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A girl is yelled at by her parents, dumped by her boyfriend, and thinks she might be pregnant. Then a “friend” posts on her Facebook page “Get your shit together.” She feels like she cannot handle life.
A depressed, chronically ill, disabled person posts TMI (too much information) on Facebook about how he doesn’t know if he can take another day. A “friend” responds that he should stop being negative all the time. The comment makes him feel worse.
These are just a few examples of how we are impacted by the Internet Age.
As educators and parents, teaching children correct online behaviour is daunting. We are floundering around, unsure who to listen to. We know how to teach “please” and “thank you.” But how do we teach written respect?
Why do we need Internet Etiquette?
Ask my teenage daughter how it feels to be happily drawing in your room, then suddenly feel as if you’ve been punched in the stomach because someone called you a slut on Ask.FM.
Recall the last time you opened an email to suffer some kind of verbal attack on you or your work.
Ever regretted something you posted on Facebook in anger?
The Internet allows us to react in real time to whatever hurts us. Our instinctual responses to attacks are not always appropriate in a civil society. The consequences can be far-reaching depending on who we offend. (Your boss. Your mother. Your child. Your best friend. Your spouse.)
Who even determines the rules of Internet etiquette?
A quick search brings up over 12 million hits. Each one, an attempt by someone to impose some manners on our fledgling social media experiences.
Most sites cover the “technical” rules of etiquette, such as who to include in an email reply and how you should not type in ALL CAPS.
I am more interested in the rules of engagement.
What happens between people on an emotional level when they communicate through the Internet?
How can we be effective, sensitive, and ethical on the Internet?
What kinds of manners should we teach our children for interacting with the world on the Internet?
The beginning is near
To date, the Internet has been a free-for-all of trial and error as we navigate our new, ever-evolving world where technology permeates our lives in ways we never imagined.
After all, the Internet is new for anyone over the age of 30. We lived through the change. We watched one reality crumble and another reality emerge. A new reality where information can be found at the touch of a button and you need not lose touch with anyone ever again.
Enter the global community, where mainstream media (television, newspapers, radio, billboards, flyers, and snail-mail newsletters) is not our only news source anymore. We have live, real-time photos and video of police brutality, Egypt’s uprising, and bullied teenagers leaving video-recorded suicide messages.
Reality television is replaced by citizen journalism.
Facebook. Twitter. Youtube. Google. WordPress. Blogger. Hotmail. Yahoo. These are a small sampling of what’s out there. We have countless ways to get our messages out and connect with one another.
The opportunities are unfathomably endless. For people like me, who constantly bubble with ideas and find the world around us fascinating, this has been a wild ride that promises to be more of the same.
The Internet entered our lives in a sudden and violent way. We became unwitting guinea pigs of the new age. One day my reputation is dependent on what I share in public physical spaces; the next day a drunken overshare on Facebook could cost me my job.
Some say “It’s not the real world.” They are wrong. If it wasn’t the real world, it wouldn’t make us cry. It wouldn’t make us angry. It wouldn’t impact other areas of our lives. Social media interaction is a part of daily life now. Real life.
Sure, there are holdouts – people who resist making social media accounts even if they are starting to use search engines and email. I get their reasons for holding out, but at some point they need to understand that Facebook has become a part of the fabric of our society. To engage in today’s society – to understand it – you must participate in social media.
Facebook is not the first corporation to infiltrate our lives. In fact, any product that is commonly referred to by its most highly advertised brand name rather than what the product actually is (Kleenex, Saran Wrap, Kraft Dinner, Advil) could be considered a part of the fabric of our society.
However, never before on such a wide-spread scale have we started questioning things like: What’s in the food by those brands? How is our food made? Outside of providing our products and services, what else are these corporations doing?
We find the answers to our questions on the Internet. It offers us: Unlimited learning. Real time connecting with people all over the world. Finding lost loved ones. Writing about our experiences, opinions, and feelings.
