Hate Facebook? Maybe it’s you.
4 ways to tweak your Facebook settings so you can enjoy the data-pillaging goodness
If I’ve been pumping the brakes on the anti-Facebook groundswell, it’s not because I’m a fan of Facebook’s cavalier attitude towards user data and privacy. It’s because I see the dramatic benefits that Facebook offers both me and others — benefits I’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
But the more I talk to people about why I love Facebook, and the more people ask me how they can protect their privacy in light of recent revelations, the more I realize that my appreciation for Facebook is a result of the time and effort I’ve put into customizing my interface and experience.
In part that’s been a matter of following the recommended tweaks to protect my Facebook privacy: I regularly look at and adjust my privacy settings, export my Facebook data (both as backup and to see which advertisers have purchased my contact info) and use a password manager so I’m not tempted to use Facebook Login everywhere.
But Facebook is a pleasurable, meaningful and useful part of my life because I haven’t stopped at adjusting my privacy settings. I’ve made a lot of adjustments to my setup and to my own habits so that I have the kind of Facebook experience I want — and you can too. Here’s how:
1. Unfollow anyone who annoys you from your news feed.
I have a “sudden death” policy: If someone posts an enthusiastic ode to Donald Trump, or trash talks Oklahoma! (the musical — say whatever you want to about the state), or posts inspirational quotes on kitten photos, they are gone from my newsfeed. I will often unfollow people based on a first offense, and certainly anyone who annoys me two or three times is unfollowed, permanently. That means we stay friends, but they no longer appear in my feed.
A more nuanced option is to train Facebook to hide certain types of posts by hiding individual posts that annoy you, but I’ve found the Facebook algorithm isn’t that smart about inferring my preferences from the fact that I consistently hide sports-related updates. There is also the option to unfollow someone for 30 days, which is useful for time-limited annoyances: this year I’ll probably use it to hide a bunch of baseball-loving friends from my feed during MLB playoffs.
I should also note that I try not to judge myself for the reasons I want to unfollow someone. I have colleagues who trigger me because I’m super jealous of their professional accomplishments. While there is not enough therapy in the world to fix this problem (believe me, I’ve put that to the test!) unfollowing them simply removes this source of stress from my life, and makes using Facebook much less anxiety-producing. My reasons for unfollowing someone don’t have to be morally just or noble or even particularly clear to me; I just know that if I don’t like seeing someone’s posts, I don’t want them to show up in my newsfeed.
2. Select the people you love to hear from and mark them “see first”.
Facebook lets you customize your newsfeed so that you can select certain people to see first when you look at your newsfeed. Posts from these people will be prioritized whenever you look at the latest news.
If Facebook’s “see first” option had been available when I first started my campaign of extreme unfollowing, maybe I wouldn’t have knocked so many people out of my newsfeed. I now have a few dozen people on my “see first” list, so when I do glance at my newsfeed, it’s largely made up of updates from people on that list.
My “see first” list is made up of people who meet any of three criteria: (a) people I dearly love — my very closest BFFs, whose news would otherwise be drowned out by all my Facebook-crazed social media colleagues; (b) people in very similar life circumstances whose wisdom/experiences I need — mostly fellow autism parents, and c) people who share stuff that I would never hear about otherwise — typically people of color because otherwise my feed would be all Things White Nerds Can’t Stop Talking about About.
You can add people to your “see first” list from within Facebook’s newsfeed settings. Instructions here.
3. Most of the time, just look at your notifications.
Whenever I open Facebook in my app or browser, the first thing I do is look at my list of notifications. Notifications let you know if someone has liked or commented on something you posted, or if something new has been posted in the comments of a post you’ve already commented on. If someone tags you in a post or comment, you’ll see that here. You may also get notifications when a Facebook friend posts to a group you both belong to. Since I typically post on Facebook two or three times a day, and leave comments on another five or ten posts, checking in on Facebook for a few minutes every couple of hours means that pretty much all my attention goes into reviewing what’s popped up in my notifications.
