Social media interactions: How not to be an asshole

image via wired

I've had an online presence since 1998 when I got my first AIM account.  I have made friends, found lovers, and conducted business via chat and webcam.  I understand emoticons.  I understand the rules by which online social networking are run because they're similar to chatting.  I understand the nuances and differences between real and online life.  I understand the internet world.

In 2001, equipped with a computer in my apartment, I used my online savvy to date online.  LavaLife, Friendster, Yahoo!, Match.com, Myspace, you name it, I used them all.  I dated like crazy off of these sites and this is where I learned the real ropes of social media interactions (though the term "social media" was but a whisper on our lips at the time), personal boundaries, and an online persona.  Thank God I already had years of IMing under my belt.

That was a busy couple of years for me and here's why it's relevant: If it weren't for that online "boot camp," whereby I learned to siphon out the creeps, perverts, and hangers-on, and also figure out the nature of intense social interaction via the computer, I wouldn't be able to navigate our social-media culture like I do now.

You cannot, and should not, treat online interactions with the same expectations as you would an average face-to-face conversation and here's why:
  1. Response does not equal interest.  If someone doesn't immediately respond to a chat, status comment, or email, it's not rude, whereas if you were talking to someone across the table and they ignored you, it would be.
  2. You have to take a leap of faith.  There's no voice inflection or sometimes even context for a message and a written word can easily be misinterpreted, more so than the spoken word.  
  3. You have a higher level of censorship ability.  Never apply what you read about someone literally.  Think of it as a nuance of the person who wrote it.
  4. You are not required to make your online space hospitable.  Unlike sharing physical space where you might need to adhere to some manners, you may do as you please in your profile space.  It is up to others to manage how much of you they're exposed to.
Newbies to social-media commit every single mistake possible: they take everything personally, they don't understand written sarcasm or the use of emoticons, they take everything literally, and last, but most definitely not least, they seem to think that everyone else should make them feel welcome.

Maybe a year ago or so I had over 300 "friends" on Facebook.  Those 300 people included in-laws, both near and distant, friends' parents and relatives, and my mother.  Basically, it incorporated people who only ever saw a Jessica on her best behavior; who never cussed, who wiped her mouth after a bite of food, and who was never boisterous, bawdy, or raucous.  Basically, they got the part that was the most work for me to pull off.

It took a couple of questionable responses to my own comments, on my own page, from some of these "friends" for me to realize this wasn't going to work.  I started severely censoring myself in my status updates because I didn't want to offend my mother or make her worry and I didn't want to invite criticism from the in-laws or others.  And I thought, "What the fuck is the point of this if I can't be myself??"

Just because you know me doesn't give you the automatic in to every facet of my self-expression.  Facebook, lo, social-media is brand spanking new and we all need to define it for ourselves.  Obviously, you know where I stand: it's a uniquely safe place where I control what comes in and what goes out.  Maybe you think it's a great way to proselytize about God, or your knock-off denim line, or whatever.   And that is A-OK with me.  I'll just hide you from my feed and be done with it.  No harm, no foul.  You do your thing.  I'll do mine.

So in that vein I wrote a note to my mothers-in-law and my mom telling them I was dropping all "parental types" and people who didn't really know me.  I felt unsafe and exposed and needed to take a step back and cull the list of people with access to my life.  I explained about how I was redefining my online boundaries and that it wasn't personal (and it truly wasn't), but that I had decided I needed a space free-of expectations for me to behave in a certain way.

They were mostly all very understanding and I felt an enormous sense of relief, and today I have only people I have met and know for my personal Facebook page.  I even go so far as to almost never link to this blog on my personal site.  It's just a different facet of me and I don't want it all tangled up.  I have a little blurb in my info tab with my blog url, but that's it.

I encourage everyone I know who has an "Oh my God!  My boyfriend's mother just friend-requested me!  What do I do?" moment to really think about their boundaries and what they want their online space to be for them.  Which brings me to my next point.

To conclude this long and rambling rant about social-media rules and manners (thanks, if you've made it this far!) don't you ever, EVER go to someone. else's. PERSONAL. online. space. and tell them how to conduct themselves, particularly on Facebook.  It is tantamount to walking into someone's home and telling them what to do at their own party.  (I say "particularly Facebook" because a blog invites scrutiny if it's open to the public.  Facebook, however, is based on actually knowing in some capacity the people you're connecting with.)

This has happened to me, it's happened to Jill and Amanda, and I just saw a friend of mine get called out the other week for using his own personal Facebook page to only talk about sports (which also happens to be his career) and never anything too personal. I'm sure these aren't the only people who've been inappropriately called out, either.

My story is like theirs.  I was minding my own business on Facebook when, out of no where, someone I knew (and trusted) publicly shamed me for cussing in a status update.

