How to make the most of social networking on Facebook

So you've finally enlisted in Facebook. Only now you're wondering if you ought to just duck.

In the last few days, Facebook faced a firestorm over controversial changes to its "terms of use." That's the legalese tacked onto the bottom of most websites. Critics said Facebook wanted to keep a grip on your information forever. Facebook claimed otherwise. Still, the company reverted to its former policy, for now.

Even before the latest ruckus, users of Facebook have always had to think about how to present information. If you apply a little common sense and balance your tolerance for privacy, Facebook can be a very rewarding place to share ideas, make new friends and rekindle old relationships.

The service just celebrated its fifth birthday, with membership swelling past 175 million. Of course, now that the fastest-growing demographic is over 30, Facebook may not be as "cool" as it once was. It isn't long before newbies encounter the tools of the social-networking trade — from status updates that let everyone know what you are doing or thinking, to posting messages on a friend's profile "wall."

It all comes at you in a news feed that can quickly clutter your home screen with uploaded videos, pictures, links to stories and blog posts: Don't be shocked when a decade-old photo someone tagged of you surfaces.

You can tweak what flows in by clicking "Options for News Feed" at the bottom of your main Facebook page. You can choose to see more events, notes, photos, etc.

Interestingly, there's no simple way to search for old wall posts. The only way to do it is through "Show More Posts" at the bottom of your wall, scrolling all the way back until you find it. Facebook says better filtering and organization are priorities. That's indeed something that needs fixing.

There are 52,000 applications on Facebook that let you do everything from throw snowballs to test your trivia skills. Too many to address here but certainly fodder for a future column.

To provide guidance to those new to Facebook, I've turned to my own social network: my Facebook friends and other members of the service, plus USA TODAY readers who are members. Basic recommendations:

•Finding friends. Face it, some people collect friends like baseball cards. (Guilty as charged.) I'm approaching 900 pals; 5,000 is the max.

But not all friends are created equal. Mine may represent a typical mix: distant and close relatives, neighbors, current or former classmates, camp mates, co-workers, industry contacts and bosses.

Frankly, there's a voyeuristic appeal to the idea that you might get to rub elbows virtually with a celebrity. Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was my Facebook friend for a while, until I was unceremoniously dropped. You aren't even notified when someone gives you the heave-ho.

I typically expand my social connections by searching friends of friends. If you don't know the person well or at all, send a brief message telling them why you belong in their inner circle. I see which friends we have in common before I accept a stranger's invitation.

If you want to be found by old comrades, consider allowing people to see your list of mutual friends, even if they're not connected to you. That way they know you really are the John Doe they went to high school with. But letting people see your friends is a double-edged sword: Your friends may not want people they don't know hounding them.

•Private matters. Facebook has been described as a party where you need to assume the entire room can hear you. Learn the terminology. Wall-to-wall posts can be seen by others. Send a private message if you want to keep an exchange under wraps.

Familiarize yourself with the privacy options, found under "Settings." You can determine who among your network (friends only, friends of friends, etc.) can view your user profile, personal info, status updates, photos and videos tagged of you, friends lists, wall posts, and education and work information.

It's also a good idea to group friends into customized Friend Lists, perhaps one for professional contacts and another for school chums. You can apply different privacy settings to those lists. Your bosses need not relive your college exploits.

Generally think long and hard about the information you reveal in your profile, from the year you were born to political or religious beliefs. But you're likely to get as much out of Facebook as you put in, so withholding too many details may be counterproductive.

One of my Facebook friends, Roger Matus, CEO of e-mail archiving company InBoxer, recommends three tests before posting: Would you be upset if your mother saw it? Would you be upset if the most nefarious person you ever heard about saw it? Would you be upset if it was on the front page of USA TODAY?

It's all a balancing act of sorts. What good is a social network if you're too timid to be social?