Just the other day, the Daily Mail printed yet another article about a Facebook-advertised party that went hideously wrong. It was your typical teenager-advertises-on-social-network-site-and-three-thousand-people-turn-up-and-trash-the-place tale. It’s probably exaggerated by the press, if it’s even true at all. But there are enough silly stories like this to make me believe that at least some of them probably happen. MPs and celebrities demonstrate with alarming regularity their apparent inability to use Twitter. Teachers say stupid things online about their classes. And on and on it goes. I doubt the validity of much of what I read, but they can’t be all made up.
Nonetheless, there’s a wider problem, and it’s that a generation who don’t know how to use the web responsibly are now bringing up another generation of people who also won’t know how to use the web responsibly. Let me elucidate. People of my age and slightly older are reasonably tech savvy, in that we know how to get online, stay safe online and have an awareness of the history of the web and technology in general. If I was to list the following words, for example –
- Ask Jeeves
- ARC and ZOO
- 3.5” vs 5 ¼”
- Yellow home page
- Badger Badger Badger Badger MUSHROOM MUSHROOM
Ooh, look at you. You’re practically salivating with nostalgia for 1998, aren’t you? It was all so much simpler then. You could get an online nom de plume without fear that it had already been taken. User group digests came through exclusively via email because that was the best way of tracking them. Amazon didn’t have a U.K. website. (To anyone under the age of eighteen who happens to be reading, yes, this really was the case once.) And the nearest you got to explicit material online was the erotic stories archives at literotica.com. Apparently. So I’ve read, anyway.
But even then the internet was populated by stupid people. You know the ones. They can’t spell. They WRITE IN CAPITALS. They don’t read the original post or article before commenting. They pass round everything they read without scrutiny, and believe everything they read without analysis. They have no manners or social graces because online you can get away without them. They have been online for longer than I have, and they’re still around. And a good number of them have probably cohabited, married and spawned (not necessarily in that order) within the last decade, so there’s a good risk that their children are going to grow up with the same habits. We cannot rely on teachers being able to clue them up, because a third of them seem to be frightened of the technology, while another third are guilty of exactly the same kinds of behaviour.
My own children have adapted to the online world with the sort of speed and capability that you’d expect from people who’ve been exposed to it more or less since birth. My eldest (nearly seven) is almost as good at Sonic the Hedgehog as I am (and yes, I knew this was going to happen sooner or later, but personally this is a little sooner than I’d have liked). The middle one (nearly five) wants an iPhone: we have told him he has to wait until he is twenty, which is an effective stall. The youngest…well, the youngest is still watching Postman Pat, but he did just get a V-Tech laptop for his birthday, so I suppose it’s just a matter of time.
There’s nothing exceptional about any of this. But there’s a difference between knowing the technical side of things and knowing how to use the technology appropriately. Any idiot can drive a car with sufficient competence to impress an examiner on a given day – given time, they may even drive it well, knowing how to accelerate quickly, take corners at speed and brake in the rain. But this doesn’t make you a responsible driver, as the bloke who cut me up at the business park roundabout last Friday would do well to remember. Tailgating, failing to give way, inappropriate and dangerous overtaking and driving too slowly are all irritating habits that many people continue to practice simply because they know they can get away with it.
The same applies online. There is little accountability for the things you say and do – even in an age where people can be sent to prison for racist tweeting (despite all the hysterical scaremongering about loss of freedom of speech, the Liam Stacey case was, I suspect, an exception, made solely to prove a point). You can have an account ban but a new one is easy to set up. You seldom have to face the people you’ve transgressed, even the ones on social media where a real-world connection is more likely. Typing a rude comment is easy and requires little intelligence or technical ability (cf. more or less any YouTube comments page; when it comes to inane, pointless ridiculousness, YouTube is the hub).
