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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Write snail mail

USPS Truck

source: wikimedia commons

I had a pen pal from age 13 to age 18. We had known each other for 2 weeks at a summer camp in Iowa City, Iowa, and then proceeded to write one another for the next 5 years. I can’t say that the letters were anything special–no written words of wisdom that belied our ages, no hinting at secret longing or love, no exchanges of teenage angst. He wrote about his band and drew me pictures; I wrote about what I was reading or drawing that week.  I looked forward to getting his letters, neatly folded in halves three times, always on notebook paper. I wrote my letters on girlie stationary that I was given to me for Christmases and birthdays, and folded them in the clever ways that junior high school girls bothered to learn back then.  Every time I got another letter or sent one out, as silly and pointless as they seemed, it gave me excitement and made me anxious for the next exchange.

Today on Facebook my friend Joe posted a link to his Kickstarter project. Kickstarter is a website that helps people fund their ideas. It’s pretty simple: make a goal, set a deadline and an amount to be raised, and then determine the “rewards” you will give people for pledging their monetary sponsorship to your idea. Seeing Joe’s idea got me incredibly excited… there always something enthralling about the hand-written word when used creatively. (At the end of this post I will link to a few projects that are interesting in this regard.) Joe’s project is called, “Let There Be Letters!“(click the name to link to his page) and in his words:

HERE’S THE GOAL: To help fund the proliferation of letters. To be rewarded by receiving one or two (consider your options, because there are plenty). To help Let There Be Letters send letters to other people, too. To connect with people, to add a touch of strangeness to certain lives.

HERE’S THE REASON: Because handwritten letters touch us differently than other forms of communication. Because the style is dying. Because you want to hear from us. Because we like to write. Because it is good to hear the sincerity of strangers. Because honest endeavors for the public good ought not to go ignored. Because we’re silly, and serious about it.

This is not just the funding for the project, this is the project.

What a wonderful idea.

I just received a letter in the mail from my grandma yesterday. I love her handwriting, the way she phrases her sentences, the way she hyphenates words that might not need hyphenation, and the way she signs her name with a heart-shaped balloon at the end to symbolize my grandpa who passed 9 months ago. There is so much you can learn about someone by a hand-written note, and so much you can learn about yourself. My sister was plagued with letter-writing perfectionism for years. So much so that she rarely accomplished the task of mailing the letter. After a decade or so, I finally convinced her: “Just write! Off the top of your head! Don’t practice, just write it!” Never mind the scribbled-out words, the imperfect grammar, just write! Let your energy be conveyed through the words freshly and without rehearsal!

So I encourage you to write a letter this week–to your sibling, your parents, your friend, or to your partner. It can be fun, silly, confessional, or loving. It can be a picture, a card, a postcard, or a wordy message. No matter the effort, think of how much it will make someone’s day to get something other than a bill or junk mail; how refreshing to receive a letter–not a message–in their mail box rather than their inbox!

A few links:

Joe’s Project Let There Be Letters!

60 Days: A Personal Journal Project

Post Secret There is at least 1 book published out there with the same name, for the same project. Pretty interesting read.

Have a great day! Let me know how the letter writing goes!