Facebook Outs Invisible Users

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Oct. 10 2013 9:49 PM

Facebook Outs Invisible Users

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The logo of social networking website 'Facebook' displayed on a computer screen.

Photo by LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

If you were on Facebook, but really just wanted to browse, not have others browse you, you could always opt out of making your profile searchable. The result was that you’d, more or less, have to swoop in and find friends, but someone you met at a party or meeting, couldn’t do the same to you. As of Wednesday, however, Facebook has lifted the invisibility cloak that it once provided.

The setting "Who can look up your Timeline by name?” which gave you the option to be unsearchable, began to be phased out last year. In typical “help me help you” Facebookese, last year’s announcement that you were losing the option to be unsearchable if you weren’t already using the function, came as part of the company’s “Better Controls for Managing Your Content” package of changes. Today, Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer, announced that the function was being ditched completely, mostly because Facebook has given users so many other ways to find your material, that it’s basically useless anyway.

The setting was created when Facebook was a simple directory of profiles and it was very limited. For example, it didn’t prevent people from navigating to your Timeline by clicking your name in a story in News Feed, or from a mutual friend’s Timeline. Today, people can also search Facebook using Graph Search (for example, "People who live in Seattle,") making it even more important to control the privacy of the things you share rather than how people get to your Timeline.
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Of course, the News Feed and Graph Search didn't always exist. And if you were still relying on not being searchable, then you probably weren't too thrilled about those two developments either. Facebook points out that this change probably doesn’t affect you because it’s only “a small percentage of people – in the single digits” that were still using it. Given the scale of Facebook these days, as Kashmir Hill over at Forbes points out, that still adds up to tens of millions of people.

But, as always, Facebook reminds those users unused to the light of day on the social network that “to quickly control who can find posts you shared in the past, visit the privacy settings page. With one click, you can limit the audience of posts you’ve shared in the past.” The announcement also offers these three reminders for the recently unveiled:

To further control what people see across the site:
1. Share each post with the people you want to be able to see it. You control this every time you post.
2. Use Activity Log to review individual things you’ve already shared. Here you can delete things you may not want to appear on Facebook anymore, untag photos and change the privacy of past posts.
3. Ask friends and others to remove anything they may have shared about you that you don’t want on the site. You can do this by reaching out to the person directly, or using the reporting feature, also available in Activity Log.

Is it easier to understand what’s what? Perhaps. But is it so time consuming that more options more of the time merely creates the illusion of privacy? Depends on your commitment to getting back off the grid.

Elliot Hannon is a writer in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter.