social media messaging etiquetteSaying goodbye to someone you like is always difficult – but on social media, it sometimes seems to border on impossible. Maybe that explains the addictive nature of such sites.  As with a good book, it seems you can never find a stopping place.

For a huge number of people, Facebook has become the communications interface of choice, replacing (at least to an extent) email, phone calls, news sites, postcards, and other means by which people used to keep in touch.  Facebook and other social sites – Twitter, Google+ and the rest – have opened up new ways to stay in touch with others all over the globe, from family and friends to business colleagues.

As with any venue, we need rules of proper behavior – etiquette if you will – to guide us in using social media. Otherwise, things can get awkward. There is no shortage of articles on the web devoted to online etiquette but following are a few issues that I haven’t seen addressed elsewhere.

Something I’ve noticed recently in regard to Facebook PMs (private messages) and their equivalents (Twitter direct messages, G+ messages shared with only one person) is that it can be extremely difficult to end a conversation.  I couldn’t count the many times I’ve engaged in the back and forth of smilies, thumbs up signs and other emoticons long after saying goodbye.  It’s not so much that both parties want to get the last word in, I think, as the fear that if we just stop communicating, we’re somehow being rude.  Or maybe we just hate to give up the “connection” to the other person.

It can be annoying, though, especially if you’re trying to work or if you’re out and about, and your phone keeps “dinging” with new messages that turn out to be just animated snoozing kitties or giant-size grinning smiley faces. Maybe what we need is one new definitive emoticon that means “Okay, I’m outta here” that releases the other person from feeling a need to respond. Failing that, could we just agree that each person can send one “goodbye” emoticon each, and then the conversation can be considered over?

Of course, this isn’t the only etiquette issue that comes. The semi-separation of Facebook Messenger from Facebook itself has created both benefits and problems. The Messenger smartphone app functions almost exactly like SMS text messaging, but unlike text messaging, you don’t have to pay extra for it (either by paying for a plan or paying a per-text fee).  It also simplifies notification and makes it easy to answer PMs from the “chatheads” that pop up when you receive one.

On the down side, this separation exists only on phones and tablets. On your computer, PMs are still integrated into the Facebook interface in your web browser (of course if you use a browser to access Facebook on the phone, that’s true there, too, but most people use the app). The problem with this is that people using computers often treat PMs more like email than like text messages – something they can dash off at any time, not expecting an immediate response. If the recipient has the Messenger app running on the phone, though, that instant notification creates a feeling that you should answer it right now.

I recently made a new resolution to stop and think about what time it is on the other end when I send someone a PM, but not everybody does that. I know because I’ve been awakened at 5:00 a.m. more than once by an early riser who just got the message that I, a night owl, sent at 11:00 p.m. Oops. I guess I deserved that. The international nature of social networking makes this an all-too-common issue; even if you send a message solidly in the middle of your day, it’s midnight for your friend on the other side of the world.

Another good idea is to get to know your new Facebook “friends” a little better before you inundate them with private messages. I’ve had people with whom I had one conversation on a group page send me a friend request. Those people I put into my “Acquaintances” friends list, which means they only see certain, limited posts of mine; I restrict the really personal posts to “Close Friends.” However, because they’re part of my larger group of Friends, they can send me PMs. A few times I’ve had a brand new acquaintance then act as if I’m his/her new best friend and start sending endless PMs – about things in which I had zero interest in.

Then there are those private messages that aren’t so private at all. You know the ones I mean, where someone sends a PM to a group of 72 of his/her closest friends. Often these “gang chats” seem to be requests for donations or attempts to sell something, although sometimes they’re party invitations or the sharing of sad news such as a death. I’ve been guilty of this myself, back before I realized how these messages quickly snowball into a cacophony of replies.

The good news is that you can leave the conversation – but depending on the circumstances, that might seem rude, too. When you leave, everybody in the message group sees an announcement that you’ve left. The even better news is that you can mute the conversation without leaving – and nobody will be the wiser. That way, you stop getting notifications, although the message will keep popping back up to the top of your PMs list every time someone posts something in it. To leave or mute a conversation, click the little gear wheel or Actions menu at the top right of the PM.

While we’re talking about private messages, let’s address the problem of those folks who don’t seem to know the difference, and post what should be private messages right there on your timeline for everybody to see.  Depending on how you have your timeline settings configured, “everyone” might include your mom, your boss, your minister, your ex, your children and even the public. After this happens to you a couple of times, you’re likely to be scurrying to those settings (click the three dots to the right of “Activity Log” on your timeline page and select “Timeline Settings”) to make changes to who can see friends’ posts on your timeline or to prevent anyone else from posting on your timeline altogether.

There are plenty of warnings out there to be careful about what you post in the “public areas” of social networks, but it’s a good idea to remember that just because you’re having a one-on-one private conversation, that doesn’t mean there are no rules. Following a few simple PM etiquette guidelines will ensure that your friends don’t groan when they see your smiling profile picture pop up in a little circle on their phones.