Moral guidelines for your personal conduct in digital spaces.
Every day on social media, we encounter situations where what we want to convey to others is misinterpreted, misheard, or in some way responded to in an unexpected way. It’s easy to deflect blame onto the other parties when this happens, perhaps by saying they misunderstood your intention. But it’s important to take efforts to communicate in ways that ensure you don’t come off as, well, an asshole.
These miscommunications are particularly prevalent on social media platforms that are restrictive, like Twitter. Cut off nuance, institute character limitations, remove body language, but encourage everyone to communicate, and you create a minefield of misinterpretation; a wasteland of “That’s not what I meant!” whining. (Not to mention actual harassment, slurs, and other awful shit.)
Cishet men are particularly terrible at caring about their intention when it comes to interactions in both the digital world and meatspace (that is, the space where people physically exist). This is due to the fact that when we fuck up (assuming we didn’t want to be assholes), our enormous privilege means that the harm falls mostly on others, not us. We can then double down and blame others for misinterpreting or being “too sensitive,” rather than examining how we could be better.Cishet men are particularly terrible at caring about their intention when it comes to interactions in both the digital world and meatspace. Click To Tweet
A good example of this outside the digital space is catcalls — or, more accurately, street harassment. See the many articles from women saying catcalls are awful, make them feel unsafe, and need to stop; then see the many cishet men hand-waving these concerns away, claiming their yells at strange women about their bodies are “compliments.” Instead of just leaving women alone, cishet men say women have misinterpreted them, and proceed to publicly get a conceptual boner as they argue their “case.” After all, they point out, catcalling isn’t illegal! In fact, you’ll frequently see “not criminal” and “doesn’t break the rules” as justification for shit behavior from cishet men; this should not be viewed as a justification for awfulness, but as an admittance of moral abdication.
Online, this kind of rationalizing and deflection plays out all the time, and often in damaging ways. So, fellow cishet men, assuming you do want to actually be a good person — that you do care about the ethical treatment of others — it’s worth considering some moral guidelines for your personal conduct in digital spaces. Here are seven.
Rule of thumb: Use your finite time and energy to thoughtfully engage with marginalized voices, not to attack jerks. Nobody will die because you didn’t tell them they’re wrong — instead, use your energy to compliment someone who’s done something commendable. This doesn’t mean you should neverchallenge assholes online, but rather that you should recognize what you’re prioritizing.
Nothing is more frustrating than constantly seeing powerful people, with reach and influence, spend their precious time on obviously angry jerks rather than, say, people of color who need eyes on their work and who are supporters of these influential people. Of course, most people I know fight jerks and raise the voices of others — but I know I have sometimes spent too much time focused on the jerks. We should always be wondering who we’re giving our platform’s time to.Use your finite time and energy to thoughtfully engage with marginalized voices, not to attack jerks. Click To Tweet
Similarly, remember that others read your account, so do what you can to make sure you’re not focused solely on awfulness, violent imagery, and so on. The world is already quite shit, so it is helpful to emphasize actions that can be beneficial: Focus on creation, not destruction.
Your “help” can be a hindrance
Since cishet men are often in the position of not being targets of harassment and hate, we might feel the need to help our friends being treated poorly by trolls. But such intention can backfire. Instead of launching a counter-offensive by tagging the person being attacked and having a go at their harasser, consider offering direct support instead. And here’s a concept: ask. It’s better practice to inquire with the person on what (if anything) you can do, instead of charging in, your “wit” igniting their Notifications.
Related: I watched a friend make an error in a tweet and receive about 15 replies from followers pointing out the same error. Take two seconds, by looking at replies, to see whether your mistake-spotting will be the 100th one. If it is, don’t do it.
Don’t be a rando — stick to your lane
Avoid coming across as a jerk by asking yourself this simple question: Am I a total stranger?
Twitter can be a friendly gathering of strangers, but, by default, you should think of it as a space like a bar or street. If the environment is such that you see people talking who can loop you into the conversation — for example, someone has asked a question that is not rhetorical, or people you know well are participating, making it likely that your views will be welcome — great! That’s friendly.
