The New Rules of Social-Media Etiquette (and How to Passive-Aggressively Break Them)

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Where are you the funniest, smartest, most Facetuned version of yourself? This week, the Cut explores the complexities, vanities, and pitfalls of self-presentation online.

Social media as it’s now understood has existed for less than a decade. (Facebook only opened itself to the general public in 2006.) In that time, the rules governing appropriate and inappropriate behavior — and creepiness and kindness — and generosity and cruelty — have changed radically. Now that the world has, more or less, accepted that terms like “social-media professional” are here to stay, the etiquette has changed, too. Like women wearing pantaloons and children named after the mermaid in Splash, many things that once seemed gauche seem, now, perfectly reasonable — even necessary.

In honor of the Cut’s “Our Selfies, Ourselves” week, we’re revisiting six rules of social-media etiquette that have changed significantly over the years. And, since the true joy of etiquette is its subtle subversion, we’re also offering tips for sneakily breaking those rules, the better to undermine the frenemies whom social media has made inescapable. Remember: There’s no reason to let social media become a prison of your own making, so don’t lock yourself in too tightly.

1. PERSONAL HASHTAGS

Old Rule: As recently as 2013, wedding hashtags were considered gauche. Establishing an official hashtag for your birthday party, family reunion, or personal quest seemed a little desperate — like a dork who keeps saying, “My name is Arthur, but everyone calls me Mad Dog,” though nobody calls him Mad Dog and it’s an embarrassing lie.

New Rule: Today, refusing to use a hashtag is the true mark of desperation. What, is your personal brand so delicate that typing #KramerWedding2015 in an Instagram caption will ruin your image forever? Only someone with an inflated ego would think herself too good to be in the same room as a hashtag. And the truth is, hashtags are convenient — I don’t know everyone who attended the #KramerWedding2015, but if they took pretty pictures of people I love, I want to see them. (And if they took ugly pictures of people I hate, even better.) So get over yourself and embrace the personal hashtag — or at least stop hating on everyone else’s fun. Remember the people who, five years ago, found the idea of Twitter so repellent that they could not bear to use the word tweet? Those people were self-aggrandizing sticks in the mud. Today, hashtag haters have inherited their legacy.

Passive-Aggressive Cruelty: Deliberately misspell the hashtag, forcing the hashtag creator to correct you. Who’s the stick in the mud now? Inventing a hashtag for a party isn’t desperate, but correcting someone else’s failure to optimize a party’s social-media presence is.

2. BREAKING THE FOURTH WALL

Old Rule: Before we were used to Facebook, browsing distant acquaintances' photos and peeking at their conversations seemed like stalking. (Sometimes, it still does. But the stigma has certainly diminished.) Thus, acknowledging social media in IRL conversations — particularly when explaining how you came about a certain piece of gossip — used to be totally mortifying. People browsed Facebook alone in the dark of night, as though it were pornography, and did not speak of it openly.

New Rule: Feigning ignorance is ridiculous and inconvenient. Too much happens on social media to ignore it — and pretending you found out about some life event anywhere other than Facebook reeks of willful denial. Nobody judges you for browsing Instagram.

Passive-Aggressive Cruelty: Admit you saw the news on social media, but get the details subtly wrong — just wrong enough to suggest that, though you saw your frenemy’s wedding announcement on Facebook, you didn’t care enough to stop scrolling down while searching for news about #TheDress.

3. GEOLOCATION

Old Rule: Back when check-in apps like Foursquare were separate from other social media, people who participated were assumed to be okay with having people check in at their homes and being checked in at parties.

New Rule: Checking people in against their will on Facebook is grounds for justifiable manslaughter. As we have become more acutely aware of the dangers of big data — and the risks associated with scary stalkers, senseless mobs, and dystopian practices like “swatting” — the amount of data each person makes available online is as delicate and personal a decision as, like, whether you spit or swallow after a blow job. Ask first.

Passive-Aggressive Cruelty: During his housewarming party, a friend realized that someone had come to his new apartment and named its Instagram geolocation before he had a chance: “[His Name]’s Stupid House of Butt.” This was so funny that it wasn’t even cruel; it was a wonderful gift. But a cruel person could use this same strategy to undermine a frenemy with something believably dorky. Something bad enough to make onlookers cringe, but plausible enough that distant acquaintances might think the target is actually that lame. Like, say, “¡Casa de Señorita Maureen!” If that phrase popped up every time someone Instagrammed from my home, I would have to move.

4. TAGGING PHOTOS

Old Rule: Ask before you tag — the meanest thing you can do is upload ugly pictures and tag profusely.

New Rule: Now that de-tagging is an accepted practice — and Facebook allows users to review everything that goes on their timelines, should they choose to — failing to tag a person in a group shot is the bigger faux pas. Tag everyone; they will de-tag if they don’t like it. (But don’t geolocate.)

Passive-Aggressive Cruelty: Tag everyone except the person you hate. Or better — tag them as the person you wish came to the party. Tag your friend’s shitty new girlfriend with his ex-girlfriend’s name. Tag your frenemy with his brother’s name.

5. SHOUT-OUTS AND DESCRIPTIONS OF REAL LIFE

Old Rule: Real life, we used to assume, was cooler than online life. Thus, the coolest thing to do online was talk about our offline lives. “Hanging out with @RandomFriend! Wow can this girl drink” was a superior tweet as compared to, say, a tweet about a meme.

New Rule: This one is tricky. As discussed in rule No. 4, unwanted check-ins are deranged and cruel — which means name-dropping often is, too. We’re all friends with our co-workers, exes, and frenemies on Facebook, so the risk that you blow someone’s cover when you reveal the goings-on of his daily life is very high. Meanwhile, there is a fine line between a shout-out and a name-drop. If you aren’t sure which side of the line you’re on, it’s safer to shut up. You’re better off fighting strangers with egg avatars about reverse racism — at least everyone knows where they stand. If the person you’re describing to the world wants the world to know what she’s doing or saying, she will tell them herself, on her own social-media platform.

Passive-Aggressive Cruelty: Tell them they’re not allowed to tweet that thing you just said, or acknowledge your presence when they announce their whereabouts, then tweet this very information by yourself five minutes later. The kind of person who cares is also the kind who will notice.

6. CROSSING STREAMS

Old Rule: You know that thing when someone emails you, and when you don’t reply immediately, DMs you on Twitter and messages you on Facebook and texts five times and sends a Snapchat, all at once? This didn’t used to happen, because we didn’t have so many easily accessible modes of communication. No etiquette rule existed for crossing social-media streams, because it did not happen much.

New Rule: Don’t cross social streams. If you messaged her on Tinder and she didn’t reply, do not hunt her down on LinkedIn. This will get you a restraining order. (I cannot tell you how often I hear about men making this creepy mistake, and how many women they have driven off dating apps by doing it.) Yes, sometimes it turns out that your second cousin actually doesn’t read her Facebook messages. But give her some time — we’re all dealing with the communicative overload as best we can. Besides, if she does use all those platforms, that just means she’ll see the same message a million times, all at once, next time she turns on her phone. There is no added utility to sending more messages.

Passive-Aggressive Cruelty: Send a DM that says, “Did you get my text?” When they say no, text, “Did you see the thing I shared with you on Facebook?” Or my personal favorite, during cyberflirtation: “Did you get the selfie I just sent? Don’t show anyone ;-)” This is particularly funny on dating apps that do not have a mechanism for private photo exchange.