It's best to think of social media as a big, unstructured, somewhat goofy party where you can hang out with your friends. Most rules of parties apply to social media, to wit: if you want to have a good time, be friendly, be funny, listen to others, and share ideas and thoughts that interest people. If you get maudlin, haughty, dramatic, hyperactive, mean, self-righteous or sloppy drunk, people will quietly drop you and move to more interesting circles.
Here's the other thing. Unlike most parties, you're being tracked. Even on sites where you can delete comments after the fact, it's best to assume that what happens on social media stays on social media... FOREVER. So one of the first DO rules for social media is:
THINK BEFORE YOU POST. "What's on your mind?" "What's happening?" "What are you looking for?" Social media sites are programmed to tempt you to answer these questions. You might throw caution to the wind and answer any question you're asked, or vomit up any old stray thought for others to read. You also might down a bottle of Everclear and then try to drive your dad's vintage Ferrari; both are equally stupid ideas. Remember, your parents, your grandparents, your girlfriend/boyfriend, your future employer or your kids could be reading what you write (and making associated judgement calls about your sanity). So rev up your brain and take a minute to think about how your dashed-off comment could affect you and others -- not just now, but for a long time down the road.
In the same vein, KEEP YOUR PRIVATE INFORMATION PRIVATE. To paraphrase Ben Kenobi, "You don't need to see my identification." You need not provide all the information every social media site requests. Frankly, it's none of Facebook's business what your address, cell phone number, birthdate or voting preferences are. Even if the site itself doesn't use this information to market to you (yeah, right), Facebook and other sites are notorious for having accidentally released sensitive user information to the public in the past. So give them only the sparest of details to establish your identity. You aren't the droids they're looking for.
CHOOSE YOUR FRIENDS WISELY. On most social media networks, you will get friend requests from complete strangers. Helpful hint: you don't have to add them as friends just because they requested it. My personal rule on Facebook: if I've never met you in person, I reserve the right not to add you as a friend. (Hey, you're probably awesome. I just want to verify that face to face.)
ASSUME YOUR PRIVACY IS ONLY AS SAFE AS YOUR LEAST CLOSE FRIEND. I've seen people post their new mailing addresses and telephone numbers in their status feeds on Facebook, with the idea of "Well, only my friends will see it." WRONGO. First off, social media sites have sometimes released private information to the public, so you can't count on the site itself safeguarding everything you write. Second, I want you to stop reading this for a second and go over to Failbook. Read some entries, laugh, then think about how easily some goofy thing you wrote for the benefit of your online friends could be reposted offsite by an angry frenemy looking for revenge, or a clueless friend who has no concerns about anyone else's privacy. Yeah. Be careful out there.
PART WAYS QUIETLY. The time will come when you must decide to unfriend, unfollow, or otherwise dissociate yourself from someone in social media. Do it quietly, without comment. Chances are most people won't even know you've gone, especially if they have gobs of friends (after about 50 it gets hard to keep track of everyone). If the person you've unfriended notices your absence and wants to know why you've gone, explain privately and simply. Try for honesty without bluntness: "I'm trying to get away from online politics" is more well-put than "If I see one more post from you about Candidate X, I'm loading up and heading for the clock tower."
This is a bigger list, for reasons that may become obvious. DO NOT do any of the following on social media:
SHARE TOO MUCH. This isn't just an issue with social media; we have gone from being a nation of reserved and laconic individuals to a country of people pressing TMI on everyone they encounter. The occasional recipe posting or "Standing in line for the midnight showing of RHPS -- can't wait!" is fine in small doses, but you needn't (and shouldn't) describe in detail the travel adventures of every foodstuff to brave your alimentary canal, relate and rate your latest sexual escapades, or explain where and how many times you pooped in the last 48 hours. I don't care if you're the freaking President of the United States -- nobody wants to know if you woke up constipated this morning.
