Wednesday 19 June 2019

Don't Be a Jerk: How to Respond Responsibly on Social Media

We’ve all been there. Someone you follow on social media shares something that concerns or alarms you. You wonder if they’re safe. You want to respond. Reach out. Check everything’s OK. We’ve all been there because we all care.

Ironically, that’s how Fran and I met. I say ironically because we never would have connected if I’d not got it so spectacularly wrong. I posted a ridiculously inept comment (“Flooding light and love into your world”) on the Facebook wall of someone who was in acute distress. Quite rightly, Fran — who I’d never met until that moment — called me out on it. I don’t believe my comment added to the young woman’s distress, but it might have done. At best it was naïve and unhelpful.

What might I have done instead? I might have kept silent. I might have found better words. I might have messaged the woman privately, as Fran did, rather than post my words on her wall for all to see.

Here are my top tips for responding responsibly on social media.

If It’s Personal Keep It Private

If you only take one point away from this article let this be the one. Yes, social media is meant to be social. Yes, it’s tempting for a whole heap of reasons to share our thoughts, advice and suggestions with the wider online community. HOWEVER, it’s not always appropriate to do so. If what you want to say is personal, it’s better to go private.

Whatever the social media platform there will be ways to contact the other person privately if they wish to be contacted. Facebook has PMs (private messages), Twitter and Instagram have DMs (direct messages). If you have the person’s contact details there’s also e-mail, text (SMS), or a phone call.

Respect Other People’s Privacy

It might not be possible to contact the person privately. You might not be friended or following one another. They may have a private account. They may even have blocked you. It’s frustrating, but going public or taking steps to circumvent the other person’s preferences or privacy settings is neither cool nor clever. It’s actually pretty low. Just don’t.

Watch Your Words

Words are powerful things. Consider the impact yours might have on the person you’re addressing and anyone else who might see them, especially if you don’t know them personally. What seems obvious or reasonable to you may not be viewed by others in the same light.

Check Your Ego in at the Door

Take a moment to ask yourself why you want to comment or respond at all. Are you adding something positive to the online community, debate, or conversation, or is it more about you? Will it help someone or is it about boosting your ego as an expert, helper, advocate, or fixer? Are your intentions kind in heart and mind? It’s not always about you.

Respect Yourself and Your Reputation

Disagreements and misunderstandings can escalate quickly on social media. People tend to take sides to support those they know and care about, while others like to fan the flames for their own reasons. A stray remark or inappropriate act on your part might badly affect your credibility, reputation, and standing in the online community.

Thanks but No Thanks

Sharing is part of the social media landscape but don’t assume you’re doing the other person a favour by sharing their content more widely than they intended or are comfortable with. This is especially relevant if you have a significantly wider following than they do. It’s unlikely to be an issue if you simply pass on a link they have shared, but might be if you broadcast something personal they’ve chosen to share to a particular audience.

Sometimes the Past Is Best Left in the Past

It’s not only current things we need to think about. Facebook’s Memories feature reminds us of things we shared in years gone by, or that other people shared if we were tagged in them. Take a moment before reposting historic items. You may cherish the memory but others may have reasons for wanting to not remember. If you have the slightest doubt, ask first.

If You Mess Up, Fess Up

There’s a great quote by American-Mexican comedian Louis Székely (a.k.a. Louis C.K.):

When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.

If you get it wrong — and we all do from time to time — apologise sincerely and immediately. Delete your tweet, post, or comment if asked to or if you feel it might limit the damage. Don’t make things worse by trying to justify what you did or why you did it, or (worst of all) denying you caused harm or upset. It may be unintentional but you don’t get to tell someone they shouldn’t be upset by what you chose to do.

We Are Not Amused

If you’re a fan of The Simpsons you might recall Krusty the Clown attempting to excuse an offensive remark:

When you look at me like that, it’s a joke.

If your comment or contribution misfired don’t try and pass it off as a joke, even if you intended it to be amusing. Accusing other people of being thin-skinned or having no sense of humour won’t win you any favours. “You know it was just a joke, right?” is crass and ignorant. You can do better.

A Gift Freely Given

It is nice to be thanked, but offer your contribution as a gift without strings and with no expectation of reward. The other person doesn’t owe you a “thank you” or an explanation if they’d rather not follow your suggestions, especially if they didn’t expressly ask for help or guidance.

Stay Safe

It’s one thing to respond responsibly, but what do you do when others fail to behave well? If you come across inappropriate or irresponsible behaviour there are steps you can take to hide or report the content or the person posting it. Options vary from platform to platform but are likely to include muting, reporting, unfollowing / unfriending, and blocking.

Facebook: What should I do if I see something I don’t like on Facebook?

Twitter: Safety and Security

Instagram: Privacy and Security (includes Reporting Content You Don’t Like)

LinkedIn: Safety Centre (includes What do I do if I see abuse?)

You might want to take it up with the person directly, of course, but whatever you do keep yourself safe.

Keep Caring

The online community can be an amazing and incredibly supportive place to hang out, and we all have a responsibility to keep it that way. Think before you post or respond, but don’t let a healthy caution stop you reaching out to someone in need.

Bear in mind that there are no absolute rules. What might be right or acceptable to one person in a particular situation could evoke distress or harm in another. Honest mistakes are always going to happen because we are human. But with a little forethought we can reduce the risk of causing upset or doing harm.

I find it helpful to remember that behind every social media account there is a real person doing their best.



  1. This guide is really helpful to remind us about Social Media etiquette- more people could follow these rules!

    1. I appreciate you taking the time to comment, thanks. Was there any one bit you found especially useful to you?

  2. Very good advice. Social media would be a friendlier and more pleasant place if everyone followed these policies.

    1. Hi there, thank you so much for your comment. I'm glad the article resonates with you!

  3. A very good article. I know I've been guilty of not thinking enough before I post something trying to express my sympathy and support, not finding anything which doesn't sound trite or cliche. There are expectations for immediate responses which are worth refusing and ignoring, and sometimes, no matter what you type, it may be read in an ironic/sarcastic head voice - which just goes to prove, it's not about you!

  4. All of this is excellent advice.

    1. Thanks, Lydia. I'm glad you found it helpful.