Social Media Etiquette 101: Attribution

Chris Syme Owner/Partner, CKSyme Media Group

Posted on May 30th 2013

Social Media Etiquette 101: Attribution

ImageWhen I was a little girl, my mother had a book called Emily Post’s Etiquette. It’s still in print today in its eighteenth edition. It was the go-to resource for teaching proper behavior for everything from how to set the table correctly to how to introduce a guest at a party. It was the polite man’s guide to life, and I was raised by its social conventions.

Today, we are in desperate need of an etiquette manual for the internet. Some believe that social media is much like the wild west of old—anything and everything goes. It creates an energy and excitement that gives birth to creativity and collaboration. Unfortunately, that also means that civil behavior and professional standards are often overlooked. In our race to be first or gain more influence, we often overlook those who helped us find that important information to begin with.

Much has been made of late about plagiarism and stealing of information on the internet. It starts with the misunderstood idea that all information on the internet is public. Information is public, but it is not public domain. There is a difference.  Everyone knows that plagiarism is wrong.  But there is another layer of responsible behavior on social media that I’m not sure is accepted as common knowledge: the simple act of attribution.

Attribution, or giving the source of where you got the information you are posting, is not ethical or unethical, it’s just polite behavior. When I run across a tweet that gives me a link good enough to tweet out to my followers, I like to give a nod to the person who brought it to my attention. That is good business. Lifting up those who lift me up is part of being social. Granted, I don’t do it 100% of the time. If I know a particular news item is rolling around on Twitter, I don’t always give the source that brought it to my attention. But I do try and follow a few simple rules of social media etiquette.

  1. Learn how to tweet succinctly so you have room to give a source. The 140 characters (or 120 if you want to leave room to encourage retweeting) on Twitter are challenging. In college, I always dreaded the 250 word essay much more than the three or four page one. The less room you have, the more carefully you need to choose your words. But practice makes perfect.
  2. Learn to use the language of attribution:
    1. Just giving an @username at the end of the tweet should usually be enough.
    2. “Via @username” indicates the user brought the piece to your attention.
    3. “From @username” indicates the user wrote or was the original source of the information.
    4. “MT” indicates you have taken someone’s tweet and repurposed it for space purposes or removed hashtags and such. Just don’t remove the original tweeter’s username if you can help it.
    5. If the piece came from a newsfeed such as USA Today or Ragan, it’s not as necessary to attribute the service as it is the author. You may have to look up a bio to find a Twitter username for an author, but it’s worth the time. Often, the writer will retweet your message giving you a larger audience exposure.  Again, it’s good business.
    6. If you are a blogger and use some information you found online or in print media in a blog piece, be sure and give a nod to the original author. Consider going one step further and link to the original piece so your readers can reference the article as well.

Giving nods online is part of the etiquette of the internet. The more we follow these simple rules of attribution online, the more generous the social media culture will become. Be sure and add your etiquette tips in the comments. 

image: attribution/shutterstock


Chris Syme

Owner/Partner, CKSyme Media Group

Chris Syme's latest book, Practice Safe Social, is a leading resource on how to use social media responsibly. Her agency, CKSyme Media Group specializes in crisis and reputation communications, training, and social media services. See her website at Follow her on Twitter @cksyme


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Posted on May 30th 2013 at 1:20PM

Great tips Chris! I've also used the convention of on @username when attributing info to an organization (e.g. @socialmedia2day).  When I can recognize the author directly and include the source, I'll use @author on @infosource, such as @cksyme on @socialmedia2day. That does eat up valuable characters, but worth the nod.

Posted on June 1st 2013 at 2:50PM

I agree. Sometimes it depends on how many characters I have left. I always try and leave 20 open for RT and try to use at least one attribution. Thanks for the tips.

Posted on June 1st 2013 at 7:31PM

Kudos on the tips.  

Posted on June 1st 2013 at 8:06PM

Thanks Kyle.