So, in light of Keith Olbermann’s recent Twitter rant and subsequent suspension, I thought it was time for an Awkward Girl’s Guide for keeping your human decency on the Internet. It seems like every day I hear a new story about a social media controversy. Young and old people alike seem to have trouble controlling the way they express their thoughts on the web (lest you try to blame this on “my generation”).
Open conversation/debate is one of the coolest things about the Internet, but it’s hard to express yourself textually sometimes. I don’t think there is a way to avoid causing controversy and offending someone on the Internet, but I do think some simple practices can help your chances of coming off as the decent human being you are (provided that you are a decent human being… and I truly believe you are).
1. THINK BEFORE YOU TYPE. The old adage “measure twice; cut once” can apply just as much to the Internet as carpentry. Ignore the impulse to just hit send after every thought you type out. Sometimes you are missing a nuance that comes off as offensive. Maybe you realize the thought you had wasn’t as important to share as you thought at first. Maybe that joke isn’t as funny as you thought. Will you be ashamed of this post in several days or months? Then maybe you shouldn’t post.
I’m not saying you need to censor yourself all the time, but you do need to remember that what you post can be seen by anyone. No matter how much you think you’ve protected your privacy, things on the Internet are inherently public. Just slow down and think about it.
2. REMEMBER CONTEXT. The Internet is this masterful place that connects to all aspects of your life. This can be super fun, but it can also mean that the things you produce could be lacking important context. Especially with networks like Twitter, one post can be singled out and passed around without any of the rest of the posts that were associated with it in your head.
Also in terms of context, remember that everyone who reads/sees what you put on the Internet will not know you personally. They almost definitely will not understand the tone you intended (especially in the dangerous zones of sarcasm and satire). If you are going to go on a Twitter rant (which is largely cathartic, I’ll admit) or write a satirical blog post, just be aware that you will probably get some people who misunderstand you.
3. DON’T INTERNET ANGRY. This is so important to me. When I see a post or article that offends me, my first impulse is to write one essay-of-a-comment. In the first draft of that comment I usually say some mean and/or aggressive things. If I feel like I’m defending myself or a cause that is important to me, it is doubly easy to rattle off some strong language. I try to never hit send on those posts.
If you want to enter in a Internet debate, try to be respectful, logical and kind. I find it’s helpful to consult a friend to make sure what I want to post is coming off the way I want it to. If you have to explain what you mean after a friend has read your potential post, you probably aren’t expressing yourself as well as you could be. The other thing about Internet debates is that they sometimes go on forever. When people stop bringing up new points or when they get angry and mean, disengage. No matter how reasonable you are being, you won’t be able to force people to change their minds.
4. DON’T TARGET PEOPLE OR GENERALIZE. I just don’t think it is ever appropriate to straight out target a single person with a hurtful post. I also think it’s a terrible idea to generalize whole groups of people in a derogatory way in your posts (or ever…but whatever). It might feel good at the moment to get it all out, but just don’t do it.
If you really need to say something mean/angry about a specific person, message or text a friend. Don’t put it out there for the world to see. The world doesn’t need more anger/violence/overly simplistic generalizations.
5. DO BE OPEN AND WILLING TO APOLOGIZE. You’ll probably enter into an Internet debate with someone who completely disagrees with you, whether you intend to or not. Unless you don’t put anything on the Internet, you’ll probably offend someone. Be willing and open to listen to people who are respectful to you. Explain your side of the story. Be willing to agree to disagree.
And when you did something wrong, apologize. I recently read an article that basically said apologizing is the #1 way to keep a PR crisis going, but I disagree. We are human beings and we make mistakes in the real world and the Internet world. If we ignore that fact, then we are ignoring part of our humanity and I don’t think the Internet is a better place if it becomes less human.