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A Whole New Culture

Although you may not realise it, when you launch yourself into cyberspace for the first time you are not simply learning about technology, you are about to experience the culture of the Internet. But just because the net is a new culture it doesn't mean that you can leave your manners at home in real time.

Anytime you join a new organization, start a new school, or begin a new job, you expect to spend some time working out the culture of your new place, and cyberspace is no different. It has it's own myths, it's own set of rules, it's own history, that's all part of the fascination.

And just like everywhere else, on the net good manners and consideration for other make for a more pleasant time for all. As a newbie it is up to you to work out the rules. Luckily there are many guides, like this one, on becoming a good netizen of cyberspace.

Why Bother with Rules?

Despite what you might hear about the net being anarchic, in fact there are rules. The rules are simply guidelines to make net life more pleasant for everyone. They attempt to take into account the fact that everyone uses the net in different ways and for different purposes, and that in order to accommodate the millions of people who use the net regularly, some guidance for acceptable use is necessary.

Ten Rules for being a Good Netizen

The following rules were proposed by writer Virginia Shea in a book called Netiquette, and they pretty much cover the important things you need to remember to be a good citizen of cyberspace.

  1. Remember the human
  2. Adhere to the same standards of behaviour on-line that you follow in real life.
  3. Know where you are in cyberspace.
  4. Respect other people's time and bandwidth.
  5. Make yourself look good on-line.
  6. Share expert knowledge.
  7. Help keep flames under control.
  8. Respect other people's privacy.
  9. Don't abuse your power.
  10. Be forgiving of other people's mistakes.
(from Virginia Shea (1994) Netiquette Albion Books San Francisco pp 32-33)

1. Homo sapiens in cyberspace

It is sometimes easy to forget that on the net you are not just talking to computers, you are communicating with real people, people who have feelings just like you, and you need to respect their rights just as you would in any other area of your life.

The problem with electronic communication is that you don't have the opportunity you have in face to face contact to use expression, gesture, or tone of voice to express the way you feel, since all you have is text on a computer screen. This means that you have to be even more careful to express yourself carefully so that you aren't misinterpreted. In recognition of this difficulty the net has developed a list of symbols, called emoticons and acronyms, which you can you use in your text as a way of making it clear that you are being funny or serious or ironic.

Because you are dealing with text on a computer screen, it can be tempting to behave in ways you wouldn't in face to face communication. But imagine how you would feel if you opened your e-mail and found an unpleasant, personally offensive message. You would be as hurt as if someone had yelled at you.

2. If you wouldn't do it in real life, don't do it in cyberspace.

This is called nethics, or ethics on the net. Don't think that just because you are in cyberspace all bets are off. If it's inappropriate or illegal in real life, it's inappropriate or illegal in cyberspace. No exceptions. It might seem that your chances of being caught behaving unethically on the net are less than they are in real life, however this doesn't provide an excuse for lowering your standards of behaviour, and I wouldn't be too sure that you won't get caught.

Some of the laws on the net, particularly in regards to electronic publishing and electronic copyright are still being argued out in the courts, but by assuming that the laws stand as they do in the print media (see SOFWeb's Copyright Statement) and by behaving as ethically as you would in real life, you can protect yourself and your school. This means that you don't plagiarize someone else's work, you respect their right to intellectual property. Where it is appropriate to use someone else's work (for instance if you want to quote from it) you acknowledge your source by referencing it properly.

3. Where am I?

One of the things you will find as you explore the net, particularly the electronic discussion groups (listservs), is that just like any other group of people, each discussion list will have it's own "tone". This means that some groups tend to be quite academic and formal in tone, others are chattier and more social.

Some groups might be interested in what you did last night, others might flame you for giving them details of your social life. You can save yourself and everyone else a lot of irritation if you take the time to find out what a group is all about before you join in the discussion, this is called lurking. Lurking means that you take the time to read some messages or check the archives so that you have a clear sense of what the group is all about and what kinds of messages are appropriate.

