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
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