What I Wish I'd Known Before I Started Communicating Online

If content is king, and a picture tells a thousand words, then text is the currency of online credibility. Few of us actually consider ourselves “writers,” yet most people who work online spend hours each day writing. Writing emails, tweets, blog posts, personal or professional profiles, articles for the company blog, responses to others’ comments or content, status updates, image captions, IM conversations…the list goes on.

These various online spaces — social networks, company wikis, personal blogs, professional web sites and so on — become online repositories of our personalities. And text is crucial to all of them. Spelling errors, senseless sentences, structureless content and ill-thought-out arguments are just a few of the technicalities that will undermine your credibility.

Don’t worry, this isn’t an article about the importance of your dictionary. It’s an article about the things you can and should do to build your credibility in a largely text-dependent online space. It’s basically the advice I wish I’d been given before I ever started writing stuff and sticking it up all over the web. These are just some of the things that every blogger, tweeter, article writer and emailer should know before they set fingers to keyboard.

1. Know what you’re talking about.

It’s tempting to see the web as fleeting. You post a blog post today, and in a month it’s forgotten, right? Perhaps. But it’s undoubtedly still buried somewhere on your blog, people will have linked to it, and it will still be available.

Oh, sure, you can remove offending content from the web in many cases. But taking an erroneous or controversial article offline is something any self-respecting publisher wants to avoid — it can raise difficult questions, make you look like you don’t stand behind what you say, and infer that you leap to conclusions and have trouble handling yourself in public. So it’s best to make sure you never publish something you regret later.

The key is to know what you’re talking about. If you have an opinion on something, but you don’t know the full story, find out. If you think you know the full story, find out more. Do your research. Look past the first page of results, look beyond online sources, and be creative about your searches. For example, make sure the search terms you’re using aren’t biasing the results you’re retrieving. And go into the past so that you can be sure you understand the history of the issue you’re talking about. Keep a list of those sources, so that you can reference them when you’re talking about the topic.

This research will undoubtedly provide you with new angles on whatever it is you want to say. Consider them — don’t just take the one that speaks to you, personally. Consider the broader context, and how your issue fits into a bigger picture. And if there’s a piece of the puzzle you can’t locate, be prepared to acknowledge that when you talk about this issue.

2. Know who you’re talking to.

Once you have something to say, you need to think about who you’re going to tell it to. Whether your audience is your family and friends or a group of rights activists, you need to think about what interests and appeals to them. If you’ve ever set up a filter so you could avoid “humorous” emails sent by a well-meaning friend or workmate, you’ll know how it feels to be inaccurately communicated to online. It’s annoying and frustrating.

Don’t make that mistake with your readers. Understand their expectations, their sensibilities and their limitations. Respect their desires and interests. Assess whether the thing you want to say has relevance for them. If it doesn’t, don’t bother communicating it.

3. Know how to say it.

You have a message, and you have an audience. All you need to do is put these things together, right?

It sounds simple enough — type something into your blog interface, run a spell check and publish! Draft an email, spellcheck and send! It’s true that communicating online doesn’t need to be hard, but it does need some care. There are a few basics that most of us writing online fail to achieve — things that will make your communications stand out. I’ll cover them in my next post.

This is the advice I’d give to someone who’d never used the web before. What advice would you give them?

Photo by stock.xchng user jimrhoda.


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