Tips for budding politicians on how to avoid embarrassment on Facebook.

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Jan. 2 2009 7:12 AM

Vote for Me, Not My Facebook Account

Tips for budding politicians on how to avoid embarrassment on Facebook.

This photo of Favreau and Clinton appeared on Facebook Friday, Dec. 6, 2008.
This photo of Favreau and Clinton appeared on Facebook on Dec. 6

People who work in politics have always had to worry about what they did before they worked in politics. But the sheer size and popularity of Facebook— 140 million active users, at least 139.99 million of whom have been photographed drunk at a college party—present budding politicians (and budding political operatives) with a dilemma: How do they keep those pics from showing up on the front page?

Clearly, the safest way to protect yourself is not to have a Facebook account in the first place—or, alternatively, not to do stupid things. But neither of these pieces of advice is very practical. The whole point of being young, after all, is to do stupid things, and the whole point of Facebook is to record these acts for posterity. So here, as a public service, are some tips for those who feel they must be on Facebook and occasionally also feel the need to, say, feel up a cardboard cutout.

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Use a Modified Name
Using a completely false name is against Facebook's terms of use, and accounts with questionable names are routinely deleted. However, using a modified version of your legal name, such as your first and middle name, is kosher. So something like J.S. McCain is OK, while Little Old Ladys Killer (an actual Facebook listing) might be suspect. This strategy isn't foolproof—Rudy Giuliani's daughter's profile was found despite her use of a modified name—but it can throw people off the trail for a while.

Remember That Friends Are Liabilities
In the case of Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau, a friend of his posted the now-notorious photo. While merely "untagging" photos—that is, removing your name from the description of who's in the photo—will make them harder to find, the photograph will still remain on the Web. So you may be reduced to asking your friends not to upload photos of you in compromising situations. Obviously, there's no guarantee that said friends will oblige. But it's worth a shot, right? Also keep in mind that everything you write on anyone's wall can be seen by all of his or her friends. Which leads to:

Be Careful What You Write on People's Walls
Although Facebook has made it easier to completely delete your profile, some information that you have posted to others' pages won't be deleted. So while professing your—totally platonic! really!—love for your friend might seem like a good idea on a drunken Saturday night, just imagine the headlines during primary season. Even though the link to your profile will become inactive, your comment will be floating around cyberspace until your friend decides to delete his or her profile, too.

Segregate Your Friends
Segregation might seem cruel. But you wouldn't invite your boss to a kegger, so why would you let him see pictures of the one you attended last weekend? Privacy settings let you make lists of friends and allow each group to see different parts of your profile. So while you may want the guys at the frat house to see photographic evidence of your totally awesome keg stand, you may want the DNC chairman to see only that you're currently reading Crime and Punishment.

Understand Guilt by Association
People like to belong. But on Facebook, associations can make trouble for you—or, as the case may be, a close family member—later on. Giuliani's daughter, for example, joined the "Barack Obama (One Million Strong for Barack)" group. And try to avoid groups, such as "I Paint My Nails Like a Blind Parkinson's Patient," that may raise questions about your sensitivity years from now.

Of course, it's possible that all this careful strategizing is entirely unnecessary. Maybe, by the time you want to run for office, no one will care about all the seedy information out there. Even in the past few years, there's been a shift in political thinking. Transparency has evolved from Bill Clinton's "didn't inhale" to Obama's "I inhaled frequently; that was the point."

In a March story in the New York Times, Susan Dominus theorized that in a few years, the whole game will have changed. "When everyone has already seen everything (and is thoroughly bored by most of it), the theory goes, politicians will have to find another way to self-destruct," she writes. A Facebook spokesperson agrees. "It may be that in the future, instead of fearing politicians' online pasts, we may actually come to accept, and even expect, them as a helpful measure of authenticity," he wrote in an e-mail. And Daniel Liss, a graduate of NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program and self-described struggling idealist, thinks that the media will eventually tire of snooping through Facebook profiles for incriminating information. Right now, he says, they're still operating under the idea that anything they uncover is breaking news.

Then again, maybe the American public's hunger for celebrity gossip is insatiable. In which case, as you contemplate that run for Senate, think about how Fox News or MSNBC might use that photo from last Halloween of you dressed up as Sarah Palin.