Netiquette: The Online Survival Guide

by Eric Deggans - PC Novice magazine

It’s a simple word that carries a lot of weight online: Netiquette.

Put simply, it’s an informal code of conduct for behavior in cyberspace. And if it sounds trivial, imagine walking into a black-tie dinner dressed for a game of tennis and consider the reaction. It’s a sad cyberspatial truth that people who would never imagine enduring such embarrassment in real life often generate similarly negative responses online -- sometimes without even realizing it -- through their ignorance of the most basic rules.

Most codes for online behavior are rooted in two ideas. First, there’s the consideration for how your behavior will affect others sharing your corner of cyberspace -- whether it’s a Local Access Network you utilize with 20 co-workers, a commercial provider such as America Online or a piece of the worldwide network of computer networks, the Internet. In each case, the way you post messages, retrieve information and interact with others online impacts on the greater community. Proper attention to netiquette ensures you put your best face forward at all times, while inconveniencing your fellow cyber-travelers the least.

Secondly, these guidelines are forged in the understanding of just how different online communication is from more conventional correspondence. Despite new developments in sending audio and visual information through cyberspace, most online contact still happens through text -- someone writes a message, sends it, and someone else reads it somewhere.

That can happen in a few ways. Email, or electronic mail, is an article you specifically send to a person or group of people online. If you access a bulletin board service (BBS), belong to a commercial online services provider like CompuServe or Prodigy or spend time on the Internet, you will also have the opportunity to leave messages in electronic “folders” that people can read later. Sometimes the contents of those “folders” are also emailed to people directly through an Internet mailing list. And many services offer a chat function -- including the worldwide Internet Relay Chat (IRC) -- that allows you to exchange text messages in a real-time, electronic “conversation” with another user or group of users.

The big drawback here is that subtle emotional cues -- a vocal inflection, a wry expression, a tilt of the head -- are missing. As a result, messages with one intended meaning can take on another in the cold void of text-only expression. Netiquette helps circumvent those problems with specific guidelines for making yourself better understood in this rarefied environment.

Best of all, as the ranks of those on the Internet swell past the 50 million mark and even Presidential candidates feel compelled to advertise their World Wide Web addresses, netiquette remains the one area of life online that hasn’t changed much over the years. Meaning that -- once you get the hang of the basic rules, you likely won’t have to go back to the drawing board anytime soon.

“I can’t think of anything that was appropriate 2 1/2 years ago that isn’t appropriate now,’’ says Virginia Shea, author of the 1994 book, “Net Etiquette.” “There’s basically two sets of rules -- the ones based on real world etiquette and others based on the technology of (online communications). Much of it is common sense...but common sense isn’t something you’re born with. You have to learn it.”

RESPECT Accordingly, Shea’s first rule of life online is a simple, but all-encompassing one: Remember the Human. In the text-only world of cyberspace, it’s easy to distance yourself from situations -- forgetting that there are real people on the other side of these streams of text that can be offended, annoyed or inconvenienced by your actions. Reminding yourself of their humanity every so often, keeps you in touch with your own.

“My other rules are just detailed elaborations and more specific ways of treating people as human beings...respecting them,” she adds. “That’s what really makes the ‘net work.”

That respect translates into an important follow-up guideline with the added virtue of being easy to remember: Conduct yourself online the way you do in real life. Again, because online communication offers the thrill of direct emotional contact with the safety of physical separation, users may find themselves acting less inhibited in cyberspace -- after all, it’s much easier to insult someone if you know they can’t punch you in the face later.

But netiquette demands users resist that temptation -- at least, when it comes to behavior that might negatively affect someone else. Instead, a good netizen (or, “Internet citizen” ) remains as ethical, considerate and truthful as they would be offline -- especially when it comes to recognizing others’ intellectual property and copyrights.

SPELL IT RIGHT - KEEP IT SHORT Anyone who reads a fair amount of electronic correspondence will tell you: the users to hate are those who feel no need to obey conventional grammar rules when online. Indeed, the informal nature of most cyberspace communication may lead you to try the same approach. Don’t. Many users reading your email or bulletin board posting may not want to spend precious minutes deciphering your free-form statements. And in a situation where a user’s time is quite literally money (anyone who has paid an Internet Services Provider bill over $50 gets the idea), anything that speeds communication is welcomed.

In cyberspace, short, concise messages work best. Their usefulness to possible readers -- what some call the signal to noise ratio -- is stressed. Keeping each line under 78 characters and avoiding any unusual formatting -- italics or bold letters that may not translate to someone else’s word processing program, for example -- is also a good idea. And, as always, TYPING IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS is considered shouting online. Just like in the real world, a little of that goes a really long way.

Often, in sending email or contributing to a bulletin board, users can include a “signature” line at the end of their message with a name and contact information -- maybe a cute graphic or quote. Unfortunately, some people let their signatures get so large and unwieldy they make reading the message a greater hardship than it needs to be. Most experts agree, anything over four lines long is probably too long.

Similarly, when responding to someone else’s posting, you should include enough of their original message in your reply that anyone reading it can understand your point. Quoting too much of the previous message is also a common mistake, and one that never fails to set a veteran cybersurfer’s teeth on edge. Remember, conciseness and speed are what’s valued here, and streamlining your messages will help -- along with making sure the subject line in any email or posted message is a clear description of its content.

