Imagine that you’re at a gathering with everybody you’ve ever met, from your niece to your high school gym teacher. Now imagine that you’ve got a bullhorn into which you can broadcast every thought you have the second you have it. (And so can everyone else.) That’s pretty much the world of social networking, which brings limitless opportunities to connect with others…and to irritate them. In the name of civilized society, Real Simple surveyed 945 readers about the social-media habits that drive them crazy. And if you’re not a social networker, these cautionary tales will help you avoid wacky acts of your own if you decide to join the party. (Plus, they reveal a few interesting things about human nature.)
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49 percent of our respondents spend at least three hours a week on social-media sites.
59 percent use social media for both personal and professional reasons.
1. Am I trying to make up for something I’m not getting in real life? Posting or tweeting to 400 “friends” just isn’t the same as venting to our nearest and dearest. “Online it’s easier to interpret things as we wish them to be and avoid the subjects we want to avoid,” says Sherry Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other ($29, amazon.com). In tough times, you need a supportive friend who can offer real advice. Even (maybe especially) advice that you would rather not hear.
2. Am I really sharing? Pretend that you’re writing a letter to a friend. Doesn’t she deserve more than “TPS reports, blergh”? And you wouldn’t berate her for not being “brave” enough to share her bra size for breast cancer research. (If you truly care about an issue, “like” an organization that supports it on Facebook.)
3. Would I tell Matt Lauer onToday? No? Then reconsider. Psychologist Larry S. Rosen, the author of the upcoming book iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us ($25, amazon.com), recommends an “e-waiting period” before posting. Write it, then leave it for five minutes. Think of this line from The Social Network: “The Internet’s not written in pencil.… It’s written in ink.”
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A Note on Vulgarity
It bears repeating: If it’s not something you would say on national TV, the best strategy is not to post it. Dozens of survey respondents specifically mentioned swearing as a turnoff. Said one reader: “My grandparents are on Facebook. When my grandma comments on something and then a friend comments on the same thing and drops an F-bomb, she can see it. If it keeps happening, I unfriend that person.” For R-rated commentary, use the private-message feature.
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Friendlier Friend Requests
Looking to connect? Here’s the way to do it politely.
For someone from your past: Click the Message button next to “+1 Add Friend” so you can say hello. After she has accepted, it’s nice to catch up with a personal note, says Jodi R. R. Smith, the author of The Etiquette Book: A Complete Guide to Modern Manners ($28, amazon.com). If you don’t have time to do that, why are you reaching out in the first place?
For someone you would like to know (for example, a writer whose work you love): Use the message feature to introduce yourself, but don’t be offended if she doesn’t accept. She may want to be friends with, well, only friends.
For someone you don’t know at all: Please refrain. Trolling your friends’ lists so you can beef up your numbers is just plain rude.
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The Facebook BreakUp
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your virtual social circle, there’s nothing wrong with pruning your friends list. In fact, some anthropologists have theorized that the human brain isn’t wired to keep up with more than 200 connections at a time, says Rosen. In 2009, Cameron Marlow, a sociologist at Facebook, reported that the average user had 120 friends (the number is now 130) but regularly interacted with about seven of them. When you do pare down, there’s no need to post an announcement. Says one reader: “My pet peeve is the ‘I’m getting ready to unfriend a bunch of people.… Don’t be offended if you’re one of them.’ Just do it, and don’t make a big deal about it.”
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My Facebook, Myself
Although 91 percent of respondents said that social media made them feel more connected, only 29 percent said that it made them happier. Many admitted to having self-destructive habits, like gawking at people from the past (83 percent) and comparing themselves to others (76 percent).
If you’re obsessing over your old boyfriend’s perfect new life, consider this: Online “everyone is putting forth an ideal self,” says Turkle. That’s why you’ll see plenty of vacation photos and few of the weekend that the sump pump broke.
Also, humans aren’t good at determining how happy other people are. According to a study published last year in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (led by a Stanford University Ph.D. student whose friends were bummed-out by Facebook), subjects assumed that their peers were having fewer negative experiences and more fun than they were actually having. And the more the subjects underestimated others’ negative emotions, the lonelier the subjects felt. Something to think about the next time you log on with a glass of wine.
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So Why Do People Keep Logging In?
Despite the gripes, there’s obviously a lot to love about social networks—otherwise so many of us wouldn’t be spending so much time on them. Says Turkle: “There can be something wonderful about rediscovering people from one’s past. I know of more than several cases where people feel that finding old friends has helped them find important parts of themselves.”
Here are some other reasons readers come back to Facebook and Twitter.
Useful stuff, like recipes and DIY tutorials
News articles and offbeat stories they might have missed
Book and movie recommendations
Inspiring or funny quotations and photographs
Community support. “I like it when a fellow mom posts for help with an idea or solving a problem.”