Point of view: Online ethics and etiquette
Written by Deb Shinder, WinNews Editor
It’s been a long time since I tackled the subject of “netiquette,” and things have changed in the interim. Back then, the primary means of communicating online were email and newsgroups (remember newsgroups?). In comparison to the “old methods” of printed, mailed letters and telephone or in-person discussions, those methods seemed quick, informal, much less in-depth and not nearly as carefully composed. Today, social media is the online communications method of choice for many people, especially younger people. And social networking posts make email messages look stilted and formal by comparison.
As our technology changes, common practices and even the etiquette of communication changes too. Oh, the basics remain of course – it’s still not considered polite to call others names or “troll” (posting outrageous statements just to get others riled up and angry). But the rules regarding privacy and sharing are not the same as back in the earlier days of the Internet. Social networking emphasizes openness and sharing of information, and that may be disconcerting to some folks who are used to more discretion.
To understand why the old rules don’t apply anymore, we can start with the Terms of Service that you agree to (whether you realize it or not) when you join a social site. Most people don’t even read the; they just click “Agree,” same as they do for a software EULA (End User License Agreement) when they install a program.
Let’s look at the Facebook ToS as an example. Section 2, Sharing your Content and Information, says (in part):
“When you publish content or information using the Public setting, it means that you are allowing everyone, including people off of Facebook, to access and use that information, and to associate it with you.”
What does that mean, exactly? Well for one thing, it means that even though your settings might prevent others from seeing your posts, the “public” information that you publish – such as your name – can be used by anyone, any way they want. For instance, if you accept someone as a Facebook “friend,” that person can add you to groups, send you game requests, post on your wall and so forth. Ways are provided for you to control various aspects of your privacy, but it’s up to you to figure them out and use them. The default settings will almost always be to share everything with everybody.
I recently heard about a case where a Facebook user was livid that one of his “friends” had added him to a group. It was a local interest group for members of a “real life” organization to which they both belong. The “added party” felt that he had been severely wronged and even threatened to make this an issue within the real-life organization, even after the “adder” removed him from the group.
These kinds of hard feelings can occur when people don’t understand 1) the common and accepted practices associated with the sites they join, and 2) how the technology works to encourage (and sometimes even force) more sharing and less privacy.
Let’s look a little more closely at. There are two different settings for membership approval. The creator(s) and/or administrator(s) of a group can configure it so that any group member can add or approve additional members, or so that any member can add but an administrator must approve all new members. The default setting allows any member to add and approve.
When you belong to a group and visit its page, a list of “suggested members” appears in a column on the right. As with Facebook in general, the aim of the software is to get more sharing going on. Simply clicking the button by a “suggested member’s” name adds him/her to the group. What can you do about it if you’re added to a group you didn’t want to join? Well, it’s easy to remove yourself. Just click the “Settings” button in the top right of the group page under the pictures (it looks like a tiny gear), and select “Leave Group.” You’re out.
Of course, you can also “unfriend” a person. In that case, he/she won’t be able to see your posts unless you mark them as “public.” Remember though, that someone else who is your friend can copy and share your posts with others. A good rule of thumb is: Don’t post it to a social site unless you would be comfortable having it printed on the front page of your local newspaper. Seriously, folks, Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook creator) argued in 2010 that privacy is “no longer the social norm”. Certainly there are many indications that young people today don’t value privacy nearly as much as previous generations did.
Legally, the concept of “expectation of privacy” is an important one in determining whether a person’s rights have been violated. In the context of the U.S. Constitution, this applies to fourth amendment protections regarding the reasonableness of police search and seizure of evidence. The concept is also applicable to determining whether a violation of one’s privacy has occurred in the social sense. For example, it’s generally accepted that a person has a reasonable expectation that the contents of a letter sealed in an envelope and mailed via the Postal Service are private. It’s also generally accepted that no such reasonable expectation exists for a postcard, because the information on it is open to the view of anyone whose hands it passes through.
We can think of electronic communications in the same way. An encrypted email message would carry a reasonable expectation of privacy. A post on a, because of the nature of those venues, probably would not.
Nonetheless, there are some generally observed rules of etiquette that apply to social networking. Here are a few regarding friends and groups:
- You’re not obligated to “friend” anyone just because he/she asks, or to “follow” anyone just because he/she follows you but…
- Remember that a friend request is a friendly gesture so don’t take offense at being asked. If you decline a friend request from someone you actually have a real-world or online relationship with outside the social network, the polite thing to do is send him/her a private message explaining why (e.g., “I use Facebook only for communicating with my close family members and don’t mix business with my private life – but feel free to send me a connection request on LinkedIn“).
- You can “unfriend” anyone at any time but…
- If you decide to “unfriend” someone, just do it – don’t make a big issue of it. It’s not necessary (nor polite) to announce it to the world. You don’t even need to announce it to the person you’re unfriending.
- You’re not obligated to join any group to which you’re invited, or to remain in any group to which you’re added but…
- If you don’t want to be in a group, just politely decline (or ignore the invitation), or if the site works by adding instead of inviting, just quietly leave the group. It’s not necessary (or polite) to post a nasty message to the group or send one to the person who invited or added you. Again, adding someone to a group is a friendly gesture; taking offense marks you as (at best) overly sensitive and unfriendly.
- If you send a friend request to someone who might not know who you are (such as that guy you met once at a conference or the author of your favorite blog), send along a private message, telling him/her who you are and how you know him/her, and why you want to be friends. If you send a “bare” request with no personal information, don’t be surprised if it’s ignored.
- Don’t be offended if you send a nice message asking to be friends, and you get a response that the person only “friends” people he/she knows in real life. Each social network member has the right to decide how narrow or broad to make the scope of his/her friends list.
- If someone else gets offended because you friended or unfriended him/her, followed or unfollowed him/her, invited or added him/her to a group, etc., don’t respond in kind. It’s hard to have your gesture of goodwill rejected, and if you get an unfriendly or accusing reply, your first impulse will be to answer it with unfriendly words of your own. Resist the impulse.
- How to see who unfriends you on Facebook (zdnet.com)
- Filter before you unfriend: how to not be a jerk (siliconbayounews.com)
- Facebook unfriend finder: New browser add-on lets anyone see who’s ‘unfriended’ them (dailymail.co.uk)