If you’re a critical thinker, like me, the Internet is your favourite toy.
Breakthrough or downfall?
Some people criticize how the Internet has affected people’s egos, allowing us unlimited ability to share TMI (too much information) about our personal lives and post selfies (photos of selves taken by selves). Critics say “The world has gone to hell in a hand-basket;” “No one connects in person anymore;” and “People have become anti-social.”
I perceive it very differently.
I see mothers, who have been traditionally very isolated, conducting intelligent conversations with other like-minded women, as well as instigating and leading revolutions. I see people suffering from depression reaching out for support and encouragement. I see change-makers coming together for different causes, making the world a better place.
Best of all, I see knowledge exchange. We are learning from each other at a rapid rate.
The Dark Side
I’m not blind to the dark side of the Internet. People telling each other to “go kill yourself.” Relentless online bullying among teenagers (and adults). Cyber-stalking. Identity theft. Reputation destruction. Animal abuse on film and more.
There is a dark side. And it includes how we talk to each other.
My concern about how we talk to each other is what inspired me to write this post.
What makes me an expert?
At forty-one, I am an Internet Age veteran. I rode the wave through one of the most transformational eras in human history, if not THE most transformational. My kids have never known anything different. For them, there’s never been a world without the Internet. They take for granted that they have friends across the oceans and have connected with celebrities personally.
I never knew a life without television, which might be considered the most influential propaganda machine ever invented. But a moving screen in your living room with talking heads is nothing compared to a global community designed for connecting with others and exchanging knowledge.
I lived through the Internet’s emergence. I knew the world before it was flipped upside-down. I remember “manners” before malicious emails started dropping into our inboxes. I recognize both the dark side of the Internet and celebrate the potential of a connected global community.
I was trained in media relations before social media took on an ever-present role in our lives. As a frontline support worker, I was trained in conflict management, de-escalation techniques, addictions, trauma, and the complex role of mental health.
Communicating effectively is my specialty.
At the core of Internet etiquette is the realization that on the receiving end of every message is a human being. Fallible. Emotional. Deserving of dignity and respect.
Remembering this simple truth puts things into perspective. The Golden Rule today is: Deliver a message the way you would want to receive it.
To that end, here they are…
The Rules of Internet Etiquette
1. Do not post about people’s deaths
How would you like to find our your father died by seeing a post by someone else on his Facebook timeline? That’s exactly what happened to my brother when our father died. A family friend who lived in the same city posted an RIP message before we were even contacted by our step-brother.
Err on the side of caution. Let a family member be the first to announce a death in the family.
2. Do not post about people’s health
Health is a sensitive subject. Most of us only share our serious health concerns with select loved ones. I should have thought of this when I posted an interesting article on a friend’s timeline about her health condition. She was kind when she asked me not to do it again, that she preferred her privacy on that issue. Understandably so!
3. Do not post semi-nude or nude photos of people without their permission, even if they post their own sometimes
Allow others to determine whether potentially-sensitive photographs will be shared on social media or not. The subject of the photo should have the choice and the power over sharing of sensitive images.
4. Do not send uninvited nude photos of yourself
Ignoring the obvious dangers of sending a nude photo (such as having it shared widely and your reputation damaged), there is the reaction of your recipient to think of.
Most people do not open a message expecting to see dicks or labia. The sheer shock impact is disrespectful. Some may be more than shocked. They may feel offended, violated, even assaulted for being forced to view an image they did not choose to view.
Save those sexy shots for someone you can trust, who will appreciate your photo. Someone who has indicated to you that he or she wants to receive your perky pics.
5. Do not post about being wasted or doing drugs
It’s no one’s business. It can give people the wrong impression of who you really are. It makes you appear weak. People will take you less seriously.
However, a joke about drinking wine or an article about medical marijuana is fully, socially acceptable. Think before hitting “send” or “post.”
6. Curse only when absolutely necessary
Cursing excessively is a huge mistake.
