The interwebs can be an awkward place. It used to be on the internet, no one knew you were a dog, but now someone can, within minutes, not only find what breed of dog you are but what brand of collar you wear and also your credit score. Some would say this freedom liberates us from the stifling social norms that have inhibited human expression for centuries.
Those people are rude.
The rest of us live in a constant state of trepidation about how to transfer real-world manners into the realm of Facebook, eHarmony and Youtube videos of chimpanzees riding Segways.
The Internet Etiquitteist can help. Maybe.
Dear Internet Etiquitteist,
I recently became a Peace Corps volunteer and all kinds of Host Country Nationals (that’s what the Peace Corps calls them, I promise it’s politically correct) have been friending me on Facebook. I’ve already secured all the pictures and comments that would be offensive to them. However, they do not understand proper Facebook etiquette at all. I have received 50+ “It Girl” requests and my news feed is full of terrible links to Texts From Last Night (none of them are following your accurate 72 hour rule).
I’ve always felt comfortable blocking people so I don’t have to read their posts (I come from a technologically backwards Rust Belt city). But I don’t want to offend my new friends when they frequently ask me about posts they’ve made on Facebook. I’m trying to be open minded Internet Etiquitteist, but, it’s so hard!
Dear Vexed Volunteer,
In my younger and more impressionable days, before I realized my talents would be best utilized staying comfortably at home and dispensing terrible advice for the first-worldliest of first-world problems, your Etiquitteist once went to a Peace Corps informational session.
One of the more memorable things said at the session was what to do about personal dietary restrictions. Let’s say you’ve been a vegan ever since you read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and your host family offers you a chicken. You don’t want to offend them by turning down their immensely gracious offer, but all of the other members of your vegan art collective back home would be horrified if even a single bite of delicious, delicious chicken passed your lips.
Their advice: eat the damn chicken.
Outside of the service aspect of the Peace Corps, the most crucial part of your 27-month experience living in a yurt without running water or electricity is the personal growth gained from immersing yourself in a foreign culture. Eventually explaining to your hosts the ethical particularities of your diet is advisable, however, fitting comfortably into the community is priority number one.
It’s ideal to employ a similar tactic in your Facebooking. If the social norms of your host country dictate that ignoring “It Girl” requests is a faux pas, then stop ignoring the requests and fully engage their way of doing things. The only people who see rudeness in something absolutely everyone else in a culture is already doing are etiquette Luddites–brow-furrowing scolds gradually making their retreats into an obsolete world of tea cozies and episodes of Murder She Wrote on VHS.
Cultures can go down roads that one feels are morally wrong, but “rudeness” is something distinct. Manners are an ever-evolving social contact between citizens to enforce rules too inconsequential to be written into law. Just as laws vary from country to country, so does etiquette.
Despite the cultural homogeneity caused by the internet’s world-flattening interconnectedness, the way each culture interacts online is still distinct–and joyously so. If everyone used social media in exactly the same way, no one would have questions for the Internet Etiquitteist. And that would make me one sad panda.
You only have to truly go native if you’re consistently an active participant on Facebook. If you’re solely using the service to silently stalk all the self-centered jerks back home who are never going to get out of their comfort zones and do anything truly meaningful with their lives, then you can safely ignore every distasteful request you get. If someone asks you about their most recent update, simply reply, “oh sorry, I almost never check Facebook anymore.”
On the other hand, if you’re the type of person who is constantly posting status updates, you’re stuck adhering to your new country’s online norms.
While your personal rules may have changed, the rules of your friends back home certainly have not. If they suddenly see you posting outdated Texts From Last Night and updates on how your Zombie Mafia is doing, they’ll likely ignore you when you get home and you won’t be able to rub all your awesomely inspiring third-world experiences in their stupid faces. Separate all your new Peace Corps buddies into a friend group and make it so they’re the only ones who can see all your “embarrassing” new updates.
This way, you’ll get the best of both worlds. The people you live with now won’t be offended by your American Facebook prudishness and your friends back home, not hip to your expanded set of social networking customs, won’t think you’ve gone off the deep end.
It’s still fine to let everyone on your friends list see all of your backdoor bragging about the non-stop parade of life-changing stuff you’re doing and the litany of people you’re helping. Making the jerk-off investment bankers you went to high school with feel inadequate about their life-choices is precisely the reason Facebook and the Peace Corps go together like chicken flesh and your mouth.
Have a question for the Internet Etiquitteist? Send him an email.