Solutions for Five Tricky Social Media Problems

With new ways to communicate come new ways to find yourself in sticky etiquette situations—witness these questions posted by our Facebook readers (we’ve provided them with anonymity). Real Simple Modern Manners columnist Catherine Newman shares advice.

Q. A friend of mine is constantly posting pictures and comments that are clearly attention-seeking. She posts three to five a day! Pictures asking friends about how cute her hair or outfit is. Comments about how someone told her she looks like a celebrity, or that a coworker asked her if she was a younger age, then asks if we agree. I feel somewhat obligated to comment or like her statuses out of friendly concern, as she is very attentive of my occasional post. Any suggestions?

A. Facebook is an obvious outlet for folks seeking affirmation, validation, and attention: You can cast a wide net, and you can cast it quickly and often to maximize the amount of feedback coming your way. For those of us on the other side, of course, it can be a different story, and this constant trolling for flattery can induce a kind of eye-rolling compliment fatigue. Nonetheless, Facebook relationships, like real friendships, require a certain amount of give and take: If you care that she responds to your posts (and you do) you will indeed need to respond to hers.

But don’t feel obligated to weigh in on every single hairdo or sweater. Hitting the “like” button every now and then is a pretty painless way to say “I see you” without extending yourself overly. Or try taking a completely different tack and “hide” a post of hers here and there. Because Facebook uses an algorithm to train itself in response to your input, it will learn to add fewer of your friend’s posts to your news feed. And if feedback dwindles a bit, perhaps she will decide to post less frequently.

Q. I’ve dodged my mother-in-law’s friend request for years. Every few months my husband downloads pictures and videos of our kids to her computer. I think this is sufficient. However, I’m beginning to get more pressure from her. How do I avoid hurting her feelings any further? Becoming my “friend” really isn’t an option for me. Ever. 

A. Really? Not ever? Because it does seem as though the easiest thing to do—unless you are looking to make a point—is “friend” your mother-in-law and then adjust your Facebook settings to control which of your posts and comments you share with her. I spoke with Jessie Baker, a technology communications manager at Facebook, who reminded me of two easy ways to manage how you disseminate information: (1) When you’re composing a post, click on the audience selector icon just to the left of the “post” button, then choose “custom” to select precisely with whom you’d like to share (or not). And (2) notice that when you click on “custom,” you’re offered the option of sharing with particular lists. These are curated lists of the people you’d regularly like to include in your audience—or that you’d regularly like to exclude, such as your mother-in-law. An added benefit of lists is that they can spare your college friends endless photos of your kids, or spare your family weirdly inappropriate inside jokes.

Another option, of course, is to continue snubbing your mother-in-law—but then don’t be surprised when she feels snubbed. Facebook occasions a more explicit kind of rejection than we tend to encounter in regular life. (You would not, say, wear earplugs while your mother-in-law was trying to speak to you. At least ideally.) Given how weak, widespread, and undemanding Facebook “friendships” are, she is likely to have hurt feelings by your refusal to consent to even this most diluted kind of relationship. If I were you, I would brainstorm with your husband and figure out the best way to maintain your privacy while smoothing out his mother’s ruffled feathers.