Etiquette for the Social Media Age

We all know the feeling. The hot, searing wave of spiteful childlike frustration that makes you see red when a certain variety of comment comes across our online landscape. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. The trolls. 

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Troll comments come in all sizes and varieties of hurtful, irritating, and downright idiotic malfeasance. From the random comment by someone who stumbles onto your page, telling you that “horses don’t like being ridden,” to someone offering unsolicited and usually tremendously uneducated training or horse care advice, to the small-minded person who believes that your picture’s comment section is a place to act like a know it all by one-sidedly debate other commenters, and finally, to the troll that checks all the boxes for straight up bullying. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I see these kinds of comments that seem to be made from the hip on subjects like, oh, I don’t know, Posey’s “skinny” condition after being discharged from the ICU after inoperable colic treatment, I see red. Steam pours from my ears. Little horns begin to grow out of my skull. I furiously start to type up a response that is, at best, petty and flirtatiously antagonistic, and at worst, a complete overhaul of their psyche. But, before I press post, I step back.

Being offended and annoyed to your core is easy. Responding in a flippant, hurtful way is even easier. The hard part is, just like in the real world, reacting in a way that keeps you on the high road and lets your conscious sleep well at night. However, it’s easier for some people to brush their shoulders off than others. People fear trolls and the internet trainers so much that they post disclaimers on beautiful photographs and videos of developing horsemanship because they are afraid of complete strangers taking their posts out of context and relegate into their own vitriol. This is one of the reasons that seeing how many people have “sent” or “shared” your post brings such anxiety. Speaking from personal experience, I know now that people who have previously followed me sent my posts into their group chats, full of entitlement, accusations, and outright incorrect criticism. And I’m not even what I would call an “influencer” (post coming on why I despise that word and refuse to identify with it) or a significantly larger account! It’s just me, the Misfit Farms gang, a few thousand of you, and of those few thousand, probably less than 100 of you I know by horse, first name, and discipline. Even less that I have physically met in real life. But those I do, I adore.

I worry about young people online, or even those my age and older with thinner skin. Not because people are impressionable or aren’t tough enough, but because existing in a microcosm creates an echo of hard-core judgment. It’s scary to put your honest growth out there and continuously fear the possible unnecessary backlash. Talk about disheartening. Those types of comments or messaging hangs over one’s head no matter what they’re doing, conjuring doubts of “well, maybe they were right, maybe I’m not a great rider” or “maybe my horsemanship is questionable.” The criticism sinks into your core, controlling your every step. Kind hearts slowly turn to stone, and soon, good people will complete the cycle by contributing to some form of bullying. For a community that shares so much in common, we certainly can do a great job discouraging others from achieving their best self with hate and basic schoolyard bullying.

When it comes to managing this type of negative behavior, everyone has their own ways of dealing with trolls. I dropped a couple question boxes on my story a week or so ago, asking what your best social media etiquette words of wisdom are and what you want someone who is suffering from unnecessary nonsense to know. You guys had a multitude of ideas and thoughts, all positive and helpful. All of those responses will be included below when my app starts working. For the moment, here’s how I usually handle things.

For this particular discussion, I’m talking about the Instagram horse community, but I believe a lot of the same principles can be applied to personal accounts and/or other social media sites. Additionally, for this discussion, I’m primarily discussing issues on accounts that are public, not private. If you don’t want to hear my philosophy on online personas, skip to bullet point two. If you are a minor experiencing any type of issues online, it is ALWAYS best to involve someone you trust, like a parental figure, trainer, or a teacher.

When Posting Content:

If you are in a position to share your riding journey online in a public format to an audience composed primarily of strangers, you have to be cognizant about practicing what you preach, or in this case, practice what you post. By this, I mean understanding the landscape of controversial equestrian topics that plague our community, your part in them, and how you can contribute to the conversation in both a positive and negative way. A little confused? Let me lay out some examples:

  • If you are an avid helmet wearer, as a majority of us are, a proponent of Minding Your Melon, and you have been since the creation of your account, but then suddenly and maybe unintentionally share an old/new photo of riding without a helmet, you simply cannot expect followers not to feel disappointed.

