This is something I think about often- on the web, we have our own vernacular– a local language, a lingo- words that have different shades of meaning than they do to the rest of the world.  Yet the way we use language and talk about things matters, and it can clarify or cloudy what people are talking about.

The classic example is the word, friend.  Online, this can be someone you’ve never met, or someone you’ve known and have been inseparable from since childhood.  We tend to use the word friend rather than acquaintence or neighborly polite interest in each other, yet in the “real” face to face world, if someone says “Oh, we’re great friends”- this implies a level of closeness and relationship that is far more extensive than most online friendships.  This difference can cause lots of confusion, because real world friendships imply that there’s a certain amount of going out of the way for each other that occurs, and it’s not always clear if that quid pro quo exists, and to what degree, with online only friends.

Now I have had plenty of great experiences where online friends have become real world friends- (Chris Pinchen a.k.a @cataspanglish and @citilab is just one example), so there’s cross-over, but we haven’t yet developed words that differentiate this relationship in a way that others can appreciate if they’re not part of the online group.  My husband used to regularly ask “How are the people in the Box today?” referring to my online associates.  Now that he knows them in real life, there’s a different sense both of what I do, who the people are, and what our friendship is.  He’s constantly amazed by my ability to locate friends I do know in cities we visit, and the fun things that evolve from local recommendations, chats, dinners, etc.  These online friendships expand with face to face meetings, and then bleed out into the reality of life as well.

We also have other words we use- Trust, Whuffie, authority, strengths, influence, and even search- mean different things in an online context than in life.  Asking” When does authority become authoritarian?” means something totally different said in a history class rather than talking about the influence or ranking a blog may have on Technorati.

Our language when discussing social media and social networks have off-line analogies, and we have to remember that sometimes we need to decode our jargon for people new to the space.  It’s hard to try to teach people about the nuances of this space, when often they need more experience participating to really understand the culture.  It’s like going to Spain, and having to learn both Spanish and Catalan in order to be understood by everyone.  It takes more than high school level spanish to really express yourself beyond a child’s level of language, to be able to get the shades of your meaning across.

I think it’s easy to dismiss the new comers to the space who misread what it is said, making rampaging  bull in the chinashop mistakes and offend the early adopters in the process.  It’s like a clumsy kid who doesn’t read the social situation well and ticks off the cool kids freshman year.  Their reputation may get cemented early, and changing that perception requires a fair amount of luck and social guidance by others who get it.  Opportunities for social redemption are equally hard online, and it requires people both realizing that they have made a faux pas along with an interest in correcting it.

We’ve all made mistakes and accidentally spammed friends, hit reply all, forgotten to use BCC, etc.  Apologies and making this behavior as rare as possible maintains relationships and trust; continued incidents start to try the patience of our friends.   But I think we all have to take the opportunity to try to  help a newcomer, to make them feel a bit comfortable, and maybe reach out in a friendly way to try to help them understand.  An ounce of education may help prevent the noixious behavior we dislike online and on social networks, rather than immeidately shunning everyone who sends us a spam twitter follow DM.  I’ve certainly been reactionary there, and I know I can do better to reach out to people and be more helpful.  The trick is trying to do it without seeming paternal or imperious, but merely friendly.

In the eagerness to participate in all of these new channels of communication, I see newcomers coming on too strong, or are too eager, like a new puppy, to feel liked and included.  They want to be instantly accepted and respected, without realizing that social networking is a long term, not a short term, strategy. (Read Hugh McLeod’s new book to get more information on this, or the numerous excellent posts by C.C. Chapman on the subject.)  But as much as the experienced people don’t always feel it’s their responsibility to clue in the newbies, what if we all took one moment and tried to do just that?

As a parent, I often find I have to explicitly teach my kids things that I think are obvious.  I need to share my experience with them, so they start to understand and learn both how to fit in and meet the expectations of those around us.  None of us were born with a perfect sense of humor, knowing how to read, and able to write like Hemingway. It’s only through patience and mentoring by our family, our teachers and friends that we become who we are in the end, and maybe decoding some jargon, and helping some others along should be part of our mission.

I’m going to try to be more randomly helpful, at least once a day- how about you?