Sunday, April 21, 2013

Who were you again?

How do you manage social media accounts without bruising the feelings of others online?

That's the question posed by a relative latecomer to social media, a 50-something reader from California who writes that he was "very reluctant to join Facebook," but that he finally did and "must say that I do enjoy it."

Like many people, this fellow has tried to manage his friends list by limiting it to those with whom he "had a pleasant association with at one time or another." Occasionally, however, he will get an invitation to be friends from someone whose name he recognizes but remembers nothing more about the person or any relationship with him or her, or someone whose name does "not ring a bell in any way."

While he has no problem not responding to those whose names do not ring a bell, he feels it may be wrong to not respond to others he's sure he must have known at one time or another, but simply can't remember.

"I do not want to hurt the feelings of anyone," he writes, "but I also want to keep my friend list limited to those people I at least remember. Is there an answer to this quandary?"

Since being launched in February 2004, initially as a site that was primarily targeted at students at specific colleges, then anyone with a college email address, and soon anyone at all, Facebook has grown from a self-reported 1 million users by the end of 2004 to more than 1 billion users in 2012. With that many people hooked into the site, each of us is bound to know someone well who's on Facebook and we're also bound to have lots of old sort-of acquaintances we don't really remember out there as well.

There's nothing unethical about going on or staying off of Facebook or any other social media site. For those of us who are on such sites where it's easy to lose several hours in tracking newsfeed updates or monitoring tweets, I am sure we share days where the thought of getting off of everything and resorting to anonymity is mighty appealing.

There is also nothing unethical about not accepting every friend request that comes your way. The beauty of such social media sites and free will is that you can choose to keep your circle of connections as small or as large as you desire.

If the reader from California wants to set a rule that he only accepts friend requests from people he can remember, then the right thing to do is to stick to that rule.

If he's curious about those names that seem familiar but he can't remember, then a right thing to do would be to simply send a message in response to the friend request asking the person if he or she can remind him how they know one another. While some requesters might take offense at having to be asked such a question, especially if they remember my reader far better than he remembers them, it's the right thing to do if my reader really wants to connect only to those people with whom he has had some past connection. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

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