THE RULES OF NETIQUETTE / Minding Your Manners on the Net

Chronicle Front Page
The Gate

Wednesday, March 6, 1996 · Page A1
© 1996 San Francisco Chronicle

Minding Your Manners on the Net

Ramon G. McLeod, Chronicle Staff Writer

When Dave Rapp discovered that the technician at his office had gone into his Internet files and read his e-mail, he couldn't believe it. It wasn't that the material was sensitive or even personal, but you don't read someone's mail, whether it's on paper or on a video screen.

Snooping like that is just plain bad manners, he fumed. Hadn't the guy ever heard of netiquette?

``I never felt so exposed in my life,'' recounts Rapp, an editor at Congressional Quarterly magazine in Washington, D.C. ``I wanted to punch him out. Talk about rude and obnoxious -- I know people are pretty easygoing about Internet stuff, but you'd never do that in the real world.''

In cyberspace, no less than in the real world, rudeness is an unfortunate fact of life. But as millions of new and often socially awkward users have rushed to the Internet, a whole new code of manners is evolving. It's an extension of the manners that apply to all human relations, but with a twist:

Netiquette governs how people meet each other, greet each other, chat, flirt, fight and do business, all in a medium where the parties to a conversation can't see, hear or shake hands.

A user who misunderstands netiquette can end up hurt and confused, as well as doing the same to a lot of other people. A user who violates good manners can be cyber-kicked, banned, flamed and spammed -- sometimes all in the same day.

Until recently, netiquette was an unwritten code among computer experts, scientists and cyber-pioneers who used early networks. It was simply assumed that the manners of the workaday world extended to the online world, and there was no need for written canons.

But the social containment that comes naturally in a small community disappeared long ago.

Some of the new users take the anonymity available in some areas of the Net as a license to be rude and obnoxious. Many others, unfamiliar with the nuances of written communication, blunder their way around, inadvertently stepping on toes.

``It's like being put on a golf course and not knowing all those little rules,'' said one user in a ``newcomer'' discussion group on the Net. ``You don't know how fast or slow to go, when it's your turn, when to talk or shut up. You get people mad; you get intimidated. That's no fun.''

Some faux pas, such as chatting live with the ``caps lock'' on -- the Net equivalent to yelling in a restaurant -- are just annoying. Other netiquette blunders, such as passing on chain letters, are aggravating.

Worst of all are flame wars, online arguments that can be psychologically punishing to participants and bystanders who happen to wander into them.

To help users avoid such pitfalls, the big online companies, including Prodigy and the Microsoft Network, have set up sites where the uninitiated can go to learn how to avoid an embarrassing or problematic breach of manners.

Microsoft Network has an online area called the Netiquette Center, managed by Albion Books of San Francisco. Albion last year published a book called ``Netiquette,'' and the volume established Sunnyvale writer Virginia Shea as the Emily Post of cyberspace manners.

Shea said that when people have a problem online it is usually because they aren't used to the subtle differences this form of communication has with other, more familiar forms.

Communication can be instantaneous, like in a chat room, or nearly so, like in an e-mail message -- but the social restraints of body language and inflection of voice just don't exist in cyberspace.

For some, that can be very liberating. Appearance, age and class no longer matter. Guards drop pretty easily, and it isn't uncommon for total strangers to share their innermost feelings within moments of meeting each other online.


On the other hand, there is an underlying anonymity to an e-mail message or an online ``live chat'' that makes this kind of contact wide open to misinterpretation and, sometimes, abusiveness.

``People can kind of forget that they're talking and working with other people -- it's just words on a screen,'' said Carl Steadman, an editor at Hotwired, an electronic magazine on the Internet's World Wide Web. ``That's when things can go really wrong.''

Live chat is where they seem to go wrong most often.

``There are certain people who enjoy being obnoxious in chat,'' said Wayne Gregori, inventor and owner of SF Net, an online system with a network of computers in hip coffee shops in the Haight and South of Market.

A couple months back, Gregori recalls, an obnoxious chatter who used the nickname ``Dummy'' was barging into chat groups.

He was ``just ragging on everyone, calling everyone stupid and just being generally a pain,'' Gregori says. ``He was just ignored, which is the worst thing you can do to a flamer like that.''

The nastiness went on for about 10 days, but each day it got a little less ugly. Finally, it stopped.

``Turned out he's a 19-year-old kid from Massachusetts who had no money and was living in the park,'' Gregori says. ``After awhile he started to get to know people, and the more he got to know and recognize people, the less obnoxious he got.

