I spend a lot of time chatting online—on Facebook, Twitter, tumblr, here, and elsewhere—and I’ve made lots of mistakes, and I’ve learned a few things. The TL;DR version is basically this:

My Rules for Social Media

But here are some guidelines I try to follow! I think they’ll be helpful whether you’re a writer building an online presence, or you’re just someone who likes to make friends.

1. Always like selfies and profile pics.

Giving a thumbs-up on someone’s face is kind of like saying you approve of their existence. I do it even if I barely know the person. Don’t scroll on by. Everybody needs to feel loved.

2. Don’t share memes or photos that shame ordinary people.

You know what I hate? That website that shares pictures of people shopping at WalMart and minding their own business, so that everyone can laugh at them. It’s awful. Before you share a photo with a funny caption, make sure you’re not ruining someone’s life.

This kind of thing happens a lot online, which is why I was so happy about Sean O’Brien’s story. Someone made fun of O’Brien for dancing because he’s heavy, and then, for good measure, shared a picture of him. People rallied around him and he got to go to an awesome dance party with Moby as a DJ.

As long as they’re not hurting anybody, everyone deserves to live their lives without public ridicule.

 3. Be clear about sarcasm.

You think it’s obvious. It’s not. So many people get themselves into trouble this way.

4. Don’t be a part of the Internet hate machine.

Here’s something I’ve witnessed more than once on tumblr. People share a stranger’s disgusting, racist Facebook status or tweet, along with this person’s full name, the name of their employer, and so on. It goes crazy viral, with everyone sending hate messages to the person, and calling the person’s place of employment saying they are a racist and should be fired.

And then? It turns out this stranger didn’t even say that. A vindictive ex-friend or ex-boyfriend hacked their account or photoshopped their post and then shared it with the world, just to make their life a living hell.

I’ve also seen lots of completely disproportionate responses to a thoughtless remark on social media. Don’t join in with a circle of people kicking someone when they’re down.
5. Don’t engage with angry people.

If someone has a different opinion and wants to discuss something politely, that’s fine, though you’re under no obligation to debate. Although I express my opinion online, I generally avoid back-and-forth arguments, because it takes a lot of time and nobody really wins.

If somebody’s angry, it’s just not worth it. It’s easy to take these things personally, but most of the time, they are pissed about other things that you didn’t cause and can’t fix. You just happen to have caught their attention.

Lashing out in response to abuse can just invite more of it. If at all possible, ignore, delete, block, and move on with your life.

6. Remember, anything you write may go viral…

Last week I got reminded of this, when a post of mine critiquing a TV show got shared by lots of people on Twitter. I removed the post, not because I changed my mind, but because I didn’t want to deal with all the hateful and threatening comments. Other bloggers might have felt the positive attention made it worthwhile. Under certain circumstances, even your Facebook status or a tweet may get more attention than you expect.

7. And there are no private spaces online.

Tumblr, where you use a pseudonym? No. Your secret Facebook group? Absolutely not. It’s all public. Last winter I read this article in New York magazine, which included extensive direct quotes from a secret Facebook group I was in. I didn’t participate in the discussion highlighted in the story, but I did witness it unfold, and it was pretty weird to see it reprised in a major magazine.

I use my picture and some version of my name everywhere online. It reminds me that there’s no real anonymity.

8. Don’t pick fights. 

For one thing, it’s too easy to pick a fight with the wrong person. I know of one author who chided someone on Twitter when it sounded like the person had pirated a book. In fact, the person had used some legal sharing or borrowing service that the author didn’t know about yet. A third party with tons of followers jumped in, and the author got excoriated by hundreds of people. I would have found it devastating.

So don’t stick your hand in a hornet’s nest. It’s never worth it.

9. Give a little love every day.

When someone on Twitter is celebrating the fact that they completed a first draft of a novel, or somebody on Facebook is sick, it takes about three seconds to say “Good job!” or “Oh, no. Feel better!” You can’t respond to everyone, of course, but even just doing it here and there makes a positive difference, both for them, and for you.

These are guidelines that work for me, when I follow them. I’d love to hear other people’s as well!