Blogging, social networking and a veritable host of methods of stay in contact with people are all very new. There is no real handbook of online etiquette that we can turn to with questions of how many comments are too many or whether we really have an obligation to follow our second cousin’s blog.
The mere word ‘etiquette’ feels old-fashioned, without application in a web-based world. I’m not suggesting that the Internet needs formality or help addressing emails, though. Instead, I think that the aspect of etiquette most helpful to those of us living a significant portion of our lives online is the ability of social rules to suggest a next step. At the very least, I think that paying just a bit of attention to old-fashioned manners can help those of us who hope to avoid looking trollish. (There may be no helping those trolls who enjoy irritating others.)
Miss Manners — Judith Martin — said the following in a 1995 interview, and I can’t help but think that it’s still true:
You can deny all you want that there is etiquette, and a lot of people do in everyday life. But if you behave in a way that offends the people you’re trying to deal with, they will stop dealing with you…There are plenty of people who say, ‘We don’t care about etiquette, but we can’t stand the way so-and-so behaves, and we don’t want him around!’ Etiquette doesn’t have the great sanctions that the law has. But the main sanction we do have is in not dealing with these people and isolating them because their behavior is unbearable.
Our goal in participating in networking sites and other online media is almost always to interact with other people. If Miss Manners is right, ignoring the niceties of behavior is the fastest way to lose out on the benefits of social networking.
How to Avoid An Online Faux Pas
For the most part, being a reasonably nice person is enough to avoid most accusations of bad manners. That’s not quite enough, though. There are a few types of behavior that don’t necessarily seem to be in bad taste but wind up irritating the person on the receiving end. I don’t claim to have a direct line to Miss Manners on all matters of the Internet, but I’ve come up with a list of things that I think should be included in the first Internet etiquette manual.
- Give attention if you want attention. We all get plenty of requests on our time, whether some PR flunky has sent out a mass press release to every blogger in your niche or someone on LinkedIn wants an introduction to one of your connections. I’m not suggesting that I want everyone to do something for me before I do a favor for him or her. Instead, I want those askers-of-favors to make it clear why they’re asking me: PR guys should be telling me why my specific blog should talk about their products and LinkedIn users should be making it clear why I’m the best person to make a connection beyond the fact that I’m available. Prove I’m not just some name on a list.
- Don’t overwhelm your connections. Every time I log in to Facebook, I have about 10 invitations to throw sheep, play werewolves or otherwise do something to my friends. Half of them are all from one person. I don’t even check what invitation he’s sent anymore — I just automatically ignore them. This particular person has lost my attention in a big way, that he could have avoided by just slowing down on the number of applications he invited his entire friends list to in a given week.
- Be as clear as possible. There’s a tendency to try to take shortcuts when writing online, but being less than clear is the fastest way to irritate someone. It goes far beyond 1337-speak and poor grammar, though: readers can easily misconstrue ambiguous writing.
- Keep private information private. I know plenty of well-meaning folks who wouldn’t hesitate to give out a friend’s email address or phone number in hopes of helping out another connection. I even do it — but only if that contact information is readily available. I’ll Google the person’s name, and if I find an email address or phone number easily, I don’t worry about giving it out. But if that person has gone to some effort to keep their contact information private, I do my best to respect their wishes. (Offering to pass along information to someone who keeps their contact info private seems to work almost as well.)
- Don’t contribute to information overload. It’s extremely difficult to keep a conversation involving hundreds or even thousands of participants on track, like on a large mailing list or on a comment thread on a popular blog. But I can’t think of a single person that really enjoys all of those tangents. Avoiding them when possible is truly good manners.
- Avoid anonymity. As a general rule, little good seems to come from anonymity online — everyone seems to delight in discovering who an anonymous blogger or poster might be, therefore compounding any damage done by associating your name with an unpopular opinion. There are, of course, some topics that certain people can’t write about, such as their employers, without some form of protection, and I can’t provide a good solution for those cases, but anonymous individuals rarely stay that way online.