Hiding Your Face on Facebook

Dear Helena,

When someone posts an embarrassing picture of you on Facebook after a party, is it wrong to ask them to take it down? What’s the best way to deal with it? —Overexposed

Dear Overexposed,

Facebook’s public relations team turned down an interview on the subject, so I asked some of the site’s users for their thoughts. For the uninitiated, Facebook allows users to identify people in photographs posted to their profile pages, a process known as tagging. When people are tagged in a photo, their friends are notified, so everyone can go check out the picture. That all happens before you can approve the photo.

Most people I spoke to say they deal with embarrassing pictures by quietly removing the tags themselves. It’s easy to do if you have a Facebook account: Simply click on the Remove Tag link below the photograph. This makes it harder for people to find pictures of you, and avoids drawing unnecessary attention to the pictures. Nobody can retag you.

However, the original notice has already gone out at that point, and as Daniel Castleton*, a product manager in San Francisco, notes, removing tags doesn’t stop other people from commenting on the picture. When they do, their comments appear next to the photo, as well as in updates to their own profile pages: “Bert commented on Ernie’s photo: ‘Boy, Daniel C was trashed that night!’” And after a comment has been posted, the commenter’s friends will all receive an update about it in their news feeds. The comment can only be removed by either the person who wrote it or the person who posted the picture, so you’d have to ask for help from one of them if you’d been unwillingly outed.

You can also ask people to remove the offending picture altogether. Facebook friends of mine say they have been asked to remove pictures, and they didn’t mind. But if there are other people in the picture, you might feel bad about asking for its removal. And you also have the problem of explaining why you don’t want anyone to see it. It’s easy enough if you’re clutching a giant psychedelic bong, but what if you just don’t like the picture because you look fat? You risk appearing vain. Recently, I asked a friend to take down a picture from her birthday in which I looked, well, sloshed. She complied, but I felt like I was asking her to rip a page out of her photo album.

You might want pictures censored for personal reasons that are awkward to explain. If you tell your brother you can’t go to your nephew’s birthday party because you’re ill or out of town, you don’t want to be tagged doing a keg stand on the day of the event. Or if you went to a party that not all of your coworkers were invited to, you don’t really want them checking out the pictures on Facebook on Monday morning.

Of course, you can also avoid having embarrassing photos taken in the first place, but that means acting as if you plan to run for office: Never get drunk, never lose control. Oh, and make sure you always eat your food elegantly, lest someone snap you with strings of pizza cheese hanging from your mouth. But where’s the fun in that? I have one friend who always throws a hand up in front of his face when a camera appears, and it never fails to get an eye roll from his friends.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the person posting pictures to use good judgment in the first place. If he has a number of similar pictures, he should post the most flattering of the bunch. If he suspects the subject of the photo might not want it made public, he should ask permission before posting it. And if he posts an album, he can vary the privacy setting so that the pictures are only available to specific groups. For instance, he can make an album available to his friends but not to his friends’ friends, thereby minimizing exposure.

Finally, it’s always best not to post pictures when your mind is clouded by a hangover. Once, recalls Castleton, when he was feeling groggy from a bender the night before, he “accidentally posted a picture of a friend where her nipple was showing. ... I took it down once I was notified, but a lot of people got an eyeful for the 12 hours it was up.”

∗This name has been changed at his request.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.