image via wired
THE ONLINE SELF
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.
SOCIAL MEDIA VS REAL LIFE INTERACTIONS: THE BIG DIFFERENCES
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
PERSONAL BOUNDARIES: I'M NOT THAT EASY
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.
ONLINE PERSONA IS UNTOUCHABLE: THE BIGGEST SOCIAL MEDIA FAUX PAS YOU CAN MAKE
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.
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).