Toolkit: Social Media & Online Sharing

Table of Contents

Communicating on Social Media

Social media is like an online bulletin board. Social media or social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Yelp, and Instagram are places where you post information and images in order to share them publicly. Some people use social media mainly to keep in touch with family or close friends, while others use it to promote a business or a project. These different activities may require different levels of privacy, or maybe even separate accounts.

However you manage your online persona(s), your online life is part of your "real" life. When you post information on social media sites, you are sharing with real people. Some of your extended family, co-workers, and neighbors probably use social media sites. Even if they're not on your 'Friends' list, any of them could potentially see the information you post—and they might not interpret it the way that you would expect.

Social Media Privacy Settings

Most social media platforms have privacy settings, which are intended to restrict your information to being seen by a select group of people (usually called Friends, Contacts, or Followers). In practice, these privacy settings only reduce the chances of the selectively shared information becoming available to the public.

Privacy settings are complex. The default settings often assume that you want to share information with a lot of people. This is part of the social media business model: the more you share, the more social and fun the site looks—and the more data the service has, to use or sell for advertising.

There may also be hidden information (metadata) attached to your photos or posts, such as their time and location. If you don't change your settings on sites and devices, if an app or service changes the configuration of settings, or even if you simply make a mistake, it's possible you could end up sharing your information publicly without knowing it.

Leaks in the System

Even if you handle your privacy settings perfectly, anyone who does see your information on social media can share it with others. Re-posting or making a copy of information is easy. For example, computers and phones can take screenshots: pictures of the images and text on their screens. These screenshots can then be shared with anyone who has Internet access. In other words, once you've shared information online, you'll never have complete control over where it goes.

Privacy settings are more effective if the people you share information with know your standards of privacy. Avoiding social media doesn’t guarantee that your friends and family won’t post about you. It's important to tell your friends and family what you want to keep private, and ask them how they feel about sharing on social media.

Talking about privacy and adjusting your privacy settings carefully reduces the risk of people finding your private information, but it's likely that some information will leak out eventually. A good rule of thumb is to never post anything that you wouldn't want a co-worker, neighbor, or family member to see.

Back to Top