The Guide to Social Media Etiquette

As quickly as the Internet evolves, so does the way we interact online. Here are the new rules for navigating social media with grace.

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Photo by Microsoft

Facebook

Based on a survey of Real Simple readers, Facebook is the gold standard of social media. And while the settings and designs might change more often than your hairstyle, the advice for sharing on the site stays the same.

Friending and unfriending: When you first join Facebook, the main activity is to connect with your friends, family, and colleagues both current and long-lost. But if and when you discover that you don’t really care what your seventh-grade biology lab partner did over the weekend, remember that it’s okay to prune your friend list. “You don’t need to make an announcement about it,” says Jodi R. R. Smith, the author of The Etiquette Book: A Complete Guide to Modern Manners ($28, amazon.com). “Your lives have grown apart, and if they ask, simply explain that you needed to reorganize.”

If there’s someone (say, an oversharing cousin or a constantly complaining coworker) whom you can’t in good conscience unfriend, simply hide her from your feed instead. The next time she does a status update, click on the drop-down menu in its upper right-hand corner and unsubscribe from her post. You can also limit the number of status updates you see from her by using that same menu. That way you can declutter your page without hurting anyone’s feelings.

Status updates: At its core, Facebook is all about the status update. After all, how else would you know what your college roommate had for lunch? But be careful not to abuse the five most obnoxious kinds of updates, according to Real Simple readers: intentionally vague posts, chronic complaining, meaningless calls to action, oversharing, and posting too frequently. Instead, do a quick gut check and ask yourself if you really need to share that thought with the world before you post it. Read more about the etiquette of posting on Facebook.

Photos: With digital cameras and smartphones it’s easier than ever to post photos online. Now, the trick is to use restraint. Follow these guidelines to avoid any photo faux pas.

Edit
Sharing the photos and stories from your summer vacation with your friends in person has become a thing of the past. Now you can simply upload snapshots of you mugging for the camera in front of the Eiffel Tower or Mount Rushmore to Facebook and let people click through at their leisure. But just because you can share all 746 pictures you took on your long weekend, doesn’t mean you should. Edit down your comprehensive gallery to a more manageable number, and don't forget to put the best shots first, just in case people don't make it all the way through the album.

Tag With Care
Tagging photos of your friends and family with their names is a great way to share your photos, but not everyone wants pictures of themselves in a bathing suit splashed across the Internet. So adopt the policy that the first time you post a photo of someone, don’t tag him, but send an e-mail or message with a link to the photo. Ask if it is okay for you to post the picture and whether he is comfortable with being tagged in the future.

If you are concerned about the photos that your connections post, adjust your privacy settings so that all tagged photos must be approved by you before they are linked to your profile. That way you can control which photos of you are on display to your network.

Put Yourself in Your Friend’s Shoes

As with many things, the golden rule is applicable here—only post photos of others that you would want posted of you. So that long-lost photo of your friends on spring break in Mexico is probably better off staying lost.

Go Ahead and Ask a Friend to Do the Same for You

What if someone posts a photo of you that you don’t want online? It's okay to ask for it to be taken down, says Lizzie Post, coauthor of Emily Post’s Etiquette, 18th edition ($40, amazon.com). Start by removing your tag to make the photo a bit harder for your other friends to find. Then contact the person who posted the photo and ask that it be removed.

Privacy and settings: If you’re the type who minds your p’s and q’s on Facebook but your friends are a bit more lax about what they share, your best option is to customize your settings so you see only the updates you want, and you broadcast your news only to those friends who will share it wisely.

To control which updates you see from your friends, simply click on the arrow in the upper right-hand corner of one of their posts in your feed. You will be given the choice to see all of their updates in your feed, see most of them, or see only their important posts.

To control who sees your status updates, before hitting “post” each time, click the drop-down menu that says “friends” next to the post button. By selecting “custom” you can choose which of your friends see (or are blocked from seeing) that specific link, photo, or status update.

Twitter

While not quite as popular as Facebook, Twitter is an outlet for plenty of you to share your lives and opinions. The rules here are more relaxed because of the ephemeral nature of a tweet. But remember, if your account is public, you’re sharing with the whole world, friends and strangers alike. For more control over your Twitter feed, opt for a private account.

Following (and unfollowing): No, if someone starts following you on Twitter you are not obligated to return the gesture. But keep in mind that you’ll have a better experience if you are connected to more people: That is how online communities are built, after all. Plus, if you find, a few days or a few months down the road, that you’re no longer interested in what someone has to say, you can always unfollow her. So what happens if someone calls you out for unfollowing (or unfriending)? Be honest, recommends Post: “You can tell them you didn’t feel like you were really connecting online. Hopefully since they’ve asked for an explanation, they are prepared for an honest answer."

Retweets, replies, and mentions: The second way to really build conversation on Twitter is by including other people in your posts. Just broadcasting what you think and what you’re doing (if you aren’t a celebrity) won’t win you many followers. Instead, interact with the people you’re following and who are following you through retweets (posting what someone else has shared), replies (answering a question or giving an opinion on someone’s update), and mentions (tagging other users by including their Twitter names in your tweet, which makes it more likely that they’ll see it). As with anything, use restraint—you don’t want to end up spamming your connections.

Dealing With Hurtful Comments Online

While you can’t always get away from negativity, you can at least manage it better. The first, and easiest, option is to simply not respond. “You don’t need to engage. The world isn’t going to look at you badly just because you never responded to them,” says Post.

If you do feel the need to respond, take some time to think about what you’re going to say. “Think twice before you post anything, and think a couple more times before you respond to anything negative,” says Post. Then read your comment out loud to see how it sounds: Sometimes what makes sense in your head doesn’t come across the way you intend. And check for typos and errors; as soon as there are mistakes, your argument has a greater chance of being written off.

The Bottom Line

In the end, the best thing to remember is that these sites are public. Even if you’re extremely careful with your privacy settings, it’s best not to post anything that you wouldn’t want your grandmother or your boss to see.