Online etiquette again: Just because you’re behind a keyboard…

I’ve written in the past about online etiquette. It’s been a while but back in October 2011, I wrote about a company improperly tagging a competitor. In January 2012, I posted about etiquette again when I discussed being careful about when you tag friends online. Today, we’re back to the etiquette discussion.

Listen, it’s been a rough 18 months or so online. The level of volatile commentary being posted as social media comments has gotten out of hand. People are indignant about their opinions, they name-call people they don’t know in real life and in some cases they’ve even been threatening. This has called for people to either defend what they’ve said against public scrutiny like Kathy Griffin, or publicly apologize like so many celebrities find themselves doing.

That being said, let’s talk about an example I experienced recently. First, some background on what I’m discussing today: our school has Facebook groups for parents of each grade in the school (we’re a JK – 12 school so there are 14 pages in all). The pages have several purposes:

  • They serve to share information about school events. Examples might be: “Reminder there’s a bake sale tomorrow,” “We’re looking for volunteers for the book fair,” or “Permission slips are due for next month’s field trip.”
  • They serve to support and help parents of our school become enmeshed in our culture. They help new parents to the school get infiltrated into the group of parents in the grade. They also provide a resource for those who are reaching this grade for the first time to ask for help from parents with older children. In many cases, one parent asks something like: “Can anyone tell me where to find the syllabus for the 6th grade math class?” and another parent will likely chime in with “I can help you with that!” Another example might be “What on earth is this third grade project about? My 8-year-old isn’t sure where to start!”
  • They serve to foster community with posts like “Is anyone attending the high school football game Friday night? My daughter wants to go, I want to make sure she’ll have some friends there,” or “Parents of the 10th grade, meet for breakfast after drop-off at a nearby coffee shop next Thursday if you can make it.”

We’ve found these online groups to be a useful tool. Note, they were created and are managed by members of our parent association (volunteers) as well as some members of the board of trustees. The reason for this is not so much to “monitor” them but to make sure if a conversation needs some factual information directly from the school about an issue, someone is there to jump in and provide it. From the board’s perspective, we see this as a customer service tactic. What would be the point of having a heated conversation about something if the basis of the conversation was factually incorrect, right? Since I work in communication and clear, transparent messaging is my daily goal on behalf of my clients, this purpose seems crystal clear to me. Last week I found out not everyone agrees. 

Without getting into too many details on the subject, last week on my son’s grade’s group, there was a conversation that began innocently enough with a question regarding a rumor related to next year’s school schedule. Before the conversation got going, I commented and asked where this person heard that rumor, as I had heard it from three different sources that day, none of whom was anyone with any authority from the school. It was clarified through the conversation that it was, indeed, a rumor, however, that did not stop the commentary that followed. One parent who had never before commented on the group (in fact, he joined the group that evening) began to bash another parent, ridiculing and belittling her in front of all the other members of the group. The argument wasn’t fair as he was arguing his point and what he wanted on the issue, but the woman he was attacking was keeping a cool, calm voice and was simply trying to explain that no decisions have been made, this conversation hasn’t really even begun and this argument is premature. Attacking continued to the point that she posted, “Please stop attacking me,” and that did not end the conversation.

The thread finally concluded with the woman who posted the original question  commenting with a final statement that the official word from school is to contact the administration directly with any concerns before any decisions are made. The thread was seen by 56 people.

So let’s dissect this a little bit. Rumors are just that: rumors. They are unconfirmed, sometimes unfounded and far-fetched. This doesn’t change just because someone writes it online. Not to get political here, but this is a great recent example of how just because someone tweeted it, it doesn’t make it true.

What’s more disheartening to me about this discussion is not that people were arguing  (and note only one side was arguing, the other side was simply pointing out that this was not yet something to argue) but the way in which it was being argued. The name-calling, the rudeness and the threats were uncalled for. I wonder if this man would say these things to this woman in person, face-to-face with 56 other people in the same room. Perhaps he would, but perhaps he’d find the strength to control his temper and his tone knowing how many people would hear what he said and the way in which he said it.

The point goes back to “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Just because you can type your retort in a public or semi-public forum rather than say it to someone’s face doesn’t mean you should. The woman being accosted asked repeatedly to take the conversation to a private one.

Listen, we aren’t all going to agree with everyone or everything online. That’s a fact. But respectfully arguing a case is going to go a lot further with a heated topic. Be respectful, be kind, understand that you might not change the other person’s mind but you might give them something to consider if they can hear you. If you’re yelling (or typing as if you’re yelling), they won’t remember anything you said, they’ll only remember the way in which you said it.

This issue for our school? It’s still out there and will be decided by those with decision power when the information is completely gathered. My opinion is the man who yelled at the woman on the group owes her a public apology. No one should be treated this way online or off. Sometimes people need to be reminded that a conversation online can be just as hurtful and this one is permanent.

Lastly, and this is key… there are people who just don’t give a damn. They’re going to say what they want to say because they believe they are that right, or because they feel they are entitled to be heard or because they have a higher office or spend more money. What I would advise a client if they get a person like this on their company’s page is to not engage. We’d shut this gentleman down quickly. In some cases, I’ve had a client with an irate customer trying to pick a fight on the client’s page. We’ve taken it offline and had the CEO personally call that individual and handle the situation (and we’ve been able to negotiate the customer take the post down). Once in awhile these things can happen, but it’s important to humanize it and remember you’ve got someone with a strong opinion on the other side of the debate, but engaging online with an audience is likely not the best course of action.

I do hope this man apologizes for the things he said and the way in which he said them, but I won’t hold my breath. I also hope that the issue they are arguing dies down as quickly as it bubbled up with a fair statement from the school administration on whatever the decision comes to be.

As you’re out there online, remember to be human, be kind, be respectful. If you use online conversation for good, think how much better our world will be. Thanks for listening. Stay tuned for my next post which will touch on whether those who argue online really want a solution to be found to their problem, or if the act of arguing is really what gives them the thrill.

 

 

 

 

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