The Flock: Another tech podcast


The Net Commandments

8 April 2019

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Internet, and about how terrible it can be sometimes. You’ve probably considered this as well.

Eventually I started trying to figure out what everyone would need to do to make social media a better place. Not what everyone should think, but how they express it. I’m a believer that the Internet itself is not the problem; the real issue stems from our tendency to treat online interactions differently than any others.

Below are the rules that form my code for online behavior. I recommend that you write some of your own. If we all did this, and put more thought and care into how we behave online, the Internet would be a better place. And maybe the world with it.

I have nine resolutions so far, and I’ve kept them as general as possible so as to cover more ground. The first six apply primarily to direct interactions with online strangers, while the last three establish what I want my general attitude to be.

Remember that people are more than avatars.

This is perhaps the rule from which all online niceness is derived. Yes, political rhetoric these days requires that you reduce your opponents to monsters, but all that does is reassure the people who already agree with you. Regardless of what you’re saying, you will be more persuasive to everyone if you recognize the human behind the handle. Of course I don’t mean you must admire everyone you meet online — a great many people do not deserve your respect — but you should never stoop to the level of the people you criticize by ignoring their humanity.

Treat online exchanges the same as any other interaction.

Communication via social networks should always be an extension of your actual attitude. The great distance over which we can reach others in this age does not excuse us from etiquette and common sense. The same values that guide your “human” conversations should influence you equally online — because you’re still talking to humans. To act differently online than offline is to create yourself a safe shell where you can expel your rage no matter the effect to others. If that is what you seek, keep to yourself.

Be of higher character or do not engage.

Fighting fire with fire is a tempting choice, but you only make yourself look worse when you lash back at someone who bothers you online. It’s better to mute someone than to engage in a needless back-and-forth. Preserve your moral high ground; everyone can recognize a jerk, and you don’t need to provide a spotlight. In all of your engagements, in fact, speak out of rationality and not emotion.

Accept that you are fallible and can be wrong.

The greatest roadblock to productive discourse is that no one admits an error. Everyone finds themselves only more deeply entrenched in the ideas they held before. When debate only serves to make everyone involved angry, it is futile. Never stop considering the possibility that you are wrong. Not all discussions must end with one party conceding, but no one should let their desire to be right overcome their desire for the truth.

Don’t defeat, persuade.

If you do choose to discuss something with a person who disagrees with you, your goal should not be to “win” the argument for an invisible judge — it should be to persuade the other person. If you do so, you will have won the argument in the way that actually matters. Act as you would without a potential audience of millions; pretend you’re sitting across a coffee shop table from the other person. Don’t make the argument a spectacle where you deliver the final punch. Many people refuse to be persuaded, in which case they’re not worth your time. Pick your battles, and don’t treat them as battles.

Make no assumptions and only reasonable inferences.

It is easy, and often accurate, to associate certain opinions with others. But not everyone who thinks Thing A also thinks Thing B, even if Thing A and Thing B are common pairs. This is only a correlative and not a causal relationship. It can never hurt you to slow down and not presume to know where someone else is coming from. On the other hand, inferring an opinion someone holds is fine, because inference by definition requires evidence. You can read between the lines of what someone is saying and see the assumptions they are making; in doing so, you are identifying the causal relationships between opinions. But never base your response to someone on an assumption you yourself have made.

Never compromise your self for your image.

That’s your self — two words — what makes you who you are. Who you are should be what others find worth following, not vice versa. Don’t tailor yourself to be the ideal account; don’t make your profile anyone else’s.

Value precedes virality.

Think about what you post the same way you think about yourself: it shouldn’t be designed for others. Valuable content that deserves to go viral will go viral. You can take advantage of people’s tendencies by churning out popular posts left and right, but is that really worth anything? This isn’t to say anyone should deliberately be unpopular, but rather that the free market of information will provide the exposure. Judge content by its own merits, not by the numbers.

Think twice.

It’s pretty self-explanatory.