At its best, online communication combines the immediacy of telephone-style contact with the possibility for thought and reflection that comes with letter writing. So feel free to take advantage and carefully craft your messages. It’s too easy to dash off a heated or inconsiderate posting you may regret later. Ditto with harsh messages criticizing others for netiquette mistakes, especially spelling errors. Chances are, the offending party has already heard from enough people to realize their mistake -- insulting or demeaning them serves no real purpose. “It’s pretty much a given that, if you write a post criticizing someone else’s spelling, you yourself will make a spelling mistake in the text,” Shea adds, laughing. “For that reason, if no other, it’s probably not a good idea...hassling people over minor transgressions.”

DEALING WITH TROLLS, SPAM & OTHERS There are a few specialized pitfalls out there waiting for any inexperienced newbie (or, new user) unfortunate enough to stumble into range -- luckily, they have really cool, easy-to-remember names.

The first among these are trolls, or messages specifically crafted to start involved discussions on mailing lists, bulletin boards or chat rooms about something trivial. Their only purpose, really, is to see how many users the writer can suck into believing the dispute or debate. Needless to say, there are few greater wastes of time and bandwidth (which is network capacity - the great currency of cyberspace) and you can usually spot them by checking out the subject or signature lines of the message. Ignore them whenever possible.

Spam and Velveeta also take on new meanings in cyberspace, beyond their status and America’s premiere junk foods. They’re considered junk of a different kind online -- with spam defined as large amounts of non-relevant messages to a newsgroup or mailing list and velveeta continuing that trend across several newsgroups or mailing lists.

A good example would involved posting an advertisement about a resume-writing service. If you post it in a newsgroup devoted to rocker Bruce Springsteen, it’s spam. Post it in 15 newsgroups, on subjects ranging from pottery to guitar technique, and you’ve got a nasty slice of velveeta. In each case, it’s the kind of behavior that can get you kicked off an online service.

Basically, spam and velveeta violate two cardinal rules of cyberspace: Never post off-topic messages if you can avoid it and don’t send messages to someone you don’t know without a very good reason. These rules ensure you respect other users’ privacy and personal boundaries. That’s also why netiquette absolutely -- and forgive me for shouting -- FORBIDS CHAIN LETTERS. Beyond its definition as velveeta of the worst sort, some calculations show such emails can generate up to 600 messages per hour, or 60,000 messages a day (according to Brendan Kehoe in the book, “Zen and the Art of the Internet”), wasting bandwidth and clogging up processor space for everyone.

Also be careful of messages asking you to send email to anyone you don’t know. One such email currently circulating claims a publishing house will donate books to charity for every thousand emails received. This message is a hoax, designed to create a flood of responses that will jam the company’s email server.

Finally, some other brief concepts to avoid. Flame-bait messages, as their name implies, are specifically crafted to start heated online arguments (or flame wars). Don’t give the author the satisfaction. Don’t fall for messages asking you to dial telephone numbers with an 809 prefix either, regardless of the pretext. These are international lines that can charge as much as $25 per minute for usage -- by the time you realize it’s a fake message, you could be charged a lot of money. And be careful about revealing information such as social security numbers and credit card numbers online. Some hackers are adept at impersonating system operators and officials and there’s no telling what use they’ll put the information to once they have it.

SPECIFIC TIPS There are some rules specifically crafted for email, bulletin boards, mailing lists and business correspondence. Here’s a quick look at the basics.

Email: Never assume emails are completely private. Particularly on the Internet, where email may be routed through several computers before reaching its destination, perusal by other users is a definite possibility. Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want to see on a billboard or television commercial.

Never forward an email sent to you without the author’s permission. Again, this rule insures privacy protection for the author, who likely sent the message assuming only you would read it.

Keep online arguments, or flames, to a minimum. While some areas in cyberspace welcome such conflict, many other users find such behavior rude and -- because of the emotional immediacy of email -- extremely upsetting.

Mailing Lists and Bulletin Boards (including the Internet’s worldwide bulletin board, Usenet): Some of these areas keep a Frequently Asked Questions list, or FAQ for new participants. Read it, if only to understand which subjects are off-limits, because they’ve been discussed to death. For example, asking if well-known rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix is dead, when he’s been gone since the early ‘70s, would just annoy most participants.

If your response to a previously-posted message is not something most people who read the folder would find interesting, consider replying in a private email to the original author. Ditto with answering questions. It saves everyone else from skipping a message obviously not meant for them.

Business Correspondence: This type of communication is usually a little more formal than the let-your-hair-down style of many general interest areas. Just think as if you’re sending a letter on your company letterhead. In fact, creating an email version of your letterhead might be a good idea -- just keep the format to four lines or less. Capitalization, spelling and grammar should get the same attention you give to postal (or, “snail mail”) letters. And posting unsolicited advertisements outside of designated areas -- if you must, and many of you will, limit them to one time and one line, please -- is a no-no.

As the Internet and online communication becomes a more popular and necessary part of everyone’s lives, the need to recognize accepted codes of conduct grows, too. While it’s true some people focus on these rules a little too stringently, the fact remains that they’ve helped million of cybersurfers co-exist and communicate for a long while. Just think of it as reading the instruction manual to one of the most complex machine you’ve ever owned -- in the end, a little effort can save you a lot of heartache.

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