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The Reformation of Internet Manners by Eric Brown

Preface

“Shame is as old as humankind but recently something has changed. Shame now moves at lightning speed and with devastating effects.” — Jon Ronson

It was November 8, 2016 — my home was quiet, and the fireplace warmed the room. It was peaceful and calm. Throughout the night I would get text messages asking for my thoughts on the news commentary happening on television. My wife opted for bed, and I decided to see what was happening on Facebook.

The scene was chaotic.

On this night real estate mogul and reality television star, Donald Trump, was elected President of the United States. I got lost in an infinite scroll of political turmoil.


I was nine years old when the World Wide Web moved into our home. My first e-mail address was set up with Juno, and the melodic tone of dial-up always brings me back to the good ole’ days of AOL Instant Messenger. Curse the house phone that would perpetually ring and kill my internet connection right before my latest crush would affirm or reject my suave internet charm. At this point in my life, I opted not to speak to the girl at school the next day, but would patiently await her arrival with the “door opening” sound effect in the evenings. Remember?

You and I have probably taken for granted how much the internet has shaped us. My love for the internet began when I made my first website through GeoCities in high school. I used their free website builder, and it had an excellent MIDI soundtrack in the background.

From this rough beginning, our society has entered a stage unprecedented in human history. Technology allows you and I to access the world with a tap of a finger. We have endless pathways to interact with other people. We can continuously stay engaged with world news. All day long we receive and reply to messages for work on our phones, tablets, and computers. We engage new ideas and reflect on musings like the one you’re reading. From YouTube to Facebook, Google Search, and Yahoo. God only knows how many accounts I’ve created over the past twenty years that I’ve forgotten about (I still remember you [email protected]).

And still, I recognize that with all the advancements, notifications, and ‘likes,’ we’ve yet to find perfect wholeness in the World Wide Web. We must remember that the internet is not an end-all, it’s a medium. It is a tool, not an identity.

Between the quiet of my home and the “screaming” in my newsfeed, I thought of my children, Ella and Owen, sound asleep in their bedrooms. A four-year-old and two-year-old oblivious to “breaking news” and worldwide drama.

Like all children, their innocence is sacred. It’s a purity that I often try to hack my way back to understand.

They have no recognition of what had happened in the world that night.

They don’t know the turmoil of the countless debates, personal insults, and months of online banter about which side was wrong or right. As much as I wish I could freeze time there’s nothing that’s going to stop my children from growing up.

Reflecting on the society my children will be raised in sparked a series of questions:

  • How can we uphold respect and dignity in our cultural moment?
  • How can personal virtue make our world better when virtue isn’t practiced in our most esteemed public office?
  • Are politeness, courteousness, and good manners still part of our social fabric?
  • What happens when people stop caring about how they treat people?
  • What do our social rituals say about us?

In an age in which pedestrians are obstacles between the office and us and road rage is a legitimate reaction to bad traffic, our general lack of respect for one another is exposed. There is no greater forum for disrespect than the internet.

And this has to change.

All it takes is a quick look at the comments of your favorite celebrity on Instagram. You’ll quickly realize the internet is savage. Strangers are mean. The internet turns passive aggression into plain ole’ aggression.

As co-founder of a creative technology company, I live and breathe ideas, brands, and strategies that use the internet to engage and move users toward objectives. We help our customers leverage these interactions to gain exposure, sell products, and make a difference within the areas they provide value.

I believe the internet is a canvas, an expression of what our world values. We’ve missed something when the internet is diminished to sidebar ads, fifteen-second commercials, and the ‘like’ button. Even though our digital age cultivates a variety of commerce, demand, and experiences — it should always be used responsibly by the humans who empower it.

It was in the quiet of my home on election night that I realized there is no code for how to treat one another on the internet. There are no shared measures for meaningful debate online. There is no standard.

I will teach my kids how to treat others face-to-face.
But will those manners translate screen-to-screen?

