It’s Not OK

Mist Over Manhattan
A cloud hangs over Manhattan

A forthcoming Columbia University and University of Pittsburgh study shows that surfing on Facebook with close friends lowers inhibitions towards self control. The study says that with an inflated positive self caused by ego-stroking on Facebook we feel more inclined to take license.

So now we know the medium is toxic. Does that give us license to behave poorly?

In recent weeks, I’ve seen and received direct feedback from several folks that we all act like assholes and b&^ches online.

That’s true.

Many of these same people say restraint of tongue and keyboard in favor of decency and civility is inauthentic. I don’t recall every being taught that if we have character flaws they give us a license to “walk around” online and take hostages in the name of authenticity.

What do I mean by that?

Knowingly hurting other people, and blowing off responsibility for our conduct by saying, “Too bad, it’s my nature.” I interpret that as taking license to behave poorly online.

License to Snark?

BlogPotomac - Geoff Livingston
Image by hyku

You know what? Leaving a trail of human wreckage behind me, all because of an inflated sense of self online doesn’t cut the mustard.

I can’t live with that. It’s not OK.

And yeah, I am a jerk and mean and nasty at times. My snark cuts deeper than most. It flat out destroys when fueled with anger.

These days I intentionally withhold such speech whenever possible because the negative impact on all parties far outweighs the positives.

I still write nasty things. Truth. I just don’t publish them anymore because of the impact, but I’m no boy scout.

At 40, it’s clear my struggle to be less of a jerk will last a lifetime, but I hope to die a mellow old lovable man. Whether I succeed and grow or just consistently embarrass myself, I won’t stop trying to improve.

I can’t use the defense of brazen “authenticity” as someone who “acts like himself.” That excuse would be a cop-out.

The Harder Path

Hanauma Bay & Koko Crater Trail

I’m painfully aware of my actions. It’d be easier to walk away from this responsibility than embrace a harder path of change, but I cannot do that and look at myself in the mirror.

Nor can I justify unbridled conversations because a medium makes lapsing into snark easier. Blame Facebook? Really? I’d rather face my inner demons.

Intellectually, it bothers me, too. The promise of enlightened civilization seems further from our grasp when we simply let it all hang out online.

Unfortunately, most people will never take accountability for how their words have changed due to social media. They will continue acting in a more negative fashion, and forgo a better conversation.

This is a choice, and everyone is free to have the conversations they want. All paths lead somewhere.

For me, the easy path of untethered speech is not OK. If I want a better world, it has to start with me.

What say you?


  • Amen, Geoff! Amen. I have witnessed and experienced this quite a bit lately, enhanced by the current political climate. I wrote about it as well. It’s a slippery slope to put it all out there in the name of authenticity. There’s a false sense of reality that can have serious repercussions for folks if left unchecked.

    Thanks for this post, Geoff!

    • I think Hildy had an interesting point, that such authenticity causes us to not want to know these people. I certainly experienced this push away result after acting too forcefully online.

      I also think though there’s a line where we are just saying being bad is OK because I am authentically a bad person. I just don’t think that’s right really on so many levels.

  • “At 40, it’s clear my struggle to be less of a jerk will last a lifetime.” Geoff, my struggle, like yours, continues every moment of every waking minute. The good news… At age 66, I have become more able to hold my anger, defensiveness and righteousness in check. And I have seen you doing the same over the years that we have known each other. The struggle is worth it. I love you, Man, and am so glad we hung in there with each other when you and I went to war briefly. God bless you!

    • Yeah, that was a bad scrum. Unfortunately, I’ve had too many of those. Our ability to bridge that divide and become good friends who treat each other well has been important to me, Lewis. It reminds me of where I need to go as well as where I don’t have to return.

      Thank you for sharing your experience, too, with an open heart (to use your book title).

    • Ah, the old the best defense is a good offense argument. I prefer not acknowledging the negativity directly.

