Social media rule No. 1: If you want to make friends (and keep them) on social media, avoid excessive posts about politics, religion or race.
This piece of advice is based on the old-fashioned rule: Don’t talk about politics or religion at the dinner table.
In some ways, social media has become the new dinner table.
Sharing a cat picture won’t (usually) cost you friends. Your friends will like it, favorite it, share it, ignore it and possibly comment about it, even if they are annoyed.
Why? People want to connect with others. Social media provide quick and easy ways to make connections. It’s geographically convenient, and it does not require a lot of time.
Posts that focus on our friends and family give others insights into our personal lives that we may choose to hide from others. We are predisposed to want to know more, to have stronger connections to those around us – even if those around us are many miles away.
It is this human need for social connection that drives development of social media. It helps to connect people who know each other, who used to know each other or who have friends in common.
But there is nothing like a hot political climate to show us that we can just as easily disconnect from others. Posts that contain a strong political message may damage relationships – and you might never know. If our friends read a post with which they disagree, they may just ignore it, while other posts may damage our friendships.
Here are some classic examples of polarizing social media messages:
1. The topical rant. In these posts, one of our “friends” will go on a tirade about the hot issue of the day (e.g., elections, gun control). Why does it bother us? Rants are not fun. It’s one thing to link to a well-argued editorial, but a rant about a controversial issue just adds fuel to the fire. Not all rants are bad. We can all get behind good rants about bad drivers or slow service.
2. The gotcha quote. These posts focus on pulling a quote by a political leader or celebrity out of context to prove a point. We also refer to these kinds of posts as “contextomy.” Aside from challenging our critical thinking skills, these posts confuse the context of the situation. Life and relationships are too complex as it is. Most people go to social media to post and read about life and relationships, and these quote-mining posts get in the way.
3. The guilt inducer. This type of post is meant to make us feel guilty for not being more active about certain political or social issues. Why does this bother us? We often use social media as a momentary escape from the world, and these posts make some people feel guilty for not being more involved in that world. This isn’t to suggest that ice-bucket challenges or pet-adoption posts are bad. As with everything we post on social media, moderation is important (and probably rule No. 2).
A version of this column appeared in the "Connected" section of The Vindicator newspaper on May 31, 2015.
Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt is professor and chair of the department of communication at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, USA. He researches and writes about communication and relationships, parenting and sports. He writes a weekly column for The Vindicator newspaper on social media and society.