I'd written, "FUCK.  I accidentally bought decaf!"  And several friends shared in my humor and pain.  His comment was maybe the 10th and his words were something like, "Come on, Jessica, you can do better than that!  Try a little harder!  Don't use the gutter."

Mind you, I haven't actually laid eyes on this person since I was 5 years old.  I spoke to him once during a family crisis on the phone for about a minute and a half 4 years ago.  And here he was, up in my shit, scolding me in front of 250 other people.

I promptly responded that he was welcome to delete or hide me, with not a trace of malice or anger to be found, to which he responded, "I prefer to have meaningful exchanges instead. How's life?"

Yeah... "How's life?"  I laughed at that and emailed him a quick note that I'd be happy to have a "meaningful exchange," but I preferred for those to happen in a more private part of Facebook, like email.

In the end, I emailed him again the following day and told him he had no right whatsoever to ask me to censor my language, that it was his responsibility to manage his exposure to things he found offensive and that I had worked hard to cultivate a safe online space for myself,  of which he was not invited to dismantle.  I said I would never go to his page and swear, therefore he could not come to mine and ask me not to.

He anemically apologized and said his six year old daughter had been sitting with him at the computer when he opened his Facebook page and that my language had jumped out at them.

Yeah.  A six year old.

Anyway, it just made me more determined than ever to protect my space of 1s and 0s and really let it be whatever I wanted it to be, good, bad, ugly, or bat-shit crazy.  Later, I noticed he was gone from Facebook all together.  I guess it was just too much for him to process in the end. 

Essentially, what I'm trying to say is, don't be an asshole.

Be chill.  Be open.  Be in control.  Be savvy.

Do your damnedest to know what you don't know by researching privacy settings and controls and maybe ask your friends about how they conduct their online life.

If you don't like what someone is saying or how they're expressing themselves, then LEAVE, just as you'd leave a group of people with whom you didn't feel comfortable.  But don't think you have the right to tell them what to do.  You'll get a shit storm of fall out if you do.

I think the Gen X OG online folks need to be patient with the herds of people jumping online, but we also need the newbies to work at getting a clue as to how this all works.  For a lot of us, it's not just an easy way to share photos with Aunt Penny, it's an extension of self-expression and it's as private and fragile as we want it to be.

Pretty soon, we won't have a generation that knows life without a social-network.  Imagine that.  I bet they'll have lessons in English class on online etiquette by then.  Or at least one can hope!

Also of note: You can get fired because of Facebook and colleges are using it, too, to determine admissions.  Also, pretty much all of this can be applied to any personal social-networking platform (Twitter, Flickr, Digg, whatever). 


  1. You know I'd never thought about that - there is a generation, that of my children, that will never have known life without mobile phones, socila media HD tv DVD's or any other number of gadgets and gismos. It sounds weird to say it lke that huh+

    I think schools will eventualy have to embrace it, this online world, because it really is such a big part of peoples lives.

  2. Good things to think about. Thanks Jessica.

  3. Excellent, excellent post. Others seem to not understand how the online environment works - and the whole FB thing is a slap in the face - talk about personal space! Sadly, I don't think there will ever be an end to this issue as "those" people will continue to do what they think is ok.

  4. i culled my "friends" list down a few weeks ago to only people i *actually talk to*! imagine that! i don't really need people i met one time or someone i worked with six years ago creeping around my page looking at my photos and updates when we don't even talk to each other.

    that said, i AM friends will all my family and my husband's family on there, so i don't post hardly at all. just like you did, i feel like i have to mind my manners. my real friends know they can find me on twitter if they need me. facebook is just so my mom can see pictures of the baby.

  5. What a great post - I have never had anyone try to censor what I say on my FB page, but I've had plenty of eye opening exchanges about the views of my FB "friends."

  6. I make good use of the filtering available on Facebook. Most of the inlaws just get to see pictures and not the wall (after incidents where I felt like my MIL was stalking my FB page and updates).

    For someone who gets to see friends face to face so infrequently, social media is a great resource used to still feel connected to something besides this job, being a mother, or running a house.

  7. Gen X OG online folks!!! Oh, that was awesome.

    This is an excellent post. I started living online in the early '90s in chat rooms (gasp!). They were considered scary at the time - I even met people from them. It's a wonder I'm still alive, really. I started with ICQ 15+ years ago and never looked back. Social interactions online are definitely different, though I'd never really thought about it in the way you've articulated it. Thanks!

  8. Man, this was SUCH a great post. I have to say, I rarely even post stuff on FB because, like you said, I don't feel "safe" on there to really say what I want to say. I've thought about paring down the list of friends - or just canceling it all together. Haven't quite decided yet. But it all has to do with exactly what you're referring to.

