Facebook faux pas: The geek's guide to netiquette

Social networking is a minefield for manners – should you poke your boss? Can you have too many friends? Rhodri Marsden shares his golden rules

A recent survey revealed that almost two thirds of people using social networking websites feel frustrated and confused by the unwritten etiquette. That reliable source of taste and decency, Debrett's, leapt to our aid last week, issuing five golden rules on how to behave online – but the venerable publisher left several potential pitfalls woefully uncovered. Here's a more comprehensive look at how not to get irritated, or indeed irritate others, while you're social networking.

A little mystery goes a long way

Social networks are no place for anyone who wants to remain mysterious and enigmatic. The sites are designed to leech as much information out of us as possible so that adverts can be targetted at us more effectively; if you mention that you're single, you'll be subjected to ads for dating sites, and if you reveal that you're allergic to cats, you'll probably be teased with antihistamine pop-ups. But how much information is too much? Some people won't even reveal their name, preferring to call themselves Babylicious or Speedfreak; a disadvantage could be that Speedfreak's friends might not be able to find him – although, of course, that might suit Speedfreak just fine.

Beware of public "just for fun" questionnaires that reveal to everyone that, say, you've got chlamydia – and also the lure of blogging tools that offer an easy way for you to diarise your addiction to online webcam strip poker, while forgetting that your friends are reading every word.

Your friends have egos, too

If you have a photo of a pal urinating in a phone box, only upload the pictures that you took before he got hammered. Or, if you're feeling particularly compassionate, let him decide which photos of the day of his divorce hearing should appear online. Similarly, don't splurge other people's personal details; innocuous public messages such as: "Sorry to hear that you had to spend your 40th birthday in traction after failing to vault naked over a Nissan Micra" can cause embarrassment on a number of levels. Also, avoid those social networking features that allow you to showcase your "top" friends. You may as well line up all your chums and arrange them in order of preference.

Friends do, in fact, equal kudos

Debrett's says that accumulating friends online isn't a competition. Hogwash. MySpace, Bebo, Facebook, LinkedIn and the rest all pander to our most pathetic innermost desire to appear popular by giving a highly visible tally of contacts and umpteen tools to push that figure as high as possible. They allow you to easily send friend invitations to everyone in your email address book – but wait! If yours is anything like mine, it'll contain the customer service desk for your ISP, your council's waste management department and your landlord – none of whom will want to reciprocate. If you're truly desperate, there are enough people masquerading as celebrities for you to bump up your quota with the ironic placement of Jenson Button or Thora Hird on your friends list.

Avoid e-misunderstandings

You'd have thought that after 10 years or more of communicating with each other online, we'd have got the hang of sending simple messages without conveying the opposite of what we intend. An ill-judged phrase such as, "Haha, you looked gorgeous at Carina's party", while possibly intended as heartfelt, comes across as sarcastic. And while, "Steve, you wanker" might be a cheery address down the pub, accompanied with lager spilling, on Facebook it's as good as inviting someone outside for a fight.

Don't mix business with pleasure

Your list of social networking buddies will grow into an unholy collection of people who, in everyday life, you'd probably go to great lengths to keep apart. Your colleagues and mates will become aware of each other, and if you've taken great care to construct a hard-working persona in the office, it's going to surprise your line manager when he discovers you're a foul-mouthed waster with a penchant for Brazilian porn. More terrifying is the shock of receiving a friendly request from a parent. If you deny it, you'll be seen as secretive. If you accept, your mum will know why you are so secretive. Facebook's "Compare People" application recently asked a friend which of two of her friends they'd rather sleep with: the choice was between her brother and her dad. Enough said.

Don't overload your diary

Debrett's stresses that birthdays should be treated as real events. Send a card, it says. Debrett's must have shares in Hallmark, because this advice is impossible to follow. You're kept informed about dozens of birthdays of people you'd never consider inviting into your home, let alone sending a card to – so why not dash off a greeting? It'll give the birthday boy or girl a lift, and make you feel better about yourself. More of a dilemma are social opportunities that result from your click-happy friending policy. Each comes with an RSVP. Do you say you'll attend, knowing you won't? Do you say you won't go, placing your online friendship in jeopardy? Or do you pretend you never saw the invite, giving you the option of last-minute attendance if you're feeling desperate? Answer: the latter. Every time.

It's not a red-light district

Some social networks can become cruising grounds for the sexually frustrated, thanks to over-flattering photos. No one ever submits a shot of themselves emerging from a cross-Channel ferry wearing a cagoule. No, it'll be a snap of them reclining on cushions and playing coquettishly with their hair. So, when you upload that photo album of your holiday in the Algarve, remember that lust-crazed admirers may see it as the equivalent of a voyeuristic Hello! exclusive. And if you've listed yourself as "single" or "in an open relationship", suggestive notes will inevitably jam your inbox.

Don't drink and surf

Social networking and drinking don't mix. Why? Because you tend to leave an erratic trail of evidence. "Status update" features – especially Facebook's, which works via SMS messages – can tell an increasingly incoherent tale of descent into alcoholic stupor. And then there are the opportunities to post incoherent notes to people you barely know, friend requests to celebrities who have strayed into the social networking area, and blogs about your imaginary friend called Arthur.

Beware of musicians

No group of people are as eager to seize the chance to relentlessly pester people as musicians. Anyone possessing a guitar will have three times the number of friends as anyone else, none of whom will have expected the torrent of useless information that's now hurtling in their direction. There'll be news of a new song being written, details of a forthcoming gig in Rhyl, links to a new single on iTunes, and flyers the size of the Bayeux Tapestry. Refuse the friendship of anyone with musical ambitions.

Leave me alone!

Coping with the deluge of virtual social interaction relies on disabling as many of channels of communication as possible, and deleting some friends. Yes, they might take umbrage, but don't worry. And if you get defriended – don't be disheartened. It's nothing personal. People can just become sick of being messaged, poked, invited and flirted with. Debrett's says wait 24 hours before accepting a friend request, so you can think it over. But maybe a better strategy is to leave them hanging. Then nonchalantly reject their request. They'll cope. It's only social networking, after all.

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