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Social netiquette: When poking isn’t polite

Social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter can seem like the Wild West — anything goes. But even with the access and enormity of the Web, the rules you once learned on the playground still apply.

“There has been a major cultural shift in the way we communicate and document our social lives in recent years, but we have not been taught digital or online manners,” says Jo Bryant, an advisor for U.K.-based etiquette authority Debrett’s, which added a section on social networking etiquette to their “A-Z of Modern Manners” in early 2008.

The No. 1 rule? Treat others with kindness and respect, Debrett’s advises. For more complicated situations, here is a guide to being a good digital citizen and using technology wisely:

Rule: Don’t talk about poop in public
One of the most important rules, experts say, is that there is such a thing as too much information. You have a suspicious wart? Your bowels are on a rampage after that burrito? Tell your doctor or someone with whom you have a relationship in which that's acceptable. But you should think twice about putting that as your status message or Twittering about it.

“When you put something as your status, it’s like yelling it across the room,” says MSNBC Technotica columnist Helen A.S. Popkin. “So your status is the wrong place to write, ‘I'm getting divorced.’ ”

Adam Jackson, who co-authored the book “140 Characters,” a style guide for Twitter, says he always cautions people to avoid “bathroom tweets.”

“There are things we feel compelled to say over Twitter as if there are no consequences at all,” he says. “But all this stuff is archived.”

Rule: Break up like a big kid
Breaking up is hard to do — the crying, anger, excuses — so why not avoid the guilt by sending a text or a MySpace message? Breaking up digitally is becoming more common and more acceptable, says Julie Albright, a sociologist at the University of Southern California who studies relationships and technology.

“It wasn't too long ago on ‘Sex and the City’ when Carrie said, ‘He dumped me with a Post-it note,’ ” Albright says. “Now it’s ‘He dumped me with a post on Facebook.’ ”

If the relationship is casual — and both parties understand that it’s casual — then this can be an option. But if the two of you had discussed wedding songs and picked out baby names, you have to dump the old-fashioned way: face to face.

Rule: Don’t be creepy Social networking offers unprecedented access to the goings-on in people’s lives. This can make it particularly easy to stalk your ex. Once upon a time you had to don your black hoodie, cut your headlights and try to roll past his house unnoticed to catch a glimpse of his new life without you. Now, with just a mouse click, you can see who’s flirting with him, what parties he’s attended, and get an eyeful of that new woman on his arm.

Don’t do it to yourself, Albright advises. Not only are you being creepy (even if he doesn’t know about it), but you’re making it much harder to get over the relationship.

“It’s a lot easier to become obsessed with someone and to want to keep constant tabs on them,” she says. “It may be best to block or unfriend your ex so that you don’t have to deal with the temptation.”

It’s also acceptable to block or unfriend exes if you don’t want them to see what’s on your page.

Rule: Learn self-defense “There is a bit of a risk in losing some control over personal details,” says John Abell, the East Coast editor for Wired.com. “... One reason is you often forget how widely circulated things are.”

Although you may have only intended for your 112 online friends to see that status message declaring that you hate your job, or that photo of you locking lips with a stranger, it can spread like fire if you aren’t familiar with your privacy settings. Make sure you are aware of who can see what is on your profile, particularly if you aren’t comfortable sharing the information with the whole world.

In addition, says Popkin, it’s completely acceptable to delete others’ comments on photos or your wall if they are inappropriate.

“You can send an e-mail to your friends saying that you’d appreciate it if they keep their comments clean,” she says. “You should also remember that someone’s mom or boss might be looking at their profile, so you should be respectful with your comments also.”

Kirsten Dixson, an online branding expert, advises Googling yourself every now and then to ensure you know what’s out there. “You want to make sure that very personal or unflattering information, if it's on the Web, is buried at least past page three of a Google search,” she says.

Rule: Smile for the camera
Remember that holiday party when you had too much eggnog and ended up with your shirt over your head? Months later that picture you forgot about ends up on the Web. In this situation, it’s probably in your best interest to untag yourself from the picture.

Popkin says for really embarrassing pictures, you can and should request that the photo be taken off the Web. “Your friends might rag you about it, but just take it in stride and laugh at yourself,” she said. “You can always blame it on ‘hearing scary stories about the Internet.’ ”

To avoid being caught off guard, make sure you adjust your settings so you are notified when a photo of you is tagged.

Rule: Poking people can be annoying
One of Debrett’s golden rules is “Don’t annoy your friends by constant, frantic poking.” The problem with the poke, a feature on Facebook that represents a digital version of poking someone with your finger, is that there is no collective understanding of what it means. Some take it literally as a sexual overture, while others say it’s just a way to say ”hey.” Depending on the nature of your relationship with the “pokee,” you can determine whether to poke or not — just keep it to a minimum.

If you are on the wrong side of an aggressive poker, Popkin suggests ignoring the poke, but leaving it up — the poking perpetrator will be unable to continue targeting you.

Rule: If you don't want to play, that’s OK
You moved across the country to get away from that girl who tormented you in high school, and now she’s trying to friend you. Don’t worry, says Popkin, just ignore the request.

“You have no obligation to friend people, just like in the real world,” she says. “The best thing to do is ignore them, block them, and forget about it.”

That can be easier said that done, especially if the request you’re ignoring comes from a co-worker or boss with whom you interact on a daily basis.

“I have a Facebook friend in San Francisco who faced this awkward problem a couple of times,” Abell says. “She had to tell a co-worker ‘I don’t Facebook friends people that I work with.’ ”

The easiest thing to do is to tell the unwanted friend politely that you are trying to keep your network small, or that you want to keep it to close friends or family.

“If your boss still demands that you accept a friendship request, then he’s a jerk and you should probably look for a new job,” Popkin says.

Rule: Make mom proud
But how do you deal with friend requests from your family? Gone are the days when the different aspects of your life — your peers, your relationship, your work and your family — could be separated. There’s no easy way to spare mom’s feelings if you’ve decided to ignore her request.

“I’m not ready for you to see the genital references on my wall, the filthy verbing in my applications or my pictures tagged ‘Tuesday — drunk again,’ ” writes blogger Rottin’ in Denmark, in a post titled “I denied my mom’s friend request.” “My heart breaks a little bit every time I click ‘ignore.’ ”

In this situation you have a few options: Continue to ignore your mom’s request and just pretend you don’t know why she keeps bringing up the fact that she carried you for nine months; reluctantly accept that your granny, your mom and your kids are on Facebook and clean up your online act; or just tell the family your dirty little secrets before they discover who you really are by looking at your profile.

“It’s a good idea to limit your tweeting or posting to things that you wouldn’t mind your mother or grandmother seeing,” Jackson says. “Ask yourself, ‘Would mom be proud of me?’ ”

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