Boston Marathon Bombings Brings to Light Social Media Etiquette Issues

Etiquette experts weigh in on social media activity during national tragedies.

ByABC News
April 17, 2013, 6:19 PM

April 18, 2013 — -- Following the news that two explosions had gone off near the finish line at the Boston Marathon on Monday, Colby Christopher, 29, saw his Facebook Newsfeed become dominated by news of the tragedy. But amongst the photos and posts about the victims and injured, there were a few others about everyday Facebook things.

"I was scrolling through my Newsfeed and shaking my head in disbelief at other's lack of awareness," Christopher, who is originally from Boston, told ABC News. "Uploading your spring break photos Monday evening while others are mourning, I'd say is just poor form."

Christopher wasn't alone in feeling that insensitivity. While most Twitter and Facebook feeds were dominated by the news, some continued to post their usual status updates, raising questions about social media etiquette and what is and what isn't appropriate to digitally talk about during a national tragedy.

"There are no concrete rules about these things, but you want to think about who it is affecting, how many people, the scope and scale before you share and as you move into sharing other things," Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Mannersmith and author of "The Etiquette Book," told ABC News in an interview.

Smith, who was just six miles from the explosions in Boston, said that with this particular event she'd advise people to consider who their followers are and what coast they might be on, but also what their social media communities are talking about and focusing on.

Dan Post, author of "Manners in a Digital World" and the great-great grandson of etiquette expert Emily Post, suggested something similar.

"Being aware of the larger context in which you are talking and all the general guidelines of traditional conversation can apply here," Post told ABC News. "I wish we had a good solid answer -- that after six hours or 10 hours -- but really a lot of it is about making judgment calls and good choices, particularly when feelings are running so strong. I'd just apply some discretion."

Sylvie Barak, who lives and works in Silicon Valley, is one of those people who used discretion. While she wanted to share something about her excitement about Israel's Independence Day, she held off. "I thought about my audience right now and I knew it was mostly people in the U.S. at that time," Barak told ABC News. "I thought it wasn't appropriate to force that on people right now and I held back."

RELATED: Boston Marathon Bombing: The Waves of Social Media Reaction

Ultimately Barak didn't share anything about Israel's Independence Day because by the time she thought it would be appropriate the holiday was over. Neither Post nor Smith had a hard-or-fast rule for when returning to regular social media talk or sharing happy or upbeat items would be appropriate, though Smith said that within 24 hours certainly seemed appropriate.

Post also suggested that some might find it appropriate to share other news or updates, but that doing so with some context would help. "If there was something I wanted to sing off the rooftops or be enthusiastic about, I might hold off," he suggested. "But maybe you go back to the business of the day, you just adjust the tone and how you are excited about it."

But there's another part to the puzzle, and that's the part of knowing that the conversation and posts will eventually return to normal. Smith suggested that if you were personally impacted by the event, it would make sense to remove yourself from social media services, since you can't control what others do post.

"Heaven forbid someone I knew was impacted, then what I need to do is remove myself from social media, because I can't be upset about seeing someone at a doggie park. Not everyone's life comes to a grinding halt," she said. "You can put yourself into a place of protection and healing by turning off the Facebook feeds and the news."