April 8, 2014

7 New Rules for Facebook

Today, one of my favorite people posted this message:

"I have 4 Facebook rules: Don't brag. Don't complain. Don't get personal. Be entertaining." 

She went on to admit that she had been dealing with depression, it had gotten pretty bad, and she was going to break some of her rules to fill us in on the situation.

I am so proud of her. Depression is a scary, serious, life-threatening illness that does not benefit from people isolating themselves. She needs a support network, and what better place to find it than among her 600+ friends?

Then, I asked myself - Why does a kind, lovely, charming person with hundreds of friends feel like she can't be herself online?

I understand where her 4 rules came from. Everyone has an annoying friend who brags too much, complains too much, overshares, or drags everyone down. My friend didn't want to be that person. None of us do. But it's a sad state of affairs if someone who's thoughtful and always there for others can't feel comfortable asking for help.

In her honor, I'm proposing some new rules grounded in kindness, trust, and friendship:

7 New Rules for Facebook

1. Be authentic. Write in your real voice, about things that you care about. Don't make your life look perfect; not only is it completely implausible, but nobody really wants to be friends with the "perfect" person anyway. Authentic people are complex, messy, vulnerable, occasionally crazy, and always human. They sometimes make typos and tell lame jokes and look weird in pictures, but people like them anyway because they put themselves out there in a way that's real and relatable.

Authentic people share their happy moments and accomplishments. This is not the same as bragging; bragging is about making others feel inferior (i.e., the humblebrag: "Oh, this? It's just a simple little gazebo I threw together") while sharing an accomplishment authentically means being honest about what you did and how you feel (i.e., "I spent all weekend making this cake, and it turned out just how I hoped it would.")

2. Show a genuine interest in others. The people you connect with on Facebook are not called your audience; they're called friends. Treat them as such. Read their posts, comment when a conversation interests you, click Like when you see something that makes you smile. If someone never, ever interests you or makes you smile, re-evaluate your friendship.

Share things that you think your friends would enjoy or find interesting. Write brief "thinking of you" messages to friends you haven't heard from in awhile. Let them know that you notice them, miss them, and acknowledge their value.

3. Be open to kindness, advice, and conversation. If you post a vague message that you're having a bad day, someone on the periphery of your friend list may reach out and ask what's wrong. If you post a thought-provoking article about a controversial topic, a friend with an alternate viewpoint might challenge you. Embrace their words with warmth and openness, even if they weren't what you wanted.

If you're struggling, let your friends know. People love to help, especially if you're honest about what you need - a phone call, a reassuring word, advice in a tricky situation. When you feel better, give back and pay it forward by being available and kind and helpful to the people on your friends list who could benefit from your compassion and wisdom.

4. Remember: The more diverse your interests, the more diverse your friends. If the only topic you ever want to discuss on Facebook is your dedication to your faith or your fitness, it doesn't make you a boring or shallow person, but it does reduce the number of friends who will engage in conversation with you. To maintain hundreds of friendships, you pretty much have to be curious about and in love with the whole world. There is nothing wrong with either approach.

5. Learn how to curate your news feed and manage your privacy settings. If you have certain friends whose posts constantly raise your blood pressure, but you can't unfriend them (e.g., you're related) click the arrow just to the right of the post. You can hide a specific post, a person, or an app. The latter is especially helpful if your friends play games that don't interest you. Other people use Facebook differently than you do. Don't let it get under your skin.

Likewise, if you have Facebook friends with whom you don't want to share everything, create lists. I'd start with a "close friends" and an "acquaintance" list, but you can make as many as you want: Work friends, college friends, friends who love dogs as much as you do, whatever. Share with people who make you feel safe and appreciated and glad to be in conversation with them. For some people, that's a huge list. For others, it's a small one. For most of us, it depends on the day and the topic.

6. Don't compare your private life to someone else's public life. It is so easy to look at Facebook and think that everyone you know is happier than you are. Your friends' houses are clean (because the clutter is pushed out of the frame), their skin is perfect (because Instagram filters are remarkable), and their kids are adorable (because they haven't yet thrown their evening tantrums).

7. Be authentic. I'm repeating Rule 1, because it is that important. You will never build real friendships by presenting a fake version of yourself. And why would you want those relationships in the first place?

I'm not suggesting giving up all image maintenance. It's OK to angle your body toward the camera for a more flattering photo. There's nothing wrong with editing a post once or twice so it sounds as clever as it did in your head.

But let's stop the competition about whose life is more perfect. Let's stop worrying about whether our high school frenemy is quietly judging us through her iPhone. Let's stop getting annoyed by our friends' successes and start being happy for them - or, if a relationship is so damaged that we can't muster up an ounce of enthusiasm for someone's joy, ask why he or she still gets space on our "friends" list.

And let's make Facebook a place where it is safe for my friend - and any other person who's struggling and needs support - to show up, be vulnerable, and receive an outpouring of love.

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