We’ve all been tempted—you’re digging through a box of old stuff and find an outstanding photo from high school that captures your best friends in a… hilarious position. You want to throw it up on Facebook, tag your friends and caption it with a string of hilarious insider-joke emojis….
But first, take a moment to consider this—future Michelle might not want all of her new friends to see high school Michelle’s hilarious antics. She might be trying to move on from that sort of behavior, and she probably doesn’t want her co-workers to know that she used to x, y or z. In fact, she might consider your post an invasion of privacy.
So how do you have fun on Facebook without alienating your friends?
A group of researchers from Australia, Singapore and the United States studied how embarrassing your friends on social media can affect relationships—and it’s not good. Sung Kim, professor at the UW–Madison Wisconsin School of Business, Ben Choi of the UNSW Australia Business School, Zhenhui Jiang of the National University of Singapore and Bo Xiao of the University of Hawaii–Mānoa examined two important factors—whether or not the friend in the post was tagged and the level of shared friends in their networks.
The researchers found that posts with tagging resulted in a higher level of perceived privacy invasion than posting only. That means it’s okay to post a picture of an old friends but tagging them in that photo could actually damage your relationship. (And you shouldn’t creep your S.O. on Facebook, either.)
“People who are using social media should be aware of how their posts can affect relationships, particularly with the use of tagging,” said Kim. “It helps to be mindful not only of the content of your posts, but the potential size and reach of their audience.”
A joke among friends it one thing, and a joke in front of a group of strangers is… well, really embarrassing. The researchers found that posts are more troubling when when the parties involved have few shared friends. In this case, tagging expands the audience in a way that further heightens the feeling that their privacy is being invaded.
“Our findings suggest when you tag people in an embarrassing post, it may be seen as friendly teasing or shared enjoyment when you have a large number of friends in common,” said Kim. “But it looks very different when you do that with an audience that doesn’t know the both of you and can leave the target of the post feeling hurt or humiliated.”
There is one exception: When there’s a high number of shared friends though, it can change the nature of the interaction, making it seem less invasive and more along the lines of friendly teasing.
The study also looked at how a target might respond to a perceived privacy invasion. Not surprisingly, in those cases where there was a strong feeling of privacy invasion, embarrassed friends withdrew from discussing their exposure—but they weren’t dramatic about it. They were reluctant to completely avoid future contact by “unfriending” the person or reporting the action to Facebook, possibly to avoid direct—or public—confrontations.
So if you want to stay close to your friends IRL, think carefully about the way you represent them on social media.
“As privacy issues tied to online exposures become more common in social media, people should take care to think about what they are posting and how they are posting it in order to make sure they are not sharing an embarrassing moment in a way that can be seen as hurtful to a friend,” said Kim.
Marguerite Darlington has worked in digital marketing and media since 1999, supporting brands like The New York Times, The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, The University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Wisconsin School of Business, Jessica Simpson, ALDO Shoes and various independent entertainment properties. She joined Twin Cities Public Television as Rewire Director in June 2016.