Have you been hanging around in internet forums and/or making blog comments lately? Public posting is growing ever-popular. One thing I've noticed, is that if you use it for business purposes and you accidentally blurt the wrong thing, it can get ugly pretty quick. A remark that was never intended to be malevolent turns out to offend somebody, and next thing you know, you're engaged in yet another public forum ping pong match. This can be downright exhausting. So is there a 'proper' way to conduct oneself on the network, in the forum, and on the blog? From what I've seen so far, I have to say yes.
May I present: The Unofficial Internet Posting Rules.
1. Always assume that the other person has good intentions.
There you are, sprinkling comments here and there and having a fine old time, when suddenly up pops someone who begs to differ. A good debate can be envigorating, but if things escalate, you may begin to feel attacked and/or misunderstood. Do you have a right to feel this way? Who is attacking who anyway?
Internet conversations feel remote because they are. You can't diffuse a tense conversation by cracking a joke or meeting someone's eyes with a silent apology. Internet 'arguments' can string along for days because, unlike a verbal argument which quickly fades from your memory, they're harsh words frozen in time. Someone who is ripping you a new one on the public forum may actually be a wonderful person who thinks a lot like you, but you wouldn't know because all you see are those hostile words on the screen that won't go away!
For this reason, it's unbelievably important not to take internet skirmishes to heart. The truth is, you may be taking offense for no good reason. And even if someone really does seem to be out for your blood... who cares? Click away and they're gone. Besides; the world is watching. How much of a scene do you want to make?
2. Ditch the sarcasm.
Sarcasm really does not translate on the internet. Sarcasm is my favorite form of communication, so believe me I've tried. People can't tell by your tone or gestures if you're serious, kidding, scathing, or what, so if you want to communicate effectively and efficiently, steer clear of sarcasm. I'll give you an example of sarcasm causing confusion on the internet.
Networker 1: Say, Networker 2, how was that teleseminar you attended?
Networker 2: It was really something special.
"It was really something special." Hmmm. What could that mean, exactly? Sounds a little smart-alecky, but who knows! The reader can't be sure, so a straightforward answer might be the better option. "The guy was a good speaker, but I felt like he was telling me things I already knew. I'll have to pick a more advanced course next time." Now, there's a complete answer that's based in fact and well-expressed!
Some people use emoticons to convey when they're being sarcastic, such as the smiley :) for "just kidding" , the wink ;) which might mean, "I'm just teasing," or the guy-with-his-tongue-out :P-- "I know I'm being goofy." Other people use internet gestures, like the *grin* and the :::shiver:::.
Emoticons are okay for a less formal public forum setting, but not so much for business networking. Use them sparingly. How are you supposed to appear professional if you're throwing (((hugs))) everyone's way? I don't know about you, but I don't go around hugging people I don't know!
All this being said: stick to literal communication whenever possible. I know more than anybody how tough this is. If you're really unsure about it, you can always just be a forum 'lurker' for a while, until you get the hang of how it's done.
3. Instead of offering opinions, ask questions.
People love to argue. Make a statement, and by God, someone out there is going to contradict it. If you enjoy and know how to play the debate game, take them on... it will be a learning experience for all. But if conflict makes your tummy hurt, you can spur on a discussion in a more genteel way; by asking questions!
If you ask people what they think, they'll feel encouraged to jump into the discussion... and that's what you want, isn't it? Ask questions, and let folks know you're open to new points of view. When you word your ideas in the from of questions, you're basically saying "Hey, I know I don't have all the answers. But I'm thinking, and I'd love for you to add your insights." Then, by phrasing your questions in a specific way, you can gently 'lead' the conversation. Next time you have a strong opinion to state, practice rephrasing it into a question. "What ways might we practice common courtesy in an effort to improve internet communication?" There, see how easy that was?
4. Remember the real-time issue.
If you haven't noticed, real-time has some wacky effects on internet communication. Sometimes, messages look like they're written in response to something someone else said... when really, they just landed there by sheer coincidence!
Suppose someone posts a remark at 9:05 a.m. Pacific Time, as you just happen to be posting the exact opposite viewpoint at 12:05 p.m. Eastern Time. When the messages "land" one after the other, it creates the illusion that the second person was arguing with the first person, when actually they were not and had no knowledge of the other person's post! Whoa. That's real-time at work, and it's some crazy stuff. The lesson to be learned: don't assume anything, especially on the internet.
The other way that real-time can botch up the works is if you're seeking advice or technical support. You post a question, some time elapses, and the moderator replies. But by now, you've figured out the answer and it's led you to a third complication. Now, you can either try and over-explain the confusion in an effort to be polite, or say to yourself, "the heck with this" and leave the discussion, which could be perceived as rude. It's quite a fretful situation. Keeping this in mind...
5. Think before you speak.
Using the example from Point 4: thinking before you ask technical questions can save everybody the exhaustion of over-communication. Rather than blurt out your confusion, have a look around, see what's going down. Is there an FAQ section you can refer to?
I have been known to dive right in to the chat without knowing what the heck is happening. As a result, I am familiar with the taste of shoe leather. If you're puzzled about what's going on in a public forum discussion... can you go back and read a few old posts to get caught up? You'll save everyone a lot of wasted words if you just get with the program. I learned the hard way, but you don't have to.
"Think before you speak" also means proofread. Be on the lookout for ambiguous content. If you're tired, stressed or feeling under the weather, you may have some trouble getting your point across. Maybe it's not the best time to communicate.
As a writer, I'm acutely aware of word choice. Use the wrong word, and WOOOPS- somebody is getting the total wrong idea. Copywriters have a chance to write multiple drafts ? and in that way, get multiple chances to refine what they say in their writing. Internet posters don't have this option. Once you hit POST, you can't take back what you've written. All you can do is send MORE posts, and give folks the impression that you are a babbling fool! So, for your own sake, heed my words, take your time, think about what you want to say, and PROOFREAD!
Above all, keep a positive attitude and an open mind. Welcome others' opinions while gently expressing your own. Be forgiving and patient with people and their bumbling ways. Be a good internet communicator.
Copyright 2005 Dina Giolitto. All rights reserved.
Dina Giolitto is a New-Jersey based Copywriting Consultant with ten years of industry experience. Her current focus is web content and web marketing for a multitude of products and services although the bulk of her experience lies in retail for big-name companies like Toys"R"Us. Visit http://www.wordfeeder.com for rates and samples.