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How to Use Facebook’s Settings to Have More-Productive Conversations


Oct. 2, 2018 Harvard Business Review

The past year has served as a wake-up call for many Facebook users. Between the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony and the advent of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), we have fresh insight into how much Facebook knows about us—knowledge that has inspired many people to re-think what they share on Facebook, how they manage their Facebook settings, or even whether they want to use social media at all.

While Facebook’s algorithm uses our data to show us content and ads that it thinks is more likely to be of interest to us, it can also distort our view of the world by limiting our view to the people and perspectives we find most appealing or otherwise engaging. That algorithm is also the reason that some Facebook threads unfold as civil, respectful (but perhaps insufficiently representative) conversations among like-minded souls, while others turn into all-out brawls that can be both personally distressing and professionally problematic. You are at the mercy of Facebook’s algorithm when it comes to determining which conversations appear in your newsfeed at any given moment.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. By taking control of your Facebook experience with lists and privacy settings, you can override the algorithm with your own explicit preferences, and forge your own balance between breadth and intimacy. Most importantly, if you start thinking more explicitly about what you want from Facebook at a given moment—Am I looking for a representative source of business intelligence? A few restorative moments? A trusted circle with whom I can discuss a complex issue?—you can make Facebook a more useful and less manipulative part of your online experience.

Use lists to create safe spaces

We all have times when we want to venture online for industry news, professional support or simple entertainment—without facing the risk of a major conflict or distraction. This is where Facebook lists come in handy. Lists allow you to create a digital safe space: a circle of people you pay attention to, or speak with, when you don’t want to do battle with the big world.

You may need more than one of these safe spaces. Perhaps you want one for talking about industry news and business strategy (if only to avoid boring your non-work friends), another for talking politics, and yet another for talking about your kids or your pets or your triathlon training. If you have a specific subject that you like to talk about regularly, but it’s a subject that can trigger either boredom or controversy, it’s worth thinking about giving this subject its own safe space in your online existence.

Facebook makes it incredibly easy to create these spaces: Just create a Facebook list for each circle, and put all the friends you want into that circle on the list. (Those lists are only visible to you, and not to the people you put on it, so feel free to create a list called Fellow Crazy Marathon Runners.) You now have a list that can help shape your conversations in two ways: by giving you more control over what you see, and by giving new options for privacy settings that affect who sees what you post.

Lists help you manage your attention and energy by letting you control what you see and when you see it. Add each list to your shortcuts (which appear on the left side of your Facebook page), so you can see posts only from those list members when you just don’t have the energy or inclination to look at the cacophony of your main news feed. I’ve written before about how to use lists to be more professionally personable on Facebook–that advice becomes all the more relevant in a highly charged political environment. This works better than creating separate Facebook groups because your friends don’t have to join, and because this will include all their regular posts–not just ones they deliberately post to a particular group’s page.

Use privacy settings to limit your exposure

Once you have your lists in place, you can use those lists in the privacy settings for your individual posts.  When you’re posting to Facebook, use the visibility drop-down to determine who can see that post: everyone (public), friends, or a specific list or group.

Use Facebook’s restricted list to ensure that only your real friends see your friends-only posts (just put any less-than-true friends on the restricted list), or use narrower lists to share political rants just with those friends who have similar views. Use your “industry news” list to share your views on the latest acquisition deal in your field (remembering to exercise judgement in what you say, because anyone can take a screenshot of anything, so you never really know where it will end up.)  Or, if you want to share a political post with colleagues and you’re willing to engage your crazy uncle in an argument it, but don’t want your colleagues to see the argument, post your message twice–once to a family list and again to your colleague list.  (Note that just because someone is on a list doesn’t mean they will see posts you share with that list; it just means they can: Facebook’s mysterious algorithm will still show those posts to some list members but not others.)

And, finally, remember that creating this kind of safe space for yourself comes with its own dangers: even without your deliberate efforts to filter out offensive content, social media algorithms give us a filtered view of society as a whole. When you’re living in a filter bubble it’s easy to think that everybody shares your worldview—a misapprehension that can have personal, social and professional repercussions. The safe spaces you create can be helpful in maintaining your emotional well-being and your professional connections, but don’t retreat into them so completely that you never hear anything else.

Facebook’s lists and privacy settings offer a way to take control of your experience and make Facebook more useful and less aggravating for you personally. It’s a step we all need to take if we want to reclaim our relationships, our careers and our democracy from the tyranny of the algorithm.

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