Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Don't Say 'Feel Free' If You Mean 'Please Do'

Many people have begun to use phrases like:

  • "feel free to tell your friends/retweet/share this video/post/site"
  • "feel free to comment/rate/favorite this video"
  • "feel free to ask a question"

Online and in emails when they really mean:

  • "Please tell your friends about this video/post/site"
  • "Please comment/rate/favorite this video (because I really want it to be on the most discussed/highest highest rated/most favorite lists so that more people will see it)"
  • "Please ask a question (because this podcast/channel/site only has content if the audience participates)"

Are people allergic to "please"? No. But many seem to have forgotten the simple, honest power of saying please and asking for what they want.

People seem to think concealing what they want is better than coming out and saying it. They are wrong. Of course people will feel free to do all of the things mentioned; the internet is one of the most sophisticated and far reaching communication and distribution systems ever and everyone using it will share and access information as they see fit. To tell your audience they can "feel free to" do what they are already doing is to be redundant at least, and often conveys a simultaneous air of superiority and lack of understanding of the medium; it suggests you are giving permission to people already empowered. Coating a request in a foolish condescension helps no one.

While being as specific/pedantic as the parenthetical phrases in the examples above isn't necessary, be honest and say what you mean. Many already do this with the simple convention of "please retweet" on twitter. Using "feel free to" as wrapping makes the call-to-action marketers love so much a dishonest attempt to be polite; it actually erodes trust, candor and transparency. It's like our mothers told us: don't lie.

"Be sure to check back..." is the illegitimate cousin of "feel free to..." online. There are many ways to let visitors opt-in to more communication from you: email lists, feeds, follows, friending, etc. If you are mentioning something that does not exist yet, but will in the future, help your audience chose to opt-in to be informed when this event-in-the-future happens. If you can't be bothered to use such common methods for communicating with your potential future audience, do not expect your audience to be bother to care about your future creations.

We all make mistakes (myself included) but being as clear and honest as possible makes the many messages we all encounter everyday more useful. And now, just for fun, I ask you to please share this post with everyone who asks you to "feel free" to use the internet ;-).