I’m not out to fight the trolls. Deliberately provocative online behaviour has always existed and will always exist as long as you don’t get people knocking on your doors beating you up for the things you said online. For every heartfelt Noel Edmonds story / Richard Bacon documentary that exposes the shocking manner in which some people choose to behave, there are a thousand new trolls in the wings waiting to spring up. You can’t explain the rules of engagement to a troll, because he already understands them – he just doesn’t care, and thus the worst thing you can do with any troll is to give them exposure. Put simply, don’t feed them. They are out for a reaction, and if everyone online were to ignore every comment that was obviously troll-like, the trolls would lose overnight and there would be no point to them, and they’d simply dwindle and die out. Sadly, this is never going to happen, so I think we have to live with trolls as an unavoidable component of online life, like the idiots who chant at football matches. You can change the law overnight, but changing attitudes takes years, decades or even longer. Don’t assume things will improve any time soon. Just deal with it.
No, the people I’m after are the ones who genuinely don’t seem to be able to grasp certain rules and guidelines. A number of said guidelines are listed below. I maintain that failure to understand basic netiquette has nothing to do with age or intelligence. My father is in his sixties and quivered in fear whenever he had to programme our video recorder, but he has become, over the past decade, remarkably good at shopping online, and ignoring obvious hoaxes or looking them up if he’s unsure. It took some time and education and a few pointers (some from me, some from a few of his clued-up friends) but he’s grasped it. I consider myself reasonably well-behaved (not always impeccably, then again nobody’s perfect), but I learned the rules of online behaviour through a mixture of common sense and through making my share of mistakes along the way. And if I can, anyone can.
So here’s what we should be teaching our children, our friends and our parents, because this is the stuff that really grates, and that you’d think would be obvious, but apparently it isn’t:
1. Don’t put anything on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace or YouTube that you wouldn’t want plastered on the front of a tabloid. Just because it happened, it doesn’t mean you have to tell everyone about it. This applies to privately posted material as well. If you must share such things digitally, stick to email.
2. There is no charge for Facebook and there is no plan to introduce one. Just because you read it on the internet, that doesn’t make it fact. Don’t start a new group lambasting Zuckerberg for that; have a go at their draconian copyright policy instead.
3. By and large the world is not interested in what you had for breakfast. Be selective. You don’t have to post for the sake of posting. You really don’t.
4. If you upload public videos, be prepared to have them ripped apart by people who have nothing better to do. You must grow a thick skin if you’re going to survive.
5. You don’t need that many friends. Do you? Really? This isn’t a numbers game.
6. Don’t tag people in photos unless you’re sure they’re going to be happy about it. Relationships have been damaged by inappropriate tagging. In fact, go through your photos before you upload them, and make sure you really want to share every single one. Quality over quantity.
7. Don’t use text speak for updates. Write the full word. It’s not rocket science.
8. ‘LOL’ and ‘ROTFLMAO’ are used far too frequently, undermining any sense of sincerity they might once have had, and too often for things that aren’t funny at all. Don’t use them. Just write [laughs] instead. People will know what you mean.
9. Be wary of friending people you work with. Under no circumstances make friends with your boss or – if you’re a manager – any of your direct reports, unless you no longer work together. Keep discussions about the office away from social networking sites, unless they’re either vague (“had a rubbish day”) or positive (“had a great time at the Christmas party”). They will get passed around before you know it. The word ‘private’ does not exist online, not where a good headline is concerned.
10. There are no plans to give away free iPads. If it sounds too good to be true, it really is.
11. Conversely, Facebook is a free service. Just remember that before you start complaining.
12. Do not – repeat, do NOT – hit reply all unless you really, really mean it.
13. If you’re included on an obvious virus hoax that’s been cc’d to a number of other people, don’t reply to all saying “this is fake”. It embarrasses the original sender (and this may be what they need, but that doesn’t make it right). Send them a private message directing them to Snopes and leave it at that. And do not be smug about it, unless you really don’t like them.
14. Microsoft have no plans to give you money for forwarding emails. Don’t be stupid. Similarly, banks will never email you to ask you to log in and change your details.
