At cafes, bus stops, and other public places, I hear people lament about what they think is a rude behavior and that there are no manners in an age of social media. Etiquette has been enormously important to societies historically and not always for the right reasons (like marginalizing individuals or groups of people – especially ethnic and racial minorities). The sociologist Norbert Elias spent much of his book The civilizing process investigating etiquette and argued that the development of etiquette is part of a historical ‘process’. Using the ‘right’ fork was not a random thing. So too are practices of etiquette on social media.
Etiquette is a reflection of social norms, class, and other demographic factors. As such, it can divide people or create hierarchies. Some social processes were more elite in the past (like diary writing or eating in a restaurant). As social activities become more democratic, practices of etiquette can do so as well. Think of it this way: if someone drops food on the floor during a meal at home and then picks it up and eats it, only those there know about it; but if such behaviors are in tweets, Instagram photos, etc., the action has a much wider audience. For some, the five-second rule applies and for others, such behavior is repugnant. Again, these responses have a lot to do with our social, cultural, and economic background.
Thinking about etiquette can be relevant to understandings of social media production and consumption. Ultimately, etiquette is socially constructed and what is considered normal and acceptable varies based on a variety of socioeconomic and cultural factors. And these normative constructions can shape social media habits – from deciding whether using social media apps during a date is acceptable to what types of positive and negative things we say about friends, family, and colleagues. Even whether we post a video of our kid comically falling down can partly be influenced by questions of etiquette. In addition, the acceptability of creeping or fake ‘catfish’ Facebook profiles also partly depends on social media etiquette. Certain perceived notions of what one is ‘expected’ to do in a situation or what is civilized – the latter drawing from eating etiquette for example – are important to reflect on. Though, like in history, etiquette is a contested space and has politics of inclusion and exclusion.
Ultimately, social media has made social interactions more public – what has traditionally been private has become increasingly public. In addition, social media lets us interact with much larger audiences. Neither is inherently good or bad, but a part of changes in social communication. I also do not think we have become less polite. Rather, the venom and vitriol we have always had throughout time and is very much one part of human nature now has a very public audience that we did not have before. Or, in other words, social media is not making us into this or that; we were already there…