Social media has taken its place at the cultural table. And if it’s not seated at the head of the table, it’s at the right hand.
Because of the ubiquity of Facebook as a principal means of communication, and because of the relative newness of the medium, the rules of etiquette are in regular need of refinement. As we find our voices in this brave new world, I have a few thoughts about how we might perceive the medium in general, and who we don’t want to be in particular.
My Front Yard
When we lived in Detroit, there was a guy named Bernardo who must have had over one hundred plaster lawn ornaments—statues, columns, figurines. Not that my tastes are particularly refined when it comes to landscape architecture, but the whole thing struck me as rather garish. But it would never occur to me to walk into his yard, march up to his front door, and tell him that he’s an idiot for decorating his yard that way.
I take it as read that my Facebook wall is mine in the same way that my front yard is mine.1 I landscape it the way I want; and I tend to it as often or as little as I want. My tastes might very well not be your tastes.
I see the way other people care for their yards—some of them I appreciate, and others I don’t much care for. But I don’t go into other people’s yards and plant my own signs publicly telling the world how stupid I think this person is for making landscaping choices I wouldn’t make.
Good fences make good neighbors, and all that …
If you want to plant a sign in your own front yard telling the world how messed up my thought processes are when it comes to politics or religion or sports or lasagne making—then by all means, enjoy yourself. You will most likely have to deal with the public opprobrium for appearing to be a lout, at best, or a bully, at worst. But, as I say, it’s your yard.
You’re just not free to plant that sign in my yard.
The 5 Types of Facebook User You Should Avoid Being
I’ve noticed a few types folks on Facebook you probably don’t want to be.
1) The Raging Moderate. The Raging Moderate shows up in comment threads—usually after people have invested in an argument—to let everyone understand that the fact that an argument exists necessarily means that all participants have gotten the issue wrong. Fortunately, the Raging Moderate is there to remind everybody how naughty it is to disagree, and that thankfully there are sane people who understand that every position in a disagreement occupies the same level of truth/falsehood. This is what I like to call “the-truth-must-lay-somewhere-in-the-middle” fallacy. The truth may indeed lay in the middle; but it may not. There’s no law—political, rhetorical, or moral—which says that truth is always to be found in between two radically different positions.
The middle ground can be a passive/aggressive wonderland, inasmuch as it allows a person to publicly chastise everyone who dares express an opinion on a particular matter, while maintaing an air of moral superiority as the one who refuses to engage in such petty behaviors as actually disagreeing with another person. There are Facebookers who’s M.O. it is to sit on the sidelines in a dispute, then swoop in from some imagined moral high ground where truth really resides, and inform the world that both sides are _ (deluded, obnoxious, evil, equally wrong, etc.). “A pox on both their houses!” is the battle cry of the Raging Moderate.
Look, it’s ok to seek the good in everybody. It’s a wonderfully civil thing, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, to assume people have something of value to offer. That ought to be the default starting position for both personal and public engagement, I would argue.
But going at it from the other angle, it’s cynical to assume that in public discourse everyone is equally bad, that every position is saddled with equal amounts of faulty reasoning and/or moral validation.
Some assertions are wrong, no matter how passionately made. Some arguments are just bad arguments, and don’t merit the dignity of being considered seriously.
2) The Thread Hijacker. The Thread Hijacker often appears as an innocent attempt to engage in friendly conversation. This appearance of innocence is deceptive, however. Thread Hijacking carries with it the assumption that any open space in Social Media carries an implicit invitation to me to use as my own.
It looks like this: I post something. Somebody responds. Then somebody else sees that response and uses the thread on my wall to ask another commenter about whether to bring baked beans to the BBQ on Saturday.
Social media invites interaction on any number of levels, from discussions about death and meaning to commentary on kittens and peach cobbler. I take the possible range of discourse to be a good thing. I think, however, joining a conversation already in progress carries an implicit assumption that you’re there to participate in that conversation and not another one unrelated to the topic or the thread host.
3) “Your-wall-is-the-perfect-place-for-me-to-tell-the-world-you’re-an-idiot Person”. This type is closely related to the Thread Hijacker. The name is fairly self-explanatory. Not only does this person know you’re wrong, she believes she has a responsibility to let the world know just how wrong you are … using your social media real estate to do so.
Having opinions is fine; I think Facebook is an excellent place to let the world know what you think, if you’re so inclined. People who don’t like your particular perspective are free to ignore you, to mute you, or to unfriend you. What I believe strains the social contract, though, is other people using your space to alert the world to the dangers of listening to you.
The “your-wall-is-the-perfect-place-for-me-to-tell-the-world-you’re-an-idiot person” operates as a social imperialist. Having her own platform to express herself isn’t enough. She feels the need to colonize the rest of cyberspace to protect it from the likes of you.
4) Sarcastic just-sayin’ guy. If you’re sarcastic to people you know and it’s a thing you do and the people you do it with understand, fine. But there’s no place in civil discourse for “Your guy did it too. Just sayin’.”
Look, I use sarcasm … a lot. It adds spice and humor. But sarcasm ought to be used as a scalpel—judiciously and with precision—and not as a sledgehammer—ill-considered and indiscriminately.
I try never to use sarcasm with people in direct communication on Facebook, because the odds of being misunderstood are too great. Save sarcasm for the big targets: oafish government, religious hypocrisy, unfettered greed, a discounting of the needs of the poor, powerless and the marginalized, crass commercialism, or Rush Limbaugh.
Otherwise, you don’t come off as clever … just a bully.
5) “It’s-all-about-me-guy”. And since I’m all about fairness and self-reflection, I’ll include this one as a “growing edge” for me.
Facebook operates as a wonderful place to let people know what you’re doing, what’s going on in your life. As such, it acts as a billboard of your life. It’s ok to use that billboard to let people know what you’re up to. It’s ok, in my estimation, to use it as a personal marketing platform. It’s your front yard, after all.
It’s probably neighborly, however, once in a while to walk outside your gate, down the sidewalk, and chat over someone else’s fence about the life on display on their billboard. (I’m aware that I’m working with quite a bouillabaisse of metaphors here.)
“It’s-all-about-me” guy gets so wrapped up in what he’s doing that he often fails to stop and notice the wonder and beauty in everyone else’s life. Being a fat-headed narcissist concerned with yourself is just as much an abuse of the common life as being a literary knuckle-dragger concerned with beating down all opposition.
Part of being a good neighbor is showing you’re interested in what’s going on with other people—talking to them, asking them questions, offering congratulations and sympathy—in other words, demonstrating that you give a crap about somebody besides yourself, about something more than your own projects and goals.
Facebook is here to stay, at least for awhile. It has a lot of room for discussion and dissent. But it also ought to have some basic rules of etiquette. I’ve offered a few. What ones would you add?
I thank Geoff Wallace for this metaphor, although it was a conversation with Sandhya Jha that helped flesh it out further. ↩