I was sharing my coffee shops analogy for social media spaces, boundaries, power, and negotiating our personal digital networks recently and the person I was talking with asked me to write it down do they could, in turn, share it with some people they thought it might help. So here it is.

I should acknowledge up front that I owe a lot of how I think about social media to scholar danah boyd. She’s brilliant and if you are feeling overwhelmed or unsure about navigating your online spaces I found that her It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (Yale Univ. Press, 2014) was super helpful, even though I’m not a teenager.

It’s also important context that although I have been on social media 2.0 type networks since they truly emerged in the mid-2000s I have never been a major player. My public reach has been modest and for whatever alchemical reason born of intersecting privilege and chance I have never had major harassment issues despite being a queer woman who says a lot of stuff online. So my coffee shop analogy is very much about navigating a more interpersonal digital public where many or most of those you interact with on platforms like Facebook or Instagram or Twitter are people you also know (or knew) in some capacity offline: at work, at school, at church, in the neighborhood.

A few years ago, the new president of my library decided she would make a Twitter profile. Our previous leadership had not been that into social media but my institution has a couple of popular Twitter accounts and I was involved in helping to run one of them at the time. So I was part of our president’s orientation to Twitter etiquette and norms. And at one point, early on, she asked my permission to follow my personal Twitter account.

The first thing I did was thank her for asking. My account is not locked. It’s always been tied clearly to me, including the me that works at the Massachusetts Historical Society. I do follow and am followed by co-workers. I interact as me with our institution’s social media presence. Many bosses would see this as fair game, no permission required. But she asked for my permission. And while I think she was probably surprised when I asked to think about my answer she accepted that request graciously as she did my final answer which was: no.

And the coffee shop analogy was how I explained my “no”.

Imagine your favorite local coffee shop. One a wide variety of people in your community (however defined) use. One day you might meet a close friend for lunch. Another you and two colleagues grab coffee. On Saturday you and your bicycle crew or games night group meet up. While you’re at your table with your chosen mates for that particular visit, a myriad other visits are burbling along in that same space. You might overhear some amusing tidbits. You might drop by the table of an acquaintance on your way back from picking up your coffee and ask after their foster kittens or admire a new outfit or whatever. But you haven’t been automatically invited to plop down at they table of any group in the shop and weigh in on their conversation just because you bought a latte at the same place. And they aren’t entitled to that either! Maybe you’re having a conversation about writing erotica with your friend who also writes fic. Your boss happens to stop by for lunch. It’s fine if they wave from the queue or probably even stop by to say hi on the way to their table. It would be weird and uncomfortable if they insisted on sitting at your table every time you and they crossed paths at the coffee shop no matter who you were talking with and what you were talking about.

This is, as an aside, why I don’t follow current co-workers whom I supervise directly (have power over); I also don’t pay attention to if they follow me or not (they are free to do so). Power has a role here. Especially if you are in a context where you might need to decide about following/friending people you have power over IRL (as their teacher, professor, therapist, pastor, boss) have a personal policy about what you do in general and always make saying no a meaningful option for any person who may worry that not giving you access will make them vulnerable.

So when you’re thinking about being online in a social media environment, and responding to interactions from those in your social networks — from friend requests to a Facebook post response to the appearance of someone in your Twitter thread — it could be helpful to think about your interaction in the context of a coffee shop. Your Facebook post, your Twitter timeline — that’s your table at the cafe. You get to decide whom you invite to that table day to day, and what you make visible at that table to a wider audience. Some conversations might be more open than others; maybe you’re purposefully setting up a table to sign people up for an activity or maybe you’re having a long catch-up with a close friend. Those are two different kinds of table uses. The entire coffee shop doesn’t have a right to access your table, every table, and plop down to participate in every conversation.

You have tools (imperfect, usually, but still available on most platforms) to help you signal and manage which tables are more open than others. And if someone intrudes on a table where you don’t want them it’s okay to disinvite them. I often acknowledge with a digital wave of some kind (a heart, a like) that someone I know has interacted with a photo or an update I’ve posted — but don’t feel the responsibility of responding at length to each and every interaction. I’ve blocked rude and noisy strangers, immediately and freely, who treat my table at the coffee shop like because I’m sitting in public they can invite themselves to have their morning coffee in my space: Nope, sorry (not sorry). My timeline isn’t for you, no matter how public my profile is. Dudes on Instagram who think they’re gonna get some sort of private chat going with me (very visibly gay married?) are summarily deleted. Marketers who think my cat photos should be monetized instead of enjoyed by friends have their comments deleted from my posts. Your table at the digital cafe is yours.

Just like in offline life, some of those interactions are likely to be delicate or fraught — there’s gonna be a colleague who thinks they’re closer friends with you than you do, or someone from church who is simply more social and would invite every person they knew who stopped by the coffee shop to their table. But think about how you navigate those situations in your offline interactions and you’ll maybe be surprised how many of those offline tools and intuitions can be mapped from offline to online spaces. The ethics are not wholly a thing apart.

Anyway — hopefully that analogy helps! And hopefully someday we’ll be back to those cozy, eclictic coffee shop afternoons where I can go read my book and write and wave to the occasional friend who swings by for their afternoon pastry.

Coffee at the Blue Star diner, Roslindale Village, pre-pandemic.