I belong to a certain writers’ group on LinkedIn, which recently offered a valuable lesson for anyone with an internet connection. I get daily emails from LinkedIn that summarize the popular conversations, and since there are over 5,000 members in my group, I rarely click through. But over a period of a few days, I noticed a few sneeringly sarcastic comments popping up on one particular thread. I’m sorry to admit I was intrigued. (Is there a term for online rubbernecking?)
Here’s what happened: a member asked for advice on a personnel issue. A potential contractor had submitted an idea without following the guidelines for doing so, and the poster wanted to know if she should ignore it. Sounds innocent enough, right? But since the poster was discussing her website, a few other members went to said website and returned with advice on other aspects of her business.
To say she did not appreciate this would be like saying that Wellington merely did not appreciate Napoleon’s invading the world agenda. She accused people of venturing off topic in order to tear her down and destroy her business. As days went by, the conversation became increasingly vitriolic. The words “sexist,” “self serving” and “hysterical” were flung, along with a few others that I can’t write in this blog. It was like watching a trainwreck.
This sort of thing is par for the course on most anonymous online venues. But LinkedIn is anything but anonymous: it contains your full name, picture, credentials and entire professional history. People should keep a tighter hold on their temper in a LinkedIn discussion than in a job interview. And this was not happening in the comments section on a divisive political story; it’s a professional group of business people who want to network with fellow professionals.
Why do social activities online seem to so often spark bad behaviour? There are a lot of theories (this very good article suggests that people using real names may actually make the problem worse). I suspect that most people will walk away from uncomfortable face-to-face conversations, but it’s a lot easier to vent through a keyboard than at a person – plus, you can craft your response.
Which can be used for good, not evil. During the middle of the trainwreck that was the LinkedIn conversation, one commentator prefaced his opinion by stating, “I can see both sides of the issue.” He sounded like the adult preaching reason to the kids on the playground, and I think everyone should add the phrase to their own manual on conducting oneself online. You can almost assume that people will interpret your words in a way contrary to what you intended, and it is better to use more diplomacy, not less, than you would in person.
As for the initial LinkedIn poster, she has left the group. But the conversation will live on, and future potential employers, employees and coworkers will likely be able to find it without any trouble, just as they will many of your Facebook posts and tweets. Once you publish online, you have unleashed it to the internet, and you cannot take it back. That said, here is my entirely unscientific guide to negotiating the minefield of online interactions:
- Before you comment on an existing thread or board, read other posts to get a feel for the tone. It will be very different within a NHL chatroom than, say, a home decorating forum
- Don’t get personal. Focus on the issue
- Proofread, at least twice
- Punctuate . If you can’t take the time to capitalize your sentences, people will doubt you took much time to formulate your opinion
- Terms like “in my experience,” “in my opinion,” “I find” and “I believe” can soften a contentious statement
- If a forum is dissolving into anarchy, leave. These things rarely seem to return to stable ground
Do you have other suggestions? Have you ever been caught in the mire of an online fistfight? How did you handle it?