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Quit Screwing Up The Internet: Three Behaviors to Stop Right Now

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You're a complex, intelligent individual who stands at the forefront of an extraordinary change in our civilization. Your daily choices have an unprecedented level of influence over how members of our society will interact with each other over the decades to come. You're in position as one of the constructors of our culture of the future.

Congratulations, you're amazing. Now, please quit screwing it up.

Maybe I should start by saying more about your intelligence and importance, because I'm not kidding about this. It's been proven time and again that we humans develop a sense of what's acceptable by watching what other people do, especially when we're unsure ourselves. Thanks to the internet, your actions are now on display to a larger audience than ever before. And since the internet is relatively new, socially speaking, we're all still figuring out how best to use it to interact with each other. Your ability to exist in such a complex context proves your intelligence, and every action you take in that context today carries the implicit suggestion that other people should repeat that pattern tomorrow. You are a teacher, with influence and reach your parents and ancestors never dreamed of having.

Moreover, behavioral patterns tend to spread beyond the contexts in which they originate; what we learn in one situation, we practice in others. This means your actions teach people how to behave not only on the internet, but also off of it! The behaviors you demonstrate in blogs and social media sites today are likely to turn up in marriages, familial relationships, and workplace interactions tomorrow.

You're really that important.

So please keep this in mind -- scribble it in crayon it across your monitor if you have to -- as you cease and desist your demonstrations of three positively horrendous behavioral patterns on the web.

First, stop commenting or blogging when your only intention is to show how dumb someone else is, and/or how smart you are.

There's no value here. Showboating and name-calling does not change the "dumb" person's mind, it does not make you look intelligent, and it does not inspire any useful conversation. All it does is to encourage both you and the other person to become entrenched and inflexible, and to encourage everyone watching to join the fray by egging on one side or the other. This goes way beyond merely wasting time and energy: Once all the heels are dug in, and everyone has committed publicly to their alleged opinions, nobody is willing to learn more, even when new information arises.

That's right, each time you practice this behavior, you cause yourself and everyone you involve to become less able to learn -- which, since things constantly evolve, can only translate to one outcome over time: You all get a little dumber.

Second, stop commenting or blogging when you feel an overwhelming need to repeatedly share a personal traumatic experience -- especially if you are using that experience as an excuse to write angrily about why nobody can understand your position.

Life gives all of us negative experiences, sometimes overwhelming ones. Writing out your stories can help you to put them into context, to get perspective, and to recover from pain or setback. Journaling, however, is a private affair, shared with a select few (if anyone). The internet, on the other hand, is a broadcasting system, not a therapeutic system. Work through your experiences in the private counsel of an appropriate support network -- perhaps family, friends, or a therapist -- before you admonish your boss, your kid's teacher, and an untold number of strangers for their inability to understand your pain.

Of course, I'm not saying that you shouldn't share a relevant story or a personal anecdote as part of an online dialogue. But if you're sharing it mainly to create an emotional response -- or if you're sharing the same traumatic tale repeatedly -- you're likely entrenching yourself in the emotion you're trying (and probably failing) to create in others. Your own ability to move beyond your trauma will be more difficult if you become too publicly committed to your pain. And, even if your conclusions and viewpoint never do change, your indictment of such a wide audience for their failure to care about your needs only reflects badly upon you, not upon them.

Third, stop relaying opinions fed to you by others as if they were your own.

If your political party, religious organization, parent, spouse, employer, or favorite brand of toothpaste has a standard position on an issue, and you want to state it, fine -- but give credit where credit is due. Disclose that the origin of the position is not you. If you agree, wholly or partly, explain the reason for your own position independently of the canned argument provided for you. Try also to include in your comments room for the notion that some people will disagree. Consider listing one or two reasons why someone might see the issue differently, and addressing those without employing personal attacks. You have probably changed your own mind in the past, which means it could happen again in the future. Try not to break ties with everyone who thinks differently.

Actually, you probably should avoid allowing any opinion to limit who you are, place bounds on your interactions, or alienate you -- but this is especially true of opinions that aren't even yours! Make it a habit both to think independently and to show that you do. Otherwise, as you become entrenched in the beliefs of others, and isolated from those who might disagree, you will have given away your precious right to your own thoughts, and encouraged others to do the same.

That's it, just three changes: Don't try to make other people look stupid, don't try to create emotion using your personal traumas, and don't state opinions formed by others as if they were your own. Maybe I'm wrong, but these seem like reasonable requests. They might require a little extra effort, but I'd argue it's energy well spent since it can only improve your reputation, increase your credibility, and make you a role model of useful, functional interactive patterns.

Frankly, it's the only way of comporting yourself on the internet that befits your high levels of intelligence and influence on our shared future. So please, start today. Quit screwing things up.

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