Facebook Etiquette: Five Do's and Don'ts

Balancing your work and personal life on social networking tools such as Facebook has become more complex than ever -- and the dangers go beyond the well-publicized examples of posting party pictures to your profile.

A more subtle faux pas can affect your online reputation and even future job path, as your friend list on Facebook includes both personal and professional contacts. Information you post can mess up your work and personal relationships in one quick swoop.

For example, the immediacy and ease with which you can post a quip on Facebook may get you into trouble if you're teasing your significant other -- plus tell work colleagues more than they need or want to know about your relationship. This recent story of a man caught cheating by his wife when she perused his iPhone got us thinking: In this day of gadgetry and near-constant contact via social networking, how can you avoid blunders that will deem you a thoughtless spouse, friend or colleague?

Kirsten Dixson, a reputation management and online identity expert, has some tips to keep you on the appropriate social networking etiquette path. Because Facebook mixes your personal and professional life, she says it requires more careful attention than LinkedIn, a social network for professionals that keeps a strictly all-business look and feel by design.

Here are Dixson's suggestions for managing your Facebook profile and your overall social networking persona, as well as warnings about places where you can get into trouble with people who matter to you personally and professionally.

1. Choosing your profile picture

Thoughtful: Some people militantly believe that Facebook is all personal while LinkedIn is all professional. If this sounds like you, you might choose a Facebook picture of yourself fishing, hanging out at a party or playing a guitar. But Dixson says you're better off to err on the side of caution here, by keeping your profile picture professional, or at least neutral. Your photo doesn't need to be in a studio with a boring canvas backdrop -- it could be outside on your deck or on a mountainside, for instance -- but it has to be fairly even-keeled. (This is different from LinkedIn, where photos should be strictly professional, Dixson says).

Thoughtless: According to Dixson, don't post profile pictures that are "too sexy, cartoonish or that might alienate your audience." A look through your friend list can usually reveal the ones she's talking about. The stylized glamour shot, the quick snapshot of slicked up hair or low-cut dresses taken right before heading to a party, or worse, costume-like pictures: wet suits and surfboards, bike gear, Halloween outfits -- the list goes on.

2. Filling Out Your Biography

Thoughtful: The biographical section of social networks vary. Facebook's service provides fields for a variety of interests, both professional and personal. Don't be afraid to post some nuggets that convey who you are, within reason. On Facebook, you can decide with great granularity what information people can view by altering your privacy settings. For instance, you can set it so every visitor to your profile sees that you enjoy golfing, reading and civil war history, but maybe only a certain group of people see your religion, political affiliations and relationships. For Facebook's "About me" section, building on the Twitter doctrine, Dixson says to be short and concise. Don't worry about being clever.

Thoughtless: Although Facebook is a private company, and data can be hard to come by, most social networking and identity experts believe many users never so much as glance at their privacy settings pages. The same probably holds true for other social networks. Remember that social networks plan to monetize their service by ensuring that you share as much information as possible. As such, you should believe that they'll share as much information about you as they can, and make it available to the widest audience.

The default settings for Facebook, for example, make all your profile information available for everyone on the service to see. "Assume from the get-go that anything you put in there is viewable on the public Internet," Dixson says. "Go in with that line of thinking. Then go in and, say, if you don't want to make certain information available to certain people, go turn them off with the privacy settings."

With the information you do share, avoid being vain. Social networks do enable, if not encourage, a bit of narcissism. But don't assume people want to read a novel about your life. Also, be protective of your family. It's fine to list yourself as "married" in the info section, for instance, but don't necessarily feel that you have to put down a link to your significant other. If you have young children, for their protection and privacy, Dixson recommends you don't include their names anywhere in the bio or in pictures of them that you decide to share.

Oh, and a word about age. While you may want to include your birthday on your Facebook profile, so people can message you on the big day, you should exclude the birth year, Dixson says. Your friends and family know how old you are, and there's no reason for your professional ones to know.

3. Posting content, links and news

Thoughtful: Post content that highlights your personal interests and your professional areas of expertise. A marketing professional might post some interesting links for a relevant trade publication he wanted to share, for example. Posting personal picture slideshows is fine -- again, within reason. You clearly want to avoid the aforementioned pitfalls of displaying shots of wild revelry. But for all the agony about what's acceptable and what's not, remember that offering contacts a decent glimpse into what makes you you can have business benefits. "It strengthens relationships," Dixson says. "It really helps establish connections. People like to do business with people they know."

Thoughtless: Spamming people is a big no-no because it can irrevocably ruin your social capital. It's great to be so passionate about things in both your professional life and personal life that you feel compelled to share it with people who are important to you, but remember that people can only take so much time out of their day. Also, don't assume they care about every little thing in your personal life. People know you're proud of your kids, for example, and that speaks to your commitment as a parent. Yet you need to know when to draw the line somewhere in how much they want to hear.

Definitely keep your romantic breakups and get-togethers in private forums, like e-mails, instant messages and (who still uses it anymore?) the phone.

Oh, and this one should be self-explanatory: Don't go flapping your gums about your company's affairs.

4. Talking to One vs. Many

Thoughtful: Posing a question to your entire network is OK, provided it's relevant to all of them or at least won't be viewed as a nuisance. For instance, you might ask, "Getting a new phone. IPhone or BlackBerry?" Such a question will be relevant to a lot of folks who have dealt with the same issue. The key is, if you're on the receiving end and want to weigh in on such an issue, be sure to respond to that person only -- unless it's been made clear that he wants your comments public. This way, you avoid spamming people.

Thoughtless: Know that self-satisfied guy who unrelentingly decides to hit "reply all" to every group e-mail that's sent in your company? You don't want to be that guy on social networks. On Facebook, one of the most utilized features is the "Wall." It's a fun place to leave publicly displayed messages and a bit of witty banter. However, making specific plans with a person on the Wall, for example, is rude to that person's other profile visitors. Too many times, you see "let's get a drink at 5:00 today" posted to someone's Wall. Unless you want to include all of that person's friends in on the social engagement, there's no reason not to pose that question in the private messaging section of Facebook -- or any social network for that matter. Twitter, for instance, has the direct message function.

5. Watching Your Tone

Thoughtful: It's important to keep a polite and measured tone on social networks. After all, the mainstream ones such as Facebook are an extension of our lives in real life (that's not necessarily the case in virtual worlds, but that's a whole other topic). Say things you'd feel comfortable saying in person, and avoid inside jokes that only a few of your contacts would understand.

Thoughtless: With a social network that is fairly open, nobody is really going to be impressed when you post inside jokes that they don't understand. In fact, you run the risk of insulting people if they think you're making some veiled or coded comment about them. Remember, within most social networks, you can set up private groups where those kinds of exchanges will not only be more appropriate, but also encouraged. "It's better to be clear than clever," Dixson says. "Don't expect people to get it. Be very explicit."

Finally, sarcastic humor and anger can be dangerous in social network postings, just as they are in e-mail messages. Think twice before sharing. (For more e-mail etiquette tips, see "Ten Things You Should Never Put in E-Mail.")

This story, "Facebook Etiquette: Five Do's and Don'ts" was originally published by CIO.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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