In our current climate, social media imagery and posts are under scrutiny more than ever before — with every word amplified. But now is not the time to avoid social media out of fear. Here are some tips to help you navigate the stormy online conditions and keep your business out of potential frays.

Jay Thompson is a former brokerage owner who spent six years working for Zillow Group. He retired in August 2018 but can’t seem to leave the real estate industry behind. His weekly Inman column publishes every Wednesday.

Over 2.45 billion people use Facebook actively each month. There are days where it feels like all 2.5 billion are clueless and rude. Ditto (though with smaller numbers) for LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok — pick a platform, any platform, and it won’t take long to find some knucklehead acting foolish, irresponsibly or even downright hateful.

In today’s world, everyone can record a cell phone video and post it to the internet. We live in a 24-hour news cycle. Social media platforms allow the good, the bad and the ugly to always be on display. Although much of the content on the internet seems to be transient, the simple fact is the internet never forgets.

What you post today can be found tomorrow, next month, a decade from now. Your online musings will live on, long after you have departed this planet.

Given the ubiquity and permanence of the online world, it seems prudent to understand — at least on a basic level — how to be a good “netizen” practicing proper “netiquette.” (You can blame the mid-90s for those portmanteaus of the words internet, citizen and etiquette.)

Yet almost daily we are reminded of how misbehaving online can have very serious consequences. One need look no further than the Inman News stream over the past week for glaring examples: “KW agent fired after comparing LGBT people to murderers,” and “NYC Compass agent fired over behavior toward homeless people.”

What compels someone to spew hatred — on their Facebook business page no less — toward a group of people is beyond my comprehension, but these are hardly isolated incidents. There’s something about hiding behind a keyboard that enables some to basically lose their minds — and often their jobs — as they wail away posting with seemingly little to no concern over how others will receive their messages.

Yes, the above are extreme examples. Stories that make the news. You, oh avid reader, may be saying, “I’m not crazy enough to post homophobic rants, or waive a gun threatening people, or scream, ‘Fucking n***** cops, I hate you all directly to Black police officers filming my rage.” 

What about all those online posts, photos and comments that are far less incendiary, not quite so obviously wrong? Countless examples are posted every single day.

Political support or opposition of candidate A, B or C. The offhand comment that can come across as racist or misogynistic. The unflattering photo that you wouldn’t want grandma to see, yet it’s posted where anyone with a Facebook account can view it, forever. 

The current events of the coronavirus pandemic, an election year, and the worldwide protests that followed the death of George Floyd have led to a sort of “perfect storm,” where thoughts and images are scrutinized more than usual, where every word is amplified. It’s pretty common to feel like you have to walk on eggshells, almost afraid to express an opinion out of fear it may be misunderstood. 

There are some basic rules of etiquette that might help ease that concern. That give you something to consider before you post. The easy, and extreme reaction is to say, “Forget it. I’m just going to avoid posting anything. Because odds are, it will offend someone.”

You can, and should, express your opinions. But there are ways and places to do this, and certain topics that are indeed best avoided. The following 11 etiquette tips might be helpful in navigating the stormy online seas. 

1. Avoid politics and religion

It wasn’t long ago that I held the firm belief that if something I said about politics bothered someone, I wouldn’t want them as a client or customer anyway. Given the current inflammatory political scene, my attitude is changing.

This country is very divided politically, and alienating half the population because you lean left or right of center doesn’t make solid business sense. My recommendation now is to avoid political commentary.

Although there isn’t quite as much divisiveness when it comes to religion, there is still tremendous passion surrounding religious discussion. Best to avoid a lot of public discourse on both politics and religion.

2. Don’t be racist or biased

Fortunately, most people are not hood-wearing, cross-burning members of the KKK. Overt racism is rare. But the George Floyd protests, Black Lives Matter and topics like taking down Confederate memorials have elevated discussions about racism.

The real estate industry is deeply involved in some of these discussion as evidenced by the Newsday report on housing discrimination in Long Island, and John Legend’s recent tweets about the use of “master bedroom” and steering.

Having conversations about racism is important, but real action is more important. As a “hot topic” with obvious sensitivities, be sure to examine your words closely and consider multiple angles of perception before posting. 

3. Know that nothing is private

It’s important to understand that nothing is private on the internet. If you think what you post in that secret group on Facebook will never see the light of day, think again. Screenshots are a click away, and many have found themselves backpedaling out of something they said or did in a private group once it went mainstream.

Never post a comment, photo or video on the internet unless you’re OK with it going public or being brought up in court.  

4. Follow the golden rule

It’s been around for centuries across virtually every culture for a reason — the golden rule is sage advice for living life. Treat others as you would like others to treat you makes a whole lot of sense if you stop and think about it. It works in real life, online life and everywhere else. 

5. Don’t spam

Please, stop the hard sell. Stop the relentless messaging to follow you, use your services or sign up for your newsletter. Spam sucks, and no one appreciates it, so stop doing it. We are bombarded with information, offers and more relentlessly daily. No one needs repetitive messaging flooding their inboxes and news feeds. 

6. Stop with the humble brag

One thing that has mystified me about the real estate industry since before I got into it was the overarching need of so many to publicly proclaim their success. This can be a very self-centered business, full of one-upmanship. I’m not familiar with any other profession that posts humble (and not-so-humble) brags about success with the frequency and amplification of the real estate industry.

You know who cares that you closed some transaction after three months of busting your butt? No one.  

7. Exercise caution with humor

Humor is often a double-edged sword. Although it can be a great tactic to diffuse a tricky situation or a good way to demonstrate your personality, humor has a way of backfiring, sometimes with serious consequences. The internet is littered with stories that started out with humorous intentions and rapidly went south. Be very careful using humor in your content. 

8. Don’t be a keyboard warrior

As previously alluded to, being a keyboard warrior is a recipe for failure. You can’t just hide behind a keyboard and say whatever crosses your mind. People are (generally) pretty smart and will swiftly see straight through that keyboard you’re trying to hide behind.

Your keyboard is a very powerful tool, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. There are plenty of keyboard warriors out there, the world doesn’t need any more. Don’t be a keyboard warrior.

9. Never post while drinking

There aren’t many absolutes in this life we lead, but “drunk tweeting is never a good idea” is one of them. Never — as in not for a single moment ever — is drunk tweeting, Facebooking, [insert any platform here] a good idea. Many a reputation has been swiftly ruined by an ill-timed, inebriated social media post.

Just as you should never drink and drive, you should never drink and post. Just don’t.

10. Separate the business and the personal

Real estate is an extremely personal business. As an agent (lender or vendor) much of your life is literally entwined with the job of real estate. This makes it super hard to separate your business life from your personal life. Make that effort to the extent possible, and you will eliminate a lot of the angst and potential pitfalls of posting controversial or misunderstood material 

11. Be nice

If I had to wrap up online etiquette in two words, “be nice” just about covers the spectrum. That age-old saying of every grandma out there is appropriate — if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

This isn’t to say that you can’t disagree with someone or that you have to march in lock-step with the general public’s school of opinion. But if you just try being nice, you will probably find yourself in a good place, rather than wondering constantly if what you’re saying will offend someone.

Jay Thompson is a real estate veteran and retiree in Seattle, as well as the one spinning the wheels at Now Pondering. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. He holds an active Arizona broker’s license with eXp Realty. “Retired but not dead,” Jay speaks around the world on many things real estate.

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