A brief guide to social media friendship etiquette

When Tim Berners Lee invented the world-wide web in 1990 I don’t think he, or any of us could predict the huge changes it would make to the way we communicate and live our lives. The internet has shifted the basis of some fundamental relationships. With the growth of online social networking what does it even mean to be a ‘friend’? Personally I’m a bit confused.

The dictionary defines a friend as

• A person you know well and like, and who is not usually a member of your family

• A person you know, like and trust

• A person with whom one is allied in a struggle or cause; a comrade

• One who supports, sympathizes with, or patronizes a group, cause, or movement.

So when someone you don’t know declares their friendship online, what do you do? It’s not very friendly to ignore or reject someone, but then again is it ok to assume a level of intimacy by asking a stranger for friendship in the first place?

So to help me navigate round the world of online friendship I’ve set some basic friendship criteria.


Twitter is a bit of a free for all, anyone can follow you and you can follow anyone. However, just because you are following someone on Twitter doesn’t make you friends. It’s the online equivalent of living in the same town, you have some common interest and Twitter is just a mechanism to allow you to more easily know about people doing the same stuff.

If, on Twitter, we chat, share links, share ideas and build some rapport we could be heading into friendship territory. We may even meet face to face, either at an organised Tweetup or networking events or a 1:1 meeting. For example great to connect with @commutiny recently and @ycharity at the Institute of Fundraising’s First Thursday last week. So once there is some specific contact we could be in a position to be ‘friends’ on Linkedin.


This is a professional network, so linking to people in your industry, people with shared professional interests including headhunters and job seekers. I love Linkedin, but just because you work in the same industry as someone you can’t assume you are ‘friends’. Sending a generic introduction ‘indicating you are friends’ if you are not – is not OK. If you work in the same org/industry and want to link to someone then that’s great, but put a line in your introduction, like ‘ I saw we are on the same group, work for xxx company and it would be good to talk about a project I am working on’ – or similar.

Declaring friendship with someone you do not know is the equivalent of rocking up to a stranger at a business conference and treating them with the intimacy of a long-lost friendship with a big hug and kisses an a reference to weight gained/lost. If you have not established any relationship before it feels uncomfortable and frankly weird.


Now onto Facebook; a lot of organisations use Facebook as a corporate site and a lot of companies are doing a really good job of building communities of loyal customers, engaging them with product development, getting feedback and gaining insight.

However, I use Facebook to link with my friends. Real life people who I know. Facebook is great for sharing photos, keeping in touch with friends overseas, finding long-lost friends and stalking ex’s (apparently).

Seriously, you have to know me to be friends. Just because we went to the same school 20 years ago don’t assume friendship, and if it’s a bit of a tentative connection give an explanation when you invite me to be your friend.

My Facebook rule is ‘If they turned up at my house on a Sunday afternoon would I invite them in for a cup of tea?. If the answer is yes, then we can be Facebook friends.

If you are using Twitter, Linkedin or Facebook to build communities, donor or customer relationships, have a think about friendship etiquette. This is especially important for communicating with those born before 1990, because it’s a new skill. They didn’t grow up with the internet. Before you send a friend request take a moment to consider how the person you are befriending will feel about your request, it may be that there is a better way of communicating with them to get the result you want.

I’m not saying my view is gospel, but it’s helping me navigate in a way that feels right for me and importantly does not dilute the importance and meaning of offline friendships.

What do you think?


19 responses to “A brief guide to social media friendship etiquette

  1. Lucy,

    Pretty much agree with you 100% here. Your criteria match mine pretty closely. I’m also a de-friender meaning that if you gain entry into a social network of mine but never speak to me (on or off-line), you will be on a purge list after 12-18 months. I want to be able to answer the question, “how do you know this person and what do they do” for everyone in my LinkedIn address book. I’m also much more flexible with Twitter than any other platform.

    Thanks for a good blog post.


    PS. I’m born before 1990! 🙂

  2. Thank goodness getting a LinkedIn ‘So-and-so has indicated that you are a friend’ request when, in fact, you’re really not, can freak someone else out as much as me! At least feign a business route and I might be more inclined, but honestly probably not – my approach to LinkedIn is to link to people I think are good at what they do and I have worked with, but sometimes politeness can get in the way.

    As for Facebook, mine is on lock-down, is used for exactly the same purposes as yours Lucy, and I like the Sunday afternoon cup of tea test. Facebook is personal, LinkedIn is business – and twitter is somewhere in between. It was certainly interesting to see last night how many of my esteemed colleagues were watching eurovision….

    And as for the 1990’s, I was at Uni then… Blimey.

