Etiquette in the age of the Internet

Thoughtless.

Inconsiderate.

Not. Cool.

Are you kidding me?!

Just a few thoughts that run through my mind when cruising my news feed. I’m not talking about politics (though I’m sure those words have been uttered then, too). I am referring to comments on non-controversial issues: life events.

Back when the internet was not the hub of social communication and activity, people used snail mail. They sent cards to people to announce big events. They relied on phone trees to share sad events with family. Nowadays, Facebook is the cornerstone of the new baby and engagement announcement, the condolence book for loss and illness. I see nothing wrong with it. But people need to reserve their comments and reactions for the appropriate time and place.

In the last year I’ve seen my friends’ family members break the big announcement to my friends’ extreme disappointment before they had made it public, I’ve been disgusted as people’s very private illnesses were publicized by “friends,” and I have seen other’s faces rubbed in their mistakes. These things really irk me, and I wonder if people have forgotten common courtesy. Indeed, it makes me wonder: have I, too, been guilty of these inconsiderate behaviors?

Imagine you are pregnant with your first child and have yet to tell those closest to you. Then you tell one of your in-laws. Before you know it, they have become so overwhelmed by joy that they share it with their 500 Facebook friends, including your immediate family who may not have yet known. Effectively, this person has just sent out an announcement card for your big news, without involving you in the least. Everyone is either sharing in their joy or silently miffed they had been left out of the prized group of people who were the first to know. And that is where the problem begins. Hurt feelings, anger, animosity. Not exactly the feelings you hoped to have in the time of your “happy” news.

Fortunately etiquette for sharing big news online can be really simple. Here are some ideas.

General Rule #1: If it ain’t your news, don’t spread it unless you’ve got their permission.

General Rule #2: If the person with news has yet to put the news on their FB page, don’t do it for them by posting your condolence or excitement on your page. Reserve your reactions until (or if) they break their news. Without this self-restraint, effectively you’ve just taken the control or joy out of their unique situation. You’ve just taken the luster out of the goodness, or the privacy out of the badness.

Bad behavior: Rumors of bad behavior do not necessarily tell the whole story. Going online and rubbing a person’s face in it or posting it on your page is a surefire way to make their life worse and possibly impede their healing or learning process. Until you get the background information, keep quiet. Or better yet, remember your word has little to no relevance or importance and perhaps no comment is necessary at all. (Various super-close family members are not included in this remark. Nevertheless, it is still not business to publicize to the world without consent).

Death: Expressing your condolences or sharing your mourning is an important act of processing such unfortunate ocurrences. Announcing it without the family’s permission is a careless act of insensitivity. Remember to think of their pain above yours at all times. No one wants to punctuate sorrow with anger in times like these.

Illness: Many people feel their battle with an illness is not something to be shared. Perhaps they don’t want to be treated differently. Perhaps they don’t want to the be poster-child for every “Support XX disease research” badge you paste on your page. While one may want support, they may not want entire communities to be aware of what they are fighting. Rule of thumb: if they haven’t gone public with it online, respect those boundaries. Illnesses are complicated life events; the sick person’s wishes must be honored.

Baby: News of a pregnancy or news of a birth are exciting tidings indeed. What is NOT exciting is to be so overwhelmed by your joy that you forget about the new parents’ happiness. Posting the news on your page, or posting a congratulatory comment on the parents’ pages, is a great thing to do. While it seems customary to post congratulations on the new parents’ pages before they’ve made the “official” announcement, making it public or sharing the first baby picture on your page could be an over-reach in my opinion. Potentially, you have just taken away their only opportunity to break this fresh news to the world online with the first baby picture (especially if it is their first baby). Best advice: ask yourself if you’d be unhappy if so-and-so did this with your first baby. If the answer is yes or maybe, perhaps it’s best to hold back on your posting impulses.

Engagement: See above. For both these scenarios, I would recommend you A) check the page of the person with the announcement to see if the big news is posted officially yet, and B) keep quiet or issue your congratulations respectively when it is made public. Remember when you got engaged? Now imagine someone else sharing that with the world. Not very thoughtful indeed. Keep a lid on the enthusiasm until it is the right time.

We need to remember that the internet is not a separate sphere from the “real” world. It is merely an extension of it. Hurting a person’s feelings is as real there as it would be in person. While it is easy to sometimes forget, our words and actions matter, whether they are in text on a computer screen or verbalized from our lips. But with a little forethought – or hesitation before we click the “post” or “share” button – we can avoid some of the worst transgressions and maintain happy relationships with those for whom we care most.

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One thought on “Etiquette in the age of the Internet

  1. Pingback: Things You Should Tell Loved Ones About (before it hits the Internet) | jennifer newell

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