The Internet* is a big, vast place populated by people the world over. Some even say it's "people all the way down." Most of the people I know spend a large portion of their time on "teh intarwebz," so I think it stands to reason that we can consider ourselves Citizens of the Web, and with great citizenship comes great responsibility. So what are the traits and duties of a model Internet citizen? Here's my cheeky advice, and for the cheek-free lightning edition, just read the headers. But where's the fun in that?
Use strong passwords to deter hacking (especially on Twitter and Yahoo Mail) and make a regular habit of changing them. Don't share your passwords with anyone, and if you do decide to use the same password for multiple accounts, make a distinction between those protecting financial or highly sensitive information and those used for everyday web accounts.
Read (or at least skim) the terms of service (ToS) and privacy policies of new accounts so you know what you're getting into. Pay particular attention to what information a site is allowed to share and with whom they might share it. If a website or app wants to use your location info, ask yourself why before agreeing. Some just do that so they can serve geo-targeted ads. Why give them the courtesy?
Learn to sniff out fishy links and spam/phishing emails before you start clicking on things willy nilly. Funny pics and magic diets aren't real, I promise. And if I were stranded in Europe without any money, I wouldn't email all of my contacts begging for a wire transfer. Why would I seek out internet access and bulk emails before making carefully crafted phone calls to my closest relatives? That stinks almost as much as an eBay purchase inquiry from Nigeria. Look closely at any suspicious URLs—you can usually tell pretty quickly if they're legit or not.
When it comes to seeking out customer support, remember that there is almost always a person on the other end. Assuming that all customer support is outsourced to India is a bad idea, especially with smaller companies. Internet customer service these days has taken a turn for the better, and I guarantee that if you start off friendly and unassuming, you'll have a much better experience.
Is someone aggravating you? Perhaps they just don't understand. Watch your tone and at least pretend to be happy-go-lucky. Help them help you.
Don't Lurk or Leech
Contribute to conversations in a thoughtful, respectful manner, and offer up your own knowledge where appropriate. No one likes a mooch.
Support what you use the most. This means giving proper shouts out, spreading the love, and even ponying up when necessary. There are a lot of people on the Internet trying to make a living by giving of themselves, so do the magnanimous thing and support them when possible. Good content and services deserve to be rewarded. And if you are pleased with the Internet in general, please make your checks payable to Al Gore.
Don't Feed the Trolls
Report spam when you find it, especially on Twitter. The more we can discourage bot accounts from blasting out bogus links, the more power we'll have to combat them.
Are you angry about something in a forum or discussion thread? Take a deep breath. Walk away to another website or a cute cat video for five minutes, then come back to it. Reread your response before sending and cut it down to half the size if it's more than two short paragraphs.
Above all, remember: you are not a troll. The second you stoop down to their level you've just become one. You're better than that. Really. I've been in enough LiveJournal flame wars for the both of us.
Trying to maintain anonymity on the Internet these days is like trying not to get called on by the teacher in class. You can slouch in your chair all you want, but the teacher's going to catch on sooner or later and embarrass you in front of all the other kids, especially the really cute guy you've been hoping will notice you. This is not the way you want him to notice you.
Don't hide behind a photo of your pet or your child—it just makes you look like either a crazy cat person or, worse, a crazy obsessed parent. Use a photo of your face that's no more than a year or two old, and for the love of bandwidth upload something with high resolution. I don't need to see your pores, but I would like to have a clear picture of what you look like.
Use your real name when appropriate and own up to Google results for your name. Be aware of what personal information is out there in the public reach. It's not 1994 any more—there aren't flocks of predatory rapists out to swoon you into meeting IRL and whisking you off to their mom's basement with their moist palms. Use common sense and tell your mom it'll all be okay.
5 things you probably shouldn't put on the public or semi-public Internet:
- phone number
- unmasked email address
- home address (geo-tagging included)
- social security number
- details about your children
Mind Your Email Manners
Do you know the difference between CC (carbon copy, how quaint!) and BCC (blind carbon copy, how sneaky!) in an email? In the professional sphere, the CC feature is incredibly abused but it's a necessary evil, whereas the BCC feature has two primary uses these days: 1) ratting someone out to your boss or secretly including someone to incite drama, and 2) cleverly emailing a group email address (all staff, for example) while preventing the horrors of a Massive Reply All Scenario. (I'm personally proud of utilizing the latter at work. I fully endorse this.)