    • I was at Uni too in the 1990s. I remember asking my housemate what email was. (blush) and I love Eurovision (double blush!)
      Glad that I’m not alone in my friend criteria – sometimes I wonder if my memory is really really poor because I don’t remember someone – and then I realise that I have never actually met them….. thanks for your comments – appreciated. Lucy 🙂

  3. Yes; there is more with the”inside” etiquette: for example when re-teweeting, one needs to quote the inital link finder.

  4. I’ve found I’ve met a lot of people through Twitter, who I’ve gone on to meet face-to-face – either at an event or because we chatted so much on Twitter, we arranged to meet for a coffee – who have then become Facebook friends. I really enjoy the openness of it and the fact that the majority of people I connect with through it seem to be like-minded. I’m much more fluid about who I follow or follow back on Twitter than I am on Facebook and LinkedIn, but that’s because I find Twitter so much more dynamic and rewarding.

    If I’m honest, I don’t enjoy much about LinkedIn. It’s useful as an online CV – I use it often to check into backgrounds and credentials of people I might be thinking about working with, or who may have contacted me by email or on Twitter with an enquiry or about an opportunity, or to decide whether to follow someone back on Twitter, if they don’t have much bio info – and assume others use it to check similar things about me. It’s also somewhere to keep up to date with the careers and job-moved of people I know, or have met, on a professional basis, who may not be on Twitter or who I don’t know well enough to friend on Facebook. I find the discussion threads in groups – where there are any – tend just to be people trying to market themselves, their company, their products or services in a way that doesn’t add much value or feel very much like an authentic conversation, and I find the prevalence of the invitations to connect, from all kinds of random people, very spammy and a bit cheap.

    Facebook – I agree – is a place to connect with people you would invite in for tea! Which reminds me, I keep meaning to remove the ‘friends’ there that I don’t really speak to and wouldn’t want to share my biscuits with! ;D

    • Thanks Rachel – I see you as a bit of a Twitter guru so not surprised by your preference. Totally agree re the Linkedin groups and discussion threads – I often feel bombarded. Take heed random people trying to Linkin – you need to build a relationship or introduce yourself at least.

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  6. Great post about Friending Netiquette. I agree that Twitter is a free for all. Facebook and LinkedIn should be reserved for people you have actually met in reality. NetworkEtiquette.net

  7. Thanks Lucy for these great thoughts – and I love the decision making process – would I invite them in for tea (or in my case coffee). It’s very much in line with my decision making process as well. About a year ago, I started getting friend requests on Facebook from people I hadn’t seen since third grade. I accepted the requests, but a few weeks later went through and reversed the process. After xx 🙂 years, there really wasn’t a connection anymore.

  8. FundMark Solutions

    Good thread, Lucy! …about time someone shared their views on best practice of social media engagement. I have used these platforms since 2007 to demonstrate potential for my clients to engage with their supporters and created separate IDs for my personal networks, albeit, some of my personal networks are also curious about my business engagements and connect with my public platforms too.

    Facebook has become my main feed for my website which I use to publicise updates on information, primarily of interest to charities and/or philanthropy networks, with little personal data published, although some of my personal networks tag me &/or post messages, mostly from childhood networks that have found me on my public pages. I don’t accept any invitations from unknown contacts, including friends of friends….

    Linkedin is used to track information/trends and/or engage with groups of interest to my network, e.g. mostly fundraising, marcomms and/or philanthropy groups, including all groups for the Institute of Fundraising. I rarely accept invitations from unknown contacts and only do after a vetting process. Amazingly, I have secured contracts for consultancy assignments through this platform, but only after a thorough due diligence process which included several face to face meetings.

    Twitter is primarily used for broadcasts of interest to charities and/or philanthropy networks and as evidence that this approach works for my followers – most lists I appear on include me under their charities listings and many whom I don’t know nor likely will ever meet personally, as many of my followers are global subscribers. I regularly monitor new followers and will block them if they do not appear to be consistent with my main followers interests and/or appear to be tracking my network for personal marketing benefit, e.g. irrelevant suppliers and/or MLM networking….

    So for me, these platforms help me and my contacts/followers to engage with relevant communities and share expertise – which actually proves the six degrees of separation theory….arrived in the UK in 1990 – born decades before….

    • Thank you for your comments – interested to know that you, like some others who have commente,d have a system of ‘spring cleaning’ friends. I too will adopt the same policy!

  9. Great post Lucy & v useful feedback. I’ve always instinctively ‘introduced’ myself only to people I genuinely know, then been taken aback by some of the approaches to me, particularly on FB. Found LinkedIn v useful for work contacts and been introduced to new people there via my own contacts, as you would at any networking opportunity. As you said, you wouldn’t throw your arms around a stranger at a party (ok, there are exceptions to that!) so why would you think it’s ok to do it online! I’m big on manners, me!

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