Building a Positive Online Community: Five Rules for Social Media Users

A few years ago, when Facebook made the switch from ordinary profiles to Timelines, I was incredibly excited. It meant I could look back at all the things I’d shared over the years–those moments from years past became easily accessible, and the thought of that was just awesome. Now, in 2014, I lament the fact that I (or anyone else I’m friends with, for that matter) can easily go back and look at the things I’ve posted over the past almost-six years I’ve been on the site.

Why, you ask? Because I wasn’t very smart about using it back then. Ask anyone who’s been Facebook friends with me the past three-to-four years. Really.

A few years ago, I used Facebook primarily for two things: 1) Starting raucous political debates, and; 2) Complaining about ridiculous things, such as losses experienced by Syracuse athletics. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s sadly true. I think I’ve gotten better in the past few years–a lot better, actually. And I hope my Facebook friends would agree with me.

Social media is unique in that it allows us to control exactly how others perceive us and how we build ourselves, both personally and rhetorically. No one can know exactly what people are thinking at any given moment, but the things we choose to share on social media offers us a glimpse into the minds and lives of others at any given point. What we choose to share and how we choose to share it has a huge impact on how others perceive us and the lives we live.

Some of you may be thinking “Well, so what? I’ll share what I want to share, and if people don’t like it, there’s always the ‘unfriend’ button.” The problem is that this was exactly the attitude I used to have, and it really proved to be a poisonous one.

Think of it this way: If you had a friend who, when you spent time together, did nothing but complain about the negativity in their life and start arguments with you, would you want to continue spending time with that person? I didn’t think so.

Social media friendships are really no different. When we accept a friend request or follow someone on Twitter, that means that we at least want them in our social media lives badly enough to make that initial connection (except, of course, in rare cases when people will accept any request or follow back anyone). And these connections have a dynamic quality to them–we have at least a subconscious expectation that the people we connect with are going to make an effort to not only keep up with the goings-on of our own lives, but also share moments and content that make us laugh, cry, or think about things in a meaningful way.

On Facebook especially, that’s what I’ve begun to do–share things that my friends on that platform will find meaningful, engaging, funny, or thought-provoking. And my social media presence has only become more positive for it.

With these things in mind, I propose the following rules for building yourself in a positive way on social media platforms and building a more healthy online community:

1) Privacy is of the utmost importance.

This holds especially true for services like Facebook, Foursquare, and others where your privacy settings are very controlled. When someone posts a photo of their kids with their friends on Facebook, their intent is to share that photo with their friends, and only their friends. Respect your social media friends’ privacy by not sharing their personal posts. Or, if you really feel the need to share it with your friends, ask them first. Additionally, try to refrain from using children’s names or personal information–as good as privacy settings are now, you never know who can see that information.

2) Don’t like or comment on everything.

It’s great to like or comment on someone’s posts (or to retweet/favorite tweets you enjoy)–it shows the person posting the content that you found it meaningful or enjoyable in some way. But when someone interacts with everything someone shares on social media, it loses sincerity. Don’t be that person who likes something just for the sake of liking it.

3) Don’t post or share too much.

A few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for me to post four or five Facebook statuses a day. Now, it’s rare for me to post four or five a week. I’ve found that less is more on social media (at least on services like Facebook; Twitter is a different story entirely)–the less frequently you post/share things, the more likely people are to interact with your content.

4) Be a positive contributor to the social media community.

Life really can suck sometimes. I know–I’ve been there. We’ve all been there. But if life is getting you down, the last thing you should do is go on a spree of posting nothing but passive-aggressive or whiny statuses/tweets. The reaction from your social media friends likely won’t be positive–I learned this one the hard way.

Posting a nice memorial to a deceased loved one? Go right ahead. That’s actually a pretty touching thing to do.

Asking for encouragement in hard times such as unemployment? Also an appropriate use of social media platforms–your online community will more than likely react in a positive, incredibly supportive way.

But posting a rant-filled status about a personal issue you’re having with someone? Not okay in most situations (there are always exceptions to rules). And starting contentious, nasty political debates? Also not a good thing to do. Not only are most people set in their political ways, it’s also a waste of your time and energy, and previously healthy friendships can become damaged (I also learned this one the hard way).

The main point here is that you should try your best to make positive contributions to the social media communities of which you are a part–no one can be exclusively positive, but it’s good to at least attempt to share more positive content than negativity.

5) Turn off the computer and put down the smartphone once in a while.

Social media is great, but spending time building personal, face-to-face connections with people is better than any social media platform out there. It’s good to turn off the iPhone and spend time with people you care about, and to build friendships in person, not just online.

I used to spend way too much time on social media–it was actually pretty unhealthy. When I wasn’t logged into Facebook on my computer, I’d more than likely be browsing it on my phone. You’d be surprised how refreshing it is to unplug yourself from the digital world for a while and spend time honing your talents, practicing your hobbies, and making memories with those you care about.

Now, I don’t claim to be a social media “expert,” and I’m certain not everyone reading this is going to agree with these rules. These aren’t meant to be hard-and-fast rules that guarantee you’re going to have a happy existence on social media. No, these are just things I’ve learned (often with hard lessons) from my experience on a variety of different social media platforms.

The remarkable thing about platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is that the community is what we make of it–your contribution to it matters just as much as mine. The posts we share and the comments we leave make our collective experience. We’re all in this social media experience together, and we should strive to make it as positive and memorable as we can. So let’s get started.

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