The Golden Rules of Digital Etiquette

A few years ago, the American Red Cross got some unexpected attention on Twitter—but not for their good deeds. An employee in charge of managing the non-profit’s social media made the mistake of mixing up their personal and business accounts, accidentally tweeting about “getting slizzerd” on beer.

Like most corporate social media mishaps, this one was quickly followed by an apology. Less common is that the mistake struck a chord with followers and resulted in a rush of donations.

However, not all digital fumbles have such a happy ending. Just Google “employee social media fails” to see a cringe-inducing range of digital faux pas.

Some social media employees fail to check why a hashtag is trending, such as the Entenmann’s post below. The brand saw a spike in the hashtag “#notguilty” and jumped on the chance to promote their sweets, not realizing that the phrase was on the rise due to Casey Anthony’s trial.

Entenmann's Twitter postImage via Buzzfeed

Negligence is forgivable; we’ve all been guilty of forgetting once and awhile. However, what’s less so is when a brand deliberately uses a serious issue to try and promote their products.

Kenneth Cole, himself, wrote the tweet below that hijacked a hashtag intended to keep people updated on unrest in Cairo. Cole isn’t the only one guilty of abusing trending topics in an attempt to gain traffic. UK-based home furnishing brand Habitat jumped on trending breaking news hashtags relating to a crises in Iran—immediately followed by an apology after Twitter users complained that the posts were insensitive.

Kenneth Cole's Twitter postImage via Business Insider

Since big brands often have tens of thousands of followers, we’re more likely to hear when they make a mistake that damages their digital reputation. But that’s not to say that what happens on your private accounts can’t come back to haunt you.

From inappropriate tweets and Facebook status updates to phone calls taken at the very worst moments, the list of what’s considered a tech-related blunder is nothing if not lengthy—and it’s growing every day as the digital landscape continues to change. So, how do you know if you’re being polite?

Understanding Digital Etiquette

Digital etiquette, or netiquette as it’s sometimes called, is a basic set of rules you should follow in order to make the internet better for yourself and others.

Why is digital etiquette important? As shown in the examples of social media snafus above, every time that you post something online, you leave a permanent digital footprint. Sure, posts can be deleted, but they can also be preserved with a screenshot before you have a chance to self-edit.

Additionally, you can never be sure that the information you share with your friends and coworkers won’t be seen by a supervisor or future employer. Companies now use social media as a tool to monitor employees as much as to promote their own brands. Meaning that complaining about work or venting online can actually cost you your career.

Companies now use social media as a tool to monitor employees.

While digital etiquette is based around the idea that it’s just as important to treat people with courtesy and respect while online as it is if you were in the same room, there are nuances depending on which platform you use. Here are our tips for managing your online reputation to avoid any real world consequences, starting with social media use.

6 Steps to Common Sense Social Media Etiquette

Despite the kick most of us get out of counting “likes” on a popular post, most people have a tendency to wrongfully assume that their actions on social media won’t come back to haunt them. In the clip below, talk show host Ellen DeGeneres shows how easy it is scope out embarrassing posts shared by her audience members before they attended a taping of her show:

The popularity of social media has blurred the line between our personal friend circles and those we interact with at work or school. While these networks can help you develop deeper relationships with coworkers or classmates, it can also cause problems.

For example, one Indiana school has set a precedent by expelling a boy for violating their acceptable use policy in April 2012 with his offensive tweets. Students aren’t the only one getting in trouble, either. The e-zine Oxygen shares eight examples of social media posts that got people fired. (Both links show images of possibly offensive posts, so view at your own discretion.)

How to make sure that your tweets, Facebook posts, and Instagram images don’t cause you trouble down the road? Follow these tips:

1. Remember the Golden Rule

Ask yourself, would you say this in real life? If the answer is no, you probably shouldn’t post it online. And, when in doubt, don’t forget the Golden Rule—if you wouldn’t want it said about yourself, then don’t say it about someone else.

2. Don’t Steal

Plagiarizing used to be an issue limited to students. Now, with so many people sharing their intellectual property online, taking credit for someone else’s work is a lot easier—but that doesn’t make it okay. Remember that research, ideas, and images aren’t yours for the taking. Instead, credit the creator.

3. Consider Your Audience

Are you over-sharing by posting every detail of your daily life? Regularly posting about your commute, errands, or meals can lead friends to stop caring. Remember, moments can still have meaning even when they’re not posted on social media.

Additionally, avoid statements that could be controversial or offensive. For example, think carefully before making comments about political parties, religions, or groups of people that could alienate your friends and acquaintances. Social media is supposed to be a fun way to connect, not a platform used to spread your personal views.

4. Check Your Facts Before Sharing

Many websites earn advertising revenue that’s based on how many clicks they get, which has led authors to use a style of headlines called click-bait—these offer more sensation than substance and are designed to make you, you guessed it, click. The downside is that article titles and video subject lines are often misleading, or outright untrue.

Social networks are a community, and it’s your responsibility to help keep these virtual streets clean. Follow the rule of three when considering information by searching for three additional sources that back up a claim. Additionally, ask yourself, what’s the view of the website and are they likely to try and sway my opinion?