Every day reports of cyberbullying and online abuse invade the news headlines. I’ll never forget the pit in my stomach when I watched Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk on cyber-bullying. “I was Patient Zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously…public shaming as a blood sport has to stop,” states Lewinsky. A recent survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds that 74 percent of Americans “think manners and behavior have deteriorated in the United States over the past several decades.”

In 1787, famed politician and abolitionist William Wilberforce instigated the Second Reformation of Manners. King George III issued a Royal Proclamation urging people of honor and authority to set good examples, purposed to “discount and punish all manner of vice, profaneness, and immorality, in all persons, of whatsoever degree or quality within this realm.”

I am certainly no William Wilberforce nor do I have the authority to issue a Royal Proclamation in 2017, but as a husband and father to two children who will be raised in an evolved digital age, I believe we need a reformation of manners.

A digital reformation of manners.

Amid an online culture of humiliation, disagreement, and endless opinion — there has to be a better way. Could a resurgence of manners be what our society needs?

Example > Opinion
The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion. — Paulo Coelho

I was raised on good manners. “Please” and “thank you” were non-negotiables in our home. My mother always made it known when I was rude, selfish, or inconsiderate. Courtesy and politeness were daily practices and for the past thirty-one years continue to be something I work on and now hope to pass on to my children.

I recently had to fly for a business trip when a woman sitting across from me was attempting to get her carry-on luggage into the overhead bin. I noticed she was struggling and offered to put her suitcase in the compartment for her. She turned to me and said, “thank you for being you.”

Her comment surprised me. It was like my actions came from a different planet. I sat in my seat and thought about my parents. They should be the ones this stranger thanked.

I was reminded that you and I have small opportunities every hour of every day to put others first. The clerk at the grocery store, the barista, your next door neighbor, and the stranger you pass on the street all deserve respect. Simple gestures of kindness still matter.

Simply said, good manners are behaviors that demonstrate respect and consideration for others. They are about prioritizing other people above yourself.

The challenge with the internet is everything is about you. Ads follow you based on your interests. Anything you want can easily be found. Need directions? A gift for grandma? A way to share that your life is fantastic (or you at least want people to think it is)? The default nature of the internet makes us all more selfish. Everything is about what you think. The most popular social media platform in the world asks, “What’s on your mind?” A not-so-subtle invitation to broadcast your opinion of the world and its problems. It’s important to understand that social media presents a fragment of the truth, not the whole truth. It never portrays an accurate picture of real life (thanks, Instagram Husband).

In the face of this, the question at the core of good manners — how do you treat others? — makes our cultural moment difficult to navigate.

The simple question is, how do you treat others online?

What do you like and what does it say about you? What kind of content are you retweeting? How many hearts are you pressing on Instagram? What kinds of comment threads are you participating in?

How you act online reflects what you value and believe about the world. You and I might live in two worlds; a digital world and a real world, but in both worlds, there’s only one you.

When an interaction is online or face-to-face, your legacy is determined by your example, not your opinion.

LESSONS FROM 1889
The real test of good manners is to be able to put up with bad manners pleasantly. — Kahlil Gibran

Nearly 130 years ago, the Children’s National Guild of Courtesy created the ‘Good Manners’ chart. The intent of the chart covered personal conduct at home, at school, at play, in the street, at the table and general courtesy. The chart hung in a prominent place in the classroom or would be unrolled and hung on a map-stand. The rules emphasized that children should respect teachers, other students, and school property. Cheating, dishonesty, and cowardice were discouraged. As part of lessons on ‘Conduct and Manners,’ the teacher would run through the chart, while the children repeated each rule several times. The students were required to put them into practice in the classroom and on the playground.

In 1899, one school inspector reported improved discipline and “polite behavior of the pupils to their seniors outside the precincts of the school” and that “the lessons on conduct and manners and those from the good manners chart, lately supplied to schools are apparently doing good.”

