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Is Facebook Ruining Your Friendships?

Sure, we're way more connected with everyone: college roomies, coworkers, old flames, and long-lost relatives. But it's all too easy to make virtual mistakes that can muck up real-life relationships. Here, smart advice from the experts on how to navigate social netiquette dilemmas.

By Peg Rosen

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Jude Buffman

A while back my friend posted pics from her son Sam's bar mitzvah on Facebook. In a breezy, off-the-cuff moment, I commented: "His was the first one that didn't give me a migraine. By far, the loveliest I've attended all year!" Then came the pissed-off posts from mutual friends whose kids' bat and bar mitzvahs (obviously headache-inducing and far less wonderful) I'd also gone to. Oops. Just lump me in with all the other middle-aged cyber-klutzes who are lovin' the social networking thing (there are now more Facebookers between the ages of 35 and 54 than those between 18 and 34) but can't quite get a grip on the rules. "When Facebooking at home alone, it can feel like you're having a private exchange. It's easy to forget that other people are in on the conversation," says Kirsten Dixson, an online reputation management expert and coauthor of Career Distinction: Stand Out by Building Your Brand (Wiley). "Most of our goofs happen because we're not accustomed to putting our lives up on the wall." For help on how to handle hot-water social networking messes—or, even better, avoid them altogether—read on.

You've reconnected with your high school prom date and have been bantering back and forth about everything from his old mullet to that notorious grad night party. Your husband sees your posts and—to put it mildly—is not amused.

Sweetly inform hubby that if every married Facebooker who friended an old flame was looking for action, there wouldn't be enough motel rooms to accommodate them. "Most of the time it's about curiosity—people want to see how an old boyfriend or girlfriend has held up over the years and where they are in life compared to you," says Hal Niedzviecki, author of The Peep Diaries (City Lights Publishers), which examines the culture that Facebook and Twitter have spawned. But your spouse's worries might carry some cred if your retrosexual reconnect starts to heat up or your ex is pressuring you to meet in the real world. "If you're thinking of reaching out to a long-lost love for whom you still have strong feelings, it's probably better not to get in touch at all," says Nancy Kalish, PhD, professor of psychology at California State University, Sacramento. You should be logging off Facebook and logging more hours with your husband.

You're psyched to see a new Facebook friend request—until you realize it's from your boss. How should you respond?

That all depends on your Facebook friendship philosophy, and now's the time to figure it out. Do you want only your closest friends and family members in that inner circle, or professional acquaintances as well? "There's no right or wrong answer—just decide what works best for you," says Dixson. "It would be perfectly okay to message your boss and explain politely that while you don't include colleagues and supervisors as Facebook friends, you'd be delighted to be connected on a business-oriented networking site like LinkedIn." Another option: Create different lists for your professional and personal friends, and control which group gets to see what. Your boss will never know that she's only getting limited postings from you, but you'll still have opportunities to impress and connect with her. And remember, fusing your private and professional lives online has its benefits. "When business associates can see your more casual, intimate side, it provides them with a more rounded picture," says Dixson. "That can only help you professionally, whether you're looking for a raise, a promotion, or a new job."

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Jude Buffman

A few months after being friended by your 16-year-old niece, you are appalled to see she's posted photos of herself in a teeny black leather bikini. Do you run and tell sis?

No—at least not immediately. "When someone you love is putting herself in jeopardy, you've got to do something," says Michelle Borba, author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions (Jossey-Bass). But in this case, talk to your niece first. Don't play the narc who's caught her in the act, don't scold, and don't start in about how she's ruining her reputation. Instead, drive home the long-term consequences. Remind her that everyone can see what she's posting—including college admissions officers and future dates—and that it takes just a few clicks to copy a post or photo and send it careening into cyberspace. Tell your sister only if your niece continues with her risky behavior or is breaking the law (engaging in underage drinking, for example). In that case, Mom needs to get involved.

Out of the blue, your long-lost college roommate wants to friend you. Delighted to hear from her, you dispatch a rambling, nostalgic e-mail to her Facebook inbox. But she doesn't write back. Ouch!

First of all, don't feel bad. "For a lot of people, asking to friend someone is like mailing a holiday card—you send it with no expectations of getting anything back," says Dixson. "It's more of an announcement—'Hey, I'm out here, and now we know how to get in touch if we need to down the line.'" So it may well be that ex-roomie uses her Facebook account to keep passively updated on the people in her past and isn't looking for a ton of deep new connections. It's also possible she doesn't check her e-mail regularly and hasn't seen your gushing response. "Try contacting her on Facebook one more time, but stop after that—otherwise you'll look like a stalker," advises Dixson. "If you have her regular e-mail address or phone number, try either of those one time. After that, the ball's in her court."

A glam and successful businesswoman in town who never gives you two cents' worth of attention has sent you a friend request. You accept. Days later, she asks you to "like" her most recent venture. What gives?

There are times when an FB friend isn't so much choosing you as using you. Don't feel obliged to join the fan club. And if you're still in a snit about being had, you can go a step further and unfriend Ms. Glamorpuss. "When someone has hundreds or thousands of friends, chances are she's collecting your name as one more to add to the list, whether it's to boost her business, her social life, or her ego," says Dixson. And not to worry if you bump into her: With 4,573 friends, she won't notice the count has dropped to 4,572. The bottom line? Let it go. On Facebook, as in real life, stuff happens.

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Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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