The Social Rules of Facebook are Tricky

Before I talked to more women, especially feminists, I used to have a more limited subset of online behaviors I’d call “creepy”. (This is setting aside obvious cases or stalking or harassing or worse.)

I disliked the casual way a friend used the verb “creeping” to mean “looking through a photo album someone posted of their trip”, even when she was doing it. I disliked how what I felt should be a normal, accepted, even invited activity was being termed that way.

I was confused by how liking photos or comments too much, or too far in the past, was creepy. I felt that these things are made to stay online, connected to a person’s profile, so why is any viewing of it at any time, and incidentally notifying someone that they were viewed, surprising or disturbing?

The problem is that it was an idyllic view that I had. I saw Likes and comments and posts are existing only in this online space, and not having physical consequences. As a guy, I don’t really have to be concerned with whether a person liking a lot of my stuff is just excited and friendly, or potentially a problem. Ask women about their experience online (or worse: at dating sites), and you’ll see the other side of this coin.

Even if no one is intending to be manipulative, predatory, or gross, online spaces, notably Facebook, have not had decades of time to sort out social norms like in-person interactions have, even if they change over time.

Sure, Facebook the company can guide us. They gave us a Like button without a Dislike; that says something about how they wish for interactions to take place. They removed profile customization and pushed for outlets to constantly update their pages with posts to be shared. That points to a prioritization of the New and Bite-Sized instead of the long and timeless in what we share and how we interact.

But it’s still the case that what you’re Able to do on Facebook you shouldn’t necessarily do. Sometimes liking, sharing, even while obeying privacy settings, isn’t proper etiquette.

People view Facebook walls differently. Some see it as a soapbox, some as a quiet corner for close friends, some as a loud party, and for many of us, it’s all of those things at different times. It’s not always easy to tell just what a particular post is going to be, but you can generally get a good idea. Still, there will be conflicts where those purposes clash.

One important thing to remember is that it’s the wall’s owner’s space. They get to make up the rules, exclude people, delete posts and comments, and frankly do anything else they want. Even if you think that’s to their detriment, they are allowed control over their wall.

I’m thinking about this and writing about it because an issue came up just tonight where a friend looked at post and comment Likers on a controversial thread on someone’s wall. He made reference to this information in a later discussion.

The person who owned the space was very unhappy about this, calling it “creepy”.

But it’s a bad precedent to set to say that looking at who likes and makes supportive comments to posts is creepy, I think. I do that all the time.

An easy argument in defense of what may be called “creepy” by some is that the behavior could be for their own well-being. For example, in this particular case, the controversial thread may have reasonably been signaling that a number of people were hostile to trans* individuals. That’s valuable information to have for future reference, if unfortunately the case.

I see the other side, too, though. It can feel unsettling to imagine people dissecting everything you say and share and click in what is your space. It could be like someone scrutinizing your every behavior and tick while they’re around you.

What I think is challenging is that there can be situations of asymmetrical creepitude: someone can find something creepy that either they acknowledge or is generally understood to not be creepy by most people. Things can wig or squick or freak people out that are specific to them, and they may not wish to make a broad claim about how it is universally so.

This brings me to my last point, which is that the perceived intention of any behavior is a major factor in its creepitude.

As I said, I commonly look to see who the five likes are on a comment I made, because I like to know who’s participating in the thread and who is reading it. It can influence conversations later where I may or may not reference something I know they’ve seen, for example.

My intentions are to facilitate fun communication and be social in that case. Pretty innocuous.

Suddenly when it seems like someone is scrutinizing what I’m saying for some other purpose, like to harm me or tarnish my reputation (whether I’m right in that perception or not, whether that is the intention or not), the chance that the same behavior now feels creepy jumps way up. If analogized to the physical space, it’s as if one participant in the conversation isn’t there in good faith to chat, but instead to spy, or just eavesdrop from behind a newspaper.

At risk of defending all online behavior because it’s available and easy, I will point out that noting and checking who likes certain comments isn’t necessarily a deep dive. Facebook will literally notify you of additional likers or commenters if you like a comment or post. They want you to know because they want the Like to be known as a way of expressing an open approval. I think it is quite reasonable to peruse that information simply because of how it has been consistently structured and presented for years now.

If clicking “Like” and acknowledging the information coming towards me is “creepy”, then I find that to be an unrealistically low bar that makes the word lose meaning.

I will say, however, that if these likes are happening in a private or closed space, it’s a more severe violation of social norms to share that information elsewhere.

Honestly, it’s totally reasonable to respond negatively and defensively when someone uses what is commonly perceived as passive information (likes, comments, retweets, favorites, etc.) as a tool for arguing against you. It feels unfair to pull together a weapon out of thin air, perhaps.

I guess that’s where the friction of different purposes in similar spaces comes back into play, as well as the balance of working for a common good compared to obeying social norms.

One last side thought: I think there could be a lot of use to Facebook walls (or other online spaces) having a kind of personal user’s guide for how to conduct oneself in that particular space. It could be formulaic or freestyle, and if it’s too long, then hey, maybe people won’t participate. But that’s possibly better than having people who violate your boundaries or expectations in your space.

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