how Facebook mucks up office life

Imagine walking into a meeting and encountering not just your current co-workers, but all your colleagues and managers from jobs past, along with your spouse, your college drinking buddies, your Senior Prom date, and, off in a corner, your adolescent son, busy telling your boss how many hours he logs in every day playing Grand Theft Auto.

It's not a nightmare, it's Facebook.

If you're anything like the 200 million users on the burgeoning social network, you probably didn't give enough thought when you first signed on to which friend requests you accepted, or whom you invited via the Friend Finder. Now you've got a dangerously random group of friends and friends-of-friends sharing -- and over-sharing -- information, sometimes without your even being aware of it.

The "he told two friends, and they told two friends" syndrome can be embarrassing in your personal life, but potentially much more serious in the world of work.

Even if you're careful in posting work-related news in your status updates and comments on others' walls and feeds, are each and every one of your friends as cautious as you are? One buddy writing "Yo, how did the layoffs go down?" on your wall is enough to cause havoc in your office -- particularly if layoff day hasn't yet happened.

Even more troubling: the online behavior of your direct reports, who, demographically speaking, are likely to be both more enthusiastic and less discriminate in their use of Facebook and other social networks. "Younger people are using Facebook on a quasi-professional basis to build stronger relationships with people," says Michael Argast, director of Global Sales Engineering at security vendor Sophos Plc. "That means they're sharing a lot of information with a lot of people on a regular basis."

Again, if the information they're sharing is what five albums have most influenced their lives, fine. If the information they're sharing is that your division might miss its new product ship date "by a mile!!!!!!," that's not fine. Even more alarming, a new tool from Facebook lets users see their friends' activity streams from cell phones or computers without having to be logged into their Facebook home pages, which could potentially spread unwary users' updates and comments even faster than before.

In short, the more ubiquitous Facebook becomes, the greater its potential to muck up office life -- and make your job as a manager just that much more treacherous.

And these are just the accidents. The sea of information on Facebook is also starting to attract information pirates, identify thieves and malware distributors.

The [Friend List] tools are not that easy to find.

Michael Argast, Sophos Plc.

The best defense against these threats is awareness of the kinds of problems that can arise and how to head them off, coupled with a true understanding of the medium. Facebook does indeed offer tools (see Facebook's privacy options) to help its users better control the flow of information, but it's up to your employees -- perhaps with a little coaching from you -- to learn how to use them and then put them into play.

Until that happy day, here are some of the top inter-office challenges posed by Facebook:

Too many "friends"

All but the most cautious Facebook users wrestle with the problem of having too many disparate groups of people as "friends" -- co-workers, family members, drinking buddies, church colleagues and so forth. "Facebook has been relatively good about providing ways for users to separate friends into groups," says Argast, "but the tools are not that easy to find."

Separate from the social challenge is the issue of people, particularly younger Facebook users, becoming friends with people they don't know well, or even at all. "Facebook doesn't have our normal social mechanisms for validating someone," Argast points out -- and many users, especially people who use Facebook to network, are reluctant to turn down a friend request.

(This is less of a problem for older users who have "different social inhibition mechanisms," as Argast puts it -- in other words, they're not as comfortable with revealing personal information to online acquaintances.)

Even the cautious among us are likely to be friends with former colleagues who now work for competitors, and those innocuous relationships can potentially cause problems.

Imagine you've just had an innocent lunch with a former co-worker and discussed joining her fantasy baseball league. You come back to find a post on your wall that reads, "Great talking to you, and I'll be sure to let you know if there are any openings."

What kind of rumors will that start among your staff and colleagues?

Information travels too far

The currency of Facebook is the information that friends choose to share with one another -- status updates, wall posts, external Web links, photos, videos, survey results, application feeds, and comments on all of the above.

The unending flow of data from friends and supposed friends can easily get out of hand -- who among us hasn't 86ed a friend who cluttered our feeds with inane chatter about whether their baby was napping or awake?

But the real problem isn't the nature of the information but the fact that the structure of Facebook makes it easy for information to spread beyond the people it was intended for.

Say a Facebook user posts a funny picture of a cat. If one of her friends -- your employee, as it turns out -- comments "LOL," there's no harm done. But what if your employee instead writes, "thanks. i rilly needed a laugh this morning -- everyone here is freaking cuz our servers are down." Suddenly lots of people she may not know, and you certainly don't, are now aware of your company's technical difficulties, all in lightning-quick Internet time.

A simple change of settings can solve many vulnerabilities -- that is, choosing to show profile, basic info, personal info, photos and so forth only to "Friends" rather than Facebook's other options ("Friends of Friends," "My Networks and Friends," or the truly indiscriminate "Everyone.")

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