Core Rules of Netiquette

By Virginia Shea

Sequence: Volume 29, Number 5


Release Date: September/October 1994

So you got a modem and a network subscription for your birthday and you
want to make some new online friends. Where do you start?

Rule 1: Remember the human

The golden rule your parents and your kindergarten teacher taught you
was pretty simple: Do unto others as you'd have others do unto you.
Imagine how you'd feel if you were in the other person's shoes. Stand up
for yourself, but try not to hurt people's feelings.
In cyberspace, we state this in an even more basic manner:

Remember the human

When you communicate electronically, all you see is a computer screen.
You don't have the opportunity to use facial expressions, gestures, and
tone of voice to communicate your meaning; words--lonely written words--
are all you've got. And that goes for your correspondent as well.

When you're holding a conversation online--whether it's an email
exchange or a response to a discussion group posting--it's easy to
misinterpret your correspondent's meaning. And it's frighteningly easy
to forget that your correspondent is a person with feelings more or less
like your own.

It's ironic, really. Computer networks bring people together who'd
otherwise never meet. But the impersonality of the medium changes that
meeting to something else--well, less personal. Humans exchanging email
often behave the way some people behind the wheel of a car do: They
curse at other drivers, make obscene gestures, and generally behave like
savages. Most of them would never act that way at work or at home. But
the interposition of the machine seems to make it acceptable.

The message of Netiquette is that it's not acceptable. Yes, use your
network connections to express yourself freely, explore strange new
worlds, and boldly go where you've never gone before. But remember the
Prime Directive of Netiquette:

Those are real people out there.

Would you say it to the person's face?

Writer and Macintosh evangelist Guy Kawasaki tells a story about getting
email from some fellow he's never met. Online, this fellow tells Guy
that he's a bad writer with nothing interesting to say.

Unbelievably rude? Yes, but unfortunately, it happens all the time in
cyberspace.

Maybe it's the awesome power of being able to send mail directly to a
well-known writer like Guy. Maybe it's the fact that you can't see his
face crumple in misery as he reads your cruel words. Whatever the
reason, it's incredibly common.

Guy proposes a useful test for anything you're about to post or mail:
Ask yourself, "Would I say this to the person's face?" If the answer is
no, rewrite and reread. Repeat the process till you feel sure that you'd
feel as comfortable saying these words to the live person as you do
sending them through cyberspace.

Of course, it's possible that you'd feel great about saying something
extremely rude to the person's face. In that case, Netiquette can't help
you. Go get a copy of Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct
Behavior.

Another reason not to be offensive online

When you communicate through cyberspace--via email or on discussion
groups--your words are written. And chances are they're stored somewhere
where you have no control over them. In other words, there's a good
chance they can come back to haunt you.

Never forget the story of famous email user Oliver North. Ollie, you'll
remember, was a great devotee of the White House email system, PROFS. He
diligently deleted all incriminating notes he sent or received. What he
didn't realize was that, somewhere else in the White House, computer
room staff were equally diligently backing up the mainframe where his
messages were stored. When he went on trial, all those handy backup
tapes were readily available as evidence against him.

You don't have to be engaged in criminal activity to want to be careful.
Any message you send could be saved or forwarded by its recipient. You
have no control over where it goes.

Rule 2: Adhere to the same standards of behavior online that you follow
in real life

In real life, most people are fairly law-abiding, either by disposition
or because we're afraid of getting caught. In cyberspace, the chances of
getting caught sometimes seem slim. And, perhaps because people
sometimes forget that there's a human being on the other side of the
computer, some people think that a lower standard of ethics or personal
behavior is acceptable in cyberspace.

The confusion may be understandable, but these people are mistaken.
Standards of behavior may be different in some areas of cyberspace, but
they are not lower than in real life.

Be ethical

Don't believe anyone who says, "The only ethics out there are what you
can get away with." This is a book about manners, not about ethics. But
if you encounter an ethical dilemma in cyberspace, consult the code you
follow in real life. Chances are good you'll find the answer.

One more point on Netiquette ethics: If you use shareware, pay for it.
Paying for shareware encourages more people to write shareware. The few
dollars probably won't mean much to you, and they benefit all of
cyberspace in the long run.

Breaking the law is bad Netiquette

If you're tempted to do something that's illegal in cyberspace, chances
are it's also bad Netiquette.

Some laws are obscure or complicated enough that it's hard to know how
to follow them. And in some cases, we're still establishing how the law
applies in cyberspace.

Netiquette mandates that you do your best to act within the laws of
society and cyberspace.

Rule 3: Know where you are in cyberspace

Netiquette varies from domain to domain

What's perfectly acceptable in one area may be dreadfully rude in
another. For example, in most TV discussion groups, passing on idle
gossip is perfectly permissible. But throwing around unsubstantiated
rumors in a journalists' mailing list will make you very unpopular
there.