  • If you are a strict R+ only trainer but share a post showing you utilizing a type of pressure that does not align with your teaching philosophy, you cannot expect that inconsistency to be ignored by followers. You will likely be required to provide an additional explanation if you did not address it to begin with.

  • If you are an advocate for no training gadgets develop classical training, such as draw reins or lunging contraptions, and someone at your barn or at a show shares a picture/video of you utilizing that type of equipment, you can anticipate some backlash from people who follow you.

  • If you claim to be something, such as certain USDF achievements like a bronze or silver medal, competing at a specific eventing level, or training with someone well known, you should anticipate that information, which is all public, to be reviewed by followers. 99% of it is public knowledge through various membership or records. The internet grants trolls some anonymity, but it also grants posters some leeway to inflate their reputations a little.

  • Personal example: I have been very candid on my feelings on bits/bridles and prerequisite training before using a double bridle, then utilize one without much prefacing to the post, I posted a picture of Joy in her double bridle. I certainly should have expect someone to question you as to why. In my case, it was to make sure Joy was comfortable wearing it and we only hacked in it, but I didn’t think it through enough to say that on the front end.

Sure. You can argue that it’s your account, you can post what you want to. (Sidebar do you know how hard it is to not use a Miley Cyrus gif there?) However, if that’s your outlook on your online presence, you simply cannot expect everyone to agree with your decisions. Just like in real life, you are supported and followed by people who usually agree with your stances on various subjects. When you’re caught, even unintentionally, compromising the moral code you propagate, you should expect to be questioned about it. Despite what you may think, people follow accounts that they agree with on an ethical level; that reflects something they believe in, aspire to be, or currently are. But, even the best followers are not familiar with every part of your history or will educate themselves by going through every single post since the inception of your account, watching how you fulfilled your ethical principles for years, only to have a minor slip up. Most people won’t do that type of work, and you cannot expect them to when you are actively sharing your life with them. They expect you to be a role model, 100% of the time.

While that seems like a lot of responsibility, it’s your responsibility to share what you believe in and stand by those beliefs, IF you choose to advocate for them in a public forum. If you don’t want to get too in the weeds with training philosophies or controversial topics that could alienate groups of equestrians, it’s as simple as not making them a talking point when building your account. And, if you do have a change of perspective, then be honest as to why. Honestly, this is why I’m an advocate of private accounts, especially for younger people, because strangers on the internet can be counted on to take things out of context, such as a comment, photo, video, etc., and because of the nature of social media, it quickly snowballs into something much bigger than it should have been. This is not to say everyone should be required to put disclaimers on their posts. That type of social media would not be something I participate in.

However, if your accounts online are an extension of who you truly are as a person, so are your opinions and values. Everyone wants to be a whistleblower in the horse world, particularly if there has been animosity online, and similar to the tattle tale from school who would widely announce every single thing someone did wrong in order to look like they are always in the right, public pages grant some grain of deflection because misrepresentation is so easy.

Do yourself a favor, and if you want to have an online presence, be honest about who you are as a person, and protect your core morals. Don’t anticipate everyone will give you the benefit of the doubt because near-strangers will not give you that kindness. Don’t BS the BSers, aka people with unlimited time to develop conspiracy theories about random strangers online. Practice what you post.

Combating Troll Behavior:

First things first, you cannot fix stupid or the naturally combative. You can only mitigate your own behavior. I’m the first person to try to give people credit where credit is due when I see an ugly comment. Maybe they’ve only ever seen violent towards riding horses, perhaps they had an ugly experience they never recovered from, maybe they just do not know how domesticated horses are essentially worshipped by the people who are lucky enough to work with them. I want to give those people the opportunity for those people to change their minds, ask questions, and challenge their predetermined ideas, or redirect them to the educational article I referenced and posted.

Well, let’s be clear. Those kinds of people are one in fifty crappy comments if not more, and people who say unkind, uninformed things generally are set in their ways, floored by the intoxicating idea of possible anonymity given by keyboard and a screen name. That’s why the ones who drop ugly questions in anonymous questions apps like Sarahah or Tellonym are so common.

