Exploring netiquette

A few things have been going round in my head for the last few days. The first thing is that I’ve been helping my mother get set up online. She’s used computers for awhile, but she’s never really gone online more than to shop at Amazon and some fabric stores. For the last couple of months I’ve been trying to convince her to get online more, partly to talk with friends overseas, and partly because the net is changing so rapidly that in another 5 years it’ll be a lot harder to learn the basics. Finally she said she’d give it a try. Sounds good, right?

Wrong. What’s that saying from Robert Burns? The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry (actually it’s “the best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley”, but let’s not get into that). She’s getting the hang of web-surfing and email, but the problem I’ve been having is explaining netiquette to her. She uses all caps sometimes which people consider SHOUTING and she rarely uses line breaks. But the main thing has been explaining the differences between email and letters. Email is much more concise and she thinks I mean that email should be short, but that’s not what I mean. You can write longer emails (and for that matter long blog posts. as I’m doing now!); what matters is that your thoughts are clearly expressed and to the point. Email is immediate and really nothing like a letter; it’s another form of communication, with it’s own rules.

The other thing that’s been on my mind ties into this as well. My most viewed post at CJWriter so far has been the one on Creative Commons Licensing. I never expected that; I was just putting it out there as an announcement for anyone who reads my work, but it’s kind of taken on a life of it’s own. I’ve had a few comments and about as many emails regarding that post; I’m still trying to catch up on them a week later. I feel badly about that because I can’t stop thinking that I’ve violated some kind of netiquette rule – Thou Must Respond To All Messages Within 36 Hours. But if I’m being honest, I’ve never been sure what the protocol is for comments. Do you reply directly to a comment, or do you edit the comment and put your reply inside it? Are you required to acknowledge comments or are there some you just leave to speak for themselves? My posts are often more editorial-style and I’ve never expected many comments from them, so it’s something I’ve not thought about much before. Even around WordPress there doesn’t seem to be much of a consensus.

So with this whole idea of netiquette playing on my mind, I decided I’d go and have a look at a few sources, try and clear it up. What I found was that a lot of my initial thoughts were validated but that on the whole netiquette is so complicated I don’t think many people actually understand it, let alone adhere to it. Anyone who does try is like a sherrif in one of the old Hollywood westerns; outnumbered and outgunned on a rough, unfriendly frontier.

I guess I’ve always thought of netiquette as this kind of loose concept; a guideline for social conduct that most people would recognise, even if they don’t know the term. I’ve always thought about it in quite general terms, things that make sense. Be concise and to the point in your messages. Use line breaks, don’t type in all capitals and check messages before you send them. Send or embed the whole link and check that the subject line is relevant. Delete quotes of previous messages, leaving the original. You can use emoticons to express an emotion, but don’t use them too much; don’t overuse acronyms. Likewise, abbreviations are okay (“u” for “you”), but not everybody will write like that and they will not be appropriate everywhere (particularly on Usenet). And above all, remember that nothing you post is guaranteed to remain private, so don’t include personal, hateful or confidential information.

All that seems pretty simple to me. Commonsensical. But I had a look at the official RFC 1855 netiquette guidelines and while all of that seems to fall under their considerations, you’d need to be a lawyer to understand it. There are a lot of sites which have published revised versions and synopses of netiquette as well, but even the ones on Wikipedia don’t seem accessible and some of the others are too basic. And so it’s no wonder that we have this situation where just about anything goes online.

The worst example I have seen happened in March, involving Kathy Sierra, and it came to involve much more than just netiquette. For anyone who doesn’t know, she runs a great blog called Creating Passionate Users, over at Typepad, but in March she received death threats and sexist remarks on her blog. They were so serious that she cancelled an appearance at a tech conference and suspended her blog for a time. That anyone would be subject to such treatment is disgusting and I feel really sorry for Kathy Sierra. That this kind of thing goes on should not be acceptable to anyone, and it sparked Tim O’Reilly to propose a Bloggers’ Code of Conduct which I think is a good idea but I’m not sure just how much success it will have. I guess we’ll just have to see.

So having read the articles, I feel like most of what I thought makes sense… but that none of it really matters. Far less people adhere to netiquette than I thought, if they even know it exists. And I think it’s getting worse. I’m not saying I’ve never broken netiquette rules (it took me a while to find my feet online just like everyone else), but it goes beyond that. It’s this idea people have that you can say or do whatever you like online simply because it’s not the “real world”. It’s a serious problem for respectable speech, but also for the sense of community online; if netiquette was valued, it could bring people together in much greater numbers. Maybe that’s something that will never happen, but I’ve decided to support the Support Responsible Commenting initiative anyway. I’m including the SRC button in my sidebar and I would encourage anyone else who believes in the idea of netiquette to do the same. This won’t cover everything we want it to, not by any means, but it’s a start. And maybe that’s all we can hope for.

Meanwhile I’ll keep trying to explain netiquette, because the opposite is just crazy. But what do you think? Does netiquette matter to you?

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4 thoughts on “Exploring netiquette

  1. I do think it matters to me, but you are right – other than people using common sense and general manners, there really isn’t a consensus on what ‘netiquette’ is.

    I feel that I’m pretty dependent on the net these days, that it’s a big part of my life and who I am as a person, especially as a means to connect to other people that I wouldn’t normally ever get the chance to meet. And I do tend to gravitate towards people who share (or at least appear to share) the same common courtesies towards ‘netiquette’ as I do.

    Ah well. Kudos to you if you manage to get a proper definition out there. There are certainly a fair few people who would benefit from it, that’s for sure.

    (I think it’s great you’re getting your mum involved online!)

  2. Hi CJ,
    Wow, interesting topic. I had to laugh about your mom and her approach to the internet. My mom has finally gotten email and she sends emails all in lower case, with the u’s and ur’s too. It’s kind of funny, like a little kid is writing the email.

    As to comments – it seems to me that each blogger has their own approach – I even wrote a post about it and surprisingly had an enormous amount of comments. But they were very informative, many bloggers had no idea how to reply or if they should or felt awkward doing so. I always respond to my readers’ comments. My style is to edit the comment and add my response to it. I felt that commenting separately in the comment box tends to give a false idea of the popularity of the post because it adds to the number of comments if you do it that way. But I’m fine with people doing it however they feel comfortable doing it.

    In my year of blogging I’ve deleted only one comment and aside from typo’s rarely edit a comment – the one comment I did edit, I communicated with the commenter through email and explained why – it was a little rocky for a while but we’re back on decent terms again.

    As to death threats and those types of extreme reactions – it’s outrageous. And you’re right, many people who wouldn’t have the nerve to say or do such things in the real world, will often do so in the virtual world. And it’s wrong. And I think marches itself into a legal matter – I’m not sure but you should probably report such things to the FBI or whatever the equivalent agency is in your country.

    But I think too that this sort of thing has to voluntary – it is nearly impossible to enforce such things on the internet and so you must appeal to people’s sense of reason, as you have done here by writing this very thought provoking post.

    Well done. And nice to meet you.

    Writer Chick

  3. Thanks for your comment, I thought that your post was very insightful and you did a much better job then I did in explaining the issues we are all dealing with. My main drive behind support responsible commenting is to increase awareness to the issue. I don’t have a solution to offer and think that the best thing we can all do is make sure that we are aware of what all of this means. There are a lot of very smart people out there and if we can all spend a bit of time thinking about the society that we all share we could make it a better place for all of us.

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