5 practices to humanize online communication

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What does it mean to take online life seriously as real life? Here’s another reason to reject the idea of “IRL” (“In Real Life”) as the opposite of life online.

When you visualize the real person you’re about to e-mail or tweet, you bring human qualities of attention and empathy to your online communications.

That’s the second item in my list of 10 reasons to stop apologizing for your life online, on the Harvard Business Review site. It’s a practice I started working on a couple of years ago, but there are some moments that require it more than others.  For example, when responding to online criticism, like this comment on yesterday’s post:

You sound like a PR person for Facebook: Real Names, Real-named Friends only, so we can MONETIZE your whole life and all your relationships.Thanks, but no thanks.

Grandmother with child (not the one I'm writing about)I put my own advice into action in replying to this comment. I was able to find a great picture of the commenter staring right into a camera with her granddaughter in her lap, and I kept that on screen while writing my response. Below, you’ll find my tips on how to make this kind of practice work. But first, here’s the response it helped me write:

Dear M-

I wanted to personally respond to your comment on my HBR post yesterday. I’ll admit I was a bit taken aback by your comment, because I’m actually deeply skeptical about all these efforts to monetize what happens online.  I’m reaching out because the fact that you raised these concerns suggests that you and I may in fact share very similar perspectives on the web and where it should be going. But it seems like you didn’t read it that way, so I find myself wondering whether I need to reframe how I talk about the problem with accepting behaviour online that we wouldn’t accept offline.

Meanwhile I hope you don’t mind me turning this into a case study in one of the “10 reasons” I gave in my post. My second reason for treating online life as real is that people are kinder to each other online when they are able to connect to the real person they’re communicating with; I try to visualize the people I’m writing to or about, especially in challenging circumstances, because I think it gets me to write in a more human and considerate way. I’ve written this while looking at a very lovely picture of you that makes me feel we probably have a lot in common — I have a little guy who is just the same age as your granddaughter, and from your obvious delight in her presence I feel a lot more connected to you.

And my guess is that you might have written your comment a bit differently if you’d been looking a picture of me (especially this one).  Now that you point it out, I can see how the idea of being “real” online might be appropriated as a communications strategy for Facebook’s policy against pseudonyms, although it’s not at all what I’m aiming for — in fact, I think pseudonyms can be an incredibly helpful part of getting real online, as I wrote yesterday. But it took me quite a while to get through to your underlying point because the tone was pretty rough.

This is exactly why I think we need to get real online — so that we hold ourselves to the same high standards of personal consideration (or at least conflict avoidance) that we would face-to-face. I hope it’s ok that I’ve made you part of that mission by writing to you here.

best wishes,


Here are 5 practices that helped me write this message, and which can help you bring out the best in your own online communications:

  1. Find a picture you can relate to. If you know the person you are blogging (or tweeting) to (or about), you can visualize the while you write. But whether you’re writing to a stranger or a friend, it can be helpful to look at a photo while you’re writing. A Google image search might turn up a photo of that person in a silly hat, cuddling their dog or knitting a sweater.
  2. Go somewhere private. I wanted to connect with M’s picture the way I would in a face-to-face conversation: by speaking, not writing. That meant talking out loud, but I would have felt very goofy talking to a photo while my husband sat next to me on the sofa. Finding a private corner can help you talk (or write) in a natural voice and connect with your instinctive empathy.
  3. Practice your typing. The talk-to-write methodology is a lot easier if you’re a fast typist and can basically type along with what you’re saying out loud. If that’s too much of a stretch, try recording what you want to say and then transcribing the parts that feel write — or use a service like Jott to do it for you.
  4. Think of your reply as private. Whether you’re conveying appreciation or a more difficult message, it’s easier to write if you focus only on the person you want to reach. When I wrote my recent post about family, I wrote it for just one person, and I did the same with my letter to M. Once you’ve got a first draft that feels like it’s authentically communicating with that person, you can edit it for public sharing if you wish, but don’t edit too much — if it seems like there are a lot more qualifiers (“I hope”, “I feel”) above than in my usual posts, that’s because talking in a human way involves speaking more gently than you write.
  5. Be willing to walk away. If you’re visualizing the person you’re writing to, sometimes you’ll realize that they don’t want to hear what you have to say. Unsent letters and unpublished blog posts are an important part of communicating with integrity. If you know you have your own permission to walk away and leave a message unsent, unfinished or unshared, you’ll know that the messages you do send will be ones that you can stand behind.

In this last respect, my response to M. fails to meet the standards I advocate here. When I looked M. in the face, I found myself wondering how she’d feel about being turned into a case study. I hope that she’ll appreciate that my only goal is to illustrate and underscore a practice that I hope can humanize the many online conversations that lie ahead.

Looking for more practices to help you get real online? Come back for more as I work my way through all 10 reasons to stop apologizing for online life.

12 Comments on this site

  1. Ellie K

    Item 3: Very good idea. There is nothing worse that typing their instead of there or rain instead of reign. Those things happen no matter how bright one is, or how well one types! Suggestion: use a simple text editor like Notepad (assuming your OS is Windows, I'm sure Apple has the equivalent). Then copy and paste. Other benefit: you won't lose your work in the event of browser crash etc.

