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Digital culture is a rapidly evolving space, and we’re all learning internet etiquette together. Proper netiquette is the difference between making an online friend or foe — thankfully some general rules have been established. Keep reading to learn how to get your point across without instigating internet drama. And use a secure and private browser to keep your communications and browsing activity safe.
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Humans are social creatures, and while understanding cultural norms comes naturally in our physical environments, it can be harder in digital spaces. But online messaging platforms and the rise of social media have led to an implicit agreement on global communication standards. Even “digital natives” — those immersed in digital tech from birth — can benefit from a crash course in internet manners.
Your digital footprint is as real as your actual footprint. And with online tracking technology, it can be traced just as easily. Netiquette helps you prevent identity theft and other types of cybercrime by safeguarding your personal information and protecting your communications. Netiquette also helps you book appointments more smoothly, develop relationships more effectively, and find information more quickly.
We’re all new to internet etiquette, and wading into a sea of strangers can feel scary. Parents feel even more pressure to mitigate harm from social media, constantly wondering if platforms like Snapchat are safe for kids. Getting one of the best browsers for privacy can help protect your online activity, but learning the rules of netiquette is the key to online safety — you might even net an internet friend.
Here are the 10 basic rules of netiquette:
Self-presentation is crucial online, because of the lack of visual cues. Your word and punctuation choices matter, so make every stroke count. To make friends or develop networks, be friendly, polite, and engaging— just as you would be in real life.
All caps = yelling. Generally avoid it. Using all lowercase is fine on social media platforms or forums as long as you’re consistent — just don’t go back and forth between all lowercase and proper capitalization. In professional settings, use proper capitalization (and proper grammar more generally).
Don’t curse if you’re trying to have a productive conversation — it comes across as intense no matter your intention. Use neutral words and avoid those that might cause offense — your values and background might be different from the person you’re speaking to.
If a stranger contacts you randomly and the communication feels suspicious or unnatural, you may be getting scammed. Report any internet scams you come across.
Sarcasm relies on tone of voice, body language, facial expression, and gesture — all are omitted when communicating online. A well-intended joke can be perceived as confusing or downright insulting without clarity. To make your sarcasm clearer, use “irony punctuation” or emojis that contradict the statement, italics to emphasize tone, “jk” for “just kidding,” or even an explicit “/s” at the end of your comment.
Using aLtErNaTiNg capitalization to indicate sarcasm has also become vogue in some internet circles.
Friends might not care about proper grammar, but employers and colleagues do. Avoid heavy slang, unusual acronyms, abbreviations, alternate spellings, and other internet shorthand when communicating in a professional capacity. Though it may seem more natural to communicate this way online, it can come across as impatient and immature in professional settings.
Digital privacy is just as important as physical privacy. Confirm with the sender before forwarding an email to someone else — they may have intended it for your eyes only. The Bcc (Blind Carbon Copy) option hides email addresses from recipients, so use it in mass emails if you’re unsure of the group’s social dynamics.
Spreading someone’s email around can also cause them to get spam, which no one likes. Ask someone before tagging them in your social media posts. No one wants an unflattering photo spread among people they don’t know, and some people might be social-media shy in general. Posting without consent can be a huge breach of someone’s privacy and security.
Don’t share anyone’s social media contact without their consent either — treat it like you would someone’s phone number. Doxxing someone is a serious offense, but you can also doxx people by accident if you aren’t careful.
Whether you’re communicating with strangers or friends, don’t let your emotions do the talking online. Interacting behind a screen can make you feel invincible, and can remove your social filter in the worst possible way. It’s easy to be blunt, rude, or aggressive when your words appear as squiggles on a screen. But those squiggles cause real pain, and can easily turn you into a troll, or worse, a cyberbully.
Just like real-life hangouts, every internet subculture has their own core rules and definitions of netiquette. If the rules are implicit, ask around or “lurk” (read without posting) for a while to get the feel for the proper netiquette policy. If the rules are explicit, they’ll be posted somewhere clearly. Rules might include acceptable topics to discuss, formatting procedures, link policies, or just a general code of behavior.