But too often, we think a stated opinion requires our endorsement or our own opinion on the matter, when that was never asked for. Again, this looks particularly bad when we’re not on familiar terms with the person making the statement, and worse still when it’s a man responding to a woman he’s never spoken to before.
If you have almost no connection to this other person, maybe don’t emerge from nowhere with your sick burn, mild observation, or hot take. Remember: You’re probably the 452nd person to point out a minor error or rehash an argument they’ve already heard.
Also, consider whether you want to draw attention to an account: A good default practice if you want to highlight a tweet, for example, is to screenshot it and erase the user’s handle, name, and face. This lets you deal with the “argument” or position while helping to curb dogpiling, which can increase the likelihood of harassment.
Don’t bombard people with attention
Look, the Internet is amazing for meeting people we find fascinating — it can often lead to relationships. But try not to bombard people with tweets or messages. This is particularly a problem with dating sites. If someone isn’t responding, maybe think about why and move the fuck on? I’m not saying you’re this guy, but we should still do better.
By bombarding, you’re not only wasting your time but — more importantly — you’re also making this other person possibly uncomfortable with your incessant, even if well-intentioned, attention.
Given the brevity of social network posts, a statement that leaves out words can come across as a dogmatic declaration aimed at someone — often a woman. If you’re replying to someone, check to see whether your message comes across as ‘splaining what is quite obvious to this person.
If you just want to make a point that agrees with another person, do it on your own wall or timeline. Maybe give a quick acknowledgement to this other person for inspiring you — but leave them out by, for example, not tagging them in your 10 tweets on the topic.
Indeed, there’s a weird habit I’ve noticed: When people get very passionate about a topic they agree with you on, they will often send you multiple, threaded posts or tweets outlining a position you already know about. And I don’t know who benefits from this redundant approach.
Once, someone tagged me in seven consecutive tweets, summarizing an article I’d written, because he agreed with a point I’d made in it. In essence, he had bombarded me with a summary of my own article. When I pointed this out and said I don’t need this ‘splained to me, he called me “rude” and blocked me. Nice.
It’s good to convey enthusiasm and support for an idea; but too often, that enthusiastic agreement comes across as ‘splaining. This is boring, draining, and unnecessary.
Leave jokes alone
Similarly, there seems to be a strange habit of not being able to leave a joke alone. Rather than simply promoting or appreciating a joke, we feel the need to rephrase it, respond to it, or explain it (there’s an entire Twitter accountdedicated to highlighting joke ‘splainers). While it’s understandable that you want to “have fun” with someone, you’re better off simply conveying appreciation for their wit.
It’s particularly OK to leave jokes standing if it’s a woman being funny. Dudes look really gross when they ‘splain women’s jokes back to them.
Listen to others
If you’re a cishet, able-bodied, white man, you need to be listening to others, not speaking over or for them. Proclamations of “being an ally” matter less than demonstrations of support. Examining the impact we make matters so much: watching white friends engage with other white people about white privilege is one reason I’ve been able to feel confident talking about race issues.
Recognize, however, that you’ll fuck up. And also that you need to know how best to respond when that happens — whether you double down and blame marginalized people for being “offended” or reflect on how you can do better.If you’re a cishet, able-bodied, white man, you need to be listening to others, not speaking over or for them. Click To Tweet
For example: I can handle outright racists — they’re boring and almost everyone will agree their views are bad. What I can’t stand are people who are Not Racist emphasizing views that white supremacy would find comforting (MLK was referring to such people when speaking about “white moderates,” in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”). I prefer people to announce their hatred of their privilege being challenged, rather than finding weasel words to protect it.
Though these kinds of personal social media ethics guidelines may sound trivial, they really matter; just ask anyone who’s been dogpiled or harassed online.
For many, the Internet has become the great equalizer — yet still, of course, it carries with it power imbalances. Women are still frequently targets; people of color still get racist threats. How we act and think digitally reflects how we handle everything else; caring about others doesn’t stop because you turn the computer on or off. How we care shapes our actions and really does have an impact on people we’ve never spoken to.
The Internet is real life; caring about personal ethics online is the same as caring about ethics in general. Assuming we want to be good people, we should devote our efforts to more thoughtful, considerate behavior . . . with and without character limits.