Some Thoughts on the Nature of Obligation in Social Media



I used to work at a summer camp. Every once in a while, we would receive a phone call from someone asking if we had any tent or RV sites available that night/weekend. We would politely explain that, no, we are not that kind of camp. Most of the time, the caller would totally understand, and the call would conclude reasonably.

There was one exception, though, that I still think about sometimes, as an example of the absurdity people will reach in their beliefs on social obligations and communication.

This lady, when I explained that we were not that kind of campground, got in a sort of huff, and sounded clearly annoyed in her tone. She then explained to me: “Your website doesn’t say you’re not that kind of campground.”

This struck me as noteworthy, for two thoughts —

1) The fact that she apparently checked our website before calling, and to such an extent that she felt comfortable speaking as though she had browsed its entire contents, yet still arrived at the wrong conclusion as to what sort of place we were, is remarkable.

2) Can you imagine, just imagine, how ludicrous it would be if it were generally expected and thought to be rational that we should have to note every Thing We Are Not in order to clarify What We Are? To put it concretely: Our website did not say we were not a doctor’s office, either. Or a pet shop. Or a restaurant. Or a colony on Mars. Or a figment of the imagination of a four-year-old chimpanzee kept by an eccentric businesswoman in Guatemala. Am I crazy to think we shouldn’t have to say such, in order for a site-browser to assume it? The leap from “their website does not explicitly say that they’re not a comic book store” to “I actually believe that, because of this, they must be a comic book store” seems rather incredible to me. Alas.

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People tend to have an overinflated sense of self-importance. I am sure I am no exception. I think it is healthy to view stuff like Twitter and blogging and video games as “y’know, this is ultimately meaningless, but if I or others get some harmless enjoyment out of it, that could be okay I guess, but I don’t place any expectations on it.” Hopefully, anyway.

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This morning, I received this DM on Twitter.

Yes, there is some context that I have omitted. No, it would not help this person’s case. Nonetheless, I will summarize: I retweeted something, something that was not even my tweet, and something that ended in a winking-face emoji. This person took my retweet to indicate a serious interest in the subject matter, and tweeted me a few times about it, and sent a few DMs as well, before I could give a response. This is all fine so far, of course. An innocent misunderstanding.

The eyebrow-raising swerve happened when I thought I had politely explained basically, “Hey, thanks for getting in touch, but I do not actually have a serious interest in the matter. Have an excellent day.” A typical exchange could have ended there, or with a trade of “oh my bad” followed by my “oh no problem!” But instead, I got the response I have shown here.

Now, okay, obviously, this is still basically harmless, not a huge deal. But I think it is worth voicing the reminder that, on Twitter, you do not owe anyone anything.

I don’t owe you a follow, a reply, a shout-out, even an acknowledgement as a response to anything you do. As for what I do, I don’t owe you any labor, explanations, content labels, or editorial consideration.

This goes for everyone! Don’t let people think they’re your boss when they’re not. It’s super weird, and indicative of behavior that, in face-to-face interaction, would likely be found not only awkward, but not exactly conducive toward making anyone want to hang out with you ever again. Which, hey, it’s not like it’s illegal to be cringey, but I don’t have to accept your input either. Lord knows I’m way awkward enough on my own.

Here, let me put it this way.

If you feel as though I have somehow shorthanded you in an interaction on social media, this feeling is a result of your overblown sense of its significance — not a result of any failure on my part.

Just like the people who hunt me down to ask why I unfollowed them, who fail to grasp it’s because I realized they were the type of person who ask why people unfollow them, treating me like I owe you something has the *gasp!* opposite result they intend: I am less likely to give you anything, time or effort or attention altogether, when you pull that crap and treat me that way.

Try this exercise: Imagine me, saying to you, “Your interactions with me on social media are not important. I can definitely do without them. They have no real priority in my life. Ignoring you would do me no harm, and paying any attention to you is a frivolous indulgence, not a necessity.”

If any part of that bothers you, you may have some soul-searching to do! Good luck in that, for what it’s worth.

It’s skin-crawlingly bizarre that someone I don’t know would think they are seated in such a place of authority over me that they actually believe they can dictate what my messaging “should” be like. As though I should take this seriously, like, “oh, yes, please forgive me — here, I will label all of my future joke tweets as jokes, just for you, as I would just hate to have to receive another DM reprimand from you.”

Do you want me to do something for you?

Then make the request appropriately, preferably within the context of an existing relationship (friends have reason to do more for each other than strangers would, right? crazy!), and without the assumption that I owe you anything.

 

Or pay me to do it. Paying me to do something could work well. I would totally treat that as an obligation.

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