The politics of social media or: why haven’t they responded yet?!

Someone’s just commented on your Facebook photo, but you don’t really want to reply and potentially start a whole conversation, nor do you want to ignore their gesture. So you smile a ‘thanks’ at them instead. How exactly? By liking their comment.

When you’re online, actions truly speak louder than words. Some people think that what happens in the virtual world has no bearing in the real world, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The online world is still part of real life, though there is a difference between the two that all comes down to the unspoken, universal rules of online etiquette and policies that most of us seem to inherently share.

Our online and offline relationships affect each other so greatly that some people have broken up — or even divorced — over something that occurred online. ‘Unfriending’ someone on Facebook is the ultimate slap in the face, and changing your status from ‘single’ to ‘in a relationship’ is the official, modern stamp of legitimacy. Social media is a slippery slope of communication that many of us have become experts at navigating, but there are still dilemmas that we face: reluctantly accepting a friend request out of politeness, fretting over how to respond to someone’s reply, and following someone back on Twitter so as not to appear like a snob — all of which arise for three main reasons.

First, you might not want to offend someone offline by something you do or don’t do online, so you oblige despite your true feelings on the matter. Second, the online world is largely asynchronous, meaning it’s not in real time. While people do engage in live chats, it can be time consuming and demands commitment. It’s much easier to leave a message on someone’s wall or message box and then check back later.

Many messaging systems nowadays have a notification at the bottom that indicates exactly when the recipient has seen the message. Sometimes, I think social media sites purposely developed this just to torment us. Back in the days of snail mail, you wouldn’t receive a pigeon carrier note saying “Your letter was read at 9:27 a.m.” — heck, you never even knew for sure if your letter arrived at all. You just had to hope for the best.

But now, we can keep a digital eye on things, and it can be quite worrisome knowing that someone has received and read your message but not yet responded. You start to wonder if you said the wrong thing, or if they think you’re an idiot, or if they don’t want to respond because they don’t like you. It could go the other way too; you might not want the sender to know you’ve read their message and haven’t replied yet, so you postpone opening it to avoid letting them know. Phew — whoever thinks calculus is complex hasn’t tried social media yet!

Third, talking to a person through a technological medium completely obstructs tone of voice and facial expression. We’ve developed ways of overcoming this over the years, with emoticons :0 and USING CAPS TO SHOUT and lots of exclamation marks for surprise or happiness!!!! and misspelling words like dayum guuuurl to show tone. Generally speaking it’s fairly effective, but if you’re someone who uses none of the above, then no matter how happy you are behind the screen, your text will likely be translated as cold and indifferent, and followed with the question, “What’s wrong?” Which is why many people, including myself, will add a smiley face or ‘lol’ last minute to soften their message.

The problem with these unspoken rules of online customs is that they substitute too easily for offline customs, making some feel less comfortable interacting in person and more safe behind their screens. Being connected 24/7 eliminates physical obstacles of communication,, and this is an attractive prospect. But as technology grows and we become more glued to screens of all shapes and sizes, we need to remember that no matter what happens online, it is the offline world where the effects are expressed.  🙂

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