15. Consider using plain text occasionally. It keeps the message size down.
16. The best way to check the authenticity of any suspicious-sounding email or viral warning is to copy and paste a selection of the text (in quotes, if this works) into the Google search bar. Sometimes this will take you to Snopes, sometimes it won’t. Sometimes the warning will be genuine, so don’t be too cynical.
17. Use distribution lists with care. Some of the stuff you send may be inappropriate for some of the recipients.
18. On a related note, do not send glurge. Ever. Under any circumstances, and on pain of death. I mean it.
19. Unless it’s wildly impractical, read through the whole discussion before commenting. Just make sure that the question you were going to ask hasn’t already cropped up earlier.
20. Newspapers and websites will lie to you. They have an agenda, which is to sell more papers or knock up the hit count. Concurrently, they want you to feel a certain way and react in a certain manner, and they know how to manipulate you. Do not start a new discussion expressing your outrage at Britain’s immigration policies or the existence of homosexual propaganda in schools unless you are absolutely sure that what you’ve read is reasonably accurate. Read between the lines. (If you want to start a thread lambasting a particular article’s political stance, or ripping it to shreds because it’s full of holes, then this is acceptable, if ultimately rather pointless.)
21. If at all possible, type your response into a plain text email and then copy and paste. (Don’t use HTML unless you’re sure it’ll work with the interface you’re using.) If it’s a long post, save it periodically and before you post it to the discussion; sometimes comments can get lost in the ether.
22. Do not feed the troll.
23. Spellcheck and proofread everything you’re about to post, however brief. It’s very easy to words out and completely change the meaning of what you wanted to say. You run the risk of looking stupid if you don’t at least have a cursory glance.
24. Please, for the love of God, keep the emoticons to a minimum. Don’t use them at all if you can help it. Try and say it in words. And anyone who adds a row of smiling, winking animated yellow faces will be shot on sight.
25. Don’t use auto-signatures; they’re lame and you have to keep reading them to work out if they’re part of the message or not.
26. Try and criticise what the person has said, rather than the person. And yes, there’s a difference.
27. If it’s someone who’s died that you’ve never heard of, don’t say so. If it’s an issue that doesn’t interest you, I don’t care. If it’s a TV program you’ve never watched and don’t plan to, don’t bother telling me. I couldn’t give a rat’s arse. Go and find something that does interest you. Would you sign the book of remembrance for a person you’d never met saying “I have no idea who this person is”? Same thing.
28. Don’t criticise anyone else’s spelling and grammar, even if it’s appalling. It gets you nowhere and simply weakens your own argument. Exceptions may be made for obvious idiots who have ideas above their station and insist they have IQs of 148, but even these should be used with caution.
29. There are plenty of comments about pointless articles. We don’t need any more. Newspapers no longer have to worry about printing costs, which is why there’s so much rubbish online. Live with it.
30. Never, I repeat NEVER write in capitals. It’s not so much the ‘shouting’ label; it just makes it hard to read. There’s a reason why Terry Pratchett only had Death speaking one or two sentences at a time.
31. Do not feed the troll.
32. Be careful of using online sources to verify the credibility of your argument, unless they’re airtight. For every set of statistics or commentary you can produce, there will be a dozen others that your opponents will also be able to pull out that contravene them. Wikipedia can be an invaluable resource for summaries and certain facts, but use it with extreme care.
33. Do not reveal your name, age or gender unless it’s really important. And consider having a blank avatar, because people will judge you on its content, rather than on what you’ve written.
34. Conversely, do not take facts that people give about themselves at face value. It is ridiculously easy to lie on the internet and people will, frequently.
35. There is a clear and concrete difference between being in the right and simply being right. Make sure you learn it.
36. Do not feed the troll.
So there we go. We start telling people about this, we may be able to raise a generation of people who can actually behave properly online, and the web will be a much nicer place. If I’ve missed anything, please tell me and I will edit the post accordingly to include your submissions. It would be nice to make this a reasonably comprehensive list!