Digital Manners: Opting Out of Online Social Networks

Navigating the intersection of etiquette and technology.
May 8 2012 4:50 PM

Saying No to Social Networking (Transcript)

Is it possible to opt out without being labeled a weirdo?

Emily Yoffe: Hey, Farhad, who are you calling suspicious?

Farhad Manjoo: I’m Slate’s technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo.

Emily: I’m Emily Yoffe, Slate’s Dear Prudence advice columnist. And this is Manners for the Digital Age.

Farhad: Today’s question is from a listener who takes issue with a comment I made back in March. He writes, “Dear Emily and Farhad, something Farhad said on a previous podcast struck me: ‘If you were going out with someone and they don’t have a Facebook profile, you should be suspicious.’ I know many, many people my age (35), often those working in the trades who have no social networking profile. Is that now considered bad manners?

“Leaving aside dating, will my not having a social networking profile seem odd if potential employers search for me? Should I have a generic one for such things? But then, once I set it up, friends are going to want to add me and back I go to that overwhelming feeling. The cycle continues.” Signed, Linked Out.

So, Emily, since I’m the one who provoked this question, I’ll let you weigh in first. Is it weird or rude to not have a social networking profile?

Emily: Well, I guess the question is: will you seem mysterious and intriguing or will it signal obvious sex offender serial killer? I think, first of all, the letter writer makes a good point about his age. For college students, it is a little weird. I think it’s fine, but it’s going to be odd.

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But if you’re 35 or over, I really don’t think we’ve gotten to the point where if you don’t have a Facebook page, you’re somehow signaling you’re socially inept.

I think Facebook is somewhat different from other technologies. I’m old enough, I’ve mentioned before, to remember when answering machines first came in. God, who needs that? Just call back. Then it became if you didn’t have one, you’re incredibly rude. It’s the same thing with cell phones.

But those are pure technologies that finally everyone has and you need to be able to get in touch with other people. Facebook is a form of display. I don’t think we’ve gotten to the point where we’re all required to fluff our plumage all the time.

Farhad: I totally disagree with that. Let me first address what I said before. That question came up in the context of a debate about online dating. I said that if you’re going to set up a date with someone and you can’t find anything about them on Facebook… I’d extend that to other social networks. If you can’t find a photo of them and there’s no photo on the dating site either, then you should be suspicious. That person seems to be trying to hide something.

Emily: We’re all trying to hide something, Farhad.

Farhad: Well, the person might be married or have a girlfriend, or in some ways trying to hide their activities. I don’t think it’s a slam-dunk case. I don’t think that’s necessarily the situation, but I would be a little bit suspicious.

But to the letter writer’s question beyond dating, I think that it’s better to have a social networking profile for a couple reasons. You are taking control of your online life then. If you have nothing about yourself online, your friends may post stuff about you on Facebook, you may come up on a news story, you may come up on a search engine. I think it’s better just generally to take control of your presence online.

And if you don’t have one, I think people will judge you based on that. Maybe it’s different in some circles. This guy says he works in the trades. I think that in some kinds of professions, it’s not as necessary as others. In our profession, it seems like it’s required.

I’ve looked at the numbers for Facebook. If you look at the demographics, it’s not like only young people have Facebook. It pretty much cuts across most demographic lines, and from what I can tell, also socioeconomic lines. They have a billion people around the world. Lots of people are on Facebook and I think you’re kind of judged now, for better or worse, if you don’t.

Emily: All right. But, the Facebook profile also allows a lot of judgments to be raised. Who is that woman who your arm is around? Is that your sister or someone else for the dating world? For the professional world, gee, do you know that one of your friends is a roaring racist and is linked to all sorts of creepy stuff that you haven’t removed? You have to be attentive to this thing.

Farhad: Oh, yeah!

Emily: I really think, as I say, it’s different from a simple technology. I remember when my daughter was in kindergarten and I was the room mother. There were a couple of mothers who said to me, “Well, I do have an email account. I never check it, so you need to call me.” I was, “Well, too bad. You won’t know about the picnic, because I’m sending out mass emails.” There’s no grooming or attentiveness to having an email account except -- click -- checking it.

But your Facebook, as you say, is your passport to the world of who I am, and I really think it’s fair enough for people to say, “I don’t want to do it,” and not be thought of as hiding something.

Farhad: I agree with you. It’s work. This guy says he feel overwhelmed by it. He raises setting up a generic profile, but that’s going to still be work. I agree. But, it’s your reputation. You have to maintain your reputation in the offline world. If somebody is talking about you and telling untruths about you, you have deal with it and you have to deal with it online.

Emily: There’s a new bestseller about introverts and how we’re all, particularly because of social media, trying to force people into this, “Come on! We’re all connected and gregarious.” I just don’t think personally or professionally a Facebook page is necessary. I think this guy is right. I think you have a very good point that you’ve got to be checking in with your name. What does your name turn up or does it turn up nothing? What control do you want to take of that?

But, I disagree with you. My bottom line is NOT that Facebook is unfortunately for everyone the answer, you can’t avoid it, you have to have it or else you look like a serial killer.

Farhad: P.S. If it will be odd if potential employers search for him and they don’t find anything. I think more often than not these days, it will be odd. It depends on the profession. But I think that in many professions, finding something about someone on Facebook and finding a profile that is positive (finding something that’s not a picture of them drinking) could add to that person’s value to the company.

I suggest he set up a generic profile and put the maximum privacy settings on it so that his friends can’t do terrible stuff. It won’t take too long to do it.

Emily: Send us your questions about shifting etiquette in the online age. Our address is digitalmanners@slate.com

Farhad: You can also join our Facebook page where we carry on the conversation throughout the week. Go to www.Facebook.com/digitalmanners.

Emily: And we’ll talk to you next time on Manners for the Digital Age.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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