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The other day my friend told me that no relationship is a real relationship unless it’s FBO — Facebook Official. At first I laughed but when thinking about it later, I realized how powerful her statement was. We live in a society where we base our real lives around our virtual ones. When it comes to social networks, we have hundreds of friends (many of whom we’ve never met in real life or, if we have, it was once at some party for five minutes),  we display personal information for anyone to see (hometown, address, phone number), hundreds of pictures of ourselves (sometimes in less than professional capacities), and check them obsessively (I’m sorry but unless it’s sleeping, six hours a day is way too much time to spend on any one thing).

It’s crazy, right? That we can be so blasé with our lives and personal information. Being this open with personal information can lead to identity theft, not getting a job you want because of photos a potential employer found on Facebook, or even someone stalking you. There are just a few things we should be more careful about when it comes to social networking.

Think back to anytime you may have looked at photos of a friend of a friend or tried to find an old elementary school buddy by tracing them through a mutual friend. If you were able to do this, that means people are able to do it with you too. Unfortunately, people who look at your profile don’t always have the friendliest of intentions. Every day, potential landlords and employers search for their potential renters/employees online. Those pictures of your cute, yet revealing Halloween costume may be liked by 10 of your friends, but those aren’t necessarily what your future boss wants to see. If you wouldn’t want your mom to see it, it might be time to consider either removing it or making your pictures private so only your friends can see them.

Don’t get me started on passwords! How many of you have ever used your birthday as a password? Think about it; your birthday is posted on Facebook for everyone to see.  So are your favorite quotes, likes and interests, high school, college, hometown … all very common security questions things like banks use to identify you when signing in. Oh yeah, and when posting your address, can’t San Francisco be enough information? Or even just the school’s address? Ask yourself if it is really necessary to post a dorm room number.

When you really think about it, the concept of friends on social networking sites can get a bit ridiculous. No one in the world actually has 500 true friends. Remember: it is OK to deny someone as a friend. Just because you met them once for 5 seconds and discovered you both like Italian food doesn’t mean you have to add them as your friend. At the end of the day, you still don’t really know them.

Keep in mind that once something is posted, it is always posted. That means pictures, rants, quizzes, and all of the other little goodies we like to post will always exist once you hit post. Even if you go back and delete something later, there is no guarantee that someone else hasn’t downloaded what you posted and is re-posting it somewhere else. I’m going to be frank — it would suck to find a picture of your 16-year-old self in a bathing suit on a random website 10 years later. On the same note, don’t be afraid to let your friends know if you’re uncomfortable with something they post about you and be mindful of what you post about other people. Post onto others as you would have them post onto you.

A lot of these problems can be avoided by taking a few options to protect your identify and your reputation. First, consider using multiple profiles, even on the same social network. Much as a writer uses a pen name, create one profile under your full name and one using a nickname; this way you can have one profile with less information but more “friends” and another personal one with a more select “friends” list. To build a more professional profile where you can sell yourself to potential employers or network with people you don’t know on a personal level, consider using LinkedIn. Always use strong passwords for all of your online accounts; pick ones that include a mix of numbers and letters but don’t contain your basic information. Of course the most basic step you can take is to change your privacy settings so only friends can see your information.

Your online reputation can be a great thing and help you excel in life. There’s nothing wrong with keeping your life professional and private. Recent research shows that while potential employers and landlords may respond negatively to your profile, they also appreciate an individual with a strong and positive online reputation. Don’t be afraid to work the system! Make social networks a forum to show your smarts, creativeness and thoughtfulness.

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