Is one’s digital life a ticket to immorality? The answer is a firm: NO. The internet is public, and digital etiquette must keep this fact in mind. Everything we do on the internet is saved, forever – even if you delete it. We leave traces of ourselves everywhere on the internet. It’s impossible not to; human beings interact with and on the internet. The electronic superhighway is the busiest path in the world.
Most people behave in a neutral manner; but some of us to act in regrettable and offensive manner. For some it seems the putative anonymity loosens the tongue. Others, though, behave execrably as themselves. Offensive comments or stupid logic may upset or even enrage us. Without thinking, we leave a trace of our anger at a popular forum / blog vent in an online chat room or disparage someone in a tweet. In the moment, we are vindicated. That vindication becomes permanent. Even deleting something doesn’t make it disappear.
1. The number one rule of digital etiquette is this: The internet is forever.
Mexican academic Juan Enriquez describes a fundamental shift in our humanity. With so much information about us stored digitally and forever, we will soon achieve immortality. Our online life is a kind of permanent tattoo.
Commit to Making the Internet a Better Place
But this need not be a bad thing. We can also leave for posterity a positive record of our electronic interactions. If we approach the internet as we would a dinner party or get together with old and new friends, we can approach the internet much as we would any other occasion involving people. With dignity and dispassion we can create positive digital interactions; or, at the very least, maintain an air of neutrality.
2. From this comes the second rule of digital etiquette: Treat every online interaction as though you were in public. Treat a digital conversation as you would a real time conversation.
To be a gentlemen online is in every way to be a gentleman in public. While not absolutely true in every instance, it is best to assume that everything you write on, through or for the internet, is public. Privacy settings may ensure that only those with a need to know, know. Privacy settings change. What was once protected, becomes available to all of the internet.
Don’t muddy these waters with circles of family and friends or different groups. We’re already overwhelmed. Don’t make your life more difficult by trying to manage different groups and various privacy settings.
If someone says something on the internet you find inflammatory, how would you act if you were at a party? What if you know your boss/partner/love interest is watching you? Just as you have committed to talking with new people at a dinner party and listening to them with care, encouraging old friends and caring for loved ones, look to do the same with all your digital interactions. Be willing to make the internet a better place.
General Rules and Strategies for Internet Communications
1. The internet is forever.
2. Treat every online interaction as though you were in public.
3. Privacy does not exist on the internet. Emails can be forwarded etc.
4. Approach your digital life mindfully. The fourth rule applies to applications like Facebook and Twitter but also applies to checking email at work (or your personal email, too). Internet gurus love to give rules like only check email two times a day! Check Facebook twice a week! These types of rules may work for you. They may not. The point is to pay attention to the everyday facts of your life and change your behavior accordingly. Are you checking email every two minutes to avoid finishing that report? Are you posting to online forums because you’re bored at work?
You probably know the optimal amount of time to spend on each day before the internet becomes a black hole of lost energy and time. If you spend the optimal amount of time, or a tad less, you will look forward to reading your email or updating your Facebook newsfeed. Too much, and you’ll hate the internet and it may become an addiction. We know when we are avoiding the conditions of our lives. We know when we use the internet to avoid these circumstances. Facing those circumstances may mean shutting off the computer and smart phones and tablets. You know what you need to do.
5. Tone and nuance are difficult to discern through the written word. Body language forms the foundation of understanding another person’s communication. A spirited discussion is all well and good online. Without those visual cues, though, things like irony may be quickly lost on the reader. A simple comment becomes misconstrued. People scorn one another. And down to the sewer goes the conversation.
6. As you are committed to making the internet a better place, use your real name. Create permanent interactions you can be proud of.
7. Offer helpful suggestions, articles, uplifting stories, an article or two from Gentleman’s Gazette. You want to be seen as an all around nice guy and a gentleman. Let others create the wit and snark.
8. Never post anything about your work except when it is positive, such as when you want to congratulate on receiving a promotion (and of course, you’ll send a handwritten note, too). Posting negative comments may get you fired or deter future employers from hiring you.
9. Don’t excoriate, humiliate, embarrass, mortify or shame others.
10. Never attempt a difficult conversation by electronic means. Unless the other person has threatened to harm you physically, have the hard conversation face-to-face.
11. Don’t post pictures of other people without their prior consent. Even then, today they may yes, but tomorrow they may have destroyed your friendship and hound you to remove the photographs.
12. Call with personal news. Don’t post about a death in the family or other personal news on your facebook wall or twitter feed.
13. This is so significant it bears repeating: Like the real world strive to make the internet a better place. Etiquette suggests you leave thoughtful comments. You need not agree with the article. How would you disagree with someone in real time? Find a way to exhibit the same attitude and approach through your words. Make your digital immortality significant and memorable.
Specific Rules and Guidelines
For more specific example of online etiquette, I put together overviews of Forum etiquette, Email, chat as well as Social Media Etiquette that will help you in the long run.
- Read through the forums rules and guidelines before posting your question – often you are not allowed to do certain things or specific things are not allowed.
- Use the search function – someone may have answered your questions before. If not, endeavor to post your question/comment in the correct area.
- Use a title that speaks to your topic (i.e. help! isn’t helpful; Help! My wordpress site has been hacked is better).
- Don’t hijack or derail a forum conversation by asking off-topic questions or posting off-topic comments. Don’t double-post the same message in one thread or post your message across several forums.
- Don’t use caps. It’s the electronic equivalent of shouting.
- Don’t post huge GIF or jpeg files that take forever to download. If possible provide a link to the GIF or jpeg image.
- Keep you signature concise.
- When replying to a comment in a forum thread, quote only as much as is necessary. You waste people’s time by quoting the entire comment. We’ve already read that one, too. We don’t need to read it again.