This suits me perfectly because I am catastrophically narcissistic, so mainly what I like to see is on Facebook is what people have said in response to something I’ve said or shared. Also, I think it’s rude not to reply to comments on my own posts (or to comments people have made on comments I’ve added in other people’s threads) so I make sure to pay attention those first.
But notifications now includes things like stuff my friends have posted to groups we’re both in, and also, I think I must have turned on some setting that notifies me every time my husband posts (because for a while it seemed like he had always read my latest Facebook posts but not vice versa). So in addition to being What People Think About Alex and Her Many Ideas, my notifications now act as a gateway to a sprinkling of other conversations that are almost always of interest. (The exception are the notifications I get after congratulating a friend on her new job or his new puppy; those “congratulations” posts end up generating notification after notification as every subsequent congratulation rolls in, so I usually end up turning off notifications on high-traffic posts.)
Letting notifications drive your Facebook experience makes you much less susceptible to the vagaries and manipulations of the Facebook algorithm. I personally find that whenever I’m so desperate to avoid work that I actually scroll through my main news feed, I’m immediately overwhelmed by some combination of FOMO (everyone else is more successful than me and having more fun!), depression (OMG there is so much depressing shit going on in the world!) and contempt (WTF is up with all the stupid stuff people say and share?).
If I check my newsfeed once a day, and only glance at the top two or three items that show up, then what I see are posts from people on my “see first” list, and I’m happy to see them. (What I usually see first is something from A’Lelia Bundles, a brilliant woman I know only as a Facebook friend, and an incredible source of news and insight from the African-American community.) But if I check my newsfeed more often, or scroll down the page until I start seeing all other ads and algorithm-selected posts that Facebook has chosen for me, I start to hate Facebook just as much as other people do.
When you look at your newsfeed as the starting point for each visit to Facebook, you’re seeing whatever Facebook has determined you want to see — most likely, a mix of ads and content that you’re likely to click on, so that Facebook can maximize the amount of time you spent on the site. (Though they’ve recently claimed to be moving away from that particular goal.) When you start with your notifications, you’re paying attention to the conversations, posts, groups and people you’ve explicitly prioritized.
4. Use lists — especially, your restricted list
There is one more crucial element in my Make Facebook Great Again recipe: lists!
Every time you post something on Facebook, you get to decide who sees it. Your default audience options are “Public” (anyone on the Internet), “Friends” (only your Facebook friends can see it) or “Only me” (only you can see this — but don’t kid yourself, Facebook can still use this as part of how it profiles and understands you.)
But there are a lot more options than just those three. By creating or curating Facebook lists, you can determine exactly who will see each piece of content you share. That allows you to have more control over your privacy, but even more importantly, over the conversations you have online.
The easiest way to get started is with the restricted list. (My guide to configuring your restricted list here.) This list is automatically created for you by Facebook, but you get to decide who’s on it. When you put someone on your restricted list, you stay friends — but they only get to see the content that you share publicly. Stuff that you post to your “friends” audience gets hidden from people on your restricted list. This is an easy way of dealing with people whose friend requests you feel like you have to accept (or people you’re already friends with, and don’t want to unfriend) but with whom you don’t actually want to share a whole lot of your news.
I put tons of people on my restricted list so that they only see my public posts. If I don’t actually know you (maybe we’ve had some interesting conversations on Facebook, but we’ve never met), you go on my restricted list as soon as I accept your friend request. If you are my mother and you don’t like it when I share personal stuff on Facebook, or you are my mother’s friend and you tell her what I’m posting, you go on my restricted list. If you are a colleague with whom I have an all-business relationship, you go on my restricted list.