First of all, it makes you appear immature. Some will even assume you are a teenager with a potty mouth. If you want to be taken seriously, refrain from over-using curse words. If you want to inspire trust and command respect, refrain from over-using curse words.
Secondly, the less you curse, the more effect it will have when you use it. There is a time and place for cursing. Sometimes a thought cannot be authentically expressed without including a curse in the delivery. Using curse words is a surefire way to emphasize a point you’re passionate about or to add weight to a serious announcement.
Save your curses for those special moments when no other expression will suffice.
7. Do not send malicious or angry emails
Sending a malicious private message or email is one of the most abusive, unmannerly, cowardly things you could possibly do.
No one deserves an emotional punch in the stomach just for logging onto the Internet.
If you work with the person, save your criticism for the workplace. Deliver it face-to-face.
Don’t be a coward, hiding behind your computer screen. If you need to say something critical to someone, do it in person.
By delivering your message in person, you are forced to deliver it with respect. You are forced to face the person you are criticizing. You are forced to witness the impact of your words.
If you’re a decent person, try to find a way to deliver your message kindly. In that case, you may even be able to send it by email.
8. If you say on social media that you’ll do something, do it
You’re moving at the end of the month. At the last minute, the people who promised to help you back out. In desperation, you turn to Facebook posting a request for friends to volunteer. You need one truck and a minimum of three people.
Three friends offer to help and one of them has a truck! Seeing that you got the help you need, no other friends offer…
The problem: Two of those “friends,” including the one with the truck, are not known for being reliable. Neither shows up on moving day.
This could have been avoided if the unreliable friends refrained from offering to help. Others, who are reliable, would have come forward.
When someone asks for help on social media, and you post publicly that you will help them; follow through, because you wrecked any chance they had of getting help from someone else.
9. Don’t post photos of other people’s children
There are kids in your child’s birthday photos whose parents you don’t really know. They aren’t in your social media networks. How about the kids at the playground climbing the same monkey bars as your child in the photo that you took?
Many people do not realize that everything you post gets archived. There’s no such thing as erasing a photo or comment permanently.
Parents have the right to protect their children’s privacy. If you don’t have their permission, cut the other kids out of the photo or don’t post it.
10. Don’t post bad photos of your friends and if they ask you to remove a photo, do it
You might think your friend looks fantastic in the photo you posted. But it is not a photo of you. It is a photo of your friend, so give your friend the respect of removing any photo requested of you.
11. Stand up for others
Be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Refrain from verbally assaulting people online and defend them when someone else is doing it.
12. Say sorry
This is probably the most important rule of Internet etiquette. You are human. You make mistakes. You inadvertently hurt people by your comments, or post something that is incorrect.
There is a very simple solution to your indiscretion. Say you’re sorry. Say it publicly. Say it with sincerity. Admit you were wrong. Show your understanding of why you were wrong. Apologize for any offense or pain you may have caused.
Surprisingly, you will earn more respect and people will trust you more if you are willing to admit when you’re wrong and take responsibility for your actions.
A living document
Rules for Internet etiquette are not like the ten commandments. They are not finite and eternal. Just as the Internet is constantly evolving, the rules for engaging respectfully online will also need to constantly evolve.
The rules listed above are based on my own experiences and those I’ve witnessed. I have no doubt there are others that should be on this list. I invite you to tell me what is missing. How have you behaved inappropriately on the Internet? How have the actions of others on the net impacted you negatively?
Social media interaction is a part of the real world that we participate in now. It is not a separate or fake land we visit and then leave. It is about connecting with others. It is personal. And it can be taken personally.
It’s each of our responsibility to learn and teach others how to use this new power for good rather than evil. We must take our newfound ability to engage globally from the comfort of our own homes and use it to make the world a better place.
Here is a brief summary of technical Internet etiquette strategies which will help you appear more professional and ensure a higher likelihood that others will get your message the way you intended it.
- Keep messages short. People don’t like reading long blocks of text, especially if much of it is redundant or irrelevant.
