Social network privacy settings compared

It should go without saying that protecting your privacy online is kind of a big deal. While people are generally good at not giving out their personal information to just any website that asks for it, those same people can be found filling their Facebook accounts with everything from their birthday to where they live and work. Putting this sensitive information onto a social network not only leaves your data exposed to third-parties (advertisers and so forth), but also to anyone who happens across your profile.

Facebook, Google+, and Twitter all have settings that let you tweak what others can see on your profile—but navigating them can be a bit of a mess. Not all social networks give you complete control over your privacy online, so here's a quick overview of what Facebook, Google+, and Twitter allow you to do.

Facebook

Facebook's Privacy options are generally very flexible—so much so that you can get a little overwhelmed by them. Facebook's privacy settings are organized under five different categories, each with its own screen to go through and check. Though this seems like a lot, Facebook's privacy settings are actually considerably simpler than they have been in the past.

In an attempt to simplify matters some, the company offers up two different pre-configured privacy options that you can select from when you post something to your profile: "Public" and "Friends." As its name suggests, the "Public" option means that items you publish to your profile are visible to anyone who visits Facebook. Likewise, selecting "Friends" allows only your Facebook friends to see what you post.

Facebook also offers a "Custom" setting: From there, you can pick and choose who gets to see what you post by either restricting it to any networks you're part of or so that only people on selected "lists" (a way to organize your friends into groups--you can have a list for co-workers, for example, or for family) can see it. Additionally, you can also prevent specific people from seeing items you post.

You can limit who can view your profile, whether it appears in search, whether others can tag you in photos or posts, and so forth.

Facebook's biggest strength in regard to its privacy settings is also its biggest weakness. The high degree of flexibility means you have relatively fine-grained control over who can see what on your profile, but the controls can still be rather confusing, even with recent attempts at simplification. It doesn't help that Facebook changes its privacy settings screens regularly, so you periodically may have to re-learn and re-adjust everything.

Google+

Google+ is built around the concept of "Circles." Similar to lists on Facebook, Circles let you organize people you follow on Google+ into groups based on how you know them. For instance, you may have one Circle for friends, one for family members, one for close confidants, and one for coworkers.

It's easy to choose who can see what in Google+.

When you post something to Google+, you can specify which of your Circles you want to share that particular post with. Alternately, you can make something public so that anyone can see it, pick and choose which individual Google+ users can see your posts, or choose to share it with "Extended Circles" (where people in your Circle's Circles can see it, akin to the "Friends of Friends" setting on Facebook). Unlike Facebook's lists, Google+ forces you to use Circles: This means a little extra work, but it also means that you have some more control over who can see items you post to your profile.

The downside to Google+ is that anyone can add you to their Circles without your approval, so there's no way to sign off on who can see your profile. That said, Google+ does let you make it so your profile doesn't appear in search results in case you want to limit who can add you to their Circles. Also, Google+'s privacy settings are refreshingly simple to use: They're all accessible via your profile (either through the Edit Profile function or when you post an item, depending on what you're trying to do), so you don't have to dig through multiple panes and menus to find the setting you want.

Twitter

Twitter's privacy settings are quite basic, but then again, the social network is conceptually much simpler than both Facebook and Google+. Twitter profiles can be either private or public, and you can swap back and forth between the two as you please.

Twitter lets you make your account private, so that only selected people can see your tweets.

To do so, visit Twitter's site, log into your account, and click on the Settings icon from the menu in the upper right corner. From there, go to the Account screen, and check the box labeled "Protect my Tweets." Save your changes, and your account is now private. When your account is private, only those you approve can see your tweets, and your tweets can't be retweeted. Your bio, name, and Twitter handle are always visible, though.

Twitter requires you to enter a valid email address when you sign up, but it won't publicly display it. Also, while Twitter makes it possible to search for someone using their email address, you can turn this off by un-checking the box labeled "Let others find me by my email address" on the Account page.

If you want your Twitter account to be public, but don't want your name to be associated with it, you can change the display name for your account to be whatever you want it to be (though as a rule of thumb, you shouldn't assume the identity of someone else since that's called identity theft, kids).

A Winner?

Since Facebook, Google+, and Twitter all work differently, it's impossible to absolutely say that one is better than the other. The privacy settings in Google+ edge out those for Facebook, thanks to their overall flexibility and straightforward nature. Twitter gives the fewest privacy settings, but again, due to how it works, Twitter doesn't need the same granularity to its privacy settings as some other social networks do.

Regardless of what social network privacy settings let you control, you should still be careful with what you post online. The next time you drunkenly post to Facebook, don't say I didn't warn you...

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