Picasso, On Social Media: “Learn The Rules Like A Pro So You Can Break Them Like an Artist”

We are a species obsessed with abstract rules designed to confuse me. From ancient religious guidelines (I can’t eat meat on Fridays for most of March and April…even if it’s my birthday) to sacred fashion rules (I can’t wear white pants… ‘til May comes around again) and even digital codes (I can’t tweet more than 140 characters…or blog less than 800 words).

There has been a lot of talk during this election season about simplifying the US tax code, but maybe we should start first by eliminating (or at least consolidating) the tangled mess of unspoken—but occasionally subtweeted—rules that Millennials are apparently using to govern social media.


And I’ve already botched it…

As I was preparing to fire my first tweet off into the annals of digital history, I naturally wanted to make a bigger deal out of it than necessary—seeing as how I had a chip to get off my shoulder and a score to settle with Twitter (more on that in my first blog post). My roommate glanced over at my screen and chided me for my ignorance. “What are you doing?” he grimaced, deleting my drafted tweet. “It’s late, man, if you tweet right now no one will EVER see that. You have to post between 11am and 2pm if you’re gonna get noticed.”

But don’t you worry, despite following this advice, I still managed a faux pas as I tweeted TWICE IN LESS THAN TWO HOURS. And apparently I’m lucky not to have lost a significant percentage of my 18 followers, as a result.


In the week since, I have polled my friends—in an attempted digital due diligence—so that I might just survive this crash course in social media. What I found was a convoluted web of widely accepted rules. Ranging from the more obvious “NEVER like your own post” to “never post more than one Insta per day”. I was also promised ridicule if I attempted to use hashtags un-ironically to get follows/likes from strangers or was the first to like the Facebook post of someone with whom I am not bffs.

Interestingly, the intricacy and amount of rules seemed to correlate with the frequency with which we traffic each site.


And as a result, each social platform seems to have taken on a personality of its own—forming a distinct ‘community’ where you can selectively share the approved parts of your life. This became very apparent for me when I joined LinkedIn (last week). I perused the profiles of close friends that I’ve known for the entirety of my time at Boston College, awestruck, as I uncovered strange skills and outstanding experiences that had otherwise gone unmentioned.

In a follow up conversation with one such friend, we mused about the strange segmentation of our digital personas. Facebook it seems is the place to share all of the highs and lows taking place in your life—things that people can react to briefly. Meanwhile LinkedIn is the forum for us to brag about everything we’ve done since our junior year of high school. Often times, this is really cool and interesting stuff. But make no mistake, if you overstep and brag on the wrong platform, (behind their screens) your friends may not be smiling as they give you the obligatory heart or thumbs up.


So where are we supposed to be us?

Surely not Instagram, home to the pretty things that we want to convince our friends we’re seeing and eating ALL the time, aren’t you jealous? There’s a strong case to be made for Snapchat, with impermanent snapshots that could let us actually express ourselves with little fear of retribution. However, it’s fairly evident (as someone guilty of the following) that Snap Stories have just become a pissing match where everyone competes to be seen as having the most fun, drinking the most, or recording their friends doing the stupidest things.

A study from The New York Times Customer Insight Group found that 68% of social media users say we’re sharing in order to give people a better sense of who we are and what we care about. So then do 68% of us really just care about conformance with abstract social rules?

Corporate America seems to be searching for the same answers, at least if Google is to be believed. As I searched for social media guidelines for my personal usage, all I could find was hard and fast rules for social media managers. Twitter and Buzzfeed are full of screenshotted gaffs by corporate social media accounts. Someone’s even co-opted the 80/20 Rule to apply to the type of content a firm should be posting socially.

The pressure is ever mounting for organizations to properly decrypt the rules of social media and satisfy the needs of Millennials. On Twitter, for example, the majority of users expect a brand to properly respond to a tweeted complaint within an hour…


SOURCE: https://blog.bufferapp.com/social-media-stats-you-need-to-know


But what if it didn’t have to be like this?

If we’re going to spend so much of our time on social media, wouldn’t it be nice to at least be ourselves? I’m convinced that the answer is an obvious and resounding yes. (Besides, I’ll never learn all the rules anyway, so I might as well try and get us on the same page.) Strangely, enough businesses might just be the ones to lead us away from all of these rules. At an event during Social Media Week Los Angeles 2016, the two people responsible for YouTube’s social media presence shared several ways that companies can start to break these rules.

The duo emphasized consistency, both across social platforms and to the company’s values. At YouTube, they “try not to jump on trends, just because they’re trends.” Their social team is focused not just on pop culture, but also the slow culture. They really seeking to develop their own angle on social trends and organically build a community around it.

And while this wouldn’t be an immediate transformation, if companies could get on board with this type of strategy, thankfully, it would be a start.


