The Internet is not unlike a surrealist landscape - a casual browse may lead you through fields of clover, rainbows, hugs and unicorns, but turn a corner, and you're in the middle of a dark jungle of trolls and Chthulu.
We love the Internet, and have come to rely upon it. It's not going away. But using it stupidly or with an otherwise refreshing sense of naiveté can get you into trouble - financially, legally, or emotionally.
Common sense goes a long way, but there are lessons you only learn through experience - but that experience often sucks. So we've devised a guide that will help you avoid the land mines - we are from the Internet, and we are here to help.
Less is More
The more personal information you give out on the Internet, the more vulnerable you are to all kinds of nefarious plots. From stalking to outright identity theft, many of these schemes hinge on the evil-doer knowing things about you - and they usually find these things out directly from you. Anything you put out there is there forever, so be smart about it.
Give the absolute minimum of information. When signing up for something, only fill in the fields with asterisks - these are the required fields. Don't volunteer anything unnecessary.
Don't post your address, email address or telephone number anywhere public. Ever. If for some reason you need to post your email address, open a web-based email account like gmail that you use only for public posting and potential junk mail. Check that account only when you're feeling brave, because it will be ugly. Or don't check it at all.
Don't Feed the Trolls
Reading the Comments section of any article, video, cat picture or what have you is a fascinating foray into the anonymous psyche of our collective conscience. You will see a variety of wildlife, from the Eternal-Bible-Thumper to the Everything's-Political guy to the Easily Offended lady. It's interesting in a sociological sense, but not something to get to bogged down in.
But if you keep scrolling, you will eventually run into a comment that is so incredibly offensive to any type of carbon-based organism that you feel compelled to channel your rage and righteousness into a detailed response.
Don't. That person is a troll, and like a certain variety of bully, only does what he does to get a rise out of people. Don't take the bait. Back away from the keyboard, lest you find yourself locked into a hatred-fueled back-and-forth with someone you've never met, over a topic you really don't care that much about. It is draining.
Don't Fish for Compliments
There's an epidemic on Facebook - pretty girls posting elaborately staged photos of themselves with perfectly coiffed hair, expertly-done makeup and the outfit of a Playboy model, along with the statement, "OMG I'm SO UGLY!!!"
All of her friends proceed to pile on and tell her how beautiful she is and how they would give anything to have her eyes/waist/boobs. Thing is, she already knew that - she just wanted to hear it from someone else. Then a troll comes along and agrees with her original statement, which sends her into a misspelled rage (despite the fact that said troll was, in fact, validating her supposed opinion of herself).
Sigh. Don't be this girl. If you post a picture/artwork/poem and you ask for feedback, you're going to get it. The validity of that feedback depends upon the audience - a serious critique group is more likely to be accurate than a bunch of your friends or random strangers.
Check the Source
The Internet is great for looking things up - in fact, it is the ultimate authority when settling bar bets. But don't automatically believe everything you read. Check the source, because believe it or not, not everyone knows what they're talking about. And "just anyone" absolutely can (and will) publish on the Internet.
Scroll down to the bottom of the article and check for references. No references? Take the info with a grain of salt. If it's really important, Google the author's name to see if s/he actually has a background in the subject. If the author's name is something like "huggeebear1524", take the info with a grain of salt. That is a username, and real experts prefer to publish under their professional names.
Keep Your Digits Private
The ability to type in a credit card number and get a package a few days later is one of the things that makes the Internet great. We do it millions of times per day, and we're not stopping anytime soon. Unfortunately, the aforementioned nefarious evil-doers recognize this and go to great lengths to get that number. They will even go so far as to create websites identical to major retail sites to fool you into giving it up.
Only give out your card information if it is a known retailer with a secure server. If the site seems poorly designed, weirdly glitchy, or anything else that seems questionable, move on. If you're asked for a credit card number when you're just signing up for something, click away from there. If a site tries to install something on your computer (even toolbars), click away - they can steal your information from your computer.
In the macro view, the Internet is a useful tool. But like any tool, following some basic common sense goes a long way toward preventing accidents.