Stories abound of people tossed headfirst into a sea of drama because some well-meaning friend left an inappropriate message on their Facebook wall. Consider, for example, the friend who tags you in a photo from a wild house party " and then you get the we need to talk phone call from a disapproving uncle or your human-resources generalist. Social media provides several opportunities to share information, opinions, and pictures, but the very public nature of this sharing demands a commonly accepted standard of appropriateness to help readers fine-tune the noise coming across multiple social-media streams. Modern messaging etiquette sorely needs an updating for the social-media age.
Perhaps the most significant question of social-media sharing is whether some status update, picture or blog post is worth public distribution. A San Diego State University poll of social networking attitudes revealed that 57 percent of college students believe that their peers use social networking sites for self-promotion, narcissism and attention seeking.
Although everyone is a rock star in his own mind, given the deluge of data emanating from social networking sites, a savvy user should ask one simple question before hitting the submit button: Does the world really need to know this? Must the fact that you just ate a bowl of cereal be immortalized in Facebooks databases, for example?
Put differently: If you wouldnt be willing to send your status update to every e-mail address in your electronic address book, think twice about posting it to your public profile.
Public or Private?
Social networking is about social communications " but social does not necessarily imply public. Because social networking focuses on connecting people to each other, the technology infrastructure of Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Flickr, YouTube and related sites offer pride-of-place to public status messages and public replies to those status messages. But public messages arent your only option.
If you just found out that a friend lost a job, for example, and your friend hasnt yet made this information public, then it would be inappropriate to leave a Facebook wall post expressing your condolences; the intended kindness of the wall post nevertheless deprives your friend of her privacy and her right to control her own messaging of a personal or traumatic event. Send a private message, instead " or use the telephone. Likewise, if you have a friend who remains closeted about his homosexuality, dont spam his Facebook wall or leave him a Twitter @reply with an invitation to join a group attending the local gay-pride parade and a decadent after-party.
The mere existence of a social profile does not give a person license to trample on anothers privacy or to send unsolicited or unwelcome information that is inappropriate, crude or obscene. The real task of a sophisticated social-media user is knowing the difference between public posts and private messages, and acting in a way that treats your communication partners with respect.
Another good way of determining what to post is to use the church bulletin rule. If you wouldnt want something posted in a churchs Sunday bulletin, then dont post it publicly. Send a Twitter Direct Message or a Facebook private message instead. Being public about a private matter can end friendships, so the stakes are high.
This sensitivity to the private extends to replies, as well. For example, if a co-worker tweets that she just lost her cell phone and needs everyone to reply with their phone number, dont use the @reply function " send a Direct Message instead. Your co-workers other followers neither need nor want to filter through hundreds of phone numbers in their timeline.
Think about whether a reply ought to be public or private irrespective of the original message. Some private messages benefit from a public response " for example, when a person sends a private Facebook message about a computer problem. If everyone replied privately to the original sender, then the rest of the group would not know if or when any of the other recipients had responded, leading to unnecessary work and a bit of chaos. In this instance, a reply to all is appropriate.
And remember a basic courtesy: Obtain permission from all participants before making a private message public.
To Tag, or Not to Tag?
Facebook, through its tagging feature, and Twitter, with its @reply function, allow posters to associate another persons social profile with some object " a post, a Tweet, a photo or a video. Often this tagging is welcome; however, as a matter of etiquette, its appropriate to get a persons permission to tag them beforehand. No one likes being caught unaware that they appear in an embarrassing photo, and then finding out from a gossipy friend that a photo is posted on Facebook for the entire world to see. Think before you tag.
English or LOLspeak?
Frequent users of social-media sites, not surprisingly, also rely on text messaging. Texts and Twitter, both with a 160-character limit, afford creative communicators ample opportunity to re-engineer the rules of English syntax and spelling in order to pack the most meaning (or the most character efficiency) into the smallest space.
That said, not everyone appreciates a flood of messages of the ill b home l8r, luv u lol type, especially on Facebook status messages, where the character limit does not apply. The same standards of clarity and consistency that govern email messages apply to social-media posts " not just for intelligibility, but also to reduce the risk of misinterpretation arising from non-standard syntax.
The experts at WebDesign & Review, for example, point out that ALL CAPS, unorganized blocks of text, bizarre characters or emoticons, looooooong and poorly punctuated sentences, embedded HTML code, long quotes of prior messages and careless attention to the recipient list all contribute to noise in email messages " and they contribute to noise in social-media posts, as well.
The Bottom Line
Social networking gives people a large microphone. When everyone has a large microphone, its too easy to get lost in a sea of noise. By thinking carefully about what you write, and whether you post publicly or privately, you can help squelch the dull roar a bit, and enjoy the real benefits of the social-media ecosystem while avoiding much of its unnecessary drama.