We share tips on how to adapt a more skeptical approach in “Stop Believing Everything That You Read Online” and further fact-checking resources in “How to Check Facts & Never Fall for False Information Again.”

Remember that there’s lots of information on the internet. But, just because something shows up online doesn’t mean that it’s accurate.

5. Curate Your Photos Like a Museum

Your family is beautiful, that new project turned out perfectly, and your European vacation was a blast—these are examples of exactly what you should share on social media. However, your friends and family shouldn’t have to scroll through 80 images of the same scene.

Instead, carefully select a few favorites to post. Additionally, remember that photos of a fun night can affect your future, so consider getting them printed for display to eliminate the chance of someone sharing them without your permission.

Related: 8 Tips To Getting Great Family Photos

Also, remember that it’s not just your own reputation in your hands, and that tagging your friends in a compromising photo can have consequences for their future as well.

6. Check Your Privacy Settings

Even if you’re careful about what you post now, you never know when your social media history might be subjected to unwanted attention or the scrutinous gaze of a potential employer.

Remember that privacy settings are there for your protection, but they’re only useful when turned on. In “How to Protect Your Privacy While Promoting a Business Online,” we share tips for managing your privacy settings while promoting a personal brand, but they’re equally useful for regular social media users and bloggers alike.

Bottom line on social media etiquette? Think before you post. When you share something online, know that it will be seen by a wide audience and possibly shared beyond your personal circles. It only takes seconds for a post to be captured and shared, creating lasting damage even if you delete the original.

Related: Is Snapchat Safe? Keeping Your Kids Safe on Social Media

Digital Etiquette When Emailing

Despite being a powerful tool, composing an email can inspire dread in the most optimistic and confident users. Ever needed to convey something sensitive in an email? What it offers in convenience, it can lack in subtlety and tone.

Here’s how to navigate potential pitfalls of electronic communication and ensure that your intended message comes through:

Respond to Emails in a Timely Manner

Even if your response is limited to a quick “ok,” being responsive sets up a positive feedback loop instead of sending the message that you’re too busy or just don’t care.

Know That Every Word Matters

Unlike a regular conversation, every word in an email can be re-read and analyzed to infer meaning. Emails also take extra time to read, so cut the chatter and be as efficient as possibly by eliminating unnecessary words. If you have a problem or are making a request, state so clearly and offer suggestions that are easy to follow.

Avoid Using “BCC”

The blind copy feature in email allows you to share a message with others without the intended recipient being aware. This might appear like a useful way to update your boss or share news with a wider circle of friends, but it comes across as secretive. Instead, modern rules of digital etiquette suggest copying a person openly or not copying them at all.

Lay Off the Caps Lock

One of the first established rules of online communication is that writing in all capital letters is akin to yelling. Needless to say, yelling is hardly ever appropriate, and we can’t think of many instances where doing so via email enhances communication.

While email etiquette tips are most frequently employed in workplace messages, don’t forget that your friends and family deserve consideration too. No one likes feeling ignored, yelled at, or like their responses have been shared without their knowledge.

Digital Etiquette for Skype, FaceTime, & Video Calls

Video calling is a great tool for communicating with friends and family or coworkers and clients. While smartphone applications and Skype have made knowing how straightforward, the addition of real-time video comes with potential hiccups. Here’s how to manage the experience so you don’t make a bad impression:

Try to Prevent Any Technical Glitches

If you know a call is coming up, take the time to check your system for potential technical problems before they dial through so that no one is forced to sit and listen to you adjusting your audio.

Choose Your Location Wisely

Video calling might allow you to conference from anywhere that there’s a good wifi connection, but that doesn’t mean you should. Consider a coffee shop for example—not only is there ample background noise, but there’s zero privacy. This means customers will be forced to listen to your call, and the person you’re chatting with will be exposed to strangers, which isn’t ideal for anyone.

Additionally, if you’re starting a video chat in the privacy of your home, think of it like inviting a guest inside. Pick up any piles of dirty laundry, limit potential interruptions, and be conscious of your own appearance.

Try to Make the Experience Feel Like a Natural Interaction

This mostly involves adjusting your camera so that the person you’re on a call with isn’t stuck looking at the side of your face. Also be conscious that the sound of your keys and mouse clicking are picked up by the microphone, meaning that it’s not so easy to hide that you’re browsing other websites, even if they can’t see your screen.

Bottom Line: Practicing Digital Etiquette Helps You Connect Better

Anyone who’s been stuck conversing with a poor listener knows that there’s more to connecting than just being physically present—and the same goes for communicating online, via email, or video chat.

Practicing digital etiquette isn’t only about being polite. Instead, it encompasses all aspects of human interaction, including respecting the privacy of others, paying for what you use, being an active participant, and carefully considering your permanent digital footprint.

Don’t know if something is considered good digital etiquette? When it comes to manners and technology, follow the above rules and your instincts. If you’re second-guessing whether you should pull out your phone or send that bawdy tweet, chances are you shouldn’t do it.

When all else fails, remember the Golden Rule and why you’re using those gadgets and social networking services in the first place: to connect with people you care about.

More on Safe Online Habits:


Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.


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