Rules of digital engagement

Postscript explores the emerging etiquette concerning today’s online interactions

According to Queen's Film and Media Professor Sidney Eve Matrix, putting down your phone to give someone your full attention has become a significant compliment.
According to Queen's Film and Media Professor Sidney Eve Matrix, putting down your phone to give someone your full attention has become a significant compliment.

We’re all guilty of allowing ourselves to be held hostage by smartphones, Facebook and Twitter. It’s a sad reality that social media and the ever-present devices of digital culture prevent us from real-life socializing.

If we accept that we’re willing to be slaves to social media, then knowing the ground rules of etiquette in the digital forum seems necessary. It’s usually ignorance, not rudeness. But let’s play it safe and lay it all out on the table, shall we?

If anyone knows the rules surrounding the usage and consumption of social media, it’s Sidney Eve Matrix, a film and media professor at Queen’s. Matrix boasts a staggering 14,000 followers on her professional Twitter account, which she uses for promoting products and services online. Matrix also has a personal Twitter account with nearly 800 followers which she reserves for her closest circle.

She argues that any existing rules on how to behave in digital culture are usually meant to be broken, pointing to Facebook as an example.

“Facebook is a friend network, not a mainstream communicator with parents or professors,” she said. “Facebook is clearly meant for college students but … it’s flooded with brands and marketers and parents.”

Mark Zuckerberg may have intended Facebook for his peers, but Matrix’s words ring true. I cringe remembering my aunt’s most recent status updates, unnecessarily filling up the news feeds of her nine friends.

“OMG I am the skinniest person in the pool” and “Son for sale” are just two memorable tidbits from recent weeks.

While Facebook gives users the controversial option to unfriend, apparently the failure to accept a friendship, albeit online, contradicts one of Matrix’s cardinal rules in social media relations.

Always give people a chance, she said.

“The rule is to only friend people you know or you want to share things with but that’s probably a rule worth breaking,” she said.

Of course, the cyber intentions differ between friending a relative versus a crush. Identifying how users perceive your personal profile is a problem everyone encounters.

Many users on social networking sites fear their employers are judging their profile, and wonder if it’s possible to project a professional image on the Internet. Are social and professional cyber images mutually exclusive or is a happy medium achievable?

“The rule would be … don’t post anything you wouldn’t want to widely share, but that’s kind of problematic,” Matrix said.

As someone tagged in too many embarrassing photos on Facebook, I wondered if there’s a way for users to protect themselves from both professional and social mortification.

Even if you’re careful, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to protect yourself on sites like Twitter and Facebook, Matrix said.

“The rule would be to watch your tags, wall and privacy settings, but I think it’s probably impossible to follow that rule,” Matrix said. “It’s a bogus rule ... We all know you can’t stop someone from tagging something bizarre.”

According to Matrix, the flow of information on Facebook can’t be controlled, and even if you try, you might step over the line of what’s considered normal.

“If I untag every single photo, people will find that bizarre and offensive,” Matrix said.

Because social media continues to evolve, many of the rules regarding its use are still unwritten.

“We make these rules up as we go along,” Matrix said. “We’re sort of doomed to step on each other’s digital toes.” Twitter didn’t become popular right away, Matrix said.

“[Twitter] was particularly for urban hipsters who had a smartphone, because it was about the status update,” she said “It assumed you were connected and mobile. It won’t work for me if I go to a small town, because it’s an urban thing,” she said.

Part of the reason the number of Twitter users has increased is the prevalence of smartphones, Matrix said. Because it’s becoming easier to connect to this network, anyone from students to public figures are setting up Twitter accounts. Celebrities use the forum to stage memorable comebacks. Even Queen’s Principal Daniel Woolf has joined the Twitterverse.

Matrix follows many students herself and maintains that it’s never inappropriate to follow someone on Twitter.

You never know why someone wants to follow you on Twitter, Matrix said.

So is there any hope for the future of digital etiquette? Or are we simply doomed to needlessly offend one another in a world of mixed messages lost in digital translation forever?

Even knowing when it’s acceptable to have a smartphone out in public has become an issue.

“At certain meetings everyone will have their Blackberry on the table. At dinner, you compare apps, email … it’s how we socialize,” Matrix said.

There is added pressure to be digitally alert if you are the owner of a Blackberry or an iPhone because friends expect you to be reachable.

“If you have one, it’s like where are you? Why aren’t you responding to me?

“The rule would be to give someone your full attention at a meeting or restaurant by putting down your phone and just focusing on them,” she said.

“We’re multitasking all day so to do this is a huge compliment.”

Social media survival skills

Anne-Marie Beilveau, ArtSci ‘12, is a longtime BlackBerry owner and her Facebook friend count of over 700 is impressive. She struggles to navigate the confusing world of social media.

Together, we created a list of acceptable dos and definite dont’s in today’s digital culture.

On emoticons

Inappropriate for the professional world, emoticons should be reserved for friends only.

“I’ll use them in facebook or in texts,” Beliveau said. “But for a boss or an adult it takes away from whatever you’re saying, if you’re trying to sound professional.”

On the use of smartphones

Despite social media’s availability, it’s not polite to always be on a phone.

“I feel like it’s rude to text in public,” Beliveau said. “In a restaurant with people … I’m not a fan of leaving my phone on the table.”

On BlackBerry Messaging

One of the most infamous features of the BlackBerry is its instant chat service, which allows a sender to discover if the recipient of a message has read it. Don’t expect a reply right away.

“I feel kind of forced if I read [a BlackBerry Message] to reply right away,” Beliveau said.

Are there ever any exceptions when it’s acceptable to read a BBM but not respond?

“If you’re making plans and it’s time sensitive, I’d be irritated.

“If we’re just chatting its not such a big deal,” she said.

On Facebook friendships

Facebook has made it completely normal to stalk the profile of someone you never speak to, unless of course this person has unfriended you.

If Facebook is here to stay, don’t be offended if you’re taken off a few friend lists.

“I have so many people from high school that I haven’t talked to in years. There’s no need to have them on Facebook,” she said, adding that this could warrant a deleting spree.

—Jessica Fishbein

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