Monday, 7 January 2013

These are the unwritten rules of Facebook

With over a billion users worldwide, Facebook has become a fundamental part of social life. Much as there are long-standing unwritten rules governing the way we behave toward each other face-to-face, today there also exist cultural expectations for how one ought to behave on Facebook. Now researchers at Trinity University in the USA have conducted focus groups and a survey of hundreds of undergrads, in one of the first attempts to find out what these rules are.

Erin Bryant and Jennifer Marmo conducted 6 focus groups with 44 students (aged 19 to 24), during which the participants were asked to brainstorm the rules governing interactions on Facebook. Merging similar-sounding rules, and only including those mentioned in two or more focus groups, the researchers were left with 36 rules.

Next, these rules were shown to 593 more participants (aged 18 to 52), who were asked to think of a particular Facebook acquaintance, causal friend or close friend, and to say how strongly they agreed that each of the 36 rules should be followed when interacting with that person.

Thirteen of the rules to emerge from the focus groups received overall endorsement by the survey participants:

I should expect a response from this person if I post on his/her profile.
I should NOT say anything disrespectful about this person on Facebook.
I should consider how a post might negatively impact this person's relationships.
If I post something that this person deletes, I should not repost it.
I should communicate with this person outside of Facebook.
I should present myself positively but honestly to this person.
I should NOT let Facebook use with this person interfere with getting my work done.
I should NOT post information on Facebook that this person could later use against me.
I should use common sense while interacting with this person on Facebook.
I should consider how a post might negatively impact this person's career path.
I should wish this person happy birthday in some way other than Facebook.
I should protect this person's image when I post on his/her profile.
I should NOT read too much into this person's Facebook motivations.

A fourteenth rule that almost achieved overall endorsement from the survey was: I should be aware the information this person posts about me can have real world consequences.

Looking again at the entire list of 36, the researchers found that these fell into five distinct categories: communication channels (e.g. I should use Facebook chat with this person); control and deception (e.g. I should block this person if he compromises my image); relational maintenance (e.g. I should use Facebook to communicate happy birthday to this person); negative consequences for the self (e.g. I should not post info this person could use against me); and negative consequences for the friend (e.g. I should protect this person's image online).

Another finding was that the categories of rule that were considered most important varied according to what type of friend a person was thinking of. Communication rules and rules governing protecting friends were rated more important when considering close friends. Detection and deception rules were thought most important when considering acquaintances. And relational maintenance rules were rated as more important when thinking of acquaintances and casual friends, perhaps because close friends already interact more outside of Facebook.

The study has obvious limitations - particularly its reliance on a student sample in the USA, and the fact that no actual Facebook behaviours were recorded. Nonetheless, Bryant and Marmo said their exploratory study "can serve as a starting point for future research regarding the subject of interaction rules as they manifest in the digital age." They added that an interesting avenue for future research would be to look at what happens when people contravene these rules.

What do you think is the most important interaction rule when using Facebook? Was it mentioned in this research?


Bryant, E., and Marmo, J. (2012). The rules of Facebook friendship: A two-stage examination of interaction rules in close, casual, and acquaintance friendships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29 (8), 1013-1035 DOI: 10.1177/0265407512443616

--Further reading--
Facebook or Twitter: What does your choice of social networking site say about you?
Shy students who use Facebook have better quality friendships
What your Facebook picture says about your cultural background
People judged as likable in the flesh also make good first impressions online

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


David said...

Is there a missing rule ? ("I should consider how a post might negatively impact this person's relationships." is duplicated)

Unknown said...

hi David - well spotted! I checked the paper and this rule is repeated twice, which is strange. I will delete the repeat and add the next rule that almost achieved overall endorsement in the survey.

Mary R. Perkins said...

Interesting reading, and an important topic.

More than once now I have had this come up in coaching sessions with clients. My clients have wanted to discuss things about recent facebook interactions they have had, or work out how best to proceed with a facebook 'friend' or similar, or perhaps discuss more general concerns about how best to use (or not use) facebook.

There is much more to facebook than one might think!


Kaitlyn S. C Hatch said...

Really interesting.
I think a big part of it will be enforcing the fact that the Internet is not an alternate universe but a very real and integrated part of real life.

Anonymous said...

Great Facebook netiquette explanation. Your restatement of netiquette truths on Facebook is quite accurate. They imply a more refined social network, which Facebook is. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

It will be interesting to see in follow-up research how people actually behave on FB. I'd also like see how people's use of FB impacts their perception of rules. High use vs low use, personal vs professional.

Anonymous said...

Can someone explain to me how these are "unwritten" if the author has written them down?

Unknown said...

they were unwritten before now, that's the idea. They're the rules that most people play by, but which aren't spelled out explicitly by Facebook or elsewhere.

Emmy said...

I applaud this set of rules although they're kind of all over the place. The problem is you can't ask users to show a type of respect for each other that the blogging platform does not show to its own users. Facebook is famous for its privacy violations and you can't expect change if it doesn't exist at the top tiers of an organization.

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Pedro said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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I liked this. Thanks.

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