4. What's a bandwidth when it's at home?

Bandwidth is the information carrying capacity of the cables and wires that connect computers together. Even the most high tech cables have a limit to the amount of information they can carry, so you need to remember that there are physical limits to cyberspace. As a responsible netizen it is part of the deal that you make an effort not to waste bandwidth.

Not every one can connect into the Internet from school or business, many people have Internet accounts at home which means they have to pay for them. So while it may not cost you anything to send a long, rambling post, it might cost the recipient money to receive it.

So how can you save bandwidth, time, and people's money? Think about the message you are sending. Is it worth saying? Sometimes in discussion lists a topic will spring up and everyone will want to have their say. Think about whether or not you have something new to add to the discussion, a message with something like, "What she said." is a waste of bandwidth.

Try and be as concise as possible. In cyberspace, longer is not necessarily better. The great joy of e-mail is the ability to communicate rapidly and easily, which means short, to-the-point messages except in exceptional circumstances. For the same reasons avoid long complicated signatures. Keeping in mind the need for concise messages, under no circumstances should your signature be longer than your message.

Make sure that your post is going to the appropriate place. It is easy for an on-line discussion to wander away from the original topic, but keep in mind that listservs are for the discussion of particular subjects, people join them so they can discuss their pet topics and can get irritable if a discussion veers too far away from the purpose of the list.

If you get interested in a conversation which is off the topic of the list, it is a good idea to take your discussion off list to personal e-mail. It is a waste of bandwidth to send a message to 500 people when there may be only a couple of you interested. Before you post make sure that you have a clear idea of who is going to be interested and make sure that you send it to the appropriate place.

5. Looking good and making sense.

For most of us there aren't too many ways of making yourself look silly in front of hundreds of people, but sending a badly spelled, grammatically incorrect, thoughtlessly put together e-mail message is one. E-mail can be a spontaneous form of communication, and to some extent the form of the message will depend on where you are sending it. It probably won't matter if a quick note to a friend has a spelling mistake or two, but if you are involved in a project with other schools your message represents not only you, but your school, and you will want to make sure that your message looks good and contains accurate, worthwhile information.

But spelling and grammar are not the only important things. In cyberspace your only method of communication is by writing, and you may never meet any of the people you are communicating with face to face. So like it or not, you will be judged by the quality of your writing. You don't have to be literary, but you do have to be clear and intelligible. For some hints on writing e-mail check our Style Guide for E-mail Messages.

6. How do you spell ornithyrincus, um orneethrincus, er platypus?

The truly wonderful thing about cyberspace is that you can connect with a vast range of expert knowledge, communicate with people who not only share your interests, but who are usually happy to answer your questions.

And you can do your share. If you know the answer to a question which has been asked on-line, don't be afraid to share your knowledge. The culture of the Internet is to a large extent based on the willingness of people to share information and to help others.

There are a couple of points to remember: If you are going to answer a question try and make sure that you are giving accurate information, even if it means going away and checking. try not to answer questions where you have only a vague idea of the answer.

Experts on-line are generous with their knowledge, but that generosity can be stretched by people asking basic questions they were too lazy to go and look up for themselves. It is your responsibility to try and answer the question yourself by the usual research methods before you turn to cyberspace. Remember that experts are a resource, not a way to avoid doing any work. Be sensible about the questions you ask and the people you ask. Don't join a group of experts in astronomy and then ask them if they know anything about planets, don't ask an expert on medieval music what they know about Oasis.

7. Quick ring the fire brigade, I've been flamed!

Flaming is personal attacks on other citizens of cyberspace via e-mail. A flame is the kind of message which attacks not just your opinion, but your personality, your looks, your personal habits and your dog's behavior. In other words flaming has a lot to do with emotional responses, and nothing to do with reasonable disagreement.

This doesn't mean that you can't disagree with people, it would be a very dull discussion if everybody agreed, in fact there would be no point in the discussion at all. But the golden rule is that if you disagree with someone you disagree with the content of their message, you don't descend into personal comments.

