You may have heard about the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Second Life, which is pretty cool. But you don’t have to have an online avatar in “an Internet-based virtual world” order to live a virtual life. Most of us are already living virtually whenever we used the internet for relatively simple tasks, like sending e-mail. I’m thinking about the use of e-mail right now because it’s one of the topics we’ll be bringing up during tonight’s online workshop on disaster preparations for UU congregations (and there’s still room for some more participants, so if you’re interested, get your virtual self online and register here). It’s number seven of our 10 good ideas: Beware the power of electronic communication to drive anxiety. And I think one of the best ways for us to avoid anxiety caused by electronic communication in our congregations is to have some ground rules about how we interact with one another via the internet. To that end, I’d like to share with you a great little resource from Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, authors of You Send Me: Getting It Right When You Write Online. Take a look at this feature at O’Conner’s website Grammarphobia.com – Test Your E-Mail I.Q.. It’s a twenty question test she calls “Get a Virtual Life: Operating Instructions.” Regarding congregational best practices around e-mail, I find the following questions and answers most helpful:

  • Are your facts right? It’s all right to be informal, but not with the facts. And check the math too. The Internet is full of misinformation, so be careful about what you pass on.
  • Were you polite? Small slights are magnified in e-mail and other online writing, and offhand remarks can be taken the wrong way. Ask for something, don’t demand it. Use words like “please,” “thank you,” and “sorry.”
  • Were you discreet? E-mail isn’t the place for sensitive personnel matters, criticism of third parties, off-color remarks, office romance, gossip, rumors, or tooting your own horn. And don’t share someone’s e-mail address without permission.
  • Do all these people need copies? Don’t copy your every idea to everyone in your seminar or sales group or alumni association or address book. Everybody else’s mailbox is just as stuffed as yours.
  • Should you sleep on it? Never e-mail in the heat of anger. You’ll regret it the next day. If there’s steam shooting out your ears, cool off before you click Send.
  • Does it have to be an e-mail? E-mail is swell, but it’s not always appropriate. Maybe a letter or a phone call or a face-to-face meeting would be better.

Of course the place to start changing the online culture of a congregation is with the leadership. Perhaps O’Conner’s and Kellerman’s book should be required reading for all new staff and board members?

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