I’ve rashly agreed to write an online column on digital etiquette for Spectator Life, and the editor has thrown me in at the deep end. ‘Just how rude can you be on social media?’, she asked.
If there was a simple answer, then think of the misery that could have been avoided. Mothers staring past each other with dead-fish eyes as they wait to pick up their offspring at the school gates: no more giggles over that second bottle of Prosecco. A gap on the mantelpiece where a wedding invitation was expected. Thanksgiving dinners haunted by the absence of a much-loved uncle; he’s not dead, just ‘dead to us’ because he not only voted for Trump but bragged about it on Facebook.
Le Corbusier famously described a house as a ‘machine for living in’. I’m sure Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, had no idea that he’d drawn the blueprint of a gigantic machine for taking offence. But that’s what social media has become.
Taking offence, note, rather than giving it. Perceived insults outnumber deliberate ones to an astronomical degree. You can be as rude as you like on Twitter and Facebook so long as you’re ready to face the consequences. Online rudeness is mostly in the eye of the beholder, and if the beholder is someone you encounter in ‘real life’, then the consequences are broken relationships.
I’ve put real life in inverted commas because the biggest delusion created by the internet, worse by far than ‘fake news’, is that social media exists in its own dimension. We often assume that tweets and posts will be read with the same quixotic haste with which we write them – that our friends, colleagues or family will file them away in the mental drawer marked ‘Things People Say Online that They Don’t Really Mean’.
But most people don’t have a such drawer. Or, if they do, they reserve it for their own social media snark. I’ll give you an example.
A few months ago, a former schoolteacher of mine, now a semi-professional choral conductor, used his Facebook page to make the case for a second Brexit referendum. This was a safe thing to say to musicians, who tend to be ferociously dogmatic Remainers. He was literally preaching to the choir. Alas, his readers included an equally ferocious Brexiteer ex-pupil. Me.
And I went ballistic. You can argue for your wretched second referendum, Philip, I wrote – furious fingers covering the screen in typos – but the price you’ll pay is our 45-year friendship. I allowed myself a quick fume, then reflected that, gosh, things could be a bit awkward when I next run in to lovely Philip.
But he, not moving in cynical media circles where hissy fits over Brexit are a way of breaking the ice at parties, took my words to heart. Or rather, he reacted just as if I’d said them to his face. Which is probably how I would react if he’d taken a digital hammer to our friendship because I voted for the Brexit Party. He’d never have done that, though, because he’s a gentleman and I am not – not at four in the morning, anyway, when I’m poking my nose into other people’s Facebook pages. It was weeks before I could summon up the courage to pick up the phone to apologise to him.
So the answer to the editor’s question has to be: you can only be as rude on social media as you would be across the dinner table. And if that’s too big an ask, then let me suggest a couple of baby steps. If you’re British, don’t even think about typing the B-word. If you’re American, avoid the T-word. I’m not saying ruined friendships will spring back to life, but at least you will avoid the one fate worse than causing offence: being a bore.