Thursday, April 16, 2009

Digital etiquette - are government agencies adequately prepared to engage appropriately online?

Etiquette is important in every form of social engagement. When Australians meet others for the first time we exchange names, shake hands and make light conversation before getting down to the main topic of conversation.

Other cultures have different social etiquette. Many hug or kiss cheeks on first meeting, exchange business cards (sometimes with two hands), meet over a meal or at drinks and talk about families and personal interests, even exchanging small gifts, before discussing business.

Likewise for any individual or organisation engaging online it is important to understand the appropriate digital etiquette or netiquette for the online world - and for the specific medium in use.

I've learnt netiquette over the last 15 years by participating and running forums, blogs, twitter streams, newsgroups, email newsletters, IRC and social networks. However many other public servants, while they may have browsed the internet for years, may not have the same experience with human interactions online.

As government moves to use the internet for more conversations it worries me that one of the risks that may not be well understood or managed is the experience and capability of the public servants assigned to moderate or participate online to employ appropriate etiquette for the situation. They simply, through no fault of their own, may not have the level of understanding of netiquette they need to avoid an online misstep.

This was summed up for me in an article published by a group of teenagers as part of the Digiteens 2008 project on Digital Etiquette, expressing how they saw adults engaging with others online,
Let's face it. Most adults do not know how to use the internet correctly. Most of the adults that I observed do not know how to navigate through the internet without running into some sort of problem. In my opinion, adults that do not know how to use the internet are just as bad as children that do not know how to use the internet. Most of the time, when children and teenagers do not know how to use the internet, they tend to participate in very bad behavior on the internet. They post bad pictures, start gossip about other people, or get involved with relationships. I have noticed that some adults think that just because they are older, they are immune to that same bad behavior on the internet. The truth is they act just as bad. Whether adults realize it or not, they are just as bad as kids on the computer. The phrase, "You are acting like a two-year old" comes into play here. To all adults, lead by example. Help your kids know how to act on the internet by knowing how to act on the internet yourself.

So how can agencies minimise the risk of a netiquette gaff damaging their online reputation or creating an unwanted incident?

Firstly agencies can look for courses teaching netiquette for their key staff. However these are currently few and far between. In fact the topic may be a lucrative training market in coming years, similar to the importance placed on media training or teaching people how to write briefs and media releases.

Next there are books and websites on the topic of netiquette. However they may provide contradictory information or only cover one medium or country. Likewise it can be hard to establish which are authoritative or simply opinion.

Employing intermediaries to engage on government's behalf is also a possibility, though not always a good one. While an external organisation can provide effective moderation of a forum, it can harder for them to speak with your voice authentically. One of the key rules for blogging is to 'be real', so outsourcing your blog to an agency is itself poor digital etiquette and runs the risk of leading to a backlash.

Learning by doing is always an option. There are plenty of online conversations going on that can be watched and participated in to learn the ropes. After all this is how many of us learn - through trial and error - to get on with our classmates at school and workmates in the office.

Agencies can also attempt to hire experts as staff - although there are few in this space, particularly in Australia.

Finally agencies can draw from their internal expertise. Most agencies will have at least a couple of staff who are experienced bloggers, forum participants or moderators. These individuals can be advisors or play an active role in supporting the agency's engagement online.

So is your agency 'netiquette-ready' to engage actively online?

If not, what strategies are you employing to become netiquette-ready?

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