Act Smart!: Etiquette for the modern-day attention economy

In an era of increasing digital connectedness, good old-fashioned courtesy and restraint are more important than ever.

I have two files, gentle reader, that I’ve been maintaining in my electronic mail program of choice for the past 10 months.

In one, I’ve collected shining examples of Connection Done Right—wonderful notes, newsletters, and even (gasp!) advertisements that make my heart sing with their outstanding utility, supportiveness, and/or niceness. As of this writing, there are 15 items in this file.

Into the other, I’ve shunted all the communiques from the other end of the spectrum—the borderline-spam, the rude and/or clueless asks, the LOOK AT ME emails masquerading as thank-you notes, and any subscription to anything I did not subscribe to myself. As of this writing, there are—I kid you not—115 of these items in the file.

Why it’s so hard to do the right thing

Clearly, it’s not for lack of familiarity. That thing we know as Web 2.0—aka, the two-way, social web ushered in by blog commenting and firmed up by social media—has been around for a good six or seven years now. And email has been mainstream so long, it barely qualifies as new media.

In many cases residing in my doing-it-wrong file, the problem isn’t even ignorance. Several examples come from readers of this very column, in which I have frequently shared the rules of the road; several more come from attendees of my various talks on successful strategies for marketing oneself in the attention economy. So I can only come up with three possible answers to this mystery: (1), they were taking notes so fast that they missed the part where I said x (and to be fair, I talk fast and cover a lot of ground); (2), they did not think the rules applied to them in this particular case; or (3) some combination of the above.

What is the right thing?

For a while, I thought it was enough to say “the Golden Rule, silly” or “don’t ask for attention—provide value.” But because some people either don’t get it or have some strange ideas of what value means or what they’d like done to them, I will be briefly explicit here:

1. Never sign someone up for anything without their permission. Ever. Even if there’s an “unsubscribe” link right there in your email. Not ever. You may think it’s okay if you include a link that makes it easy for them to unsubscribe, but it’s not okay. Not in 2012.

2. Never reveal people’s email addresses to one another unless they absolutely must be able to email one another. This is sometimes necessary, for example, when trying to coordinate dinner plans; this is never necessary when sending people funny jokes, political rants, or unsolicited invitations to your show/film/whatever.

3. Never take umbrage unless you are 100% sure you are in the right. If someone replies to your (unsolicited) note asking to be taken off your list, definitely don’t respond with hostility, even if they did not ask you politely. Because two wrongs don’t make a right. Because it solves nothing. Just because. If you need to take umbrage, take it privately. Remember, what you put out there in a moment of heat is likely to be something you’ll regret once your feelings cool. Especially if it goes viral.

While following these three basic rules won’t automatically land you in the “doing it right” folder, it should help keep you out of the dreaded “doing it wrong” folder. For more tips on doing things right (and wrong), check out…

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