In a (not-so-)shocking turn of events, a flame war erupted amongst a Facebooker’s friends and acquaintances over her question of whether or not to get a flu shot. The vexed poster sought out modern etiquette guru Amy Vernon for advice. Ms. Vernon answered Frazzled-by-the-Flu-Shot’s question, but not before she gives us a funny meta moment with a warning of her own:
“Try not to get into arguments over vaccines in the comments. And if you start insulting other commenters (no matter which side you come down on in the vaccine argument), I will delete your comments and consider barring you from commenting here. Let’s all conduct ourselves with the proper degree of #SMEtiquette, shall we?”
Ms. Vernon demonstrated the very secret she’s about to impart: One must manage their community. [I'll pause here and say vaccine arguments or other flame wars aren't welcome in my comments either.]
More of Ms. Vernon’s advice to this perplexed flu-flipflopper in a minute. First let’s talk a little bit about identity, branding, and personality. This has a chance of not being as boring as it sounds. Stick with me.
15 Minutes of Community Management
When Andy Warhol famously quipped that we will all be world-famous for 15 minutes, he neglected to speak to the responsibilities that come with that fame. Despite celebrities’ rejection of the “role model” moniker, a certain level of obligation (call it noblesse oblige) is placed upon the shoulders of the rich and famous. Celebs can beg to be let off the pedestal the media and fans build, but the mere fact eyes are on them means they hold an audience’s attention. With attention comes responsibility, however minor.
Most celebs do nothing with this abundance of media attention because they lack the will or the knowledge. Neither are we common folk trained on to behave carefully in a mass-distribution environment. We need different role models or metaphors than celebrities or Hollywood fame to help us think about this.
Brand Management Muck
The marketers think the “brand” metaphor applies here: We should manage our online presence as a brand, just like Mars manages M&M’s and a publicist manages Taylor Swift. But as applied to individuals in obscurity, the brand metaphor breaks down. I’m a person, not a brand; I’m not a
product to be consumed. My work as a writer may be “brandable” just as an actor’s body of work, but distinctions exist between the image attached to a person’s work and that individual’s personality. When Charles Barkley is whining that he is “not a role model,” he’s trying to bring attention to this distinction (unsuccessfully, IMHO).
We needn’t throw the brand metaphor totally out the window. It can be a good vehicle to bring us back to the spirit of grandma’s age-old wisdom about polite conversationalists avoiding politics and religion.
Branding grows out of the concept of trademark, so let’s take a look at what trademark means, and how it can help us keep our Facebook discussions from going up in flames.
trademark (via unabridged Merriam-Websters): noun1: a word, letter, device, sound, or symbol or some combination of these that is used in connection with merchandise, distinctly points inherently or by association to the not necessarily known origin or ownership of that to which it is applied, and is legally reserved to the exclusive use of the owner according to statutory provisions : a name or symbol used by a maker or seller to identify distinctively his products<must display his trademark on his product for it to be legally valid><a trademark can only be transferred in connection with the goodwill of the business — Edward Jenks>— compare copyright, service mark2: a distinctive feature, characteristic, or eccentricity that becomes so associated with a person or thing as to be a sign or designation of that person or thing: an identifying mark or feature
Let’s look closely at definition 2: characteristics. Ask yourself: what characteristic do I want others to associate with me? What suite of related personality traits do I want to embody? These are questions you must answer for yourself. One might say that the answers constitute your “brand” but this is as far as that metaphor can take us.
Ms. Vernon, anticipating the ubiquitously-cited-in-these-situations branding metaphor, breaks it down and explains how managing your Facebook feed differs from managing a national product:
“This is very different advice than is given to and by companies, brands, and people who use social media professionally. We’re always told, ‘Never delete anything! Be transparent! Let everyone see everything!’
Sure. If someone’s insulting your brand, you certainly should leave that up, because otherwise you’re going to be accused of trying to hide the negative.
This is different. This is personal.”
A better “fame” metaphor to inform our behavior is by-birth royalty. Royals (ideally) are cultivated from a very early age to use a rapt audience to bring about good in the world. They are taught to protect their reputations by choosing friends wisely and acting graciously. They are reminded almost to the point of imprisonment they are not only representing themselves but an entire family, thousands of years of history, and whole nations. Just like our branding questions above, we must ask ourselves, “What do I stand for?” and “On whom will my behaviors reflect?”
Permission to Police
While the back of your brain gets to work on answering the branding and the royalty questions, let’s get back to Ms. Vernon’s advice. She basically tells “Frazzled by the Flu Shot” to act like a community manager of a listserv:
“ask [commenters] to focus on the subject at hand, and not to get into an argument. If an argument breaks out, put your foot down. Tell everyone involved that if there are any more comments made that put down other friends of yours, that you will delete them.”
We all know how comment streams can degrade quickly. Ms. Vernon avoided pontificating about the causes of this behavior and instead dealt with what to do when the behavior surfaces. This may mean deleting comments and/or blocking users. If you’d throw a rude person out of your house party, why wouldn’t you kick a rude person out of your feed?
We seem to have a real fear of blocking. It seems harsh, like a virtual death penalty. We’re not only afraid of hurting someone’s feelings but we’re also fearful people may accuse us of being prejudiced and “silo’ed” (walling ourselves off from any dissenting opinions).
While blocking someone on a social network may hurt that person’s feelings, her own behavior is what landed her in the situation. And you’re only blocking her on Facebook, not in Life.
Let me say that again: It’s just Facebook! We need to bring FB off the pedestal and back down to reality: It’s just a social networking site. It’s software, not Life. Your friend can probably still reach you any number of ways. Simply tell her you don’t gibe with her FB style. It doesn’t have to be a big “You broke my heart, Fredo” moment.
As for the “You’re closeminded” argument, tell your friend there is a big difference between holing oneself up in one’s own camp and wanting to keep your Facebook feed civil. When we make the choice to not monitor our discussions, we are making the choice to allow our friends and family to behave cruelly toward one another. Every choice has an underbelly. Not having the guts to lead your discussions can bring fiery consequences.
- Think royally: Remember to be gracious and kind toward others. Remove trolls.
- Act loyally: Be consistent. Stick with your ideals, be true to your friends, and remain true to your best self
..and maybe we’ll all see a little less flames on Facebook.
Photo Credits: M&Ms: Dave Herholz on Flickr
Royals wearing purls: Jennie Rainsford on Flickr