A Bit of Advice About Online Etiquette

Flower and a notecard to illustrate a blog post about online etiquette.

In the movie “Bambi,” Thumper shares this sage advice from his dad when his mother catches him gossiping.

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

Although this film is over 70 years old, the advice 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’m still frequently amazed at the behavior I see online.

Adopting a few online etiquette rules for your digital interactions is important – not only for the sake of propriety but for self-preservation. You may think you’re 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 to keep your good reputation intact.

1) Online etiquette follows small-town rules.

I live in a small town. Or, perhaps I should say, small compared to other places I’ve called home (the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh).

I love it! But if there’s one thing I’ve 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 can worm their way into your social network and 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.

The social media community has a lot of buzz 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 catfights.

Constructive criticism or spirited debates are fine, even 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 becomes a religious debate, it’s time to consider stepping away. You are 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 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.

Many aspects of an online business 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 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 their 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 are open to what you offer, the opportunity to discuss it will arise, but it’s considered poor online etiquette to go in for the kill when you’ve barely said “Hello.”

6) Do not share while intoxicated.

This might seem obvious (when 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. Then, 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 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, but 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. Keep this in mind when you are sharing about others.

Some people are on social media for fun. Others use 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 harmless to you but could be embarrassing to someone else who is connected to their boss on social media.

10) Mind your manners, and much will be forgiven.

It’s easy to misinterpret the written word. Avoid making snap judgments and ask for clarification when needed. Thank people for any kindness, and apologize when you make a mistake.

A little compassion and sensitivity will go a long way toward smoothing the conflicts that inevitably arise when people interact – online or off.

The Bottom Line

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

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

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