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Netiquette - Watching Your OnLine P's & Q's

An easy mistake that many Internet "newbies" make is to forget what the Internet is. The Internet is, for lack of a better way to classify it, a computer network that many people are using all at once. The key word is people.

It's very easy, since you aren't face to face, to forget that people make up the entire Internet. And, as such, you should conduct yourself as good as, or better than, you would when face to face. Manners are just as important online as in the "real world."

Probably the easiest way to give guidelines for good Internet etiquette, or "netiquette," is to show some examples of the wrong way to act. First, and foremost, the worst thing you can possibly do online, that will rile the most people, is spam.

When you talk about spam in connection with the Internet, you aren't talking about the meat product by Hormel. Spamming is sending large quantities of unwanted, unrequested emails, usually containing marketing messages, as well as mass postings to Usenet groups (commonly called cross-posting). It's the online equivalent to sending a mass mailing via carrier route, so that everyone at every house gets a copy. The difference is that, in the offline world, you pay for your mass mailing. Online, the recipient pays, whether through the wasted time it takes to receive your email, or through the fee they pay to access the Internet. While spamming is easy to do, and sounds attractive to the marketer in us, it is definitely the wrong thing to do, and you will be retaliated against, if you do it.

Retaliation for spamming comes in a variety of flavors. For one thing, your mass Usenet group postings may be canceled by some self-appointed guardians of the Internet who have the technical wizardry to intercept your unwanted messages. They will always send you an email explaining why they did what they did, and, for the most part, they are very fair in doing what they do.

Individuals who are aggravated by your postings and emails may encourage others to reply to your emails en masse, filling your email box and clogging up your service provider's computers. This has happened many times, with spammers receiving literally thousands of email replies and service providers closing the spammer's account. Even worse, some individuals with the proper know-how will look up whatever information they can get on you (personal phone numbers, etc.), and will mass post it, so other aggravated individuals can pester the life out of you. True, it's vigilante justice, but, in the unregulated world of the Internet, it works, and most people don't frown on it one bit. So, in other words, don't spam!

How else can you irritate large numbers of people online? Well, one way is to overtly criticize other people's opinions, taking things to a personal level. This is known as flaming. Here's an example: entering a Usenet group consisting of Macintosh users, and posting a message calling them idiots for using a Macintosh. You're going to get the same treatment as a spammer, and for good reason: they feel the same way you would if someone called you an idiot for using a PC. As I said earlier, never forget that there's a person on the other end of the line. It's all right to have a lively discussion online, but focus on the subject, and think before you post. It's a lot easier to say something degrading to or about someone when you're online and not face to face.

One of the things you will undoubtedly do while online is download files. Some of these files will be large. If you download, for example, a large game file at 2:00 in the afternoon from a University computer, you're tying up a spot where a student could be. Use your head, and download unimportant and/or large files outside of regular business hours, the time when others have important work to be done.

When you send email, you can have what's called a sig (short for signature) at the end of your message. This should be no longer than 4 to 6 lines, preferably as short as possible, and can include information on how to contact you, a very brief description of your business, etc. Want to really get people's goats? Make your sig larger than the email's message itself. Make it a whole page long with all kinds of cute graphics made from letters, and lines of witty sayings. See, the longer the email, the more bandwidth (the capacity of the network at any one time) it takes, and the longer it takes for the recipient to download it upon receipt. The Internet, vast though it is, only has a limited capacity for carrying data. Even though one person could never fill up the bandwidth, excessive junk in your email is still frowned upon.

Another great way to hog bandwidth is to place huge, unnecessary graphics on your Web page. Graphics take a long time to download, and, besides chewing up bandwidth, it frustrates the person trying to view your website. You must remember that most of the people accessing the World Wide Web are still using 14,400 bps modems (many still use 9,600 bps), and graphically intensive web pages can take five minutes or longer to download, all on the recipient's dime. This is an easy sin to be guilty of - even corporations do it (see the Oracle Corporation website at for a good example - unless you have a fast connection or your turn the images off in your browser, it will take you forever to get anywhere).

Suppose you receive an email from someone, and you want to reply to it. In most email programs, you have the ability to include in your reply parts of the message you received. This helps fight confusion as emails go back and forth. However, be sure you delete any nonessential parts of the original message. If your reply deals with one paragraph out of the entire message, then keep that paragraph, but don't include the entire email you received in your reply! This just wastes the recipient's time. Taking care of this problem is simple: judicious use of your delete key while replying to emails.

If you are posting a message to a Usenet group or an email mailing list, in which multiple people receive messages, be sure to identify your opinions and humor. If you make a strong statement, preface it with "in my opinion." If you use sarcasm, make sure that it's verbally understood that you are being sarcastic and not degrading or disagreeable. Remember, people can't hear your tone of voice online, and they can't see your facial expressions, both of which are key factors in understanding underlying meanings to what we say. Express yourself, but also define your expression. This takes practice, but it's easy to learn.

What should you do if someone sends you a derogatory message (whether or not they have a good reason)? Here's what you shouldn't do: get all riled up and reply with as much vitriol as the sender used. I know, in the section on spamming, I said that people will do just that. Well, only a few people will, and those people would really probably be better off to ignore than respond. However, it will happen. Maybe you said something in a message that didn't quite come across the way you meant it. If that's the case, look at the problem with a clear head (sleep on it, if you have to). Then, reply with an apologetic message that explains what you were trying to say. Or, maybe the person who emailed you is just a jerk. In that case, it's better just to ignore the email. Delete it from your system. Just like in the real world, some people online get their kicks from riling up other people.

Have you seen any trends emerging in this report? The trends are friendliness and consideration for others. The Internet is just like a big community and, like true communities, you need to work together. Keep things friendly, and if you make a mistake, own up to it with an apology. And don't take advantage of others online. This will only get you labeled as a troublemaker, and you could potentially lose your Internet access, or worse. People are even starting to get arrested for harassing others (or even stalking) online. Don't do it. Treat others the way you'd like to be treated yourself. It's the golden rule, and it applies as much online as offline.

You might get the impression that the Internet is teeming with people who are just waiting for you to mess up, so they can pounce. While there is the occasional zealot, as in the offline world, this isn't the case. The Internet community is a very supportive, very friendly group. If you're new and you're having trouble accomplishing something, there will always be someone online willing to help. Just make sure you use common sense, and don't break good netiquette!


This report is part of the Internet Basics & Setting Up A Web Site package.

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