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October 8, 2009

In Your Facebook

By Spear's

Social-networking sites are public forums where a lot of private stuff ends up. Way too much private stuff. Oh, put them away, says Daisy Prince

AS THE INTERNET explodes with new forms of communication, one of the prevailing questions of the day is how to keep so much information in check, something that is a particular problem with social networking sites.

One of the most prominent websites is Facebook, an extraordinary phenomenon that has reconnected millions of old friends and provides a unique platform to share thoughts as well as developing a vast online community. However, as the site has grown in popularity it now poses questions of ethics and etiquette among its users.

Take, for instance, even the idea of who to accept as a friend? Having taken a casual poll among the people I know, the general consensus is that friends of friends are OK to accept but that people with whom they have no one in common are not.

Maybe the same logic applies as if you were to treat Facebook as a party? Would you go to a party with someone you didn’t know? Most people I know wouldn’t. The same applies online.

What about the delicacy of accepting work colleagues, friends of your parents or godchildren as Facebook friends? A few former colleagues have ‘Facebooked’ me and I have ignored their requests, mainly because I don’t want them seeing personal photos of me and my friends.

This presents an important question of modern etiquette: when are you close enough with someone from work to let them see what you do in your private life? It is a peculiar concept that online befriending is considered to be less intimate than going for a drink or lunch with someone.

But when you are having lunch with a colleague there is little risk that he will see you in a bikini, whereas your Facebook friend may very well go on to your page, download the swimsuit picture on to his iPhone and show it to all his friends (as a friend of mine did to a girl he worked with). But if you don’t accept them as friends online, will they be insulted? It presents a tricky situation for the employee, especially if you have accepted other people from the office as friends.

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BY FAR THE most irritating thing about the site is that people post party pictures on Facebook. No one really minds a few pictures posted after a picnic in the park, but do you really need to see pictures of yourself or your friends (OK — it’s actually funny if it’s your friends) doing a slightly sweaty John Travolta impression with a drink spilling out of your hand? More importantly, do you want your distant cousins, your co-op board or journalists peering at your every wild move? Because they do — a lot. Everyone has five minutes here or there to check their Facebook page, and if they see a photo that looks interesting they will go through the whole album.

Forget Vogue or Tatler party pictures — those are positively tame compared to the fun of seeing people you barely know get their kit off in Ibiza. One dad was heard to say to his friends at a dinner party that he had signed up to Facebook because ‘it’s the only way to see what my children are really up to’.

Understandably, not everyone likes the world to witness their public drunkenness. More and more people have become ‘detaggers’, which means they remove their names from the photos the second they are put up. But the photos do remain on the site indefinitely and I have just been informed that every photo that remains up on Facebook becomes the property of the site. By the time the site has run its course, it will have a collection of photos to rival Getty Images.  

The other weirdly fascinating thing about Facebook is what people will put in their ‘status update’ section. I never fail to be amazed that people will happily put the most mundane parts of their life on display. ‘George is taking a bath, the water is getting cold’ is one example of the kind of banality that people write. Or ‘Susan is having a Caprese salad and contemplating adding an extra tomato’. Then there are those comments that go too far, such as ‘Sally is soo excited about her divorce’ or ‘Nick just heard he’s cleared from STDs’.

Decorum and the web just don’t seem to go to go hand in hand. The best use so far that I’ve discovered for it is that if you are looking for someone to lunch with then a brief ‘Daisy’s pottering around in London’ is a good way to elicit lunch partners. If people have been able to figure out how to use mobile phones in a way that minimises their impact on the rest of the population, then there is no reason why the web can’t follow suit.

As Emily Post herself once said, ‘Etiquette is the science of living. It embraces everything. It is ethics. It is honour.’

To read more by Daisy Prince, click here

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