The social graces of social networking

A couple of days ago, I discovered that one of my Facebook friends was not actually who I thought he was. He had a common name—we’ll call him Dave—and the invitation he’d sent me indicated we’d once worked together. I decided he must be old Dave from the Art department and clicked Accept. But as I watched his activities appear in my Facebook news feed, something seemed odd. Was the guy I knew really the type to launch daily zombie attacks ?

When I finally took a closer look, I realized this person had hundreds and hundreds of friends—and I had no idea who he was. I’m not saying this Dave hoodwinked me into ratcheting up his friend-count. I’d just never thought about the possibility of a stranger requesting to be my friend. I realized I’d stumbled into a whole new realm of etiquette issues—dilemmas that come up when you’re using social networking sites.

Here are some of the most common questions I’ve come up against with Facebook (currently with 43 million active users) and the professionally-oriented Linkedin (with 14 million users). Share your own hard-earned advice on the forums.

What do you do if you get an unwanted invitation?

Some people use their Facebook pages as a kind of performance art—all are welcome to the show. However, if you prefer to use social networks as a way to share your personal life with far-flung friends and acquaintances, then you have every right to be picky about who sees the latest photos of your kids or pets. So I say ignore invitations without shame. Some people send them to everyone they have the slightest connection to—in that case, they probably won’t even notice your silent rejection.

(As an aside, there is a risk of identity theft when you share your date of birth, phone number, and more with strangers. A recent study by the security firm Sophos found 41 percent of Facebook users perfectly willing to do just that.)

You might find this issue more complicated with a professional networking site such as Linkedin. Your Linkedin profile doesn’t contain any personal information—it’s really like a public résumé. Linkedin “connections,” then, can be viewed as the current and former coworkers who can vouch for your abilities or whose opinions you’d trust if you were looking to hire someone. In that case, do you accept an invitation from a coworker who you find personally creepy?

I asked Charles Purdy, author of “Urban Etiquette: Marvelous Manners for the Modern Metropolis” (and a Macworld contributor). His advice was to not worry about “guilt by association” in this case and to instead accept the invitation with the future in mind. “I don’t see this, really, as being about hurting the creep’s feelings,” Purdy said. “It’s about being smart: Today’s creepy coworker is tomorrow’s vital contact at a company you want to work for.”

What if the unwanted invitation is from your boss?

While you might not be comfortable sharing silly status updates and random photos of your private life with someone who has the power to fire you, most people would say you really couldn’t refuse a boss’s invitation. But you can take advantage of Facebook’s limited profile. Click on the site’s Privacy link, select what information you’re willing to share—for example, your basic info but not your photos—type the person’s name into the Limited Profile text field, and click on Add. I’d take it as a compliment if your boss wants to be your Linkedin connection.

What if someone ignores my invitation?

In most cases, I wouldn’t do anything. Perhaps they joined Facebook or Linkedin on a lark and aren’t really using the site. Perhaps they don’t consider you a close enough acquaintance. Either way, it’s their choice to join virtual hands with you or not. Consider this to be a case of making a deposit in your karmic bank—next time you quietly ignore an invitation, hopefully that person won’t bug you either.

Is it OK to remove someone from your friend list?

I think so, but I also think there’s no reason to be mean about it. Since Facebook was originally a tool for college and high school students, I knew it must be possible to drop a friend like a hot potato, but I feared the site might announce the fact. It does not. If you want to quietly prune down your list, just go your Friends page and click on the Remove Friend link.

It’s also possible to remove connections on Linkedin. Click on My Contacts, select the checkbox next to a person’s name and then click on Remove Connections. Again, the person will not be notified.

Is it OK to contact someone I don’t actually know?

I’d contemplate what you’re trying to get out of using Facebook or Linkedin. There are a lot of different reasons to use these tools, and meeting people is a big one. Purdy recommends thinking of this situation as akin to walking up to a stranger at a party and saying hello. Get yourself off on the best foot possible by avoiding form letter invitations. Instead, write a personal note that’s up front about who you are and why you’d like to be part of a person’s network. Finally, be prepared to accept rejection without a fuss.

After all, social networking is about connecting. Just as in real life, sometimes that’s uncomfortable and other times it’s filled with pleasant surprises. In my case, I have one college-age Facebook friend who I’ve never met, don’t know at all, and don’t have anything in common with except one thing—unlike old Dave who confused me so, we have very uncommon first names. She’s the only other Scholle (“Sh-holly”) I’ve ever met. For me, that’s a special connection indeed.

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