Facebook is PUBLIC not private.

People can vary their privacy settings on Facebook.  Some of them don’t know how to do this, and those people often aren’t sure exactly who can see what they have posted there.  But what can be read of what you have posted depends not only on your privacy settings there, but on the settings of your Facebook Friends as well.

People are on Facebook for different reasons.  Some folk are just there to keep in touch with friends and family.  If they have grasped how to adjust their privacy settings, they may make their pages very private, so that none of their information can be viewed by the public.  But some of their Facebook Friends may be on Facebook for professional reasons – to increase their internet profile.  These people are likely to have set their privacy to a much more open and accessible level – because they actually want people they don’t know to be able to find out more about them.

Writers, for example, usually have Facebook pages, and each writer will manage his/her page differently.

Davis Bunn’s Facebook page encourages discussion, but gives little or no personal information – he posts almost exclusively about his books and professional life.  His page is interesting and attractive, and it showcases his work admirably without admitting passing strangers into his private world.  It is a very prudent and intelligent use of Facebook.   Davis has just over 600 Facebook Friends.

Sherry Gore, on the other hand, describes her Facebook page as being like her front porch – a place for folk to stop by and chat.  Sherry has over 2,400 Facebook Friends.  She often posts about things that are happening to her family, neighbours and friends, asks us to pray for her and for others, and engenders a sense of community on her page.    In my opinion, Sherry is a brilliant rôle model for Facebook use.  She is always gracious, courteous and friendly.  She is diplomatic, kind and discreet.  If she inadvertently offends anyone she apologises and retracts immediately.  She is cheerful and funny.  If she is grieved or struggling, she shares it with us, but she doesn’t whinge and her positive posts far outweigh the sad ones and the cries for help.  She promotes her writing and keeps its publicity ever before us, but makes us feel like friends, not punters.   

I am on Facebook to keep in touch with personal friends and family, and also to get to know people I would not otherwise ever have the chance to meet with the intention of deepening and enriching spiritual understanding and journey.  My privacy settings are not especially tight, because I use Facebook for networking – I am deliberately seeking to enlarge my circle of Friends, and to allow people who enjoy my books to have a glimpse into my life.  Most of what appears on my pages is not visible to the general public, but it is visible to the Facebook Friends of my Facebook Friends as well as to my Facebook Friends themselves.  I’m going to say ‘FF’ for Facebook Friend from here!

I have 290 FFs. One of those FFs has just over 2000 FFs.    She is on Facebook as I am and as Sherry Gore is, in a combination of private and professional, both keeping in touch with personal friends and professionally networking.  I imagine her privacy settings are likely to be similar to mine – but I don’t know what her privacy settings are, and she doesn’t know what mine are. 

Recently, during a tense international situation of a serious and sensitive nature, she posted a flippant, derogatory and racist comment.  This FF is a Christian, and I thought what she had said was inappropriate.  A thread of comments began to appear under her original post, as her FFs joined in the joke.  I took exception to this, and added a comment of my own to the thread in remonstration, saying that I thought it unwise for a Christian to say such things – certainly unwise to say them publicly.  Her professional sphere is Christian, and her comment would have done her no credit with many of her professional connections.

In response to my comment, my FF posted in bewilderment – she had not intended to upset me, and apologised for doing so, but said that she did not see this as a public statement but as a discussion among friends.  One or two of her FFs responded rudely to me, one saying mockingly something like: ‘I thought we were on X’s Facebook page and now it turns out we’re on a world stage!!’

Think about it.  If this FF has over 2000 FFs and I have nearly 300, and my settings are such that all FFs of my FFs can see the comment threads on which I post, so that if each of my FFs has between 50 and 500 FFs – well, the readership of this comment thread could be massive!  But as we move in the same professional sphere, it could also be massively professionally damaging to the original poster: the person will be judged by her FFs’ comments as well as her own.

A similar event happened this last weekend.  Following the royal wedding, a FF who is a Christian writer and speaker posted in jest (I hope!) that his only disappointment was that there had been no assassinations.  I found this comment unpleasant and distinctly unfunny.  I removed the post from my news feed.  I later heard from a mutual FF who expressed disapproval of the original post that in the ensuing comment thread FFs sneered at his disapproval, and one said s/he wished our Queen had fallen from the balcony.   These individuals posting on Facebook have a wide network of Christian connections, and the person who created the original post is trying to increase his internet profile and enhance his professional ministry.  I can’t tell you how many FFs he has, because when I heard what he and his FFs were saying, I found it so distasteful that I unfriended him.  As I have 290 FFs myself, he has therefore potentially lost 290 people from his audience every time he posts about his new book or speaking engagement – because if I posted a comment in response to his posts, all my FFs could then see the posts and associated threads.

If you are on Facebook, it is vital that you remember that you are not in a private discussion, you are in a public international setting, and you simply do not know who is reading what you have written – because you can’t possibly know who all the FFs of all your FFs are.

If you are a Christian and post unkind or sneering comments, that’s the quality of your witness for all to see.  If you also have a professional Christian ministry, you just shot yourself in the foot.

And your indiscretions won’t go away.  The cruel and aggressive things you so foolishly said in a flame war on some website when you were twenty may still be picked up by a Google search now you are twenty-five and have just written your first Christian book.

The internet is public. Facebook is public.   On Facebook, as on this blog, I often disclose personal things about myself, but never without asking myself if they are things that I mind the whole world knowing.

It’s not just a matter of what people think of your character either; sometimes people put their family in jeopardy by their Facebook posts.

A FF of mine got into an exchange on her Facebook wall with her teenage daughter.  Here is what I gleaned from the exchange (and, had I added a comment to the thread, so would all my FFs; and potentially – depending on their privacy settings – all their FFs would have had access to the same information):
The woman was away from home, with all the other family members.
They would be eating out.
They would not be returning for some hours.
The girl was alone at home, and her mother was asking her to complete some chores before the family returned.

This FF also posts photos of her home in her Facebook albums. 

The thread was quite noticeable because the teenager in question did not want to comply with her mother’s request to do the household chores, and was disappointed to miss the meal the family would be sharing.  The unfolding argument kept the situation before our attention for some while.  You do see, don’t you, how vulnerable that mother made her daughter?  Facebook does have a facility for sending private messages.  This exchange should not have been held publicly on the mother’s wall.

Whenever you post on Facebook, it pays to remember: you cannot possibly know who is reading what you have written; you can be sure only of this – more people will be reading than you think, and you do not know who they are.