Online Etiquette

We’ve all seen it online and most of us have probably done it: committing a social faux pas in the comments section of social media posts, YouTube videos, news articles, and forums.

Though we’ve had centuries of revolving lessons on an ever-evolving modern social etiquette, and for millennia ethics philosophers have debated how people should behave in all aspects of society, today it would seem we are lacking in any significant contributions for a much needed social skills training in cyberspace behavior.

Take the time to read the comments section of an obituary where someone died in a particularly shocking accident, homicide, or from suicide and you’ll find more than expressions of sympathy. There is a high probability that you’ll also find disrespect to the deceased or their family, unfounded and offensive conspiracy theories, tribalism between commenters, inflated egos on righteousness, hyperbole, hysteria and any number of other reactionary behaviors and expressed emotions.  Some of the behavior is reminiscent of what you’d expect from children who have not yet learned proper social etiquette and, perhaps more importantly, self-awareness with emotional regulation.

It’s okay to feel confused, to feel angry, to feel scared, to feel threatened, to feel sad, all of these emotions are completely normal, especially for situations where someone’s death has been particularly violent or unexpected, but how we choose to experience or react to and express those emotions is critical for our own wellbeing and our ability to navigate social interactions and relationships effectively.

It’s never okay to be an internet troll and blurt out the first thing that pops into our heads, especially when we’re feeling very emotional, particularly extreme emotions like anger, as they blur our ability to rationally make decisions. Anxiety or nervousness, fear, and sadness are also strong emotions that can play a significant role in the words and phrases we choose to use and how we express them.

The false sense of anonymity we often feel online disconnects us from the consequences of the things we post or comment, especially in times of social and political turmoil. When in cyberspace, we dawn a delusional state of mind where we believe that we can vent our heightened emotional states freely without consequence and post angry or hysterical comments and then just scroll on to the next emotionally triggering post or simply close the browser window or smartphone app, and not have to acknowledge the very real human faces behind the other usernames and how our words may affect those people. Especially when those people are the friends and family of the deceased.

I would compare that level of disgust and discomfort to someone walking into a restaurant, dropping their pants, and taking a shit right on the floor and then walking right back out.  The behavior is socially bizarre, spiteful, derogatory, and shameful for the person doing it and unhealthy and very disturbing for the people unfortunate enough to witness it. The vast majority of us would not commit such an act in public, yet people do this online every day and there are consequences for them and society because of it. Least of all it reveals how mentally unwell the perpetrator is, essentially an audacious and ineffective cry for help.

Unregulated emotional outbursts and ill-thought expressions are why many websites and software applications no longer have options for commentary or allow it to be turned off. The very fact that general audiences cannot be trusted enough to engage in socially acceptable commentary which meets most online community guidelines, has set a precedent for the establishment of online social skills training, something that in my opinion should be instituted in schools – beginning in the elementary level.

It’s true that online chat and forum moderators have been around since the late 1990s, but back then far fewer people were online and they generally assisted moderators with identifying and removing inappropriate content. Today, we seem to grant people some type of collective permission to share outrageous commentary and behavior, it’s essentially rewarded with attention that only serves to encourage even more bad conduct. Attention or fame is the modern social currency and the current value of volatile and controversial behavior is very high.

There was a time when we had a sense that what we posted online would be heavily scrutinized for betraying any social norms because back then cyberspace was all new territory, we relied heavily on the influences and infrastructure of standardized in-person social interactions. Perhaps the most concerning aspect of bad social behavior online is that it is no longer staying online. An emboldened and unfettered cyber-lifestyle seems to be encroaching on our real-world social interactions, particularly in the last ten years.

While there are many reasons why people are currently walking around on a hair-trigger and exploding at anyone who so much as looks at them the wrong way, I believe that the rise of social media use has dramatically increased bad social etiquette at public venues, transportation stations, and other heavily populated spaces. Respect seems to have gone the way of proper salutations and valedictions – a once finely crafted and elaborate custom in written communications. I’m certainly not the only one to notice, comment threads reliably showcase people trying to keep the peace and report inappropriate content, but I fear their struggle is futile unless we take online social behavior more seriously.

Ask any parent about pre-teen and adolescent bullying online and you’ll see I’m not alone in this sentiment. Simply put, much more needs to be done about how people conduct themselves online. Perhaps at the core of this issue is why people seem to have given up on the notion of respecting others as human beings with thoughts and emotions, and instead seem to prefer to view people online as objects for amusement and vitriol. For me, it speaks volumes to the state of mental health and the very concerning reality that many people are mentally unwell and not receiving the treatment (in whatever form) they very clearly and desperately need.

To learn about how to effectively practice empathy in social engagements, I recommend my past post How to Practice Empathy and Prevent Emotional Impotence.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis, please access my immediate assistance resource page.  A comprehensive listing of online and phone resources and services is also available.

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