Ah the Internet. It gives so much to us in terms of support, connection, and the ability to obtain and absorb information.
And then, in an instant, it can also take so much away: feelings of pain, jealousy, feeling left out, or trying to interpret messages from pixels on the screen.
The Internet makes it easy to communicate without having to talk to people like some of us digital immigrants did in “the old days.” Don’t forget that the human relationships you most value do require some direct, face-to-face communication sometimes as part of their regular care and feeding.
Since so many of us are living our lives online these days, here are my six pointers for avoiding injury to yourself and others on email and social media.
1. Be careful of “heat of the moment” posting.
It’s so easy to impulsively respond to an email or a tweet or a wall posting when you’re feeling hurt or angry. But if you find yourself composing something when you’re feeling angry or shaken, try making it into a draft and giving yourself at least a 24 hour cooling period before clicking send.
If you have a trusted friend who you know to be a careful and balanced thinker or communicator, perhaps run your posting by him or her.
If you goof, and post something that maybe you shouldn’t have, you can still self-correct and delete it later. An apology may sometimes be a step towards a better interaction, as well.
2. Don’t use status updates as a passive-aggressive way to communicate something to just one person.
If you know you are really posting that tweet or status update for an audience of one, and it’s an indirect way to get something off your chest, try a direct message to the person you’re trying to to reach instead. Or better yet, send an email (or – gasp! – pick up the phone and call) and see if they are available to talk in the near future.
Don’t use vaguebooking or passive-aggressive posts to try to get attention. You may irritate people, and you may find that it doesn’t really wind up getting you what you want. Of course, private jokes or sweet messages can sometimes become a status update. But beware if you are using your twitterstream or Facebook Wall or G+ account as a way to beat around the bush.
3. Never unfollow or unfriend someone out of retaliation just because they unfollowed you.
Yes, it stings to find out that someone has stopped following your tweets or is suddenly showing up as a recommended Facebook friend when you know you were connected just a week ago.
If it’s a close relationship, you can always send a note and say you’ve noticed they stopped following you and ask why they did so. Don’t do this unless you are prepared to hear their answer.
But if you are still following them on Twitter and you like their tweets, don’t unfollow them to “get even.” Try giving it 30 days or so to see if they are still providing valuable content to you. If it’s still bugging you, and the relationship is close enough, you can ask why they took you off their Follow list.
If what follows is a “difficult conversation,” see my blog post on how to have difficult conversations.
And try those off of the Internet! Oh wait, that’s item #5!
4. Don’t obsessively Facebook, Google, or Twitter-stalk your ex (or the person your ex is now dating).
Of course, it’s tempting to find out what has happened in someone’s life when you’re no longer in it, and the Internet has made it ridiculously easy to browse photos, news, and updates on the lives of people who are no longer in our lives. In the old days (yes, this is a phrase I am now old enough to use), people might drive by an ex’s house in a moment of longing or self-loathing. But now we can just sit home in our pajamas and look at their social media profiles to find out what’s new with them.
But this has become a new form of self-injury for many people. Sometimes, it can feel like a compulsion and it can be hard to stop. If you find you are doing this, consider employing some harm-reduction strategies such as using the “block” function or imposing time periods during which you’ll stay away from the offending profiles.
Try 14 days of not looking. Then try 30 days. You may find that not looking helps you move forward and helps stabilize your mood.
If it helps, enlist a friend whom you can call when you have a weak moment. Ask your friend to help support you in choosing something healthier to do rather than checking these profiles.
Chances are good that the profile will still be there to peek at once you’ve had 30 days of sobriety from checking your ex’s profile.
5. Try to keep important and difficult conversations offline.
The online disinhibition effect can lead people to sometimes get closer online and share more than they would offline with positive effects. But it can also lead some folks to say things that are more cruel and toxic than what they would say if they were chatting face-to-face, looking into someone’s eyes and seeing how their words land. This can be problematic, if you want to process hard things in a friendship.
One of the worst things you can do is tell someone that something should happen in an offline chat, but then dump your side of the conversation into an email. That’s unfair and it only makes sense that a person would want to respond to that email.
So do both of yourselves a favor: if you think something warrants a face-to-face conversation, don’t start it over email. Send an email and say, “Let’s get together and chat, I’ve got some stuff I wanna talk to you about.” Or pick up the phone and do the same.
Unless you’ve got a proven track record with someone who also likes to process things over email, don’t assume this is the best way “to talk.”
6. Avoid inflicting FOMO on your friends (and yourself).
While it’s great to post photos and updates of all the cool and groovy things you do in your life, remember that people are going to see these updates who may feel very hurt and left out when they find out you had a big birthday bash and neglected to invite them.
Be mindful of what it means to have wide audiences who are now privy to your every social engagement and think about whether you really want to share these things with everyone or whether you want to create filters and friend groups so that you are not in inadvertently pissing off half of the folks you call your friends.
And if you’re prone to FOMO yourself, start booking up your own social calendar rather than cruising for online information of what you’re missing out on. If you’re feeling like you’re missing out on too much, it may be a sign that it’s time to work a bit harder on creating more offline activities for yourself than online ones.