And because Netiquette is different in different places, it's important
to know where you are. Thus the next corollary:

Lurk before you leap

When you enter a domain of cyberspace that's new to you, take a look
around. Spend a while listening to the chat or reading the archives. Get
a sense of how the people who are already there act. Then go ahead and
participate.

Rule 4: Respect other people's time and bandwidth

It's a clichˇ that people today seem to have less time than ever before,
even though (or perhaps because) we sleep less and have more labor-
saving devices than our grandparents did. When you send email or post to
a discussion group, you're taking up other people's time (or hoping to).
It's your responsibility to ensure that the time they spend reading your
posting isn't wasted.

The word "bandwidth" is sometimes used synonymously with time, but it's
really a different thing. Bandwidth is the information-carrying capacity
of the wires and channels that connect everyone in cyberspace. There's a
limit to the amount of data that any piece of wiring can carry at any
given moment--even a state-of-the-art fiber-optic cable. The word
"bandwidth" is also sometimes used to refer to the storage capacity of a
host system. When you accidentally post the same note to the same
newsgroup five times, you are wasting both time (of the people who check
all five copies of the posting) and bandwidth (by sending repetitive
information over the wires and requiring it to be stored somewhere).

You are not the center of cyberspace

Presumably, this reminder will be superfluous to most readers. But I
include it anyway, because when you're working hard on a project and
deeply involved in it, it's easy to forget that other people have
concerns other than yours. So don't expect instant responses to all your
questions, and don't assume that all readers will agree with--or care
about--your passionate arguments.

Rules for discussion groups

Rule 4 has a number of implications for discussion group users. Most
discussion group readers are already spending too much time sitting at
the computer; their significant others, families, and roommates are
drumming their fingers, wondering when to serve dinner, while those
network maniacs are catching up on the latest way to housebreak a puppy
or cook zucchini.

And many news-reading programs are slow, so just opening a posted note
or article can take a while. Then the reader has to wade through all the
header information to get to the meat of the message. No one is pleased
when it turns out not to be worth the trouble.

To whom should messages be directed?

(Or why "mailing list" could become a dirty word)

In the old days, people made copies with carbon paper. You could only
make about five legible copies. So you thought good and hard about whom
you wanted to send those five copies to.

Today, it's as easy to copy practically anyone on your mail as it is not
to. And we sometimes find ourselves copying people almost out of habit.
In general, this is rude. People have less time than ever today,
precisely because they have so much information to absorb. Before you
copy people on your messages, ask yourself whether they really need to
know. If the answer is no, don't waste their time. If the answer is
maybe, think twice before you hit the send key.

Rule 5: Make yourself look good online

Take advantage of your anonymity

I don't want to give the impression that the net is a cold, cruel place
full of people who just can't wait to insult each other. As in the world
at large, most people who communicate online just want to be liked.
Networks--particularly discussion groups--let you reach out to people
you'd otherwise never meet. And none of them can see you. You won't be
judged by the color of your skin, eyes, or hair, your weight, your age,
or your clothing.

You will, however, be judged by the quality of your writing. For most
people who choose to communicate online, this is an advantage; if they
didn't enjoy using the written word, they wouldn't be there. So spelling
and grammar do count.

If you're spending a lot of time on the net and you're shaky in these
areas, it's worth brushing up on them. There are plenty of books
available, but you'll learn more--and possibly have more fun--if you
take a course. If you're an older adult, you don't have to take a
"bonehead grammar" course with a bunch of bored teenagers. Instead, look
for courses on proofreading and copyediting; they usually cover the
basic rules of grammar pretty thoroughly, and they'll be filled with
motivated students who are there because they want to be. Check your
local community college and university extension catalogs--you'll be
amazed at what they offer. A side benefit is that taking courses
involves meeting people you can actually see.

Know what you're talking about and make sense

Pay attention to the content of your writing. Be sure you know what
you're talking about--when you see yourself writing "it's my
understanding that" or "I believe it's the case," ask yourself whether
you really want to post this note before checking your facts. Bad
information propagates like wildfire on the net. And once it's been
through two or three iterations, you get the same distortion effect as
in the party game "Operator": Whatever you originally said may be
unrecognizable. (Of course, you could take this as a reason not to worry
about the accuracy of your postings. But you're only responsible for
what you post yourself, not for what anyone else does with it.)

In addition, make sure your notes are clear and logical. It's perfectly
possible to write a paragraph that contains no errors in grammar or
spelling, but still makes no sense whatsoever. This is most likely to
happen when you're trying to impress someone by using a lot of long
words that you don't really understand yourself. Trust me--no one worth
impressing will be impressed. It's better to keep it simple.

