An Autistic Guide to Facebook

A few years ago, I believed that social networking sites were nuisances which I was forced to join when too many friends send me invitations. I later realized that:

  • With photos and names listed explicitly, I can keep track of my friends even when I have trouble with names and faces.
  • All the background information of my friends are available for me to reference.
  • Friends provide updates with which I can use as a context to reestablish contact with them where necessary.
  • All my online communications are recorded and available for me to plan my next social exchange.
  • Social exchanges in real life are simplified and emulated on Facebook. For instance, pokes can be likened to a brief touch on the shoulder.
  • Unlike in real life, I can maintain total control of the impression I create via my own profile and what I choose to share.

 

Contrary to my previously mistaken views, Facebook is not meant to share information about personal developments or conduct debates on technical topics. Using Facebook merely to conduct social research or simplify social interactions only utilizes 30% of its potential. Most people use Facebook to supplement their social life and image. Facebook can help project a positive image to attract like-minded friends, romantic partners, and even potential employers or business partners. It is the online equivalent of the clothes and accessories that we wear.

Some people use it to project that they are fun-loving and social, others project themselves as religious, family oriented, professional at work or concerned about social issues. My own style is to project intelligence, confidence, independence and concern for social issues. In the process of projecting their social image, people update friends on what is happening in their lives.

A social image is formed from every bit of information, image, video, link, statement or comment on the Facebook page. These create an impression which reflects on the Facebook personality of the person. The name of the person and the profile picture are especially important since they form the first impression of new visitors. For instance, a picture of a lady with minimal makeup and wearing plain clothes, carrying her newborn baby, plus lots of postings about cooking recipes and housework, will project a family image. An image of a man wearing leather jackets and sunglasses, riding a bike, and lots of posts about bike racing and engines, will project a motorbike enthusiast image.

Maintaining an image requires some work, especially to trim “weeds”. Social weeds are things that are not congruent with the desired image – if you are projecting yourself as a studious scholar and someone tagged a photo of you partying wildly and badly drunk, that is a weed which must be removed to maintain your studious image. Poor management of social images, such as politicians posting racist comments or a student posting sexually suggestive pictures, can cause a lot of trouble.

 

Even if you are careful to avoid planting weeds on your Facebook page, other people may plant weeds for you. This can come in the form of inappropriate comments on your Wall, unflattering photos tagged to yourself and even mentioning private information that you do not wish to reveal to others. Each person has different tolerances to weeds and different definitions of what is a weed. The unspoken basic Facebook etiquette requires one be aware of this “image” process at work, and be mindful if one is adding a weed or “herb” (desirable contribution) to the page.

As people are not psychic, they are forgiving if you accidentally post a weed once in a while, especially if you have posted a lot of herbs compared to weeds. A herb could be a supportive comment, a flattering photo, or even likes. However, do be aware that blind mass-liking implies a blind obsession of the liker and can be experienced by the Wall owner as a form of stalking. My Filipina friends are experts at planting herbs and avoiding weeds, while mainstream politicians are experts at projecting a professional image. Both types of people are the golden standard of Facebook social interactions that I model myself after.

Although you may have posted weeds on other people’s pages, they will not be making a big fuss unless it is a serious weed or privacy invasion. They are unlikely to bother to waste the time and effort to write to you to provide feedback. However, if you are a persistent weed poster, they will escalate their reaction discreetly rather than openly. This is because most people prefer to avoid such unnecessary confrontations which will not only damage real-life relationships but also waste their effort and make themselves feel upset. Hints that you are posting a weed include removal of your comments, non-replies to your comments, limitations to your ability to post and unfriending you.

[Do remember that the rule with dealing with NeuroTypicals who assume that you are aware of the social impact of your actions, is to focus on their actual actions rather than their words. For instance, if you send a message to a pretty lady to ask to know her better and she does not respond to you even after she has posted on her friend’s wall, then you can be sure she is not interested in you. It is very rare for a NeuroTypical to state their social intention openly as this can potentially damage relationships and make the other party lose face.]

 

Posting on a Facebook page is much like visiting a person’s garden and leaving something there. Even though the garden is a semi-public place, it is also part of the home (i.e. personality) of the owner. As such, this is the “territory” of the owner and the social rules regarding personal territory applies. One of the rules is that the owner has the right to set “house rules” about who and what is allowed to be there, and the norms of permissible behavior.

It is not up to the visitor to question the owner about the house rules. Rather, if the visitor disagrees with the house rules, he or she could visit another garden instead. The exception is, of course, if the owner launches an emotional attack on the visitor on his or her own Facebook page. According to the social rules, this is an open invitation for the visitor to respond if he or she is allowed to access the offensive comment.

Asking the owner to justify his or her house rules is considered a breach of the unspoken social etiquette. Firstly, this can be interpreted as a challenge to the authority of the owner. Secondly, asking for a detailed explanation imposes costs on the owner – time and effort spent on an unproductive activity that he or she could spend on other matters. This shows insensitivity and is thus rude.

Although we may choose not to use Facebook to portray our social image, your online image already exists once you are on Facebook and will influence your social relationships in the real world. Although you may not use the concept of weeds and herbs on your own Facebook page, do be mindful that many other people do. Otherwise, you will not be making many friends on Facebook.

 

Here are some recommendations for people with autism on how to use Facebook:

  • Social Policy Manager: Determine how you want to portray yourself. Set what you want to share and what you do not want to share, at the level of your friends, friends of friends, your network and the whole world. Determine what kind of friends you like and what kind you don’t like. Then implement these settings into your real life. Model your real life social activity and policies based on what you have set on Facebook.
  • Experiment with Socialization: Facebook offers you a simplified version of actual social interaction between people. Experiment with your new social strategies with your Facebook account first, then implement it in real life.
  • Collect Social Intelligence: Facebook can provide the information that we can use to initiate conversations. We can also use Facebook to substitute for some real-life socialization, for instance, to comment on our friends’ developments and to inform them about our updates.
  • Learn from other people: Study the Facebook profiles of your friends and see how they interact with their friends (including what photos they choose to share). This can provide invaluable social insights.
  • Find valuable contacts: Many people use Facebook to find new employees, interns, volunteers etc. Showcase your achievements, projects, resume and dreams on your profile and you might catch someone’s eye.
  • Avoid chatting: Online chatting is highly distracting to people like yourself, who have difficulty with multi-tasking. Focus on posting photos, writing articles and contributing comments.
  • Stay away from Games: They are designed to make you addicted. There are many more important things to do in Life than playing such games all day.