There are people who try and start flame wars by posting flame bait, comments which are designed to start a fire or fan the flames. Well, I suppose it's something to do, but really, they should get out more and stop wasting everyone's time.

If you read something that really makes you angry, resist the temptation to fire off an emotional response. Take a deep breath, go for a walk, put the message away until tomorrow. Keep in mind that no-one ever changed their mind because some called them a rude name.

If a discussion you are involved in turns into a flame war, you might want to think about how you can douse the flames. Sometimes the best way is simply not to get involved, if nobody replies the flamer has nothing to burn. Remember that flaming is in direction violation of rules 1 and 4. Flames are not only unkind they are a waste of time and bandwidth. If nothing else, avoid fanning the fire.

8. Snoopy's a dog, not a way of life.

You wouldn't read someone else's mail, so don't read their e-mail. If someone sends you a private e-mail or a message from a discussion group, don't forward it on somewhere else without permission from the writer. Imagine how you would feel if you wrote a letter to a friend and then found out that it had been posted to a newsgroup read for thousands of people a week. It's a pretty frightening thought isn't it?

On the other hand, there are a lot of complicated issues to do with privacy on the net, and no matter how many times guides like this talk about your right to privacy, not everyone behaves as ethically as might be hoped. Electronic networks are different than the ordinary mail system, you can probably tell if someone has opened a letter addressed to you, but it's unlikely that you would realise if someone had read one of your e-mail messages. It is possible for people to intercept e-mail, for both legitimate and illegitimate purposes. For example, the system administrators of your network might well have the ability to read your e-mail.

So because e-mail is probably not quite as private as we might wish, it is important to remember this when using your e-mail. Don't say anything that you wouldn't want an outside party to read, because no matter how much we might wish that everyone respected our privacy the reality is sometimes otherwise. People have been sued for libel because of what they wrote in an e-mail message, so it pays to be careful.

9. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.

If you are in a position of power with respect to a computer or computer network behave responsibly.

Here are the Ten Commandments for Computer Ethics from the Computer Ethics Institute.
You can find it at Arlene Rinaldi's web site about netiquette The Net: User Guidelines and Netiquette

  1. Thou shalt not use a computer to harm other people.
  2. Thou shalt not interfere with other people's computer work.
  3. Thou shalt not snoop around in other people's files.
  4. Thou shalt not use a computer to steal.
  5. Thou shalt not use a computer to bear false witness.
  6. Thou shalt not use or copy software for which you have not paid.
  7. Thou shalt not use other people's computer resources without authorization.
  8. Thou shalt not appropriate other people's intellectual output.
  9. Thou shalt think about the social consequences of the program you write.
  10. Thou shalt use a computer in ways that show consideration and respect.

10. It's okay, we all make mistakes.

Sooner or later you will get the hang of cyberspace and instead of being a newbie you will be a confident citizen of cyberspace, perhaps one day you might even become one of those expert users called a net god. But this doesn't mean that just because you know what you are doing you have earned the right to correct everyone else.

Don't waste bandwidth on telling people they have made a spelling error, or a minor error of netiquette. Self-righteousness is less popular on the net than poor grammar. If someone has made a serious mistake (defined as a mistake which is likely to get them flamed by net users less civilized than yourself), try and exercise some tact in correcting them. A gentle note in private about what they have done wrong is much more effective, not to mention polite, than a public flame. There are people who seem to live simply for the chance to correct someone else's spelling or grammar, but for the rest of us, life's too short to waste on joining the net police.

More Resources

Arlene Rinaldi's The Net: User Guidelines and Netiquette is probably the best resource on the net for information about netiquette.
rfc1855 rfcs are Requests for Comment. As much as anything on the Internet can be, rfcs are official guidelines to the organization and management of the Internet. rfc1855 is the Netiquette Guidelines memo which outlines the issues and possible guidelines for on-line etiquette.

© State of Victoria (Department of Education, Employment & Training)
Initiative of the SOFWeb Project

Contact: SOFWeb

Last Updated: August 11, 2000


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