The top of the chart reads:

“Courtesy, politeness, or good manners, means kindly and thoughtful considerations for others. A celebrated writer has said a Boy who is Courteous and Pure is an honour to his country. Brave and noble men and women are always courteous. Three of the bravest and greatest men who ever lived — the Duke of Wellington, General Gordon, and General Washington — were distinguished for their courteous behaviors.”

The rules on the chart covered what good manners looked like for individuals, the home, at school, at play, in the street, at the table, and more. Some highlights include:

  • Be honest, truthful, and pure.
  • Keep out of bad company.
  • Help your parents as much as you can, and do your best to please them.
  • Do not cheat at games.
  • Do not bully; only cowards do this.
  • Be pleasant and not quarrelsome.
  • Always show attention to Older People and Strangers by opening the door for them, bringing what they require (hat, chair, etc.) giving up your seat to them if necessary, and in every possible way, saving them trouble.
  • All these rules respecting your conduct towards others are included in the GOLDEN RULE, Always do to others as you would wish them to do to you if you were in their place. Whenever, therefore, you are in doubt as to how you should act toward others ask yourself this question, How should I like them to act towards me if I were in their place? and then Do what your conscious tells you is right.

What the Children’s National Guild of Courtesy created is still relevant today. This past Summer, I began to make a revised version of their work, emulating their intent while editing their principles for our cultural moment.

Rules for Netiquette
If you’ve built a good foundation of common courtesy with your children, then take heart: You don’t have to reinvent the wheel just to instruct your child to behave well online. — Sheryl Eberly

Netiquette [net-i-kit, ‐ket]
the correct or acceptable way of communicating on the Internet.

I had no idea netiquette was an actual term in the dictionary when I started this project. Over the past several months and with help from dear friends I’ve created the Good Internet Manners chart. I hope you use it to have conversations with your spouse and children. Download the chart, print it out, and hang it on the wall to remind yourself and others what online etiquette is. Share it with your family and friends. I hope it sparks meaningful conversations and most importantly, real actions that transcend our digital world.

Download the Good Internet Manners Chart (PDF)


The Good Internet Manners Chart

Being kind, courteous, and inviting comes down to one thing: considering other’s well-being. Our society is in need of men and women who act nobly and encourage others to adopt courteous actions and language.

Courteous users of the World Wide Web will always be careful to observe the following rules:

As to Themselves
  • Your online self should reflect your self.
  • Your online age should reflect your age.
  • Never embellish your accomplishments.
  • Don’t use demeaning usernames.
  • Don’t utilize platforms that advocate or passively disregard offensive behavior.
  • Don’t be afraid to share your bad days too.
  • Don’t plagiarize; Give credit where credit is due.
  • Behave online in a manner no different from the way you behave offline.
  • Be honest, truthful, and pure.
  • Watch your tone.
  • Never forget the internet doesn’t forget.
  • Do not use bad language.

On Social Media

  • Ask yourself, Do my followers need this information now? Could it be found easily elsewhere?
  • Foster online relationships that result in off-line relationships.
  • Remember listening is often better than speaking.
  • Contribute with purpose, not noise.
  • Support your peers.

On Commenting

  • Consider the worth of your comment.
  • Consider the response of your criticism.
  • Admit your lack of context, and state your facts.
  • Invite other opinions.
  • Don’t hide behind anonymity.
  • Consider the reputation of the author and yourself.
  • Watch your tone; especially when writing your comments.
  • Don’t assume that you can always grasp the tone of another person.
  • Remember sarcasm doesn’t always translate.

On Sharing

  • Consider the quality of the content you’re about to share.
  • Give context when context would be helpful.
  • Invite feedback.
  • Share where applicable; assist in keeping the web orderly and in place.
  • Never forget what you share will be seen and read by many different people in many different circumstances; avoid sharing content that celebrates materialism, arrogance, and indulgence.
  • Some memories you experience with your family and friends are sacred; these memories should not be shared online.