  9. I keep thinking about bailing on Facebook. It feels restrictive and I'm often wondering just what the point of holding on to the "friendships" of people I haven't seen since elementary school is. I saw the scolding that Scary Mommy received on her Facebook page and thought it was pretty stupid of that commenter. If it was me and I was offended I would have just removed myself from her page.

  10. I have a few FB accounts. I try to keep my "real life friends" completely separate from my online people. My blog is a perfect example. While I don't use fake names, I NEVER mention it in conversation to friends and family. There are only a few people that know me in real life that know about the blog. I feel like, while it's public, it's my own personal space. I do have Google Alerts set up for search terms that I know will bring you pretty much directly to my blog. I also check to see where people are clicking in from. While I wouldn't be totally mortified if people found out about it, I might be if they found my Twitter account associated with that online persona :-)

    I was just commenting the other day how I really miss the time when online life was a separate part of my life....far far away from family and old H.S. friends. Sure, like you, I dated my way through the internet...met friends...had real interaction with these screen names that had once seemed so foreign. BUT, since these people had came from the same online environment as I...they understood the "life" HA!

    My mother, IL's, aunts, uncles, random people from school...they do not. I hide most of them from my feed ;D

  11. I am pretty open online. I'm comfortable with that. I'm not sure I always do the right thing, but I try not to take it personally or be a jerk.

    But I am totally uncool with kids on Facebook. I have a 5-year-old, she gets stuff, but she lacks judgment. There's no way I'm letting her check it out. If you're in an adult space, which is how I view Facebook and Twitter and a lot of the blogs I read, you shouldn't have your kids with you.

    Although you SHOULD understand that your kids could see what you write. Which is a whole other thing, altogether.

  12. Excellent post Jessica! I feel sometimes censored on my blog because I know my family reads it, so there are for sure some things I can't and won't talk about on there. And with Twitter, I tend to ramble on and on and on... but I'm selective in what I say, too... but swearing... fuck... if anyone has a problem with that, they can go screw themselves! ;) xo

  13. very interesting post and you're right...i do find i'm censoring myself far too much on FB for the 200+ people i rarely talk to. using twitter seems like a more "private" niche where one can bawd, curse or sparkle however they please b/c those who would be offended can simply unfollow. as always, you've given me lots to think about and i like that.

  14. Love this post. One question for you: Etiquette for re-tweeting a post that has a swear in it's title. I just tweeted this because that's what I do when I love a post, but *I* didn't feel comfortable with the last part of the title "How not to be a fucking asshole" under my twitter profile. So I omitted it to say Tis Worthwhile on Social Media Interactions. Hm. I felt like I was omitting an important part of what you were saying in/about the post and therefore being rude by not tweeting it in full and yet even though I swear sometimes I don't like to swear too much on twitter. So is that okay to omit someone else's swear because you are doing them a favour anyway, or is it more rude to change their title to feel more comfortable in one's own on line space?
    Or am I looking too much into this?

  15. You said it all, and oh so well, so you left nothing for me to say- except You are awesome and I adore you.

    they say you can judge people by their friends, and I'm thinking the fact that you are my birthday buddy gets me additional points, so thank you for making me look good ;-)

  16. Love this post. Love how it was unexpected, too. I figured you were going to do what you warn people not to: tell me how to conduct my own online space. Very cool that you did the opposite.

    I have not told my family (parents, siblings, I mean, not my husband — ha!) about my blog, because I want the freedom to say what I want. I have two Facebook accounts, and I barely visit the restricted, family-oriented one, and I am very cautious there. Twitter is so fun for me, because barely anyone I know IRL knows me on Twitter, and I can just let it hang out.

    Philosophical question: Why is it we're least forthcoming with those we're theoretically closest to?

    I'd love to know the answer to Melodie's question as well, because while I swear like a sailor in real life, in online life I've been trying to keep it G-rated, for various reasons.

  17. Now that's a social media post everyone should read. I get so annoyed when people jump down my throat for something I say online...

    You rock.

  18. There's a valid point in not exposing those in your "real life" to your "online life." I know I keep mine fairly separate. However, I was possibly saved from a toxic friendship with a woman who broke so many of these rules. In person she was warm, funny and seemed to have a lot in common with several in my group of friends -to which she was new- myself included. On-line she was judgmental, dishonest (both by telling lies and by exposing the lies she told in person), made jokes (that were based on her lies) at the expense of my friends - her friends...
    I have a feeling most of "us" are filtering for our audience and would stand by anything we said if "caught", but frankly I'm glad she didn't have the scruples to keep them separate!

  19. I have two facebook accounts - one for real life friends, family, former classmates and some select clients. I have another one that is related to my blog, which includes very few people that I know in real life, but where I'm quite liberal about letting strangers in. However, the strangers that come in need to accept that I am loud and opinionated and I'm not going to self-censor.