Emily Yoffe: Your writing is on my wall.
Farhad Manjoo: I'm Slate’s technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo.
Emily Yoffe: I’m Emily Yoffe, Slate’s Dear Prudence advice columnist, and this is Manners for the Digital Age.
Farhad: Today’s question is from a listener who suspects that an old friend might not know just how public his provocative Facebook comments are. The listener writes, “Dear Emily and Farhad, I’ve recently connected with an old co-worker on Facebook who I haven’t seen for about ten years. His profile picture at first glance appears to be a Halloween photo because he is made up as a frilly woman. With the new Facebook changes, this profile shot has been showing up on my wall when he comments on other people’s information. It seems that he has quite the network of cross-dressing men and he enthusiastically comments on their sexy pictures when they go up. I’m happy for my friend if this lifestyle makes him happy, but should I let him know that his comments are being broadcasted publicly? He is new to Facebook and will ask questions frequently in his status update. Should I let him know that the comments that he’s been making about the sexy men have been showing up in my newsfeed?” Signed, Awkwardly Back In Touch.
Emily, what do you think this person should do?
Emily: Well, first of all, my stand on Facebook is if anyone thinks anything is, in the long run, going to be private, you’re just silly. I think your default position on Facebook should be “the whole world somehow could get access to this.” It sounds like this guy either (A) really doesn’t understand that or (B) wants the whole world to know how he looks in his latest Kate Spade outfit. It’s not really this long lost friend’s job to instruct this person.
If you think, “You know, I’m getting the really strong feeling Harry has no idea how many people are seeing this,” you could send him a private e-mail saying, “I just wanted to give you a heads up. I can read the comments you’re making within your transvestite community. Thought you would want to know.” But it’s up to you.
Farhad: You’re right. Whatever you post on Facebook assume that it’s public, because it essentially is public, even if you’ve made it private to your friends. They can post that somewhere else. They can post your picture. Nothing that you post on Facebook is really private. And if this person is putting a photo of him as a woman as his profile picture, it seems like he knows what kind of public face he has on the Internet.
Emily: A lovely face.
Farhad: Yes, a lovely face. It seems obvious that he knows that some of this is public. I would assume that he wants this stuff out there. You said that if you get some sense that maybe he doesn’t know, you should let him know about it. I guess I agree with that, but I don’t know how you would get that sense.
Emily: Well, the letter writers said that this guy is often posting questions about how Facebook works and not really understanding when he comments on someone’s wall that other people besides that person can see it. As settings in Facebook evolves, I think a lot of people don’t realize what they thought was private has popped out into a more public forum or just how widely disseminated stuff is. I think there are a lot of people who are maybe somewhat confused about this.
Farhad: Right. I agree. I get letters from people who are confused about Facebook’s privacy settings every day. I’m confused by them and I approach Facebook like the way I was just talking about – I think that everything is public.
Emily: Farhad, if you are confused about Facebook’s privacy settings, let’s just assume that most people really don’t know what’s going where and when. This guy who’s new to Facebook probably doesn’t. But you’re right, if you make a cross dressing photo as your profile photo, then you pretty much stated to the world what you want them to think.
This is a former co0worker who this person hasn’t been in touch with in ten years and is now on Facebook, and now the letter writer’s wall is full of comments about guys looking sexy in lingerie. Maybe the letter writer wants to un-friend this person just because this stuff makes the letter writer uncomfortable.
Farhad: If it does make the letter writer uncomfortable, then I guess they should do that. You don’t have to un-friend someone who’s post you don’t like. There’s a little button on those posts that allows you to hide all future appearances of that person’s content in your newsfeed. You can do that.
Emily: There you go. This is why I’m such a bad Facebook user. I don’t keep up. Not that there’s anything wrong with cross-dressing, but this person seems to feel, “Now, all of a sudden my newsfeed is full of commentary on cross-dressing and how sexy people look.” You just might feel, “That’s not what I want displayed on my Facebook page.”
Farhad: Right. More generally, you might not want someone who you’re barely friends with to be dominating your Facebook page. Someone who you haven’t spoken to in ten years you might want to be slightly acquainted with on Facebook, but not all over your newsfeed.
Even if we can assume that this person doesn’t know that his posts are getting seen by a lot of people, I can’t think of a really tactful way to say that without coming off like someone who thinks that cross-dressing or publicly revealing that you’re a cross-dresser is a bad thing.
If you say, “Hey, your cross-dressing posts are being seen by everyone,” there’s a good chance he might say, “I know. Do you have a problem with that?”
Emily: “So what?” It could be that this person is all excited about “I’m in this little world. I’m just choosing the people I want to know about this part of my life. I actually don’t want everyone at my company or whatever to know, but I have made certain selections,” but it’s not as private as he thinks.
But that’s not the letter writer’s responsibility. I do think you have come up with the perfect fix: get this guy off your wall. There’s no reason to see his constant stream of commentary about the other guys in his community. Send us your questions about shifting etiquette in the online age. Our address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Farhad: You can also join our Facebook page where we carry on the conversation throughout the week. Go to facebook.com/digitalmanners.
Emily: We’ll talk to you next time on Manners for the Digital Age.