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Cyber-proof your relationships!

Then you are one of millions joining the global online social networking revolution. But there are unwritten rules to follow and pitfalls to avoid to keep your friendships intact.

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It is important to strike a balance amid the social networking frenzy around you

When a close friend of mine broke up with her boyfriend, I knew maintaining a relationship with both of them — he also happens to be a friend — was going to be a social minefield. What I hadn't seen coming was its online implications. When she knocked him off her facebook list, he understandably took it as a personal affront. His point of view: "Why do we need to cut ourselves off from each other's lives completely and publicly like this?". Her's: "I don't want him to have access to my current life, photos and interactions with friends, and possible future boyfriends."

Both had valid points, but what this brought to light more than anything else, was the Pandora's box of issues and dilemmas that any new social phenomenon opens. The public-ness of these forums present some unique problems.

Finding ex-girlfriends presenting ‘virtual flowers' to your partner could raise some insecurities which are probably without any substantial basis — and would never come up in the real world. When a Harvard University student found "other women's whispers on her boyfriend's wall were damaging her relationship," she made the smart choice of keeping her relationship and dumping Facebook, instead of the other way round.

According to Harvard anthropologist John Michael Norvell, people always had ways to telegraph their relationship statuses even before the days of social networking. "While Facebook invented neither unions, nor breakups, nor the gossip that surrounds them, the site makes chatter faster and more public — two aspects that may have an impact on interpersonal relations," he says.

Spreading like wildfire

That online networking sites are changing the way we communicate and interact with people in our lives is a given. There is no escaping it, whether it's keeping up with celebrities on Twitter, or finding long-forgotten high school friends on Facebook.

There are currently 250 million registered users on Facebook — which is the most popular of such sites at the moment — with its usage having gone up by a whopping 699 per cent since April 2008.

A recent study by Nielsen Online has revealed that the amount of time people in the US spend on social networking sites has increased by 83 per cent in the last year. Interestingly, a survey by market intelligence firm Synovate found that the UAE has the second highest rate of membership of social networking sites in the world, after Netherlands and ahead of Canada and the US.

However, according to research from Sheffield Hallam University, these sites do not help to make more genuine close friendships, even if they do allow people to increase the number of casual acquaintances. According to study leader Will Reader, "Although the numbers of friends people have on these sites can be massive, the actual number of close friends is approximately the same in the real world. People see face-to-face contact as being absolutely imperative in forming close friendships."

Relationships one-on-one

Even with your closest relationships, an easy trap to fall into while you keep in touch on a daily basis via social media, is to forget that you are probably failing to engage at a meaningful level. As Jamia, a Dubai expat who recently went through a difficult patch in her personal life, observed, "I know what my best friend is doing practically every minute through Twitter, Facebook, Orkut, what have you… I know what she's cooking, what she's listening to, where she's going on the weekend, all the little things, but where is she when I really need to talk to her? When it comes to the big things, I feel further away from her now - in spite of all these different means of communication - than ever before." So it is key to not let the deceptive closeness that communicating on such a frequent basis can offer create a greater distance in relationships.

Clinical psychologist and family therapist at The Art of Family Consultations Center (04-4230777), Eman Al Amari, says, "Socialising through websites happens in a completely different way from face-to-face communication. When people communicate electronically, there is no real human contact. Physical appearance and genuine feelings are not present, and these are very important for emotional and psychological development in inter-personal interactions. While balanced social networking can be helpful for healthy psychological development, it becomes a negative when it replaces the normal way of socialising and mingling."

But there are many benefits to the ways in which social media sites have changed the way we communicate. "When used in a balanced manner, such means of communication can help people form a big circle of friends and learn more about what is going on all over the world," says Al Amari. "It can be very helpful for people who want to develop professionally by networking, and allows us to connect with people in different countries without the need to travel."

Nahida Shahbal, a professor who teaches sociology at the American University of Dubai (04-3999000), says, "Because of these websites, information on any event that affects society can be disseminated immediately, whether it's swine flu or Michael Jackson's passing, and we all get to voice our opinions."

"It is also an efficient way of getting multiple answers to questions," adds Al Amari. Whether it's informal postings of job openings on status updates or asking for opinions from different people for research, sites like this help to spread the word in one fell swoop. This is why marketers all over the world are increasingly switching on to social media as the next big thing.

My favourite aspect of social networking sites is the way they make the world a much smaller place, helping us get back in touch with old friends we never thought we'd hear from again. True, there is the school of thought that says, "If we lost touch in the first place, there was probably a reason for it!" which is where the argument of smart usage comes in. At the end of the day, it is up to you to be in touch with whom you want, share exactly as much or as little information as you want, and stay as private as you want.

Striking a balance

Used correctly, it can not only be great for reconnecting with people from your past, but can also serve as an easy way of connecting with people who matter in your life on a regular, constant basis by sharing your day-to-day activities, photos and videos — little things that tend to get lost with physical distance and the cumbersomeness of more traditional means of communication. But for all the benefits — both for inter-personal relationships and professional networking — that social media offers, there are downsides as well.