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I tend to group trolls into three groups: the kids (young teens to early 20-somethings that have nothing better to do than to turn their insecurities outward on other people), the adult amateurs (usually middle-aged women who have their accounts on private and seem to only ride at low levels but think they know everything about horse training), and the randoms, which are bots, creepy old men, or the people who have no horse experience what so ever. Unless it is a particular type of post, one where questions are encouraged, all three types of trolls can be treated the exact same way. Ignored. 

Honestly, people who make comments or message absurd things feed off the attention that other commenters or you give them. The more you engage, the more you validate their usually invalid feelings. The more their confidence to talk back grows, then before you know it, you’re in a full-blown online war with someone you have probably never met and will not make a lasting impression on. The best way to counteract a troll is to let them troll themselves into a vacuum. Not only is going back and forth with trolls a fruitless, exhausting endeavor, but it also encourages them to continue talking smack. Without a spotlight, they wither away. So, don’t give them the time of day, and if anyone else (a follower, a family member, a trainer) tries to defend you, message them quietly with your thanks, but remind them it’s not worth their time. They’re just people online, it’s not worth the energy. Then, you simply block the troll and move on with your life. Do not do yourself the disservice of believing or falling into the trap of debating with others. They go low, you go high.

In the event that you are the subject of childish nonsense like fake accounts, continued harassment, or hateful content, Instagram has a report button for a reason. People like that should not continue to have access to accounts, and sometimes, it’s worth putting your account (if it’s not already private) on private mode for a while. Ask those close to you to report the account too. There’s no shame in wanting to screen who gets to follow you and your journey. In fact, if you’re putting your information on the internet, you should take measures to protect yourself, such as not sharing your full name, your exact address, your personal email or phone number, among other things. However, our community, no matter how widespread it is globally or how divided it is by discipline, always comes together to protect each other from unnecessary drama. If you need to lean on them, don’t be afraid to ask. 

Now, if the person causing harassment is someone you know on your circuit or from your barn or that you know is a real person, there are a lot more options to combat cyberbullying than there were when MySpace got popular for my generation in the early 2000s. While I do suggest reaching out to a person’s trainer or parents (if the person causing trouble is younger) or trying to peacefully and privately discourse with someone older, if the harassment grows to more than a simple crappy comment or DM here and there, there are more options. SafeSport takes these incidents very seriously, and the organization is a valuable asset to our community. After talking to a SafeSport employee, there are a couple things that need to happen in order for the harassment to be reportable and reviewable:

1.     The person(s) causing the harassment need to be USEF members. You can check membership here,

2.     The person who is being harassed must know of the harassment (i.e. someone cannot report on behalf of someone else), and

3.     There must be more than one instance of offensive conduct.

How to Avoid Being a Troll Yourself:

Sometimes, this is easier said than done. You can contribute to troll-like behavior by responding to someone else’s comments on a post in an antagonistic manner, offering an unsolicited opinion or training advice, or even just not reviewing your comments before you post them. It can be so easy to want to advocate for someone else or to try to spread the good word about something, but online, nothing is that straightforward. It is wildly easy to take something out of context, including a snapshot of a moment in time or someone else’s words. If someone is answering a question, you know the answer to, such as a FAQ on a larger account or “why is that saddle different than a western saddle” or something like that, feel free to save the original poster a little time and respond. But before you respond, ask yourself a couple questions. Are you responding in a manner that could be perceived as hostile? Is this a question better suited for a response from the original poster? Are you feeding into someone else’s troll-like behavior that would be best just ignored?

Seems like a lot of work before just commenting in response to someone else’s comment, doesn’t it? It is, and that’s why there are so many needless, petty arguments in the comments sections that are not initiated by the original poster. The kind of arguments that would ruin a person’s day, take up precious time that could be spent offline instead of in a social media energy suck, and even cause unnecessary feuds that could go online. As an example: everyone who follows me or knows me is aware of my podcast obsession. I’ve mentioned it before, but one of my favorites is called Criminal | A Podcast About Crime by Phoebe Judge. Recently, she shared an incredible and heart-wrenching story called Homewrecker of how Internet warriors can go real world, for little to no reason, and cause real-world problems. It is a bit PG-13, but I could not recommend it more. And this situation didn’t even involve a single crazy hose girl or horsewoman! 