Pablo Picasso one said, “It takes a very long time to become young.” Instead of wasting all their resources trying to understand our rules and cater to all of our whims on social media, companies should be acting their age and trying to teach us—finding new ways to use our tools to amaze and delight us.


  1. adamsmea89 · ·

    I agree that it is ironic that most people claim to post on social media so people can get to know them better, but at the same time they usually post pictures while on vacation / doing something out of the ordinary, or achievements, or something they know they will receiver sympathy for. I never thought about the fact that companies are trying to abide by our rules on social media, instead of coming up with there own…it is an interesting perspective!

  2. Really nice post. I do think there’s a difference between “being ourselves” and following normative conventions that begin to govern behavior in certain settings. For instance, you COULD wear a bathing suit to the office or a business suit to the pool, but that would be violating the agreed upon established acceptable behavior for that setting. It’s not “being yourself,” it’s acting appropriately. Of course, then sometimes we do need to break those rules to make a point or get attention.

  3. I find it interesting your call to companies to act like themselves (obviously not millennials) and teach us the ways. I’m not sure I agree with this. I think millennials are driving change. We are the ones demanding innnovation. It is not the baby boomers that made facebook, instagram, or snapchat popular, it was the young people. While it is inauthentic to always strive to be younger than you are I think trying to think like a younger person does, being open to change, helps new technology come to fruition.

  4. I understand the desire to be yourself on social media; however, social media is a unique chance to put forth your personal brand on your own terms. You can choose how people see you and what they know about you. I happen to have a very strong distaste for the fake lives we project on social media and the contest for likes. All the rules and conventions seem so artificial. However, it makes perfect sense to me that people want to put their best foot forward. Why would I project the bad days onto social media? Perhaps I share only the moments of significance, and as a result there is a selection bias that would make my life appear more grandiose than it actually is. This is a more innocent or naive assumption that we project a fake life artificially, by the design of social media. I think you make a good point here that these rules and conventions are more than something accidental. They are an active desire to be seen a certain way.

  5. emmaharney21 · ·

    I thought this was an incredibly interesting and engaging post. With each point you made I found myself thinking of an example in my personal life. I do think that social media can have interesting effects in our perception of the lives of others and eventually our perception of our own lives. I like how you connected this back to digital business but I think you could expand further on this. Specifically I would like to learn more about what you consider authentic usage of social media by businesses. Does this vary depending on the industry or company? Are there some general rules all businesses can follow to improve genuineness? Are there rules that we can follow? I am not sure I have the answer but I appreciate you generating these questions for us. Great post!

  6. Your post reminded me of this article from last year (https://www.buzzfeed.com/stephaniemcneal/a-teen-instagram-star-is-editing-her-photo-captions-to-show) about how this girl who was “Instagram famous” got fed up with having to seem perfect all of the time, and recaptioned all of her photos with what really was happening (such as, not eating enough in order to get a great fitness shot, or that her candid photos were totally staged). It definitely feels like on Instagram that it can be hard to just be ourselves, we have to come across as cool and admirable. I like how you brought it back to businesses in the end and mentioned how companies shouldn’t jump on trends just because they’re trends. It reminded me of a discussion I had with my group a few weeks ago about how companies feel like they have to jump on every trend, but in reality, not every trend is applicable to their business. Not every business should be trying to incorporate Pokemon Go into their social media posts!

  7. alinacasari · ·

    This was a really great post! I completely agree that the unofficial rules you mentioned do exist. It’s odd too because I probably follow most of them, without even realizing it most of the time. Reading this made me take a step back and consider how many of the unconventional rules I follow- and it’s pretty much all of them. My younger brother is constantly complaining to my mom about how she doesn’t know how to use Instagram correctly because she doesn’t follow the same construct of rules as most younger users. There’s not a real ‘wrong’ way but we seem to think there is.

    It’s really interesting to consider how companies could change this social construct the younger generation has created for social media. I feel like the rules are never going to disappear, but constantly change to account for the updates/shifts on the platforms themselves. For example, I used Facebook in a very different way when I was in 8th grade vs. now as a college senior. Towards the end you mentioned focusing on the slow culture and this seems like the most important part of how companies can teach us. They don’t have to completely adapt to every short trend, but I think they should pay attention to the long lasting slow culture you wrote about.

  8. sandytanny · ·

    You mention really great points that most of us, especially college-aged students, can definitely relate too! I’m definitely guilty of perpetuating these unofficial rules of social media. It’s interesting to realize how these platforms were once so brand new, and innocent, and vast. And we were so young when we started! But as we grow older, and these platforms evolve, they become a part of our own personal brand, one that often becomes so carefully cultivated, strategic, calculated even. It’s a gray area as to what is seen as “authentic” so it’s a interesting discussion to have as more and more companies employ social media platforms.

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