Cyberclinic

Joining online social networks can be a bit disorientating. Thanks to the media hoo-hah surrounding celebrities using Twitter, millions of people have signed up only to find themselves feeling horribly self-conscious, as if they'd turned up to a socialite's engagement party wearing egg-stained dungarees and sucking their thumb. "Joined Twitter ... now what?" they might post – but then notice that the list of people "following" their updates has expanded by a few dozen; a motley collection of self-publicists, women wearing skimpy clothing (a demographic that had previously shown precious little interest in them) and PR consultants "fascinated by social media". Who are they all? What do they want?

While Facebook is notionally a tool for staying in touch with people you've met, Twitter is a much broader, more loosely-connected matrix of people and companies who may or may not give a hoot about you. Their motivation for clicking the "follow" button on your profile isn't necessarily because they want to spend Christmas with you and your family; they might just be trying to get you to look at their Twitter page full of adverts. Others may be using tools such as Tweetergetter to try and achieve some kind of hollow popularity by indiscriminately adding thousands of people at random as followers. Others might just be bored out of their skulls and seeking attention.

As a result, the levels of social strata that start to operate on a deceptively straightforward service such as Twitter are fascinating. Someone might choose to follow you, but you might not follow them back. Or if you do, you might not interact with them. Then they might stop following you, or block you.

There's no etiquette manual available to help us deal with this ebb and flow of online liaisons, but the important thing to remember is that it's all pretty frivolous, and in any case you're in control. There's been a lot of discussion about social media devaluing the notion of friendship – but in real life we juggle all kinds of relationships, from sexual partners to dentists to weird neighbours we try and avoid in the supermarket, and it's no different online. Enjoy the company of those you like, ignore the ones you don't, and if it becomes too much hassle making that judgement – well, you can always just back out.



Email any technology gripes to cyberclinic@independent.co.uk or join the discussions on the blog at www.independent.co.uk/cyberclinic

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