Civility is in short supply on the Internet. If you doubt that, just check out the comments for any news article on CNN or Fox News. No matter the subject, there invariably seems to be at least one person acting like a jerk, making personal attacks and leaving inarticulate, anger-filled messages that aim purely at provoking a negative response.

Likewise, when you sign on to Facebook, it’s never a surprise to see people going on mindless rants about their jobs, their bosses, their car payments or many other things that make them mad. Add in grammatically incorrect status updates and wildly inappropriate online photos, and Facebook represents a sort of maniac microcosm for the etiquette problems that exist in our everyday society.

Despite pleas to be polite, people often ignore one another’s feelings and refuse to treat each other with dignity and respect. This severe lack of common courtesy is especially acute online, where a veil of anonymity and inadequate defamation laws allow particularly visceral attacks to go unchallenged.

This article offers a commonsense guide to online etiquette, advice on how you can be a responsible digital citizen and on what constitutes good online etiquette. If you’re tired of a lack of good manners online, put this advice into action and spread the word to your friends and family to do the same.

Remember the “Golden Rule,” and respect others online

The guide to online etiquette starts at the same place where all etiquette begins.

  • You may have heard the “Golden Rule” from your parents or grandparents growing up, but it helps to have a refresher. Simply put, you should always treat people the way you would like to be treated. These simple words of wisdom are especially important when it comes to what you say and how you say it on the World Wide Web.
  • When you’re sitting in front a computer screen, it can be hard to empathize with the people you’re talking to online. In real life, you wouldn’t brazenly insult someone to his or her face (hopefully), so why do it on the Web? Reading hurtful words online is just as bad as hearing them in person. Cyberbullying is a growing problem for children, teens and adults, and it often has tragic consequences.
  • Before posting any kind of online content, think about what you’re saying. Is it mean-spirited? Would you be comfortable if someone attacked you in the same way? The Golden Rule works as well on the Web as it does in real life, so do your best to obey it.

Use your real name online and be accountable for your actions

It’s easy to hide behind pseudonyms and other forms of anonymity online, but that doesn’t mean it’s the proper thing to do.

  • The ability to speak anonymously on the Internet is obviously important and has unquestionably allowed people to interact in a less-filtered manner. However, it has also created an environment in which it’s painfully easy to commit online defamation and to launch online reputation-damaging attacks with little fear of reprisal.
  • Many websites, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, require individuals to use their full real names online. There are obviously ways to get around this by setting up fake profiles, but it’s a significant start for instilling civility online. People should be held accountable for what they say on the Web, particularly if it’s a language assault against someone else.

Spread good online etiquette to friends and family.

Keep your family's information in the family.

  • If you notice that a friend or family member is acting inappropriately online, consider telling him or her how their actions may affect their online reputations. Nobody wants an annoying family figure “tsk-tsking” everything they share on Facebook, but a simple reminder telling them to be mindful of their online reputation may be helpful.
  • You don’t want to come across as overbearing, so make sure your message is short and to the point. A lot of people still don’t consider the way in which their online reputations can affect their real lives. If it helps, point out that people have been fired for sharing even the most innocuous content online and that you don’t want to see them get into any trouble.
  • Explain that, whether they realize it or not, people watch what they share online and that there are consequences for posting inappropriately on Facebook, Twitter or anywhere else on the Web. A Microsoft-sponsored study from 2009 revealed that 78 percent of hiring managers screened applicants over the Internet and that 70 percent of them rejected an applicant based on content they had found. In an already tough economy, there’s no reason to make it harder to find a job. 

Use this guide to online etiquette to your advantage.

Be a responsible digital citizen, and lead by example.

Before pestering your family members over their Facebook posts, you should make sure that your online reputation looks good and that you’re not committing any online etiquette violations yourself. If you lead by example, others around you will follow, so it’s important that you fully commit yourself to responsible (and civil) digital citizenship.