Never use BCC to blanket email everyone in your address book. BCC is not a substitute for proper permission-based email marketing, and you would do well to remember that most email accounts these days auto-save contacts, so you'll end up emailing that guy who bought your collector's set of Charmed DVDs through Craigslist three months ago.
Do not authorize your social networks to cull through all of your email contacts and invite them for the exact same reason. The guy from Craigslist is not going to write you a recommendation on LinkedIn for how accurate your description of the DVD scratches was, and you certainly don't want the customer support people from your favorite iPad app adding you as a friend on Facebook. No really, you don't. And they won't.
Chain emails are so 1992, right? If only. Don't forward emails to large groups of people—post that stuff on Facebook where your "friends" can "hide posts like this." If only my Great Aunt Dorothy knew I marked her as spam five years ago… It's a good thing I still get her birthday checks in the mail!
DON'T USE ALL CAPS EVER UNLESS IT'S PURELY IRONIC AND INCLUDEZ LOLCATZ-STYLE SPELLING AND PUNCTUATION!!!1111ELEVENTYONE. Use your rich-text editor if you'd like to emphasize words the proper way with bold and italics. Enough said.
Lastly, don't use those silly third party services that block spam by auto-replying to emails and asking people to click a link to become an authorized sender. Your email already has a spam filter, and you wouldn't believe the kinds of important emails that you might not get just because someone doesn't want to click a link that looks like spam itself.
Aspire to Accuracy
It never hurts to spend a minute or two proofreading an email before clicking send or taking that extra step to make sure you attached something that you said you had (I cannot tell you how many times I've forgotten files). Proper English spelling, punctuation, and grammar will get you a lot further than you might think.
Know where you live on the Internet and make sure all of your info is consistent. If you haven't used an account in a while, why not close it completely? Fellow citizens shouldn't have to dig very hard to find the real, current you in the correct Internet space.
Stick to what you know, which also means you should know the limits of your education, formal or otherwise. And if you don't know, *ahem* the Internet is at your fingertips, so get a-Googling and learn something before spouting off falsities and making a fool of yourself.
Know how to use your browser—they've made incredible advances in the last 20 years. For example, you don't need to type "http://" or even "www." before every URL. Bookmarks and bookmark bars are amazingly useful, too, and I know a lot of people who use plugins, bookmarklets, and extensions to enhance their browsing experience. I once watched with disbelief as a woman opened a browser, used the quick search bar to find the Google homepage, then proceeded to type Comcast into the search, then used Comcast's search function to ultimately find her account login screen. Don't be that woman.
Improve your Google-fu—the martial art of successful searching. The auto-suggested features are handy, but knowing how to define searches within a particular website or filter out common results is essential to winning hot-blooded trivia competitions and researching that next great recipe. If anyone could send you a passive-aggressive link to LMGTFY in response to a question, you should think twice about your net-worthiness. (Do you see what I did there?)
Brandish Some Basic HTML
I think everyone knows how to say hello, goodbye, yes, no, and thank you in at least three languages. So why not add some basic HTML into the mix? Your friends will think you're smarter, and you'll be one step closer to being a professional blogger (no you won't).
<i>Italic</i> or <em>Italic</em> <b>Bold</b> or <strong>Bold</strong> <a href="http://example.com">Link text</a> <img src="http://example.com/image.jpg" /> <h1>Header Style 1</h1> to <h6>Header Style 6</h6>
Net Savvy, Net Wise
Citizenship feels good, doesn't it? And you didn't even have to tell me who invented the Internet. Now go out and show the Internet you care and leave it better than you found it! Your fellow citizens will thank you. And while you're at it, why don't you share this with your friends?
Did I miss anything? Tell me in the comments, just don't be a troll…
*Yes, I'm one of those that still insists on treating the Internet as a proper noun. Call me old fashioned, but I think it deserves the respect of capitalization.