Here are some dos and don'ts to help make the most of these sites and avoid cyber-suicide:

Do use it for networking

Notice how many companies are now asking you to find them on Facebook or Twitter? It's a great way to not only promote a business or project, but also help break the ice with professional contacts. Especially in these difficult economic times, social media offers a free and useful tool for career networking. You can find and connect with people in similar fields, post your employment history and credentials, and also find opportunities through former friends or classmates that you may have not been in touch with otherwise.

A word of caution, though, studies have shown that employers are increasingly using social media sites as a research tool for background checks. So, be very careful of what you put up there — and how you manage your privacy settings. No matter what your professional accomplishments are, having a potential boss see your wild, unhinged photos on your best friend's hen's night wouldn't do your career any favours!

Don't become an addict

A survey by market research firm Mintel found that more than 50 per cent of adults in Britain now spend more time online than they do speaking to friends and family.

The constant stream of information on such sites is what can make them addictive. According to Nancy Baym, a University of Kansas professor of communication studies, "Compulsive Facebook use comes down to the fact that there's a continuous dribble — every time you go on, something has changed. So it's like a continuous link of hanging out in the halls with your friends between classes or hanging around the water cooler at the office."

"Uncontrolled use of the social networking sites can negatively impact people's ability to effectively communicate with each other," says Al Amari. "Excessive use can also lead to developing a sense of dependence, which has serious disadvantages such as becoming socially isolated and not involved in genuine relationships."

Do keep yourself relevant

It may be tempting to get into the habit of letting the world know what you're up to every single minute of the day — and many people do. A recent study revealed that 40 per cent of Twitter updates were pointless babble. Don't go down that road — you'll only end up sounding inane!

It's important to not only sound smart and sensible on your own page, but to be careful about reacting and commenting on your friends' updates and current events on the site as well. Only say something if it is relevant, interesting or adds any value. Avoid knee-jerk reactions, and think through all the implications before you post something. After mulling over something for a while, you may find that your initial reaction was perhaps unnecessary and irrelevant.

Don't forget it's a public forum

We've all seen it — partners proclaiming their undying love for each other on their profiles; the mean friend recalling an embarrassing childhood story; spouses discussing this week's grocery shopping on their respective walls. Just remember that there is something called Too Much Information!

Shahbal says, "Society has become a lot less private with so many details of our lives accessible to others. However, some things need to be kept personal and civil. Most social networking sites allow you to send private messages. Use it. Posting messages on someone's wall is the equivalent of shouting to them from across the room at a crowded party."

Also remember to use your discretion when using the photo and video sharing facilities. Choose carefully which pictures to put up on the site and which ones to share privately between a few people. Bear in mind that some people might not appreciate their personal photos being up there for everyone to see, so remember to check first if it's OK — and again, make use of the privacy settings so you can limit the number of people that can access your albums.

Do be careful of what you put out there

As with most things on the internet, there's only so much security. So be smart about what sort of information you are sharing. Al Amari advises limiting exchange of personal information electronically and using websites that offer a safe environment to interact. "Common sense and moderation is the key when it comes to online interactions," she says. Needless to say, information such as your residential address and bank account details are no-nos.

Don't let it ‘young you down'

Remember, it is not a popularity contest, and simply a means of staying in touch. So don't just keep adding ‘friends' to your list to increase the numbers. Another possible pitfall of getting back in touch with people from your past is slipping back into familiar roles with say, your school friends. Don't lose perspective of the fact that it's probably been decades since you last interacted, priorities have changed, everyone has moved on with their lives — or at least they should have — so let go of old issues and act with maturity and dignity.

Don't be insensitive

It is important, especially in this part of the world, to be aware and respectful of cultural sensitivities. Shahbal says, "Don't post items that might be taboo, such as pictures that can be considered in bad taste. If you feel that something would not be accepted in casual conversations with other people, then you probably would not want them to stumble upon it on the internet. Social norms, values and different aspects of culture still need to be observed and respected."

Sensitivity is also key when it comes to inter-personal relationships. "When we are typing on a computer, we can become unaware or irresponsible in regards to our audience," she adds. The same rules as those of e-mail and text messages apply — when you are typing instead of speaking, things often get misinterpreted. And if it's happening on a public platform like a social media site, the issue just gets compounded. The solution? Always be nice, and never under-estimate the value of direct communication when it comes to discussing important issues. There's nothing worse than hiding behind the internet when it comes to doing your relationship dirty work, whether it is breaking up with a boyfriend, or arguing with a friend. In such cases, always talk to them in person.

Our top five sites

Facebook: Currently the most popular site, mainly because of its user-friendly features, democratic style (users are often involved in site redesigns), and good security features. It is also the fourth most trafficked website in the world, close on the heels of sites like Google. Facebook Lite has now launched, which operates more along the lines of Twitter, with short status updates.

MySpace: This is the site that pioneered the social networking revolution. It attracts a more fickle — and mostly young — audience with superior user experience.

Twitter: A relative newcomer, this micro-blogging site takes off from the concept of status updates, focusing mainly on: ‘What are you doing right now?' While the one-liner ‘Tweets' offer a quick and easy communication forum, it can lend itself to inanity.

LinkedIn: This site is focused on professional networking and is a good place to build and stay in touch with work contacts, find people in your industry, post an online resume and also create a cyber identity for businesses.

YouTube: This video-sharing website is changing the world of entertainment, one clip at a time. A great way to keep up with the latest events, share personal videos with friends, or find a platform for your talent.