I often say that I assume everything I put on the Internet is public. Some sites are explicitly public, like this blog and my Twitter account. Others aren’t quite as obviously public, like when I post to my friends only on Facebook or on a members-only forum. But ultimately, everything I post on the internet is just a screen shot away from being 100% public, so I operate under the assumption that it’s public and go from there.
What I don’t think I’ve talked about is our interactions with other people on the internet, and how they are affected by being online.
Following from my earlier rule of everything on the internet being public, our social interactions with people on the internet are also often public. But I’ve noticed that we often appear to forget this is the case. And trouble ensues as a result.
I’ve compiled a list of internet social etiquette ideas derived from this principle:
1. Personal conversations on social media: Let’s say you and a friend are catching up at a coffee shop and talking about your personal lives. And then let’s say you find out the guy at the next table over has been recording your entire conversation. Creepy, right?
But you are doing the same thing to yourself when you have personal conversations on Twitter, on comment threads, or on Facebook walls. Those conversations are recorded for all to (potentially) see. So make sure these are conversations you wouldn’t mind having the rest of the world overhear. More personal conversations might be better suited for email or various messaging options (IM, Facebook messages, Twitter DMs, etc.).
2. Criticism on the internet: When you criticize someone on the internet, you are doing so in a public forum. This is much more likely to make the person being criticized feel threatened and defensive, and to result in non-productive communication. Sometimes public criticism is appropriate and meets your goals; other times, not so much. Consider if you’d feel comfortable making the same statements at a party, in a group of friends, or even on a panel. If the answer is no, you can always say something privately to the person instead.
3. Are these people worth your time? In public, when I meet people who are egregiously rude to me, don’t listen to what I have to say, and are espousing a lot of ideas I find offensive, I tend to cease engagement with them. I know I’m not going to change their minds, I know I’m not going to change their friends’ minds, and I know I don’t want to be treated poorly. Comment threads are often no different. They are not always worth your time. And having to engage repeatedly with such people is definitely not worth your time. What do you when at a party with such a person? You excuse yourself and you avoid, avoid, avoid. Doing the same thing on the internet is totally allowed.
4. Am I causing harm? Holding a private opinion and making a public statement are two very different things. Once you decide to turn a private opinion into a public statement, you have to consider both your reach and the effects of your statement. This requires a lot more reflection and research. Do your very best to get the facts. Use sources that have solid credentials. Consider consequences. I don’t think any of us wants to be responsible for the resurgence of measles in the United States, and most of us don’t have a reach as big as Jenny McCarthy’s, but the consequences of public statements are real and something for which we share responsibility.
5. Public mistakes require public apologies: We all screw up from time to time. But if you accidentally make a mistake on the internet, you need to make amends publicly as well. A private apology is all well and good, but not enough if the social interaction in question was public. And if you’ve broken someone’s trust in public, expect to have to work hard to regain that trust.
What are other common social pitfalls on the internet? Any suggestions on how to handle them gracefully?