The Situationist

The Social Awkwardness of Online Snubbing

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 6, 2007

In February, we examined the “Internet disinhibition effect,” the tendency of the human brain to feel less restrained in online communication than in face-to-face or telephone communication. We now bring you an excerpt from Jack Malvern’s piece in the Times Online on “the etiquette pitfalls” that arise when you don’t want on-line “friends,” such as the folks who find you on Facebook or MySpace and who want to get to know you better.

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The huge expansion of online social networking sites has opened up an etiquette minefield, complete with snubs, awkward faux pas and ample opportunity to give and take offence.

With networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace expanding expedientially, the rise of cyber friendships has brought with it a new set of social niceties, conventions and potential embarrassments.

Such sites are designed to set up an online network of friends to keep in touch and to exchange gossip but, as in all social situations, the results can be fraught. How can you separate friends from mere online acquaintances? How do you tell someone that you don’t want to be their friend? What do you do when you discover that you suddenly have countless “friends” whom you either don’t know or don’t like?

Stephen Fry, whose portrayal of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves gave the impression that he could extricate himself from any social situation, discovered the social pitfalls this week when he was forced to hide his Facebook profile from would-be friends.

As everyone who joins the networking website eventually discovers, the problem is not having too few people wanting to call themselves your friend but too many. Within a week of joining, Fry began to receive 150 requests a day from admirers hoping to be accepted as friends – a status that would allow them to view his full profile and receive updates on his life. “I only joined last week,” an exasperated Fry told The Times. “I closed down my pages to new friends and visitors [this week], so I managed five days of hectic, exponential build-up before I saw that it was pointless to continue.”

Fry was caught in a classic Facebook double bind – he did not want to offend people by rejecting their requests but knew that accepting all invitations would render his membership useless. Facebook works by giving users updates on their friends’ activities. If that list of friends expands by 20 an hour, interesting updates will be lost in an ocean of small-talk.

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Sonia Livingstone, Professor of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics, said that snubbing people on Facebook differs from real-world snubs because it takes place in a sharply defined moment. “We’re used to snubbing people. We don’t call them back. We don’t answer their holiday postcards. We say we’ll meet up with them for a drink when we have no intention of doing so. But here there is a very evident decision moment.”

Rejecting friendship applications is more stark than offline friendship because decisions are made without explanation, Professor Livingstone said. “You cannot say, ‘I would love to have a drink with you but you cannot see my holiday snaps’.” If the new social awkwardness created by Facebook is turning people off the idea of social networking, it is not reflected in the amount of time people spend on the website. Facebook’s members dedicate an average of 143 minutes a month to the site – more than MySpace’s users but less than Bebo’s.

Professor Livingstone’s research into the social networking habits of 13 to 16-year-olds suggests that Facebook has a reputation as the place to join when Bebo and MySpace users have grown up, but this perception may be short-lived. Research published last month by Parks Associates declared that users are “chronically unfaithful”. Some 444,000 Britons are members of all three sites, according to Nielsen. Friendster, once a hot social network with 20 million users, is now used by fewer than a million.

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For the rest of the article, click here.

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3 Responses to “The Social Awkwardness of Online Snubbing”

  1. […] has been propositioned with the above question, often repeatedly. And now we have a name for it-Internet Disinhibition Effect. Of course, we knew about this much before the advent of social networks-letters, and then email […]

  2. […] The Social Awkwardness of Online Snubbing… […]

  3. […] read the rest, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see The Social Awkwardness of Online Snubbing, Virtual Bias, “Internet Disinhibition,” and The Situational Effect of […]

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