Have you outgrown MySpace? Feel locked out of LinkedIn? Don't look now, but Facebook is quickly becoming the site of choice for connecting with friends and professional contacts online.
Though anyone can join, Facebook's streamlined appearance and its controls on who can contact you have prevented it from morphing into another MySpace free-for-all. The service recently added installable third-party applications, making it a strong competitor to Netvibes, Pageflakes, and other personalized portal sites. These tips and tricks will help you add new dimensions to your profile.
Any online activity involves some risk. The question is: When does the risk outweigh the benefits? Your Facebook profile can say a lot about you, or just a little. In fact, nothing prevents you from creating a completely fictitious persona on Facebook by using an anonymous E-mail account when you register. Such accounts appear to be rare, however, because the value of Facebook lies in its ability to help you connect with people you know.
Still, you should exclude your home address, phone numbers, and other sensitive information from your profile unless listing the data is absolutely necessary. Avoid identifying the city you live in, your age, and other exploitable stats as well. See my Internet Tips column, "Safeguard Your Reputation While Socially Networking," for more tips on protecting yourself while engaging in social networking.
Don't accept Facebook's security defaults, either. A lot of people configure their profiles so that only friends can see them, which helps prevent creeps from spying on their vacation beach photos. To do this, click privacy in your profile's menu bar, and then profile. Choose only my friends in the Profile drop-down menu to block anyone but your friends from seeing your profile (nonfriends can still see your name and profile photo, and they can send you a message requesting to be your friend). For a more granular approach to privacy, block nonfriends from viewing specific profile features, or from reading your contact information--including any e-mail addresses, phone numbers, and IM screen names--by choosing only my friends under each contact type that is listed in the Profiles and Contact Information sections of the page.
Join a local network: Now that Facebook is open to nonstudents, your chances of making useful connections in the real world have multiplied--the trick is to get out and join other networks. Start with your real-world community. After school-based networks, the most popular networks on Facebook are linked to geographical regions.
To join a regional network, click the down arrow next to Networks in your profile's menu bar, choose Join a Network, and type your city in the City/Town field. (If you entered a location when you signed up, this page will list your region.) Facebook will offer a list of like-named burgs in different states or provinces; select yours.
Your town may have its own network, be part of a larger metropolitan network, or both (see the screen at left). If Facebook offers you a choice, pick the network you want to join. To finish, click Join Regional Network. You can belong to only one regional network at a time, but you don't have to live in the one you select. For example, if you have always dreamed of living on Maui, joining the Hawaiian network might be the first step toward making your island fantasy come true.
Get schooled: If you start out on a regional network, you can join a college network on the same screen described above (whether active student or grizzled alum) as long as you have a valid e-mail address at the school. Just type the address into the School Email field, and click Join School.
Find company: School and regional networks are a fun way to build your personal social network, but what about your business network? Facebook still has a long way to go to catch up with LinkedIn and other work-oriented services. But depending on your circumstances, you may be able to build a sizable group of professional contacts. In fact, Facebook may already have a network dedicated to your firm. To join your company's Facebook network, click the arrow next to Networks in your profile's menu bar, select Join a Network, type your company e-mail address into the Work Email field, and click Join Work Network. If a Facebook network already exists for your company, you'll be prompted to confirm your join request, and Facebook will send you an E-mail confirmation at the address. If Facebook doesn't already have a network for your firm, it displays a message to that effect, along with a link where you can suggest that the site create one (see the screen above left). The key requirement, as with school networks, is a corporate e-mail address. Unfortunately, Facebook does not promise to create a network for your company within a particular time frame--or at all. Your chances may improve if you can persuade your coworkers to chime in with similar requests.
Get grouped: If you're a rootless, self-employed vagabond who eschews higher education, the pack you run with may not fit into any of Facebook's three main categories (region, school, and work). But you can still manage to gather friends and associates around a common meeting place by creating your own Facebook Group. Click the Groups link in your profile's left column to see the groups that you and your friends belong to, or use appropriate keywords to search for a group. Click the group's title to view its page, and select either the View Group or the Join Group link if you want to throw in with its members. Alternatively, choose browsing groups in the right pane to peruse Facebook's groups.