Don't post flame-bait

Finally, be pleasant and polite. Don't use offensive language, and don't
be confrontational for the sake of confrontation.

Is swearing acceptable on the net?

Only in those areas where sewage is considered an art form, e.g., the
USENET newsgroup alt.tasteless. Usually, if you feel that cursing in
some form is required, it's preferable to use amusing euphemisms like
"effing" and "sugar." You may also use the classic asterisk filler--for
example, s***. The archness is somehow appropriate to the net, and you
avoid offending anyone needlessly. And everyone will know exactly what
you mean.

Rule 6: Share expert knowledge

Finally, after all that negativity, some positive advice.

The strength of cyberspace is in its numbers. The reason asking
questions online works is that a lot of knowledgeable people are reading
the questions. And if even a few of them offer intelligent answers, the
sum total of world knowledge increases. The Internet itself was founded
and grew because scientists wanted to share information. Gradually, the
rest of us got in on the act.

So do your part. Despite the long lists of no-no's in this book, you do
have something to offer. Don't be afraid to share what you know.

It's especially polite to share the results of your questions with
others. When you anticipate that you'll get a lot of answers to a
question, or when you post a question to a discussion group that you
don't visit often, it's customary to request replies by email instead of
to the group. When you get all those responses, write up a summary and
post it to the discussion group. That way, everyone benefits from the
experts who took the time to write you.

If you're an expert yourself, there's even more you can do. Many people
freely post all kinds of resource lists and bibliographies, from lists
of online legal resources to lists of popular UNIX books. If you're a
leading participant in a discussion group that lacks a FAQ, consider
writing one. If you've researched a topic that you think would be of
interest to others, write it up and post it.

Sharing your knowledge is fun. It's a long-time net tradition. And it
makes the world a better place.

Rule 7: Help keep flame wars under control

"Flaming" is what people do when they express a strongly held opinion
without holding back any emotion. It's the kind of message that makes
people respond, "Oh come on, tell us how you really feel." Tact is not
its objective.

Does Netiquette forbid flaming? Not at all. Flaming is a longstanding
network tradition (and Netiquette never messes with tradition). Flames
can be lots of fun, both to write and to read. And the recipients of
flames sometimes deserve the heat.

But Netiquette does forbid the perpetuation of flame wars--series of
angry letters, most of them from two or three people directed toward
each other, that can dominate the tone and destroy the camaraderie of a
discussion group. It's unfair to the other members of the group. And
while flame wars can initially be amusing, they get boring very quickly
to people who aren't involved in them. They're an unfair monopolization
of bandwidth.

Rule 8: Respect other people's privacy

Of course, you'd never dream of going through your colleagues' desk
drawers. So naturally you wouldn't read their email either.

Unfortunately, a lot of people would. This topic actually rates a
separate section. For now, here's a cautionary tale. I call it

The case of the snoopy foreign correspondent

In 1993, Michael Hiltzik, a highly regarded foreign correspondent in the
Moscow bureau of the Los Angeles Times, was caught reading his
coworkers' email. His colleagues became suspicious when system records
showed that someone had logged in to check their email at times when
they knew they hadn't been near the computer. So they set up a sting
operation. They planted false information in messages from another one
of the paper's foreign bureaus. Hiltzik read the notes and later asked
colleagues about the false information. Bingo! As a disciplinary
measure, he was immediately reassigned to another position at the
paper's Los Angeles bureau.

The moral: Failing to respect other people's privacy is not just bad
Netiquette. It could also cost you your job.

Rule 9: Don't abuse your power

Some people in cyberspace have more power than others. There are wizards
in MUDs (multi-user dungeons), experts in every office, and system
administrators in every system.

Knowing more than others, or having more power than they do, does not
give you the right to take advantage of them. For example, sysadmins
should never read private e-mail.

Rule 10: Be forgiving of other people's mistakes.

Everyone was a network newbie once. And not everyone has had the benefit
of reading this book. So when someone makes a mistake--whether it's a
spelling error or a spelling flame, a stupid question or an
unnecessarily long answer--be kind about it. If it's a minor error, you
may not need to say anything. Even if you feel strongly about it, think
twice before reacting. Having good manners yourself doesn't give you
license to correct everyone else.

If you do decide to inform someone of a mistake, point it out politely,
and preferably by private email rather than in public. Give people the
benefit of the doubt; assume they just don't know any better. And never
be arrogant or self-righteous about it. Just as it's a law of nature
that spelling flames always contain spelling errors, notes pointing out
Netiquette violations are often examples of poor Netiquette.

Excerpted with permission from Netiquette, by Virginia Shea, published
by Albion Books, San Francisco (info@albion.com). ©1994 Virginia Shea.




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