Netiquette tip: Good netiquette in one forum may be bad netiquette in another.
It’s embarrassing to get facts wrong, and it can cause others to stop trusting you or stop communicating with you completely. Getting accurate information is a hard-wired human preference, and being misinformed can really hit a nerve. Research thoroughly before making factual claims online. Some quick googling and linking to source websites builds trust with others.
Fact-checking works the other way too. Always verify what others claim to be true and learn to evaluate their sources. Keep yourself safe and learn how to spot fake apps and programs, fake news, and other false information online.
The exciting urge to share something is natural, but sending long YouTube videos or articles to others constantly can be imposing. Pick and choose your moments, or explain why you feel the other person might enjoy it. Don’t take it personally if the person doesn’t check it out or report back — instead, consider they may have other preferences or might simply be too busy.
It might feel good to blurt out a wall of text or call someone out for a perceived wrong, but it’s often the equivalent of stopping someone on the street and lecturing them on the spot. Not only is it awkward, but it makes the recipient feel pressured and frustrated. Online communication is usually not a good place to discuss serious feelings — taking an emotional shortcut can make a real relationship crash and burn.
You wouldn’t stop a stranger in real life and yell at them, so you shouldn’t do it online either.
It’s annoying when someone expects you to respond to a text or email immediately, but it’s just as annoying when you write to someone and they take forever to respond, or don’t reply at all. If you have exchanged emails with someone, the expectation is that email correspondence is OK, so not responding can be hurtful or rude.
If the other person writes a particularly long message, tell them you’ll respond soon — don’t simply ignore the message. If you’re uncomfortable with long exchanges, say so and the other person should adapt. If you don’t like the pressure of someone knowing you’ve already seen their message, you can turn off the chat receipts in most messaging apps.
Update your profile information, especially if you’re not in contact with lots of old friends or acquiantances. A simple update is a nice way to show you care about those you may have lost touch with. It can open the door to catching up with old friends, or be a good reason for someone to send you a friendly message or networking opportunity.
If you own a physical business with an online presence, keep your hours of operation accurate. Most people rely on Google or other services to organize their visits, and inaccurate information can lead to a bad review or a lost customer. Anyone visiting your website will assume the information is current, so if you need to update anything important, and it will take a while to do so, add a note to the top explaining what you’re doing.
Don’t send or attach large files directly, since you never know what kind of storage space or internet connection other people have. Use a cloud service or a personal site, especially if you want to share lots of files. If you have to send sensitive files, use some of the best encryption software to keep them safe. And protect files with a password to show the recipient you care about their digital safety.
Don’t share inappropriate material and consider the recipients and their expectations accordingly. Online etiquette for students, especially when file sharing, is especially important — sharing the wrong file in the wrong place can get you in big trouble.
If only a small section of your YouTube link is relevant, make sure to timestamp it with YouTube’s “share” setting so you don’t waste the recipient’s time. If you want to share a meme or picture, don’t make the person click an additional link — post it directly in the chat window. And if you're sending a clip from a new show or film, give a spoiler warning, for goodness sake!
One of the most important netiquette rules is to forgive others’ mistakes. Internet technology netiquette norms can be confusing — we all learn web etiquette as we go along. What we say online feels permanent, which makes us all uneasy. No one wants a rushed, misinterpreted statement hanging over their heads forever, so have compassion for others if you want it extended to yourself.
Learning the social rules of the internet keeps us all happy, and learning to forgive keeps us all safer and helps develop greater understanding. Guidelines for interacting online will continue to evolve, and setting a proper netiquette example for others can help build an online world where everyone is treated respectfully.
These days, it feels like everything you do ends up online, so keeping your privacy in your own hands is more important than ever. Learning the social rules of the web can keep you safe, but for increased privacy for all your online activity, use a secure browser.
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