Etiquette and civility are learned behaviors that can be enhanced or weakened by group habits. To create and maintain online civility, we must plan and work for it. (More)

Online Civility Part III: Working Toward Civility (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature considers Andrea Weckerle’s Civility in the Digital Age: How Companies and People Can Triumph over Haters, Trolls, Bullies and Other Jerks. Thursday we looked at the technical and cultural differences that make disputes more difficult to manage. Yesterday we saw the categories of online disputes and various dispute styles. Today we conclude with how to restore and maintain civility and minimize the damage of online disputes.

Andrea Weckerle earned her Juris Doctor at T.C. Williams School of Law, University of Richmond, as well as a Master’s in Public Relations/Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University. She designed and implemented dispute resolution programs for several Fortune 500 companies while at the professional services firm of Ernst & Young. She then opened her own consulting firm before founding CivilNation, a non-profit charity organization taking a stand against online hostility, character assassination and adult cyberbullying.

“Search Me!”

When I was young, “Search me!” was a common colloquial phrase meaning “I don’t know.” The phrase has mostly passed out of fashion, but if you haven’t searched for yourself online then what you don’t know may already be hurting you. As we saw Thursday, almost everything you do online is or can become both public and permanent. A few minutes on Google, Bing, and other search engines may be embarrassing, but it’s still worth knowing what you’ve left out there.

Still, your online reputation would be less worrisome if only your own actions affected it. Alas, it’s not that simple. As we saw Thursday, other people can post blogs or comments about you, and they may not be positive. There may also be photos and videos of you floating around, at your online photo-sharing account(s), at news sites, or on Facebook or other social media, posted by family or friends … or by someone to whom you sent private images and who has since betrayed your trust.

Weckerle also recommends using a monitoring service to conduct deeper and more wide-ranging searches than you might do on your own. Some of these services are set up for individuals and are relatively inexpensive. Others are set up for businesses and cost hundreds or thousands of dollars per year.

“I haven’t been myself lately.”

That’s also an old colloquialism, and it describes another risk to your online reputation. Other people or groups may have similar names to yours, by coincidence or by design:

Organizing for Action, President Obama’s nonprofit advocacy organization, has sought to be nimble as it ramps up a national effort to back his agenda on gun control measures and immigration reform.

But it appears the group didn’t move swiftly enough to protect its presence online.

An arbitrator has denied the organization’s effort to obtain the domain name organizingforaction.net, registered by a quick-moving computer technician in Castle Rock, Colo., on Jan. 18, when the news broke that Obama’s former advisors were launching the group.

Derek Bovard proceeded to configure the site so all the hits were directed to the website for the National Rifle Association. It was one of three domain names for Organizing for Action that the group failed to register before it launched.

OFA took the case to arbitration under cybersquatting laws that allow individuals, businesses, and organizations to recover internet domain names that embody a “distinctive identifier.” That identifier may be a celebrity’s personal name, or an established business or group name (especially if trademarked).

The arbitrator ruled that “Organizing for Action” – which was not trademarked until February 7, 2013 – was not yet an established, “distinctive identifier” when Bovard bought the domain name organizingforaction.net. Conservative groups also bought the organizingforaction.com and organizingforaction.org domain names, and both are now pages with content that criticizes President Obama.

Indeed Andrea Weckerle suggests that, if you want to protect your personal or business website – let’s call it HereIAm.com – you should also reserve HereIAm.net, HereIAm.org, HereIAm.biz, and, HereIAm.mobi (the suffix for mobile-configured sites). Depending on your content and who might want to impersonate you, you may also need to register HereIAm.firm, HereIAm.info, HereIAm.pro, and HereIAm.web. She also suggests you register common attack site domain names – such as HereIamFacts, FactsAboutHereIAm, HereIAmTruth, TruthAboutHereIam, and HereIAmSucks – with each of the suffixes you reserved above.

Surviving and thriving online

Even so, you should expect to weather online storms. You can minimize them, at least at your website, by maintaining a respectful, courteous tone in your own comments. If you lash out at anyone who disagrees with you, you all but guarantee that they’ll lash out at you. Your site should have a clear statement of community standards (e.g.: our rules for comments and guidelines for contributors) and you or your site moderators should enforce the rules fairly, courteously, and consistently.

The first and most important step in responding to an online attack is to make a calm, reasoned decision on whether to respond at all. The best response to many attacks is no response at all, i.e.: “Don’t Feed the Trolls.” Even when an attack poses a serious threat to your or others’ physical or emotional safety or reputation – and you must respond – taking a few minutes to plan your response may save you hours, weeks, or even years of uproar and expense.

In planning your response, consider who else might get drawn into the dispute and whether and how to contact them directly, before they stumble over it or someone else alerts them to it. Few disputes are made better by others piling on, but you may need the support of colleagues, friends, and family while you work to resolve the dispute and deal with the fallout. Depending on the attack, you may also need to contact the police and/or an attorney.

Weckerle provides example response plans for businesses and other organizations. A formal response plan helps everyone in a business or organization know what they can and should do, and whom to contact for further guidance.

“I’m sorry”

As we saw yesterday, most online disputes involve Difficult People. Many will have legitimate grievances, buried amidst the torrents of anger and indignation. And in these cases, the most important and helpful response is an apology.

But it must be a good apology. Don’t try to use humor; people don’t appreciate it when their righteous outrage is mocked. And don’t write anything like this:

When casting pearls before swine, one inevitably risks offending ignorant, hypersensitive readers who fail to appreciate the impeccable brilliance of one’s rhetoric. So it was for this writer yesterday, in writing that people like you should be swept into oblivion, leaving the world far better in your absence than your presence ever could. I admit that was overstated, as many of you are so insignificant that your absence would hardly be noticed. So I’d like to apologize if anyone was offended by my having drawn attention to your many and manifest inadequacies.

Of course I took that over the top, but we’ve all read those “non-apologies.” They are every bit as offensive as the original offense. Instead, try this:

I’m sorry. What I said was wrong. You deserve better, and I promise to do better in the future. If you have further questions or need further assistance, please contact me at [email or other contact info].

You may not like writing it, but a sincere apology – and following up with those you’ve offended – can defuse and resolve most online disputes. And you set an example for others … so we can all help create a more civil internet.

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Happy Saturday!