What is Netiquette? Simply stated, it’s ‘network etiquette’. “Etiquette” means “a prescribed or accepted code of behaviour in matters of formal procedure”. These are the forms required by good breeding. Similarly, netiquette is the convention on electronic forums (Email, live chat, and other Internet forums) – a set of rules for behaving properly online. It facilitates efficient interaction.
When you enter any new culture, you’re liable to commit social blunders. You might offend people without meaning to. Or you might misunderstand what others say. Also, in the virtual world, it’s easy to forget that you’re interacting with real people – not just characters on a screen, but live human characters.
So, partly as a result of forgetting that people online are real, and partly because they don’t know the conventions, well-meaning cybernauts, especially new ones, make all kinds of mistakes. But, follow a few basic rules, and you’re less likely to make the mistakes that will prevent you from making friends.
Remember the human
Do unto others as you’d have others do unto you. The old adage holds a lot of truth here. Imagine how you’d feel if you were in the other person’s shoes, and talk accordingly. Stand up for yourself, but never hurt people’s feelings.
When you communicate electronically, you don’t have the opportunity to use facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice very effectively to communicate your meaning. And that goes for your correspondent as well. So be very careful with words. Use your network connections to express yourself freely, explore new worlds, and boldly go where you’ve never gone before. But remember the Prime Directive of Netiquette: Those are real people out there.
Writer and Macintosh evangelist Guy Kawasaki 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; edit till you feel satisfied.
Adhere to the same standards of behaviour online as 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 seem slim. Some people think that a lower standard of ethics or personal behaviour is acceptable in cyberspace. However, standards of behavior may be different in some areas of cyberspace, but they are not lower than in real life.
Be ethical. If you encounter an ethical dilemma in cyberspace, consult the code you follow in real life. Chances are good you’ll find the answer.
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 to cyberspace. All the same, Netiquette mandates that you do your best to act within the laws of society and cyberspace.
Know where you are in cyberspace
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, 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.
Respect other people’s time and bandwidth
It’s a cliché 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.
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. 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).
We sometimes find ourselves copying people in the ‘send to’ column almost out of habit. However, ask yourself whether they really need to know all that you are sending. If the answer is no, don’t waste their time. If the answer is maybe, think twice before you hit the send key.
Make yourself look good online
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, but, 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. Also, be pleasant and polite. Don’t use offensive language.
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. 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.
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.
Share expert knowledge
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.
If you’re an expert yourself, there’s even more you can do. Many people freely post all kinds of resource lists and bibliographies. 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.
Help keep flame wars under control
“Flaming” is what people do when they express a strongly held opinion without holding back any emotion. Does Netiquette forbid flaming? Not at all. Flaming is a long-standing 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 towards each other, that can dominate the tone and destroy the camaraderie of a discussion group.
Respect other people’s privacy
You’d never dream of going through your colleagues’ desk drawers. Similarly, you wouldn’t read their email either. Failing to respect other people’s privacy is not just bad Netiquette. It could also cost you your relations/job.
Respecting each other’s personal space is essential. Even while conversing, try not to ask personal questions till you feel appropriate. Checking profiles is alright, so is hovering over a known friend’s FB account, as these are services offered by Net space itself and people have willingly divulged information about themselves, but, beyond that, it’s not acceptable. It’s also bad netiquette to pick up people from your friend’s cc lists.
Don’t abuse your power
Some people in cyberspace have more power than others. There are 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. Use your knowledge advantageously, both for yourself and others.
Be forgiving of other people’s mistakes
Everyone was a network newbie once. 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.
All said and done, Internet is a wonderful place – be it for striking friendships, sharing opinions, sharing knowledge or playing games together. Remember the above mentioned and abide by them; chances are you’ll find some long lasting friendships.