Online social interactions offer just as complicated a landscape to navigate as offline social realities. The vast majority of our social rules are unwritten. Indeed, where would they be written? Who is the social authority that could write such a book?
Some of it is written in our DNA over evolutionary time. One such example is the law of reciprocity. It is beneficial to return a favor. If someone buys us a gift, we buy them a gift. If someone helps us move, we help them move. Another is the law of second chances. We have learned that if we throw away relationships over one minor infraction, we would have no relationships.
Those social rules do not end once an internet connection is made. Our current social rules still apply for the most part. And where they don’t, modifications are being evolved. As a species, we are still figuring out the right way to behave online. But here are a few rules we have pretty well worked out. And they apply to both individuals and businesses:
Don’t Damage Reputations
Remember that law of reciprocity mentioned above? One of the basic human reasons you don’t want to spread lies about people is that you don’t want them spread about you. Social reputation is a big deal. It is more important than ever that you are coming across properly online.
Sites like socialvantage.com exist to (among other things) help you manage your social reputation. One sandwich served without the proper number of pickles does not mean that the restaurant is bad, or that the staff needs to be fired, or that the doors need to be closed. This is the type of thing we see on Yelp reviews. A person will exaggerate a bad experience, and present it as if that one thing is the sum total of the business. These types of reputation wars leave us all hungry with no place to eat or do business.
We are constantly blowing minor offenses into major issues. The consequences are worse online because we can reach and influence so many more people. Because of that, we need to be extra careful about voicing negative impressions about someone online. Because the effects are magnified, so is our responsibility.
Don’t Spread Fake News
All of a sudden, fake news is making the news. One of the forces popularly identified as being instrumental in Trump winning the presidency is fake news. But fake news wasn’t born during the recent presidential election. It has been a part of political life since the beginning of political life.
We have called it by other names. But it has always been there. And we have always had a social responsibility to flag it as fake, and not pass it on to our social group. If there has been any change at all in recent years, it is that we have become even less able to distinguish fake news from the real thing.
Each of us has the responsibility to be critical readers of the information that we encounter. That is not to say that we cannot share a story about which we are unsure. But we must rate it as such, and ask for those in our social group to read it skeptically and provide information that would clarify it.
Don’t Spread Misleading Information About Yourself
No one is going to spread false information about themselves that makes them look bad. But lots of people would spread false information that makes them look good.
In a subtle way, we see this with profile pictures. It is misleading to post an old photo of yourself because it made you look good, versus photos that are recent. Companies do this as well in different ways. One of those ways is by leaving out of date menus on their site that get you excited about the pricing or a particular dish, only to discover the prices are different, and that dish is no longer served.
We try to make our lives look more exciting than they are, and our relationships better than they are. This behavior pushes other people into the same pattern. And before you know it, nothing is as it seems. The internet starts looking more like a Second Life fantasy than anything from the real world.
At the end of the day, the unspoken social rules online aren’t all that different than the ones we learned from our parents all those years ago: Be nice to others. Don’t spread lies. And don’t try to make yourself look better than you are.