then choose specific people for whom you allow or disallow access to your friends list. For those with restricted viewing rights, this is an all-or-nothing option: Facebook does not offer the sort of granular control that would allow you to show off only some of your connections and not others.

Type size

There are two ways to view your friends' updates: aggregated into your home page's newsfeed or on a per-friend basis by visiting their walls. Traditionally, those two options were presented at different type sizes: 13 and 11 points, respectively.

In late October, Facebook changed these displays to a consistent 11-point type. But since the newsfeed tends to have more content than a user's wall, cramming so much data into a smaller font proved problematic. The new font was just too small for most viewers' eyes. "My eyes are stressed to begin with from staring at a computer screen at work," commented a Computerworld reader. "I don't like the idea of being in my own home, my relaxing time, and stressing them more."

The fix: Set your own type size. Most browsers will enlarge an entire page if you press Command-Plus or Alt-Plus on your keyboard, but this magnifies everything: buttons, pictures, margins and more. A more focused approach is to modify just the typeface in the newsfeed. Use either Better Facebook or F.B. Purity to configure a custom type size. After your newsfeed loads, these plug-ins quickly re-render the page to your specifications, producing a slight delay but a more readable display.

Group messages

Facebook groups, like Facebook pages, make it easy to identify with a cause or a brand that interests you and to receive information about those topics. But a recent feature, confusingly called Facebook Groups, can inadvertently be a source for spam, e-mailing you every time a fellow group member has anything to say.

The fix: Configure your notification settings. Facebook users can engage in a variety of activities, from poking to photo-tagging, each of which you can be notified of via either e-mail or SMS. These options are defined in your notification settings. The specific item that controls group messages is labeled "Change email settings for individual groups."

Searching your wall history

Facebook has been around long enough that its members' accounts can be years old. The content that you can aggregate in that time is difficult to sift through without any search functions.

The fix: Download your profile. In October, Facebook unveiled a new feature: the ability to download your entire profile, including wall, photos, events, friends list, messages and more. Just go to your account settings and choose "Download Your Information." Facebook will begin compiling your data and will e-mail you when the archive is ready for download.

Once that information is stored locally, you can search it using any tool you want, from your Web browser's "Find" function to Apple's Spotlight.

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.

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