    Item 5: Difficult to do, but good advice about willingness to walk away. Suggestion: If you use Google's gmail, there is a feature in the Labs section that can put outbox items on hold until the next day, for those late night emotional firestorms that dissipate in the morning (I don't know how it works exactly, although I probably should….). There is also a 20 sec retract option in gmail, similar to what MS Outlook offers. I do use that feature. Frequently!

  2. eeman

    Good Pointers. Mostly people consider writing replies to any blogpost as their duty rather than being an individual who is trying to understand the other individual. If everyone start considering these things then people will start appreciating others for their minor good things and will forget a little bit harsh deeds.

  3. Anonymous

    I think it's kind of creepy that when someone disagrees with you on the internet, you find it necessary to let them know you have pictures of their family.

  4. Alexandra Peters

    Interesting that the person who wrote the “creepy” comment also would not give his/her name. I suppose they are intimating that you are not trustworthy, because you looked up pictures of the person who was “rough” with you. But in hiding their own identity they have violated a basic tenet of transparency on the net. Reminds me of those mean kids who would call and say something horrible and hang up, in seventh grade.

    What's out on the web – photos that you can find there – are already available for anyone to find. You didn't say that you hired a private detective and had this woman followed. You found what was already public. And you did it to humanize her – to make sure that you related to her with empathy. Hey, in my book, that's called generosity.

    Meanness, creepiness – it hurts. It takes courage to put yourself out there and see what happens – courage that the earlier commenter did not have. Keep going, Alex. The world needs you a whole lot more than we need creepy meanies.

  5. Caterina

    Maybe she just wanted to be bitchy for bitchiness's sake. Sometimes it happens.

  6. Alexandra Samuel

    Alexandra Samuel, Ph.D.
    Director, Social + Interactive Media Centre, Emily Carr University
    tel. 604.630.4545 | cel. 604.726.5445
    Find me as awsamuel on Twitter | LinkedIn

  7. Alexandra Samuel

    Alexandra Samuel, Ph.D.
    Director, Social + Interactive Media Centre, Emily Carr University
    tel. 604.630.4545 | cel. 604.726.5445
    Find me as awsamuel on Twitter | LinkedIn

  8. M.

    Who told you that transparency on the net is a basic tenet? Facebook… Mark Zuckerberg… who has a financial incentive to encourage “radical transparency”?

    In fact, anonymity unless the poster discloses otherwise is a LONGSTANDING tenet of the Internet. Item 12 of the Social Network User's Bill of Rights states:

    “12. Right to self-define: Let me create more than one identity and use pseudonyms. Do not link them without my permission.”

    It is the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and those who are following his lead who threaten my choice to be myself online yet have the freedom to use a pen name, or to remain completely anonymous.

    As for whether or not Alex was creepy, to paraphrase Forest Gump, 'creepy is as creepy does'. Her motivation to put a human face to the name of her commenter is innocent enough. And, yes, she only sought out information that was public in the first place.

    And yet, I still appreciate that she did not publicize that already public information.

    What I find creepy are employers, insurance companies, creditors, government agencies, debt collectors, landlords, and who knows who's next crawling around social networks for their own fun and profit of one kind or another… not to mention ex significant others and stalkers of other ilks.

    Therein lies the basis for any of my words as “rough” in tone

  9. Anonymous

    Some of these comments fascinate me. Like the idea that “in hiding their own identity they have violated a basic tenet of transparency on the net.”

    Whose net? Facebook? There's a vast internet outside of the tiny gated community of Facebook. And it's full of people not using their real names.

    The sweet sentiment in Alexandra Samuel's HBR article and the follow up blog post remind me of doe-eyed social science students going into the ghetto armed with theories and MacBooks. On the one hand, I'd feel bad for them if they get their shit jacked. On the other hand common sense indicates that wishful thinking is a poor defense against someone else's reality.

    Go ahead, Alexandra Peters, post about the tenets of internet transparency on 4Chan under your real name and see what happens. Or, (heaven forbid) the Internet Hate Machine comes across this article and decides to make a point about something, what do you do? (Or Alexandra Samuel, for that matter?)

    But I think the most dangerous thing Alexandra Samuel has said is, “Think of your reply as private.”

    The internet is not private. The internet is very, very public. There are some nice people out there in that public, and there are some not so nice people out there, too.

    A good rule of thumb, when dealing with the internet, is that even when you think it's private, it's not. (See various facebook privacy debacles.)

    You don't walk around the streets with your name and address and where you work and how much you make and what kind of car you drive and where your mom lives and your kids go to school taped to you. Why would you do it on the internet?

    I'm not posting using my real name because I don't know who any of you people are, or any of the hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that may end up silently reading this comment. If that makes me a coward, I'm fine with that. (At least strangers won't call me up in restaurants when I go out to dinner: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2010/jul/2… )

  10. Anonymous

    So I see some of us are already here. Let me kindly invite you all to come and visit 4chan. We are a newcomer-friendly community, always happy to welcome new people.

  11. Anonymous

    You are not only creepy, but also an attention whore for posting the question if you are creepy it to twitter. Besides it’s also bad style to post tinyurl links, as it’s impossible to know where they link to and totally unresponsible to link to a photo on a flickr account not owned by you.

  12. ambreen11

    Great read! Thanks for sharing here. People prefer to buy from those who they believe genuinely care. Humanize your communications to build enduring relationships of mutual trust, dependency, and loyalty with your customers.


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