      • I see an OBLIGATION to call people out on their Facebook foolishment. Just as if someone got up and said something stupid in a bar or at a dinner table, you’d tell them to cut it out—Facebook is our bar and dinner table now, and sitting silent while someone is saying filthy or stupid thigs … reminds me of how the forces of evil take over when good men do nothing.

  • I agree, Geoff. Was just having this conversation with Margie Clayman and a few others recently. I’m ok with snark, and practice it often. What I’m not OK with is the idea of “Hey, I’m a jerk, and in order to be authentic I’ll be a jerk online as well”. I’ve seen that, and I’ve seen that position defended. My feeling is, if you’re a jerk, isn’t it better to work on that and try to stop being a jerk, rather than embracing it and flaunting it? That’s why I like your approach here as you admit to your failings, and seek to do two things: a) work on those failings, and b) not give voice to them online even when they still rise up inside of you.

    We all have those failings and it IS hard work. And things like Facebook can really amplify our failings, without benefit of verbal and physical cues.

    • LOL, it seems to be more of a justification. Like I cheat at cards, so therefore I will cheat in our game and you can’t get mad at me about it because I am an authentic cheater.

      Um, yeah.

      I’m not a boy scout, I’ll keep making errors, I’m sure, but I won’t write off bad behavior either. Accountability is a critical relationship point in all walks of life! Thanks for a great comment.

  • I’ve completely changed how I post on FB because of snark, Geoff. I will glad read things posted by media sources but I rarely re-post unless the articles are life-affirming and uplifting (or funny).

    This political cycle is so toxic that I’ve found myself blocking posts from “friends” on a regular basis; it’s either that or un-friend b/c I find the views (of others) that they’re posting so noxious.
    And they do it casually, without regard for how the comments and cartoons land. If I have the audacity to ask what they mean by posting I usually get a barrage of angry defensiveness that makes me like them even less – and these are people I used to like! Now, not so much.

    I’ve also noticed that many of the comments that I’d like to make are knee-jerk, based on deeply held (but sometimes lightly researched) convictions! I’m not an expert and I won’t spend endless time substantiating, so I pass. It’s ok to pass, rather than join the holier than thou-ers. Too much energy spent in the wrong place.

    • Ellen, you are my new hero. The point “sometimes lightly researched” is a realization I had about three years ago. I found out that a study about melting glaciers in Alaska had cherry picked the half that had receded, failing to mention that an exact equal number of glaciers had grown over that time.

      Since then I’ve been quick to question and more often than not find out that there was some fibbing involved in the “Truth” being sold. It

    • I really like this comment, too. I have really a relatively short ramp of subject matter knowledge to offer. Remembering that is important.

      It also seems important to me to remember that the loudest voices are not the only voices, that saying nothing is saying something, too. As you say, pass! Thank you!

  • How can we not agree? The thing is, bare, unvarnished honesty is refreshing but some do use”honesty” as a way to vent their spleen on other people and THAT is not OK.

    I appreciate a snarky sense of humor, I have one myself and I know it doesn’t always come off as funny. It gets away from me on occasion and I have to rein it in. Sometimes that’s a tough fight. Sometimes I scream it aloud in my little cave and then hit delete.

    In the end everything we say online can be taken out of context, so if it sounds like we’re being an asshole when it’s taken out of context then delete is the better choice.

    • And you know what for every complaint we get, there remains the 10, 25 or 50 people that feel the same way, but don’t say a thing. It’s better not to press send/publish/print. Glad to see your comment… and that others struggle, too.

      I’m OK owning who I am, I’m not OK dinging other people because of it repeatedly.

  • One additional point: The “saying nothing is saying something” comment made by David cuts both ways. There ARE times when saying nothing is NOT an option for me. Overtly racist cartoons and ridiculous generalizations about “all” liberals, conservatives, etc. deserve/merit/are a moral imperative for comment.

