Thursday, March 03, 2011

Social media etiquette conundrum

From time to time, I have noticed an interesting development in the space where face-to-face relationships bump into online relationships. In my extensive network are many people whom I know both on- and off-line. In some cases it was online first and then a personal encounter. In others it was the other way around. Some of the relationships are purely personal, others are largely professional. Some have become a blend of both.

I have noticed that some of the people with whom I have both and on- and off-line relationship are competent at conducting a single relationship in two spaces. Others less so. In some cases, there is a strange split. There is one relationship going on online and another offline, and that it seems to be 'not done' to break that wall. So you might have an exchange of messages online in which something deep and tragic is shared, or a disagreement is aired but the next time you see each other, no reference will be made to he online conversation, and there seems to be no enhanced understanding demonstrated offline based on the revelation online.

I recently had an experience that has puzzled and bemused me. Totally by chance, I discovered that I have been 'unfriended' on Facebook by someone I encounter face to face on a regular basis. Her behaviour towards me does appear to have shifted very slightly, but superficially the 'all is well' signals are being beamed bright and clear. She has given me no indication as to what the problem might be, which has left me unsure as to how I should behave toward her.

I recently felt compelled to unfriend someone on Facebook that I have known since childhood, although we were never close. However, before doing so, I made it clear that it was due to her repeatedly aggressive behaviour towards my other FB friends on my page. She might not agree that I had just cause, but at least she knows what it was that caused me to reach this decision.

In the situation where the boot is on the other foot, I am totally clueless, and it leaves me feeling disempowered and slightly bewildered.

My relationship with my husband has many facets, but it is one relationship. We talk on the phone and continue that conversation when he gets home. I forward an email to him from the school, we exchange emails a few times, and then perhaps pick up the phone. We interact on Facebook, as we comment on photographs, one another's status updates and so on, and tease each other about that when we meet up. We connect in many spaces, but it remains one relationship. If he suddenly stopped talking to me, or touching me, the rest of the relationship would be affected. Of course, it would. And I would be looking to find out why. But here we have someone who is prepared to sever one aspect of a relationship and to continue the others as if nothing had changed, without discussing the action.

In cases where people pursue two separate relationships with me, I have come to regard that as a sign of an inability to assimilate an online space into an existing relationship. An indication that there is a level of maturity still to be gained. By and large, this two relationship experience tends to be restricted to those for whom social media tools are little more than toys.

I am struggling to formulate this as cogently as I would like, but I would be interested to learn whether others have had similar experiences.


DonGuitar said...

It's easy to attribute their behavior to immaturity but I don't think that's all of it. I think it's akin to the same sort of irrational fear which some people have of stepping up to a podium and speaking in public.

The the irrational fear of being "exposed as an imposter" is way up near the top among phobic fears possessed by otherwise ordinary people. Confidence, self-respect and self-assuredness aren't particularly common qualities in human beings.

I've always enjoyed performing in public. I've never experienced "stage fright" in my life and have no idea what it feels like but I've seen it reduce intelligent, competent people to trembling parodies of themselves.

Venturing onto the web seems to invoke a similar response in many people. Separating their public and online selves seems to be a common coping mechanism. They assure themselves that they have anonymity online; nobody knows who they really are so they're safe from "discovery". Rational? Not at all, but no less real. When you walk up in the "real world" and make reference to online events you're threatening their defense mechanism; jeopardizing their tightly held illusion of anonymity.

When I met my wife she used her initials online and carefully avoided typing anything which could reveal her gender or location in the world. Then she ran off and married a musician (her mother was very proud). Now, over six years later, our names, postal address and telephone number are on our website. She runs sound for my band, regularly gets on stage to sing harmony and her picture is "all over" the web (uploaded to her various online profiles). She decided for herself that her fears were irrational and overcame them.

I'm not saying anyone could do it but I'm pleased that my wife is someone who could, and did, and I'm saying that, before writing off any of your friends and acquaintances as immature or foolish you take the time to determine whether or not they're the victims of irrational fears. Understanding may, in some cases, be more appropriate than dismissal.

I've learned that anyone who frequently displays intense, emotional feelings about the way the internet is "undermining" our personal privacy is quite probably someone who's suffering from the sort of irrational fears I've been discussing. I never argue with such people, it sets off knee-jerk responses which can be very ugly. I smile and nod a lot, even agreeing with them if it will help them calm down. As with any obsessive-compulsive human behavior, they can only change when they're willing to admit they have a problem. The best thing the rest of us can do is to avoid "rocking their boat" as it were.

I remain your virtual friend and admirer. Don Crowder AKA eldergeek AKA Don-Guitar

The upsycho said...

@Don Thanks for your comment. I hasten to point out that by 'maturity' I was not referring to being a 'grown up' in the general sense, but a form of digital maturity.

Interesting perspective, though, and I'm glad your wife was able to overcome her stagefright!

James McLuckie said...

There might not have been any personal slight intended, Karyn. I use Facebook and Twitter for very different things: Twitter is more for my professional and learning activities and Facebook for friendship.

It could be that this person had made the decision to use different tools for separate purposes. Perhaps she gets enough "Karyn" during face-to-face encounters or by reading your blog, and now wants to use her Facebook to focus on people that she doesn't meet.

It's unlikely that this is the reason, but I hope it offers a different perspective on why she might have taken the action she has.