- Check your spelling. Spelling matters if you want your message understood and taken seriously.
- Do not use ALL CAPS. It is the written equivalent of yelling and it’s annoying to read.
- Use the subject line. When you can, include a few words or less to summarize what your message is about in the subject line.
- Check what you say. Anything written online by you can be evidence used against you.
- Use blind carbon copy (bcc) when sending emails to multiple recipients. Many people are sensitive about having their email shared with others, especially people they don’t know.
- Add your name at the end of messages. It adds the personal touch and reminds the reader who is speaking, especially in a listserve or long string of emails.
- Only include relevant recipients when sending or replying to an email.
- Don’t forward personal emails without permission from the original sender.
- Don’t start or forward chain letters via email or social media (Facebook etc). They annoy most people.
- Don’t share personal information such as where you work or go to school, phone number, address, etc. This rule is intended to preserve your safety and security.
- Give credit to the people who originally created any content you are sharing.
- Don’t spam people – over-send or share your message. Post it once. Send it once. Send it only to people who agreed to receive it or who you know to be interested in whatever it is your promoting.
- Lurk (watch what others post and learn the site rules) before posting in a new forum.
Things you may not know about others (IE. trolls) who attack you online
- Just like there are people who are paid to promote an industry (Dairy, Oil, Pharmaceuticals); there are people who are paid to discredit and verbally criticize anyone who expresses opinions against those industries. If you are insulted by a stranger, ask yourself if your original comment challenges the integrity of a corporation or two.
- There is something called “ideological indoctrination” which is the shaping of society through propaganda and misinformation to persuade people to accept as truths ideas that support the continuation of our current political and economic system. In other words, we are told what to believe repeatedly and in different ways until we believe it without question. If you begin to question these ideologies online, you will “put yourself out there.”
- If you “put yourself out there” by expressing a unique perspective or trying something new, you will be judged. Expect it. Try not to take it personally. And please do not let a fear of being judged stop you from engaging in activism.
- Some people really like to stir shit up and cause drama. For peace of mind, unfollow them, block them, or otherwise avoid engaging with them. It is not worth losing your peace.
- If you are being mercilessly attacked in one or more of your social media accounts, shut them down permanently or until you feel safe to go back on them again.
How to check yourself
At any given time of day, we cannot know what another person is going through. How many coworkers would tell you if one of their parents was terminally ill? How many of the moms on the Parent Advisory Committee would tell you if they lost a close friend to suicide recently?
Even your closest friends and family do not tell you everything. Your daughter didn’t tell you she messed up at her audition. Your brother didn’t tell you his wife is talking about leaving him. Your mom didn’t tell you she found out Dad was cheating.
As you can see, devastating circumstances in a person’s life will impact how a person receives your message, especially when your message is unkind in any way.
Don’t do it.
I’m not saying “Don’t write that angry email.” I’m saying, “Write it in a word processor first.”
Editing is your new favourite past-time. It will improve your life dramatically.
Here are the steps to check yourself when expressing a potentially unpleasant message:
- Write your angry message. Say it all. Say everything you wish you could say. Insult, criticize, rant, vent – just get it out. Don’t do it in your email though. You DO NOT want to accidentally send that email.
- Go through the message, sentence by sentence, and re-word every sentence that could be taken unkindly. If it cannot be reworded, delete it.
- Re-read your message and add any sentences that need to carry the story and show respect for the recipient.
- Switch sentences around so that you (1) start with appreciation or acknowledgment of the good intentions of the recipient, but (2) how it didn’t work out that way because… (3) Take responsibility for your part in the situation – perhaps you did not communicate your expectations properly, or you misunderstood the original exchange. (4) Finish the message with a solution to the issue and either ask the recipient to resolve it or let them know you will resolve it yourself. (5) Express a kindness, such as “I hope your day is going better,” (6) add your name, (7) then walk away from your message so you can re-read it and follow these steps again if needed.