    I’ve learned not to attack but to question the intent of posting such bullsh*t, especially when the people posting should know better. I get slammed every time – it’s rare that someone says, “hey, I didn’t think of it like that,” but at least I’ve made it clear that it’s NOT cool, at least for me.

    And Janet, I admire snark and have been known to have a fair share of it myself. That delete button is always a good choice!

  • Great post, Geoff. I appreciate your willingness to look critically at yourself and continue to work on improving. I try to do that same, though I’m certainly not as successful as I’d like. I try not to snark. I admit I sometimes can’t refrain from posting political items on Facebook, but I try to post thoughtful, not biased, pieces. I also have a lot of friends of the opposite political persuasion from me, and when I do post politics, it’s in the hopes of holding a kind, respectful, and open dialog. I think most people have the same goals and interests. We mainly differ on strategies for meeting those goals. Despite all the studies that seem to show that we don’t change our minds, I continue trying to operate as though we can and as though discourse can get us to compromise or at least understanding. I think it’s all about how you have that discourse.

    I have to say, the study you’re mentioning disturbs me. I expect the phenomenon is similar to what happens when we are driving. We aren’t people any more, we’re that red BMW or the Hummer over there. I guess all those years of evolution have given us a serious preference for face-to-face. Without it, it’s just too easy to depersonalize.

    I try to tell my kids that they should always ask themselves, would I say this to the person if they were standing right in front of me? Would I be ok if my teacher saw this? If you wouldn’t say it in person–and with those words and tone–then don’t say it online.

    • It’s funny. The more time I spend online, the more I value face to face meetings as the substantive place where real things happen and you can tell whether or not there’s a real chemistry, a real formula for success. It’s so important to hear tonality and see someone’s body language. I think half the things people find offensive online would be funny in person. Truth.

  • Two things come to mind as I read this one, Geoff. First, I’m reminded of the false sense of anonymity fostered by a fledgeling internet and how, even with all the privacy concerns these days, we still find it easier to say/do things online we’d never do face-to-face. It’s one thing to be “RoxURsoxOff27” and engage in slander or libel (or assault or theft) online because “nobody” knows who or where you are, but to do so from Facebook, with so much personally identifiable information in place smacks of insanity.

    Second, I think (and hope) the move toward hyper-polarization is a function of those generations which grew up ignorant of the rest of the world and fear change moreso than others. I would hate to think the technology which allows me to trade Monday morning jokes with an Ozzie mate from a red light on a sunny, Phoenix Sunday afternoon on my telephone is going to further drive us apart.

    My view is this; we all have something in common – moreso than we might initially think. If we would just forgive each other the simple transgressions – instead of treating them like the heinous personal attacks the media would have us think they are – we might spend more time in common ground.

    I make an effort to show you a little respect by dialing back my 4-letter gearhead vocabulary, and you reciprocate by letting it slide when something crude slips past the gate. Middle ground. It’s not really hard.

    • Yeah, I think you have a point. Keeping score rarely benefits anyone or general discourse. It’s important to have a short memory when it comes to people and relationships. Thanks for a fantastic comment.

  • This is awesome Geoff.

  • Wow. How much do I love this post? <<<>>>

    I was noticing this just a few weeks ago. A pretty well-respected person wrote a post about how they used to try to be really nice, but then they realized they needed to be “authentic” and hence more of a bitch. I was really confused by that. First, it begs the question, if you’re nice does that mean people think you’re not authentic? Moreover, why embrace that portion of your “authentic self?” Why not strive to be less of a bitch or a jerk online?

    I like to joke around with people as we’ve discussed before, but I try to make really sure I lavish genuine comments on people so that they know without question I’m just playing. Not too long ago a friend posted a picture of their wedding day to mark their anniversary and they were greeted with all kinds of snark. I knew it was all fake but I couldn’t hold my tongue – it really bothered me that that kind of update garnered yuckiness. Sometimes I think snark is just a way to get thumbs up on Facebook, which is sad.

    Great post.

