Hotmail Shame: The Digital World's Social Pressures And Netiquette Dilemmas

Download Audio

Chances are you have some kind of digital footprint. Maybe you're on Facebook or LinkedIn, or you tweet or blog or share pictures on Instagram. Or maybe you resist social media and limit your screen time, but worry you're missing out on something or falling behind the times.

Whether you embrace or abstain from digital life, you may not be immune from a uniquely contemporary reality: There are social pressures and etiquette dilemmas that come with spending so much time — or even not spending much time — online.

Email Shame And Online Peer Pressure

My story begins with a confession: I still have a Hotmail account. I've had it for ages, it works fine for me, and I just don't want to give it up. But I have email shame. Every time I send something from my Hotmail address, I cringe, knowing it looks laughably outdated.

The satirical website The Onion confirmed my dinosaur status when it published a story headlined: "Gmail User Pities Hotmail User." And that was in 2005! Also singled out for ridicule are people with old-school accounts like Yahoo or AOL.

When you receive an email from one of those services, "You're like, 'Oh, this is adorable! This is someone's aunt — that's nice!' " says Steve Macone, a stand-up comedian and freelance writer. "In a few years it will probably be a vintage thing. I'm sure everyone in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has @AOL email addresses ironically that they try to use."

The online world gives Macone rich fodder for material because technology can come with intense peer pressure — pressure to quickly embrace the new and jump on board before you get left behind.

"I joined Twitter because it was sort of getting ridiculous that I wasn't on it," Macone concedes. "You look like J.D. Salinger; you're just going to be off in the woods."

But once you become part of any social network, the pressures continue. Do you have enough Facebook friends? Are you tweeting enough? Are you on a platform that's become passé? Consider this withering remark by Jack Donaghy, the fictional TV executive played by Alec Baldwin on the comedy "30 Rock," as he talks with coworker Liz Lemon about a down-on-his-luck former rival: "I tracked him down to an address in Brooklyn. He's on LinkedIn, Lemon. He might as well be dead!"

Online Status And New 'High School Angst'

That comment, even if just a sitcom laugh line, gets at an uncomfortable truth: There is such a thing as online status, and many of us care more about it than we want to admit. That's why it's possible to buy Twitter followers, for example. Evidence, says David Gerzof Richard, that many of us are as conscious of our online image as our flesh-and-blood one.

"Some people feel that if a certain amount of time goes by and they haven't updated or they haven't tweeted, that there's something wrong with them," he says. "It's almost like this hamster wheel — that they need to constantly be getting content out there."

Gerzof Richard, who teaches social media and marketing at Emerson College, tries to join every online social network as soon as it debuts. But he frequently hears from the over-30 crowd that they're reluctant to dive in. They worry it will chew up too much time, but they also fear being left out.

"For the slightly older generation, these are the things that we thought were behind us — the high school angst," he says. "And one of the worst things is to be mid-stream, where, yeah, you're on the platform, but you haven't tweeted, you have no followers, and you're not following anyone. You're just there to be there."

There is such a thing as online status, and many of us care more about it than we want to admit.

Even digital natives aren't spared that sense of online anxiety.

"Like, if I send out a tweet, I get disappointed when I don't get re-tweets," admits Mahesh Harwani, an Emerson junior who's one of Gerzof Richard's students. "And knowing that there are people out there that get thousands and thousands of re-tweets, there is a pressure that builds up over time."

Then there's a whole other realm of digital pressure: using your devices and platforms correctly. One of Emerson senior Bill Blatchley's technological pet peeves is when people leave a voicemail on his cellphone, "especially when I rush to the phone and answer," he complains, "and there's [a message that says], 'Hey, did you want to see a movie?' And you're like, I just rushed to my phone because I thought something was wrong — because no one calls anyone anymore — and all you wanted to do was see a movie when you could have texted me that, or I will call you back because I see that I have a missed call."

For Blatchley, at least, that's one of the unwritten rules of conduct, along with keeping text messages short and not posting too many status updates. There's a term for this: netiquette.

How's Your Netiquette?

"I'm an advice columnist and all of a sudden I was getting tons and tons and tons of questions about Facebook etiquette," says Robin Abrahams, who writes the "Miss Conduct" column for the Boston Globe Magazine. Questions such as "Do I friend my boss?" and "What's the proper sign-off in an email?"

The etiquette dilemmas Abrahams is asked to resolve reflect how much of our lives we spend online. She says one frequent complaint of the modern-day world is that "people simply feel that they're drowning in CCs."

You know, the group email discussion that just won't stop, especially when everyone keeps hitting "reply all." That raises another netiquette question: If you get a text or email that just says, "Thank you," should you send a reply that just says, "You're welcome"? Or is that inbox clutter and is the whole exchange unnecessary?

"A problem with many forms of electronic communication," Abrahams says, "is that there isn't a clear way of indicating when the conversation is over."

Some views on digital etiquette split down generational lines. Consider this real-life situation: A 50-something colleague recently had a death in the family, and among the calls and letters of sympathy that arrived was a text message in typical texting shorthand, like the word "you" written simply as the letter "U." My coworker felt that this condolence text was too cursory and impersonal.

But another colleague in her 20s, Lisa Tobin, has a different view.

"If I had a tragedy in my family and my friends sent me texts," she says, "that's actually how I would want to receive condolence."

Tobin says she understands why older generations in particular might feel conflicted about a texted condolence, or outright disapprove, "but, from my perspective, a text is intimate and it's a way of letting a person know that you're thinking of them without requiring that they respond," she explains. "And that's what I want if I've just lost a family member, for example."

This gets at a fundamental principle of netiquette: Know your audience. A GChat with your mom is a whole different experience than GChatting your friends.

Then there's style and tone, including what Macone, the comedian, calls "overeager punctuation." He coined that term after he got an email packed with exclamation points, even though the subject matter was pretty mundane. But that's made him self-conscious every time he's inclined to end a sentence with a period.

"I always feel like if I don't respond to a text or an email or a Facebook message or a tweet with exclamation points," he explains, "then people think I'm being, like, a serial killer online or a 13-year-old goth girl who's just sulking on the Internet."

There are some generally agreed-upon netiquette dos and don'ts:

- Don't tag people in unflattering photos.

- If you email someone, you don't then have to tell them you emailed them.

- Do silence your cell phone if you're leaving it unattended, especially if you have an obnoxious ringtone.

- Unless it's an emergency, don't call someone's cell repeatedly if they're not picking up.

Still, we'll inevitably make some missteps.

"Sometimes, when someone posts something and you know they're using the Internet wrong, you watch it," Macone says. "It's almost like an Internet car crash where you're like, 'Oh, this person is in trouble,' and you can't look away."

Because being an audience to other people's stumbles, he says, is part of what make the online world so much fun.

This program aired on February 7, 2013.

Headshot of Sacha Pfeiffer

Sacha Pfeiffer Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.



More from WBUR

Listen Live