Sep 26, 2009

Social Media, Poor Etiquette

Don't talk to strangers. Don't interrupt. Consider those around you.

These rules of etiquette have been drilled into our heads time and time again. We have repeatedly refrained from speaking to strangers. We have patiently waited our turn before speaking or announcing news. And we have always respected our peers. Until now.

The culprit? SOCIAL MEDIA.

Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have broken down the rules of etiquette. Our ability to instantly share news with the masses has caused us to interact with strangers, interrupt message strings and disrespect others. Consider these examples:

After the proposal was accepted, Stephanie wanted to enjoy her engagement. Refraining from calling extended family and acquantainces, Stephanie and her fiance had a small party with close friends and family. Stephanie's attempts to keep her moment private and control her news was interrupted by her friends. Pictures of the ring and the happy couple instantly popped up on Facebook and Twitter courtesy of the friends who could hardly wait to pass on someone else's good news.

While driving with his pregnant wife to find out the gender of their baby, Brian began typing a status update to his loyal followers. His wife's reaction? Anger. Why? Not because her husband was broadcasting a private moment, but because she wanted to be the first to digitally announce the news. Besides, she was much more creative in her attempt to share. Rather than type an update, she drew the female symbol on her belly and TwitPic'd it to the world.

Tracy was not Facebook-savvy. Tracy did not realize just how fast information is shared with her network. Tracy made a big mistake. Thanking Michael for a "great night", she filled a status update with lots of inappropriate remarks about her wild night. As one of her friends commented, "Oh Tracy, seriously! You didn't think FB was private did you?" (click here for a full account of Tracy's wild night and wild mistake; it is not work appropriate)

Why is it that we are so obsessed with broadcasting our news to the world? The intimacy of telephone calls and face-to-face interviews have been replaced by a single message or image. The social media craze has allowed people to cross geographic boundaries, to connect instantly and keep their networks up-to-date. Social media isn't all good though.

Social networking sites have not been around long enough to develop hard and fast etiquette rules. Users are too focused on spreading the message and forget to consider who the message is reaching. Thankfully, general guidance is emerging. Just as people learned that yelling on a cell phone in public is annoying, they are realizing that hitting "reply all" when responding to just one person in a mass e-mail is poor etiquette. Just as people learned to show pictures to their friends before including them in a photo album, the social media-savvy folks are now realizing it is poor etiquette to post unflattering images of friends and family without their consent.

According to Facebook, the average user has 120 "friends". Are these "real life" friends? Probably not. The average North American has a handful of good friends and another 20 or 30 acquaintances (source: Barbara Ortutay). This differentiation causes people to let their guards down as they do not consider how many people are reading their wall posts, their status updates, and viewing their pictures.

So, please, be aware. Remember that what you put in cyberspace stays in cyberspace. When you post, it gets read. And when you post an unflattering picture? Well, I'll leave that one up to you.

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