    • Yeah, I agree on the snark/Facebook like/comment bit. We see it all the time. It’s also been proven that such comments and likes release an endorphin, so there’s an addictive element to it as well.

      The thing is people aren’t thinking about what they are doing. It’s worse when its in our space because we’re supposed to think about how we communicate professionally. So communicators who act like assholes and b*&ches in the name of authenticity kind of reminds of that old metaphor about therapists who are crazy.

      In the end, there is no excuse for this. When I see people, say hey, I’m just an asshole deal with it, I do. I avoid them.

    • I don’t think being nice and being protective of parts of who you are are mutually exclusive. Personally, I’m both a strong personality *and* awfully nice to lots of people.

      And Margie, if you’re referring to my post, I’d welcome you to email me anytime at so we can speak about it directly and I can perhaps clarify some of the subtleties of intent that may have gotten lost in translation.

  • I say, ditto that. I also say: there’s a fine line between brutal honesty and brutality. I don’t believe in self-censorship, but I do believe in civility, good old fashioned manners and what mama used to say: if you don’t have something (nice, which I’ll replace with) constructive to say…something that adds value, whether in agreement or disagreement…then why say it? Just to hear oneself speak, while potentially injuring the other party? Just to be the bully on the block, all full of B.S. and bravado?

    I’ll go for better conversation each and every time. Cheers! Kaarina

    • Yeah, I’d rather see a trail of blood than censorship, that’s for sure. We can’t lose freedom of speech in the name of civility, but like you said constructive dialog works better. And when we see people become 1) aware of their behavior and then 2) justify it as authenticity, I think there’s a problem. That’s not OK, and the moment they transcend into bullying as you say.

  • I have often commented that sarcasm and snark ( same thing to me) is just anger directed outward. It is used as as weapon and yes many do not take personal responsibility when using it.

    My mother taught me years ago ( stop trying to count lol ) “honey there is more than one way to kill someone.” We were discussing how harsh my father was with his communications ( read verbally abusive ).

    I have seen plenty of people do this face to face situation and folks are as quiet and flabbergasted in that environment on how to deal with it as they are online.

    Another thing I am actively learning is to ask myself ( this will not be a popular question – you have been forewarned ) “What part of me needs to be forgiven, so that I am not attracting this behavior to my world?”

    Now when folks act like an ass, I first ask for clarification ( to make sure I understood their intention), second I then ask myself “What part of me needs to be forgiven, so that I am not attracting this to my world?”

    Love that you are willing to lead a different journey and take personal responsibility Geoff. One of the reasons I reached out to you this year ;).

    • Yeah, we have similar backgrounds. It’s no coincidence our paths are crossing!

      I think maybe for me the question is who do I need to let off the hook whom I have not forgiven so I can be let off the hook, too. Cheers, good food for thought, Ms. Prosperity!

  • Great conversation…I got here via Margies’s FB post. Looking at this from another angle. We all have the power to tune out and reject negativity in our lives. If someone comes out all anger, rage, cynicism and mean I tune them out–unfollow, dismiss, never to tune into them again. I can count on 2 hands the number of online colleagues who have lost business from me due to their yucky vibe I picked up online (and most of the time the attitude was not in my specific direction, but toward others….we pay attention). We seem to forget that these online relationships go 2 ways. If someone is the Yuck , then just stop engaging with them. Then they will soon realize that acting all “authentic” is hurtful to others AND to themselves. I admire folks who are willing to look at themselves and try to be nicer. But I’m not obligated to wait for them to get their act together.

    • I recently unsubscribed from a slew of people who engaged in regularly negative conversations. Enough was enough, as you say, and yeah, they weren’t talking to me, but I just couldn’t stand watching it in my stream anymore.

  • Intent means everything, with the test often being whether we mean to malicious or honest and who does it serve. Sometimes effective communication requires toughness (although not without a heavy dose of empathy) and other times it does not.