SHARE TOO FREQUENTLY. This is a tough line to draw -- some people use social media sites more frequently than others, and some social media sites such as Twitter encourage more frequent use -- but using the TLAR method (you know, "That Looks About Right"), I'd say if you post more than 10 status updates in a 24-hour period, you need to lay off the caffeine for a while. Same deal if you have to comment on every status update you read (yes, as an unrepentant snarker I've been guilty of this behavior). Spamming your friends' message feeds with reposts, shares and comments is more annoying than endearing, so take it easy.
SWEAR LIKE A SAILOR. I don't know how much more bluntly I can put this: using foul language doesn't make you sound like an adult. It does make you sound boorish, stupid, infantile and thoughtless, so if that's the impression you're going for, don't let me stop you. But if your status updates are so peppered with F-bombs that your friends and followers practically glow in the dark, you are going to lose some of them. Just FYI.
POST CRYPTIC CRAP. You know the kind of updates I mean, the one-liners with no attendant explanation: "I knew this day would come." "Can't believe that just happened." These aren't so much tantalizingly mysterious as they are signs you're being a high-maintenance dweeb. Look, if you work for the CIA, you can get away with murmuring encoded phrases to shady contacts from a park bench somewhere. But make yourself understood online.
MAKE PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE ANGSTY COMMENTS. "If I don't get at least 10 replies to this post I'm deleting my account." Bye! There's also this common trope: "Filled with despair and ennui. Cannot elaborate." Fishing for sympathy much? If you really don't want to explain why your life sucks today, don't bring it up on social media in the first place. Instead, call your most trusted friend, your pastor or your shrink and talk it out in private, the way such conversations are supposed to be handled.
MAKE IT TOO EASY FOR STALKERS AND BURGLARS. "Here's where I'm posting from!" So load up and come find me. "I'm having fun on vacation!" Then your house is empty.
STAGE YOUR ROMANTIC BREAKUPS. I can't possibly emphasize this too much. If you're initiating the breakup, do it in person, or if you're too chicken for that, in a live telephone conversation. After the initial emotional storm passes, you may let people know you are single via social media. You don't need to explain why. If people really want to know all the gory details, they will ask; you may or may not choose to inform them privately of the circumstances surrounding the breakup. But do not make it into an ugly, public mess -- that's not what social media is for, and it will almost certainly come back to haunt you.
ASSUME SILENCE IMPLIES CONSENT. Unless you have an extremely insular group of family and friends, not all of them are going to agree with every religious/political/artistic/ideological item you choose to share. Likewise, not everyone relishes a chance for intense public debate over these subjects, especially if the debate quickly degenerates into childish squabbling and name-calling. Please be careful which groups you choose to publicly label as stupid, evil, sub-human, or otherwise hateful -- you may be pinning such epithets on beloved family members and dear friends all unawares, and they may never reveal the hurt and damage you've caused.
TAKE ONE ONLINE COMMENT TOO SERIOUSLY. Despite my sage advice, many people just blurt out whatever they think on social media without putting it through the Stupid Filter first. Sooner or later, someone is going to say something that cheeses you off. Give that person the benefit of the doubt; it may pass quickly with no harm done. But if he or she continues to act like a jerk online, quietly silence or remove that person -- you don't have to put up with crap forever.
FORGET ABOUT REAL LIFE. I'm not the only person to have noticed that social media has, for some people, become a substitute for engaging with the real world. One of the saddest things I see on social media is a teen or young adult wailing in a status update: "I'm so bored! Someone message me!" LISTEN: You are young only for a short time. You have few responsibilities now, much more free time than you'll have later in life, and the world is full of potential adventures. Don't spend this part of your life waiting around for someone to entertain you. Go out and find the amazing. Then, if you have the time, you can talk about your adventures online later.
This post is a work in progress. As I pinpoint more dos and don'ts of social media, I'll add to this entry; to that end, I'd appreciate your thoughtful comments on the subject.