On Following & Being Followed

  • Don’t base your self-worth on your followers.
  • Follow people who treat others with dignity and respect. They’re worth following.
  • Do not follow bad company.
  • Follow people who motivate you to be a better person.
  • Follow people in the industry you serve that make you better at your work or craft.
  • If you’re a parent, follow people you’d want your children to follow.
  • Follow people who respectfully challenge your biases.
  • Don’t ask complicated questions with no intention to engage the answer. When an online debate ends, identify critical takeaways that stem from the dialogue.
On Debate
  • Don’t, whenever possible.
  • Cite your sources, always.
  • Only engage in debate in matters in which you’re an expert (experts usually have 10,000 hours or more in a given field).
  • Invite more personal correspondence when possible. Email is a useful place to start.
  • Ask more questions. Pursue dialogue, not debate.
On Being Present
  • As often as you can, look up to the real world in front of you, not down into a digital world.
  • In social settings, default to airplane mode (as much as it’s practical).
  • No devices at the dinner table.
  • You can be in one place at one time. Be where you are with who you’re with first.
Everywhere
  • Never be rude to anybody, whether older or younger, richer or poorer, than yourself.
  • Always strive to understand and share the feelings of another.
  • Don’t use political ties to pigeonhole complex problems.
Remember
  • Whether face-to-face or screen-to-screen endorse the principle of the Golden Rule, “Always do to others as you would wish them to do to you if you were in their place.”
  • Empathy wins. Especially online.


Epilogue

You know the moment…you’re surrounded by friends and family fully engaged with the conversations at hand. Laughter fills the room and a memory that will be talked about for years is being made. As the moment begins to register in your mind, you feel a flutter in your pocket. Everything glorious about your present reality shifts to this buzzing box with a glowing screen trying to pull your attention away from this moment.

As a Millennial, husband, and father I am always learning that technology is a gift when exercised with respect. Otherwise, the screens we learn from, laugh at, stare at, type on, communicate through, etc. can steal our souls away and our lives can become as meaningless as 140 characters that just disappeared in your newsfeed.

As we all navigate healthy ‘digital’ habits in our personal lives I hold three fundamental beliefs about the consequences of technology:

1. When we forsake the tangible for the intangible, we’ve failed.

What does technology desire? As human beings living in the 21st century, we must wrestle with this question because our children depend on it and our children’s children. Our reality suggests that cashiers are touch screens, customer service is run by robots, relationships are not real unless displayed online, and to be socially aware online somehow reflects real life. In the face of this, we must boldly proclaim that nothing can can take away the substance of looking in someone’s eyes across the table after a productive meeting, a memory made with your family, and being present with people who surround our lives. These kinds of moments are the most valuable gift we can give. These moments are rarely found in the screens we stare at.

2. When we forsake intimacy for publicity, we’ve failed.

You and I have been given a megaphone to announce to the world what we’re up to at any given time. As I look back on my life, I am reminded of the millions of moments that have made me who I am today. Conversations with my dad about life lessons are nuggets I take everywhere I go. The thousands of laughs I’ve shared with my wife are just as Mastercard proclaims: priceless. Moments like these don’t translate to social media because the shared, online world cannot fully capture them for what they are. The intimacy that reveals the fine details of our lives does not always belong on a screen in the hands of an online friend. We all have moments that cannot be explained or shared. Let us be reminded that intimacy is invaluable. As you and I scroll through hundreds of status updates, let us be reminded that our intimacies are too meaningful to share with those who don’t care about them.

3. When we forsake friendship for connections, we’ve failed.

Friends are those rare people who ask how you are and then wait for the answer. No matter how many friend requests you send , friendship is rare. When it happens, it can never be taken for granted. Our connections online will never take the place of a friend who arrives in person in the midst of pain.

May we all pursue using technology responsibly in our digital age, leading by example in a resurgence of manners. The internet is a powerful tool that should always be used for good, not noise.