Why does it even matter?
“Facebook” and “privacy” are terms that don’t seem to really go together. I mean, it’s already a social media website. You’re volunteering to share certain aspects of your lives with people that they aren’t entitled to seeing. However, the key word in that statement is “certain” aspects. Just because you want to be able to swap recipes with your old high school basketball coach doesn’t mean that you want the entire Internet to know everything about you. Facebook is generally pretty good at allowing you to configure your privacy settings, but there are still a few imperfections.
One of the most glaring imperfections, currently, is the inability to update your profile picture without notifying anyone on your friend’s list. Although you’re able to upload photos to Facebook privately, once you designate that photo as your avatar, it’s made public again. Why? I have no clue. I do know, however, that it’s really embarrassing to update your avatar for professional purposes, and have someone potentially click on that avatar and see a dozen comments from your grandparents. Avatars don’t serve the same purpose as timeline photos, and I don’t get why Facebook decided to treat them as timeline photos.
Nonetheless, there are a couple of ways around this issue. They’re not always completely effective, so I apologize in advance if they don’t work for you. Until Facebook implements an official way to do this, there’s honestly no way to be 100 percent sure that you’ll be able to do this. Cross your fingers, though!
Option 1: Beat them to it
This is the most self-explanatory option, and it’s probably one that you’ve thought of before. It’s not the most sophisticated method, but if you choose the right time to do it, and if you don’t have an enormous friends list, it should work out for you. This method involves uploading your profile picture, and then quickly going onto your timeline and marking the notification as private before anyone else can see it. This requires a little bit of speed, as you can imagine, and I don’t recommend trying this method at peak Facebook times. Your success rate decreases as more friends are online.
First, just upload your profile picture as normal by navigating to your profile and clicking on your avatar. Choose a photo to use as your avatar, and crop it appropriately. Click “Save”, and you should be done. Now, with as much speed as you can muster, navigate to your timeline. Click the little privacy icon next to the timestamp, and select “Only Me”. Now, this notification will be completely invisible to your friends.
If you were quick enough, this should mean that no one sees your photo to begin with. They’ll notice that your avatar changes, but that’s it. They won’t have anyone with an online megaphone loudly informing them that it took place. However, with this method, they will still be able to navigate to your profile and click the picture to comment on it. When you mark the notification as “Only Me”, the picture itself still remains public. So, if you’re only concerned with unsolicited likes and comments, this method should be good enough. If you don’t want people to touch your avatar at all, though, you will want to check out the next method.
Conversely, you may not care if people see your avatar update, but you don’t want to see what they say about you. That’s a fair opinion to have. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess. If that’s the case, when you navigate to your timeline, click the downward facing arrow in the top-right corner of your profile update post and click “Turn off notifications for this post”. People will still be able to like the photo and comment on it, but it won’t blow up your notifications when they do.
Option 2: Use a private album
In this method, you’re going to be doing basically the same thing, with an extra set of steps. When you upload a fresh image as a profile picture, two things happen. First, it is made a public Facebook image. Second, a public notification is posted, saying that you changed your profile picture. Option 1 takes care of the second outcome, but not the first. There is a way to forgo that, by creating a private album that is meant only for profile images. Allow me to explain.
Find the photo that you want to use as your profile picture. Then, navigate to your Facebook profile, and click “Photos”. Then click the button that says “Create Album”. You can name the album whatever you want, it really doesn’t matter. If you plan to make a habit out of this, though, it wouldn’t hurt to make this album one that is dedicated to profile pictures. It is vitally important that, while creating this album, you set it its privacy settings to “Only me”. This allows you to upload an image privately.
Next, you’re going to designate that private image as your profile picture. When you got to the “Update Profile Picture” menu, you should be able to see your photo by scrolling down. Click the photo (again, make sure that it’s coming from that private album), crop, and save as your profile picture. This next step is very important. Although the image is private, meaning that it can’t be zoomed in on or commented on, there will still be a public notification. If you’ve read option 1, you know that time is of the essence at this point. Quickly navigate to the public notification, click the privacy icon next to the post’s timestamp, and set the notification to “Only me”.
And that’s it. If everything goes according to plan, you should be able to update your Facebook profile photo without notifying anyone. (And the weird implications of each method give a certain illusion of configuration, too!) I know, neither way is particularly efficient, and there’s a high margin for error. However, given the limited tools that Facebook gives us in this case, you kind of have to work with what you have. It’s just a matter of waiting until Facebook delivers a more effective, official fix. Until then, you’re pretty much on your own when it comes to managing privacy on a post-by-post basis.