As for just commenting on things, I understand the desire to be a whistleblower. When the “rescuing-horses-from-kill-buyers” scandal of 2019 went around the horsey-social sphere earlier this year, I desperately wanted to “enlighten” people as well. I have long been following the saga of HiCaliber Horse Rescue (if you’re unfamiliar, it’s not for the weak of stomach or the faint of heart – but see the blog, Shedrow Confessions, dedicated to exposing this rescue and many more for help understanding the kill buyer/rescuer cycle) and I think I have a little more understanding than the average person of the way it works. It made my skin crawl to see people who did not do their research lauding people they didn’t even know for what was, honestly, contributing more money to kill buyers than rescuing horses. But… It wasn’t worth my time to take on every Nancy and Mary, who was under-educated about the system. I would have spent a full week sucked into the screen of my phone, bickering back and forth. So, here’s what I do instead, and it’s what I recommend you do as well:

1.     If what you see is TRUE, complete, unadulterated abuse (I’m not talking about horsemanship you don’t agree with - I’m talking about neglect, mistreatment that rises to the level of neglect/abuse, and the like), contact the appropriate authorities. The police, the ASPCA, the owner/trainer of a barn, show authorities, whoever it may be. Your responsibility is to get the information into the right hands, not perform a sting operation or publicly bash anyone.

2.     If you encounter horsemanship you don’t agree with, from a discipline or equipment use perspective, don’t engage. Don’t buy into it. Don’t waste your time. Tell yourself to rise above, avoid commenting, and unfollow. If it’s an account that reoccurs in your discovery or on hashtags, hide them or block them. Your comment won’t change an account’s mind, especially if you start from a place of unkindness and it’s a type of behavior that’s built into the discipline or mindset, like draw reins or riding horses at two years old. It’s more energy than it’s worth to interact. If you don’t have anything nice to say or think, move away from the account. It’s really none of your business.

3.      When you do comment on something, re-read what you have written ask yourself a couple questions: How would you read the comment you’re about to post if it came across your own content - would you read it as sarcastic, antagonistic, minimizing, rude, hurtful? What about face to face, is this something you would say if this person was in front of you? My personal favorite is: would you say this to your younger self, and how would your younger self take it? If you have a question, are you asking it in a respectful manner that would encourage positive discourse, or are you asking it in such a way that you put the other person on the defensive, as if they’re being judged? If you have a constructive comment or criticism, is that what is being solicited from the post you’re commenting on? Is your opinion welcome? If it’s not, then your opinion is unsolicited, don’t do it. If it’s something that is a genuine question or concern (“I heard that wormer called recalled,” or “I heard that trainer had a shady situation happen a while back, I wanted to make sure you were aware of it,” or “I think that bit may be on backwards!”), treat the situation and person with respect, and follow the golden rule: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. If you don’t get a response, or if the response is unkind, offer the person some encouragement, remind them you meant no harm, and that you hope they have a great day. If you’re giving kindness and not receiving it, remove yourself from the situation. Leave it and them alone. You have bigger and better things to worry about than people online.

4. Encourage others to do the same. Try to inspire as much kindness and sincerity in your group as much as possible, and remind others that poor online etiquette doesn’t make anyone else but themselves look bad. That doesn’t mean every day is sunshine and rainbows, but it does mean that if you’re in a bad mood and have a tendency to stir up trouble online, maybe turn off your phone for a bit. Get some tea or give yourself some self love. Your online community will appreciate you on the good and the bad days, as long as you continue to follow a true compass of compassion. Make that a mission.

5. Make it your goal to make some person’s day, every day. It doesn’t have to be a thousand people, you don’t have to commit a ton of time to it, but if you devote five minutes to offer kind words to someone, even if you don’t know them, you’re fulfilling a much bigger calling. We never know about the kind of situations another person may be in, and instead of assuming we’re in their shoes, be better. Imagine how much it would mean to have a random, out of the blue nice message or comment from someone. Wouldn’t that make your day? Everyone is fighting a battle the rest of the world doesn’t know about. Lift people up, don’t bring them down.

You guys lift me up more than you can ever imagine. It’s an honor to share my journey with you, and I’m always surprised at the selflessness and generosity. Spread that around, there are so many others who could use your support!