    Either way, no matter what route we take, there will always be those times when people will mix the two up despite our best effort not to offend or hurt feelings. Even snark can work, but it almost always means couching our conversations to focus in on behavior and not necessarily the person (e.g. character assassination).

    Personally, I like you just the way you are Geoff. Sometimes you exhibit an overzealousness in your ability to crush the opposition … but, that said, I’ve never considered you an asshole. I suppose you, as I have I, do behave like one from time to time. Most people do. But unlike most people, I’ve also known you to man-up when it’s over, make amends, and develop your deepest friendships that way.

    I think that is decidedly different than being a troll, where bad behavior is the norm. Kudos to you for attempting to understand the difference.


    • Yeah, I can be a dick. I just like to win!!!! But I also have a penchant for being a poor sport and punishing those who I don’t agree with, and that my friend is not a good thing!

      I can’t make everyone happy as you said. And there are people who are not happy with me (some former colleagues come to mind) whom I really don’t think I will bend over backwards to appease. But I also don’t need to take them out. I’ll keep navigating the Dardanelles.

      Cheers! And good to see you!

  • Tact never goes out of style Geoff. And because the Internet never forgets, and everyone uses the Internet to research us before we engage with them, at least when it comes to being hired (by employers or clients), it’s more important than ever to have tact.

    100% accountability is one of the success principles as laid out by Jack Canfield. I believe in this. People that don’t take accountability for their own actions are deluding themselves. Do they think they are sheep?

    I used to think that humans weren’t that far off from other animals on this planet. Sure we’re more complex and build more stuff, but we’re still animals. However we do have free will and a complex brain. Our societies are complex.

    And while human nature exists in all of us, so too does the capacity to overcome it and become greater than ourselves.

    Is it easy? No. But nothing worth while is.

    • Great comment, Robert. Accountability is the foundation of trust. If we can’t be accountable to each other then relationships fall to the wayside. And that’s just too bad.

      We can’t expect people to stick around if we constantly lay into them. That’s been my experience. And becoming aware of this demands action. As you say, I am not a sheep! Thank you!!!!

    • Best comment yet. ANd accountability really is the crux of trust. Until we become accountable with each other there is nothing to fomr a relationship upon
      Thank you, Robert!

  • I really enjoyed that post, thank you!

  • Pingback:How to Shut Up the Trolls and Other Thoughts on Being Human Online

    […] I read this post by Geoff Livingston about it being Not OK to be a jerk online. And this morning I read this article by Dan Shaughnessy about the uncivilized […]

  • Well said and incredibly important. We all have to choose how we will contribute to this society. If your consistent contribution is snark, then step back and think about what you are really bringing to the table. Social media is a great channel for positivity and growth. To use this as a place for non-stop complaining is like inviting the world to the worst dinner party ever at the house of the couple who constantly argues.

    • Well, I also think it creates a downward spiral. We all participate in it, and the overall community and conversation declines for it. So, like many things, we get what we put into it.

  • I’ve been less than happy lately with people who post things to their sycophants that imply they support kinder/gentler behavior while they bash everyone in sight, or they cheer when a bully is taken down for calling a newswoman fat but then bully and berate people who are overweight and make fun of them minutes later.

    Put bluntly, I’ve come to see many of these types of posts as just more posturing and crafting of image. But here’s the thing, in this case I actually believe you Geoff. I don’t know why, but I do.

    • Because you have been on the back side of one of my retorts probably and have noticed that I am sincerely trying, and cleaning up when I fail. I also openly embrace my failings, and just move on. It’s backed by action. And thank you for believing me. I hope I continue to earn that trust.

  • I’m not sure why we desperately want to believe that the social space is any different than “real life”. There are people who are mean and nasty in real life; people who belittle, bully and abuse others. Then there are those people who are warm and fuzzy; people who believe “if you don’t have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything”. Growing up in the Bronx, I’ve seen all types and I’ve learned to accept them.

