Social media has made it easier to keep track of friends all over the world. But it's also created a whole new set of rules on how to manage those friendships without aggravating misunderstandings or risking full-on fights.
The problem with keeping online friendships is that people quickly forget their manners in a cyber setting. Usually polite people can quickly forget themselves. In general, however, social networks demand the same rules of behaviour found in any office.
Any true friendship requires some time, even if the buddy is only one mouse click away.
"A short text is a good way of setting the tone," says Thor Alexander, who has written a book on social networks. Be sure to only request contact with people in whom one is truly interested, not giving the impression one is just trying to gather friends. After all, not every professional contact has to be in your social network.
"If there's just a very casual relationship, then the word 'friend' can rapidly seem too intimate and inappropriate," says Rainer Waelder of Germany's Knigge Council, which looks at changing social norms. He notes that it is possible to communicate in most forums without becoming friends.
If you're not interested in a friendship request, it's best to refuse it with a short note, especially if this is a person you might have to work with later, advises Sebastian Dramburg, a lawyer focusing on IT law in Berlin.
"A friendly note that you only want to include close friends in your circle is seldom taken badly," agreed Waelder.
Social networks let messages be shared among a dozen friends in a matter of seconds. That means it's easy to fall behind, since these tend not to be seen as being as important as emails, says Waelder.
"But you should have reacted to one of these messages within a day," he notes.
Read a message at least once before sending it out. "Otherwise you give the impression 'You're not worth the time it takes to spell things properly'." If you come across an error in an already posted comment, its best to delete it and start again.
The experts offer a list of dos and don'ts. Avoid messages in all capital letters, as well as in all lower-case. Don't be too casual with remote acquaintances. Emoticons are best avoided for professional communications.
A lot of social networks post your news for all to see. It's easy to make yourself unloved here with a lot of trifles, says Alexander.
Equally tricky is finding a way to promote one's business or blog through social networking. "You might be able to get away with it in every tenth posting, but then it gets difficult," says Alexander.
Waelder says it's generally unacceptable. "You don't do this with your friends either," he said. Online it quickly looks like spam and the poster is quickly blocked.
Bulletin boards are generally tricky territory, says Waelder.
"Personal topics shouldn't be spread in public," he says, urging people to use messaging instead. But don't just delete awkward posts from other people.
"The key is not the post, but the reaction. Even if a friend trash-talks you, you should answer it politely and with wit."And if there's a sense that a rabble-rouser - a troll in network lingo - is trying to cause waves with comments on a billboard, it's best to fend him off with a direct message or to just ignore him. Any public attack provides the attention he craves.
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