- Watch both humor and tone. Irony and sarcasm, for example, can be difficult for native speakers to understand, let alone a non-native speaker.
- Use the direct or private message feature to have conversations be had in private.
- Don’t promote your business, unless there is a specific area in the forum where it is appropriate to do so.
- Offer helpful comments or information where you can.
- Work to smooth over differences between commenters, if possible. Private email or IM (instant messaging) – rather than the public, forum thread – may be the best methods of communication for working out problems. Strive always to be a peacemaker.
- Email is ubiquitous. Remember to mind people’s time.
- “To” and “CC” are not the same. For the you want or need a response from, enter their name or names in the “To” field. The “CC” should be used when you don’t want a response but want to keep a person or people in the communications loop. The “BCC” field may be used when you want to inform someone of your communication, but do not want the people receiving the communication to know you have informed the person in the BCC field. You may also use the BCC field when you send an email to a number of people without revealing their email addresses. It is not appropriate to share people’s email addresses without first seeking their permission. Also you would use this option for personal emails only.
- Learn to distinguish between “Reply” and “Reply All.” Unless you are 100% sure everyone in the email list wants to read your response (or even should), choose “Reply.” Otherwise you contribute to everyone’s already too full email inboxes.
- Email is not the forum of writing a missive. Where possible practice the five-sentence email. Make your most important points in the first one-three sentences. Use the fourth and fifth sentences to ask pertinent follow-up questions or make requests (Please respond with three solutions by noon on Tuesday).
- Keep it structured, otherwise people will not reply to all of your questions.
- If you realize the subject of your answer is different from the original subject, change the subject line. Better yet, send a brand new email, with five sentences.
- Response time. How quickly you respond to work email may be dictated by your company’s expectations and culture. Whenever possible, answer no more than once or twice a day. The rest of your work day should be spent working: If you work in sales, making calls and visiting old and new clients; if you work in research, research, create and perform experiments, and so on. Then wedge email into no more than 30-45 minutes per day. This goal may be accomplished with the 5-sentence email. For personal email, no more than once or twice a week. You’ll cultivate an air of mystery (especially if you kill your facebook and twitter accounts) by not being so readily available.
- Like the forums, mind your humor and tone. Neither translates easily to the written word. Email provides no opportunity to judge body language, voice inflection and other non-verbal cues we rely on to communicate.
- Angry or denigrating responses need to be delivered in person. Never send them by email. Email lasts forever, and, it can be forwarded forever. Assume everything you send by email can be seen by anyone. While you may be able to deny you had a condescending tone, it is impossible to deny a condescending note. Cleave to the facts and keep your tone professional.
- Praise and congratulations may be sent by email at any time.
- If your use the high-priority flag or words like “Urgent” in your subject line, and do so frequently, your messages are neither high-priority nor urgent. Part of functioning well in a work environment is learning to discern urgent from important. If everything is urgent, then nothing is urgent.
- Those emails full of jokes your brother-in-law sends you, the ones you know others may find offensive, don’t forward those to anyone at your job, for any reason. That also goes for defamatory or libelous emails. Email is never private. Assume that your company is monitoring your email and internet viewing activity. Keep a separate, free (gmail, yahoo, etc.) for private or personal communication.
- Provide useful and helpful information in your signature. Your direct telephone line, fax number and company address are excellent choices. Don’t overdo it because people won’t find what they are looking for.
- Your emails are a reflection of you. Check your spelling and always read your emails before sending them. We can type much more quickly than we think; sometimes we even manage to complete a sentence with two disparate thoughts. Take an extra minute or two to make sure everything is correct.
Instant Messaging Etiquette
- Technically, an instant message and a chat room are two different forms of communication. Yet they share certain similarities, which is why I combine them here.
Instant messaging is a form of real-time communication online between people who know one another. Google chat is now ubiquitous in the U.S. and is often used in corporate environments.
- A chat room is a form of real-time communication online between many computer users, who may not know one another. Neither email nor forums are real-time communication. They are both asynchronous.
- Instant Messaging on the job. Be respectful of someone’s status. If the person says they aren’t available to chat, don’t send them an instant message. Just don’t it. If they are available for chat, ask them if they are still available to chat. We get busy at work and forget to change our status.
- Treat this form of communication as public. Your employer owns it. While a cat video link is probably okay, your visit to the nude beach in Thailand isn’t.
- If you need to leave before the IM/chat is finished, it is customary to write “brb,” which is internet-speak for be right back.
- Say thank you when you are done.
Chat room etiquette
- Introduce yourself when entering. If you are new to chatting, say so. Customarily it is impolite to lurk. It is okay to say you’ve joined the chat without a specific need or agenda and will watch the chat quietly.
- Excessive punctuation, ALL CAPS and foul language are never a good idea.
- Acronyms are more acceptable, but stick to familiar ones.
- When you ask a question, give the moderator a few minutes to answer. Most of us multi-task while chatting or IM’ing.
- Mind what you say. Both IM and chat conversations can be saved by anyone involved in the chat.
- Don’t friend strangers.
- Use the direct message feature when you want to converse privately.
- Don’t overshare.
- Don’t post while drunk.
- Find a posting frequency you’re comfortable with and stick to it.
- And because you’re striving to make the internet a better place, you won’t be engaging in any facebook/twitter/forum/chat room fights. Nor will you be fighting by email, either.
Digital etiquette is like real-time etiquette. Be kind, courteous and curious. Stay positive and helpful. Always work to make the digital world a better place. Others will appreciate your efforts, and you can create a digital persona you can’t just be proud of, but others – including potential employers – will notice and reward it.