And that’s just the beginning of my list collection. I have a small “kid sharing friends” list for the people who are actually interested in my kids, and who I know well; they’re the only people who see kid photos or identifiable updates. (I wrote a guide to creating a kid-sharing list here.) I have a “close gal pals” list for the twenty-odd lady friends who I sometimes need to ask particularly personal questions. More recently I have also created a “Single White Female” list for the people who somehow feel a need to comment on every single thing I share. Now, instead of posting half my stuff so only friends can see it, I post so it’s “Friends except SWF”. That way these hyper-enthusiasts don’t join in every single conversation on my Facebook wall.
Last words: Getting intentional about Facebook
The tactics I’ve mentioned here aren’t just about limiting your exposure or protecting your privacy. The process of unfollowing or prioritizing particular friends, focusing on notifications and using friend lists are all part of building a more intentional Facebook experience.
Whenever I post something to Facebook, I stop to ask: What do I want from this post? Am I looking for specific feedback? Hoping for praise for my adorable kids? Trying to convene an interesting conversation?
Depending on what I’m looking for, I might share something publicly or narrowly; I might share it on my own wall, or with a group. When I need to talk about a parenting issue that only special needs moms will understand, I always go to an autism or special needs parenting group, because I seriously can’t even when it comes to well-intentioned advice from the parents of neurotypical kids. When I am struggling with something where I really want the specific input of a small number of my friends, I make a list just for that circle and tag the people I most want to hear from. (Use that tagging strategy sparingly: I find it very obnoxious when people try to get around the Facebook algorithm by tagging me and twenty other people, just so we’ll look at their post.)
But having a good experience or an honest conversation isn’t just about the technical tools. It’s also about the kinds of content and questions I do and don’t share on Facebook, and how I frame whatever I share.
While I often use Facebook as my id’s online home, I try to focus on sharing questions and stories that generate interesting and meaningful conversations. My Facebook wall is where I’m at my best and most authentic online (you’re welcome to check me out or follow me), and I’m touched by how often I hear from people who particularly enjoy what I post there. But that experience would break if I treated it as a branding exercise: unlike my Twitter and LinkedIn and Medium and blog presences, where I’m at least notionally strategic, Facebook is the place where my only strategy is to have fun and make meaningful connections.
Facebook is a very big pond, however, so it’s easier to inspire meaningful conversations — or participate construtively in other people’s — if you’re thoughtful about how you frame your posts and about where you engage. When I want to share something I’ve written, I usually post a question or request for feedback that emerged out of the story, so that it opens a conversation, and then post the link itself as a comment. (That’s a practice I started because I discovered Facebook’s algorithms were burying posts where I shared my own stories, but it’s turned out to be a wonderful way of starting really interesting conversations that often lead to follow-up stories!) When I have a question or need feedback from my friends, I try to be really explicit about what kind of feedback I’m looking for (support? advice? resources) and who I want to hear from. (FYI, saying “I’d only like to hear from women on this subject” turns out to be very triggering for some men.)
Knowing when not to engage is just as important. If I get into an argument that starts to anger and demoralize me more than it sharpens or enlightens, I call it quits on that thread and turn off notifications so that I don’t get dragged back in. If I feel the urge to write a post or comment when I’m angry or upset, I paste my draft into Evernote and leave it for a few hours, until I’ve calmed down; usually I end up leaving it un-posted, or make some edits before sharing. Before I wade into someone else’s thread, I think about whether it’s a conversation in which I’ll be welcome; just yesterday I stopped myself from being the annoying regular-sized chick who jumps into a conversation among confident plus-sized women.
I desperately wish Facebook’s default settings and interface made it easier and more intuitive for people to protect their privacy and exert this kind of intentionality over their experience. One of the reasons I was once hopeful that Google+ might take off is because its Circles place thoughtful customization at the heart of the user experience.
Privacy regulations are likely to push Facebook a little in this direction, as it’s forced to give people more privacy by default and more control over what they share with whom. If Facebook is smart, it will use the process of adapting to privacy regulation as an opportunity to make a platform that gives users more intuitive control over what they see and what they share. The easier it is for users to create a truly great Facebook experience for ourselves, the more likely we are to forgive the platform for its many betrayals.