- Be sure to use “please” and “thank you” whenever appropriate. Manners should not go out the window because you are on the Internet.
Pass it on
Internet etiquette is profoundly important in this new world we find ourselves in. Instant communication has arrived gloriously and tragically. Our children and grandchildren are guinea pigs in this grand experiment. We were unprepared to prepare them.
If there is a chance for us to redeem ourselves… If there is a way for us to correct our error… If there is hope for a civil global community…
Then we must teach each other how to communicate effectively online. We must find a way to engage our youth in this process. They are our future leaders and innovators. They are our future parents.
If we are to pass down the manners that were passed onto us, then we must define them for a global, connected community.
Mind your manners. Pass it on. #digitalactivism
Tips for Parents and Teachers
I’d like to acknowledge Merlyn Horton from the Safe Online Education Society for inspiring most of the following suggestions.
Workshop / Discussion ideas:
- If you could design Internet etiquette rules, what would they be?
- What are some ways to handle being cyber-abused? How to react? Ideas to avoid making it worse? Ways to protect yourself from the abuse?
- Scenarios – How might you handle this situation?
- Someone you know but don’t really like is being targeted by someone you know who you really do like.
- Someone you know is being targeted by someone you are afraid of. You don’t want them to turn their anger on you.
- You posted something that hurt another person’s feelings and now you feel bad about it.
- People are sending you hate messages or posting mean things on social media about you.
- Someone has sent you a friend request. He or she is friends with most of the people on your friend list so you probably know this person but you’re not sure how you know them.
- Your friend confides to you that she showed her breasts to a boy online and now the boy is threatening to show the photos to her family and friends if she doesn’t do other things he wants her to do on film. What advice would you give her?
- If you were to describe your “self-brand” online, what would you say? (Example: I am very vocal about politics, social issues, and the environment. I also love posting stuff about people doing kind things for each other, or videos of people with amazing talent. My “self-brand” might be described as: activist, rebel, hippy, who loves to dance. Or people who don’t like me might consider my self-brand to be: anarchist, trouble-maker, health fanatic who glorifies inappropriate dance styles.)
- Can anyone share a story about a time they saw a person being targeted online and they defended the person without being mean yourself?
Internet / Gaming Addiction
- Gaming is like music. There are different genres: Roleplay, First person shooter, arcade, etc.
- How gaming can be negative:
- The way people talk to each other online.
- Adults who are very serious about the game talking inappropriately to children who are just learning (insulting them, using vulgar /foul language).
- Sexist – Gamergate – a woman gave a bad review of a game and how it treats women and she was threatened with rape, death and more.
- Study topic: “Gaming for Good” (Ted Talks)
- Study topic: World of Warcraft; World Cyber Games
Getting Proactive: (for educators)
- Build informed citizens – teach coding and how the web works in school.
- Teachertube – sharing curriculum
- Apps that help facilitate communication for kids with ASD who are non-verbal
- Engage youth online to encourage face-to-face initiatives
Things to remember:
- Kids and teens are not developmentally equipped to asses risk and project into the future.
- Many kids and youth are afraid to tell adults about problems they are having online because they are scared they will get their devices taken away. To build a relationship where the kid feels safe to come to you, you must resist “punishing” them for it.
- Be understanding and remember that we all make mistakes. Be tolerant of the child’s mistakes.
- The Internet is not merely a place of danger and addiction. It is also a place of learning, connecting, and building a career. There are wonderful things about the Internet that we should acknowledge and appreciate.
- Exhibitionism is a developmental phase. (example: mooning your friends or flashing your boobs.) But now, exhibitionism is a digital artifact. Public and permanent. This message we must really emphasize.
Our main goals as parents, youth workers, and educators:
- Have frequent, meaningful, value-based conversations with our kids
- Build empathy
- Encourage digital citizenship
- Teach kids how to handle making mistakes:
- Acknowledge your mistake
- Take responsibility for it
- Repair it as best you can