28 Jun 2023

Posting precautions: the etiquette of social media

As many of us increasingly conduct our day-to-day relationships through social media, as well as relying on online sources for news and gossip, we are becoming less and less able to distinguish between personal connections in the real world and our virtual relationships. It is important that we pay attention to our online persona and how we interact online, much as we would in the real world. Our online life can have far-reaching real-world impact, so it needs to be navigated with great care.

Unfortunately, the speed and immediacy of online communication and the fact that social media exchanges are frequently taking place within an isolated, de-contextualised space (removed from the mediating judgment of other people) can mean that all too often we act on impulse. If we are angry, upset or outraged we are far more likely to communicate impulsively, without stopping to think about consequences. Whether we are contributing a vitriolic comment to a thread associated with a news story, tweeting dismissively about a celebrity, or responding intemperately to a friend, we seem to have lost all sense that our actions have real-world repercussions. In the heat of the moment, we lose our ability to pause, think empathetically about our ‘victim’ or target, logically examine how our remark will make them feel, assess the magnitude of any potential fallout. These are all thought processes that we deploy all the time in our face-to-face relationships, ensuring that we do not behave in a disinhibited, unpredictable or damaging way. But for many of us these checks and balances seem to have been completely forfeited in the virtual world.

We may feel that the online world has freed us from the constraint of conventional social relationships but posting impulsively has a very real aftermath. Very little that we post online is completely private. We can adjust and fine tune our privacy settings, but the fact remains that our most unbridled outpourings have been endowed with a measure of permanence because of the medium we have chosen to use. They are written in black and white; they can be read and accessed (even if it only by the chosen few); screenshots can be taken; they can be disseminated and fall into the wrong hands; even if they are subsequently deleted, they may well have an afterlife. Social media posts, unlike the spoken word, are unambiguously concrete; they can be duplicated and are indisputable (and of course carry the weight of evidence in a court of law).

It is scarcely surprising that your online persona can be used in evidence against you. Potential employers, friends, stalkers, enemies or rivals are all perfectly capable of tracking you down online and may well find damaging material. Encountering your drunken rants, vitriolic outbursts and no-holds-barred accounts of nights out and mornings after may well stymie that all-important job offer or jeopardise an important friendship.

Given the availability and longevity of online material, it would be logical to take extra care when navigating online relationships and to be cautious and tentative about what you reveal, though all too frequently this is not the case. If you are interested in taking back control of your online persona, your priority must be to curb impulsive behaviour. Whether you’re liking cute pictures of kittens, or railing against a politician’s latest travesties, get into the habit of pausing for a few moments and thinking about the potential reactions, both positive and negative, that you will elicit. Then follow these simple tips:

• Don’t go online when you’re feeling emotional

When you’re in the grip of strong emotions you’re much more likely to behave impulsively. So try to teach yourself to take a beat. Pause, walk away from your phone or laptop, make a cup of coffee, stare at the garden, do a household task. Any of these mundane actions will take the heat out of your feelings and help you to calm down. By staving off the impulse to act impetuously you have given yourself the time and space to think, calmly and logically, about what your next step should be.

• Find another, safer outlet

If something online has made you furious and you feel an overwhelming impulse to start trolling the offender, try to vent your rage elsewhere. Call up your partner or a good friend you can trust and have a rant; at worst they may find it boring, but they are not the subjects of the attack so they will be able to soak up some of your anger.

• Try using private communication

If you are offended by something a friend or colleague has said, don’t respond in a public forum. Call them up and discuss the issue in person or send them a direct message. Try and resolve your problem without inviting an audience – public comments will elicit input from other people and may escalate the situation.

• Protect your privacy

Remember just how accessible your posts are to a wider world and remind yourself that it is very important to compartmentalise different sides of your life and persona. If you want to truly safeguard your privacy, don’t post; try phoning, texting or interacting in person instead.

• Delete and apologise

If you have posted impulsively and instantly regret it, take the post down if possible. Accept that it may already have had a damaging impact and apologise. If you have attacked an individual, send a heartfelt direct message of regret, accepting that you acted foolishly and impulsively. Where appropriate, post apologies on public forums.

• Take a break

We’re all beginning to accept that the internet is addictive and compulsive. Many of us find it unbearable being offline and have become dependent on rapid-fire interactions and feedback, excited to feel that we are plugged into a whole universe of possibility. However, the downside of all this activity and engagement is poor concentration, distraction and detachment. Ultimately, this can lead to feelings of emotional disassociation and lack of empathy – precisely the conditions in which impulsive, and damaging, behaviour occurs. If you feel you are beginning to suffer from internet addiction, try your utmost to take a break – switching off your phone and initiating some face-to-face interactions with friends and family is a good place to start.

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