My sister and I are best friends. You wouldn’t know it judging from a recent text message conversation we had… at least if you’re reading it from the outside. In fact, I’ve played up this kind of antagonism in a teaching video I made a few years ago, and in various other places since. It’s all a performance; it’s funny, and it works. But my sister is the only person in the world who I could communicate with in certain ways who would never take it the wrong way. Communicating to other people online though – there’s always more thought required there…
I’ve been thinking a lot about online etiquette lately, and with that came thoughts of writing about it here. The inspiration didn’t arise from the absence of a grateful reply to an email I’d sent a colleague providing advice they’d asked for. And it didn’t come from the very confusing lack of follow-up contact by a well-known overseas professor who’d approached me regarding a research proposition he had. Both of those things happened, but it’s not why I’m writing this blog. And the impetus certainly didn’t come from the constant stream of astonishing – or perhaps not-so-surprising – stories of everything from cyberbullying in various contexts to Donald Trump’s online behaviour (which, as it happens, often involves cyberbullying).
In truth, I’m not sure what started me off on the path to writing this blog several weeks ago. Getting on with each other online and elsewhere shouldn’t really be that hard. Do I need to really blog about the obvious? Yet with my students engaging in all sorts of collaborative online activity at the moment, it now seems like an ideal time to consider the subject. This is not to suggest that these students are in any way deficient in this area – I’ve found that students actively working together on Twitter and other platforms are with very few exceptions far more collegial than many other individuals and groups. But etiquette – online and otherwise – is more often assumed than explicitly discussed.
On a basic level, the simple act of acknowledging someone can be key to productive online behaviours and interactions in so many different ways, as I gestured to in the tweet below:
I no doubt miss a comment every now and then, but the principle still stands. Returning to the title of this blog post, it often seems far too easy to forget the ‘social’ in social media. I’m sure there are circumstances where this kind of etiquette doesn’t apply, but I’m yet to personally meet anyone like Ricky Gervais who could justify ignoring what are likely to be hundreds of daily requests from animal welfare activists and other fans contacting him on Twitter alone – although even Gervais goes to great lengths to acknowledge, interact, and engage in spite of his expansive following.
Other forms of online interactions with people bring different challenges. The experience of collaborating via a virtual meetup using Zoom, Skype or Google Hangouts, for instance, can come with both expected and unexpected obstacles. Sure, there’s the odd technical issue that occurs when I try to record a conversation for a podcast due to wifi issues.
On the other hand, when a larger group is involved than just two people, there’s also the question of how to ensure everyone in a video conference has the ability and opportunity to contribute. This kind of scenario is humorously dramatised – albeit in a highly exagerrated form – in the following video clip from Tripp and Tyler:
And if you enjoyed that, you might also like to check out the sequel ‘A Video Conference Call in Real Life.’ As these skits reveal, a conglomeration of problems – many of them related to etiquette – can arise in learning or workplace scenarios like this. As an aside, it’s worth noting that there is a crucial overlap in these contexts when education is industry-relevant! In other words, students getting experience of online video chats when working in teams are doing what untold numbers of people in industry do every single day!
I was raised to always be polite, but I also don’t think I’m obsessed with manners. The ‘Manners Maketh Man’ motto spoken by the protagonists of the film Kingsman: The Secret Service is as absurd as it is gendered. But at the same time, manners are important. The transition from interpersonal to virtual communication changes nothing about this, even though I’ve witnessed some stunning instances over the years when people have sent emails and messages via SM in ways that utterly fail to comprehend that such messages should be composed as if they were being delivered face-to-face. To put it another way…
Anything you say to somebody else online – whether its in the form of text, audio, or video – should be thought of as having the same meaning and ethical weight as if you said it to their face (and, depending on the context and the audience, it may well have more).
When you’re behaving ethically in the online world, good manners seem to me to be almost always pretty common sense. Nonetheless, negotiating online etiquette frequently involves far more nuanced issues than simply whether or not you should be disgustingly rude to someone else.
In other words: just because you’re not being outright offensive, doesn’t mean you’re doing it right!!