    Do/act/speak like you want to and let others do what they do – it’s the way it is and all the blog posts in the world ain’t gonna change that. Don’t blame facebook, it’s the way God made us (you might want to google the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, etc)

    Nuff said.

  • Somewhere along the way snark got fashionable. You started seeing it on TV a lot – where kids always knew way more than their stupid parents and teenage angst won over bumbling/well-meaning teachers every time. It’s crept more and more into writing of all sorts, from op-eds to “news” magazines. And online, forget it. Somehow people have detached themselves from their online personas and in many cases where things are anonymous, they never have to own who they are at all.

    Oddly, I know very few “authentically snarky” people in real life but when it comes to the internet they seem to find license to channel their inner horribleness.

    I agree with you 100% on your point that being authentic doesn’t give you license to verbally walk all over someone. It means that you are truthful, no pretenses, no prevaricating. You can state the exact same authentic opinion in a reasonable way, or you can state it in a snarky way. It doesn’t change what you think or what you present to the world – it just changes how you do it, and that’s with humanity.

    I admit, I can be one of those people if I don’t pay attention! I’ve been called on it a few times and I always have to go back and rethink my methods. Apologize. Do it again in a better way.

    I think people have confused snark with humor. I’ve even seen people go so far as to put that trait on resumes and business profiles! Hopefully it will go out of style on day like Valley Girl speech.

    • I often have to apologize, it’s just what I have to do. Had to do it again last night on my blog. But, it’s ownership and accountability about being off that matters here.

      Finding the right word choice is so critical. I think as writers it may be a challenge to practice the craft on this kind of level!

  • I agree with you 100%, Geoff. I think one of the most basic problems in our world today is that people don’t respect other people enough. It starts with each of us being more aware of how we interact with and react to others. We can’t change them but we can certainly be responsible for ourselves.

    • I think that’s a great word. Respect. We certainly could stand for more it, both giving and receiving. Everyone wants to be treated with respect.

  • Just saw a similar post on Konopinski’s site and really agree. I struggle with this just like you, I know I can be an ass, but I’m not sure that I want to get the point where I don’t say it. I’d rather get to the point where I can find a way to have the difficult conversation in a way that doesn’t require that I be an ass. I also wonder if it’s really lowered our inhibitions or if the technology has just become so common that it’s acting as a truer mirror for the way we actually are. And for a while, I didn’t like what that mirror was reflecting back…

    • Yeah, we were talking about this today at Vocus (we share an office two days a week).

      I liken it to beer muscles. I don’t believe it’s who we really are, we’re just not aware of how it impacts us.

      That being said, I have many offline douchebag issues, so for me it’s really behavioral, and I can’t walk away from that. Like you I don’t want to walk away from responsibility, though. I owe that to the people I love, including myself. Good comment, man.

  • Too true. I need to send this to all my Facebook friends, yet I don’t think most of them will understand the message. I agree it has to start with me, though I think before I post anything online, knowing that it will forever be seen and read, unlike my peers. At least this will raise some awareness

  • I came over from Mitch Joel’s link, and just in time. Face to face conversation leaves a memory with the other person. Online talk lasts forever, no take backs.

    I’ve got twenty-something kids with friends I love talking trash to because they know everything there is to know, was to know, and even future knows. They are know-it-alls way before their time.

    Getting them rolling is one thing, doing it in print another. They say, “This is what you need to write, like Tucker Max.”

    Call me a closet crudity, but I think there’s enough of those guys doing a fine job without me. A better world doesn’t need more trash talking 57 year olds. It needs more restraint with a hint potential trash.

    I read where Mark Twain was very skilled in profanity, but it bothered his wife enough that she started cussing up a storm until he said, “My dear, you know the words, but not the music.”

    Here’s one for the music. Great post.

    • LOL, trash talking 57 year olds. And I think some of the advice is what worked for them, right? We all have our own character and journey. In social, it’s our personal experience that distinguishes us.

      Thank you for your very kind comment!

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