A Bit of Fatherly Advice About Online Etiquette

I am not a dad so you might be wondering about the title of this blog post. But I’m married to a terrific one and in honor of Father’s day, I wanted to start with this sage advice from Thumper’s father – sweetly shared when he was caught gossiping in the movie “Bambi.”

“If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all” – Thumper, from Disney’s Bambi (1942)

Although this comes from a film that is more than 70 years old, it stands the test of time and is especially applicable today as we consider online etiquette.

Our world has become increasingly connected by the graces of interactive websites and social media. Any bad behavior you exhibit online will live forever. Politicians and celebrities demonstrate this every day. We could learn from their mistakes, yet I am still frequently amazed at the behavior I see online.

It’s important to apply a few etiquette rules to your online interactions – not just for the sake of propriety, but for self-preservation. You may think you are just being silly with your friends, but you never know who might stumble across your words. Whether you engage online for business, pleasure or both here are a few things to remember toward keeping your good reputation intact.

1)  Follow Thumper’s father’s advice and play nice.

I live in a small town. Or, perhaps I should say – small in comparison to other places I’ve called home (the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh). I love it here. But if there is one thing I have learned it’s that negative comments are best kept to yourself. It may not happen today, tomorrow or even a year from now, but eventually, thoughtless words that escape your lips and worm their way into your social network can come back to haunt you.

Bashing someone on social media is just poor form. Although you may succeed in shaming the recipient of your wrath, you’re also establishing a permanent record of your meanness for everyone to enjoy. Resist the temptation and deal with your disputes privately.

2)  Be authentic, but avoid oversharing.

There is a lot of buzz in the social media community about being authentic and transparent in your interactions. I too prefer to engage online with real humans who share their true selves. Yet you have to assume that everyone is listening and consider how your words might be perceived by prospective employers, your children and even your grandmother.

Be real, be yourself and show your sense of humor. Share your joys and your disappointments. But keep it clean and protect yourself by not oversharing. If you wouldn’t say it in public, you shouldn’t share it online. There are some things we just don’t need to know.

3)  Share your opinions and give feedback, but avoid cat fights.

Constructive criticism or spirited debates are fine and expected on social media, but keep it respectful. Attacking someone on their blog or saying snarky things in a chat won’t achieve anything. You will only succeed in tarnishing your own reputation. If the discussion gets emotional, politically charged or turns into a religious debate it’s time to consider stepping away. You’re entitled to your opinions, but you won’t solve the world’s problems by getting into a spat online.

4)  Don’t automate your personal interactions – that’s not social.

I completely understand that online activity can absorb much of your time, but social media is intended to be social. People want to connect with other humans, not machines. There are many aspects of an online business that can be automated (such as scheduling your posts) but don’t automate things that should be personal.

A good example of this is direct messaging on Twitter or Facebook. Many consider this sort of automation to be an immediate trigger for them to unfollow or unlike you.

5)  Avoid the hard sell.

Although businesses are often online to promote their offerings, the people they engage with aren’t always ready for that message. People interact online to build connections. Don’t make your first interaction a sales one unless your prospect specifically requests it.

If someone connects with you online introduce yourself and get to know them. Build trust and establish credibility. If they’re open to what you have to offer the opportunity to discuss it will arise, but it’s considered poor form to go in for the kill when you’ve barely said “hello.”

6)  Do not share while intoxicated.

This might seem obvious (while you are sober), but all too often people are drawn to social media after a night of drinking. Bad idea. Just as you should avoid drunk dialing an ex, avoid social media when intoxicated. It simply won’t turn out well.

7)  Know the rules of your network.

Every social network is unique. Know the norms of hashtag usage, messaging, following/liking and sharing for each social channel you participate in and customize your posts appropriately. It’s tempting to dive right in and share the same thing across multiple platforms, but you won’t achieve the desired effect if you don’t respect the norms of each community.

8)  Give proper credit.

Online communities are all about sharing. We share our thoughts, feelings, informative articles, beautiful images and funny videos – all in an effort to connect with others. People who produce content and post it online want it to be shared, but be sure you credit them. Not only is this the polite and legal thing to do, it also will ensure that they know their content is being viewed and will encourage them to produce more great content.

9)  Respect boundaries.

Everyone has unique expectations when it comes to social media, so keep this in mind when you are sharing about others.  Some people are on social media for fun, others are using it for business and many of us do both. Tagging embarrassing photos, posting strange links to other people’s walls and using bad language may seem like harmless fun to you, but it could be terribly embarrassing to someone else who is connected to their boss on social media.

10)  Mind your manners and much will be forgiven.

It is easy to misinterpret the written word. Avoid making snap judgments and ask for clarification when needed. Thank people for kindnesses and apologize when you make a mistake. A little compassion and kindness will go a long way toward smoothing the conflicts that inevitably arise when people interact – online or off.

These aren’t the only guidelines when it comes to online etiquette. They’re simply the ones that ring true to me. I realize that different industries have different norms. I am viewing this from a rather conventional perspective, which may or may not apply to you.

Whether you choose to take the advice of Thumper’s Dad is your business. But keep in mind that in the end, we are just people – interacting with other people. We all want to be heard and if not loved, at least respected. Although you may be looking at a device, you’re interacting with living breathing humans who (despite their differences) are probably a lot like you.

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