``Then he got a good job lead from someone he met here and things really changed. He turned out to be OK.''


E-mail requires a somewhat different set of manners: It is fast and easy to use, but its speed and ease create more potential pratfalls for the user. For example, because it is so fast, an ethic has arisen in which people expect a speedy response to their missives. And those who violate the ethic run the risk of being flamed. ``I had my own mother flame me for not answering her quickly enough,'' Shea says. ``People really expect an answer -- and fast.''

Unwary e-mail users also sometimes behave as though the note they are sending is like a phone call or a conversation. But unlike a conversation, the words in an e- mail note are not so temporary: They can come back to haunt the sender.

``Just recently someone wrote something bad about me in an e- mail and it got cc'd (forwarded) to me from someone else,'' says Rachel Schindler, a 25-year-old business developer for the Macromedia multimedia company in San Francisco. ``So I let the person know about it, and now they're in a very bad position. They look stupid.''


Most people do try to be polite and are more circumspect in their e-mail, but politeness has its own downside. Once a conversation starts, there might not be a way to end it without seeming abrupt.

That can lead to what user David Rapp called the ``send-reply- send-reply syndrome.''

``You reply, they send something back, you reply, they send something back. . . . It's e-mail pong.''

``What I do is come up with something so witty that they can't top it,'' Rapp said. ``Or I spend so much time trying to come up with something witty and clever that I just give up and get distracted and forget to answer.''

Junk mail -- spam, in Net parlance -- is widely considered another e-mail nuisance.

Spamming is ``any form of unsolicited mail,'' says Steadman. ``It's advertising, chain letters -- you know, the kind of junk mail you don't want to get. Talk about violating netiquette -- people hate it.''


One of the great things about the Internet is that it has forced Americans to start writing again. At the same time though, it has also exposed that most people are lousy writers.

``You'd think some people never opened a dictionary in their lives from the spelling in their e- mail,'' Shea complains. ``They just dash off a note and figure that it doesn't matter how it reads. That is a big mistake. Most people who see poor spelling and poor grammar think the writer is a dummy.''

But then, telling the writer that he or she is a dummy is an invitation to a flame war.

Stanton McCandlish, director of online services for the Electronic Freedom Foundation in San Francisco, said newcomers should always think carefully before sending out an angry or opinionated message.

``You can really look like a fool if you start spouting off in a group about something you don't know all that much about,'' he says. ``But newbies do it all the time -- then they get flamed and wonder why.

``People will say things on line that they'd never say to a person to their face. On the other hand, if you get someone mad online, they can't break your nose.''


Netiquette is the code of manners that are supposed to govern online communication. Much of it is based on common sense, but some of the rules are particular to cyberspace. While people will forgive a gaffe or two, continued violations are likely to leave the user with a mailbox that's loaded with flame mail -- or empty.

1. Chat Rudeness: Cursing, arguing for sport, sexual harassment.

Continued violation: Temporary or permanent ban from the chat group. An ``ignore'' command can be issued against you so that you can type your comments to the screen, but no one except you will see them.

Good netiquette: Pay attention to the thread of conversation. Address people respectfully. Take your fights and sex talk to private chat areas.

2. Too-easy familiarity: Writing a stranger and addressing them like you already know them well.

Continued violation: Your letters go unread and unanswered.

Good netiquette: Using ``Dear so-and-so'' still works pretty well.

3. Send-Reply-Send-Reply. It's a problem of being too respectful: Neither party can end a series of e-mail communications because they don't want to hurt the other person's feelings.

Continued violation: Dead silence on the other end. In extreme cases, a good hacker will return mail with a faked ``bad address'' in the header.

Good netiquette: Don't allow someone to continue meaningless or boring correspondence. Write something like ``over and out'' -- and mean it.

4. Spamming. Unsolicited mail including advertisements, chain letters and inclusion on mailing lists without permission.

Continued violation: Counter-spamming. Hope you've got a lot of unusused hard drive space for the flame mail you're going to get.

Good netiquette: Don't put anyone's name on a mailing list without their permission and remove it if they request. Don't forward chain letters.

5. Flame bait: An angry note, usually written in haste.

Continued violation: A flame war after the other party responds in kind.

Good netiquette: Write an angry note -- then junk it insted of sending it. Think carefully about what you put in print. Remember there's a person on the other end.

6. Mash notes: Never send out a love letter unless you're sure that no one but the intended person wants it or will see it. Unless you are writing to your spouse, it is generally a very bad idea to use interoffice e-mail for romantic reasons.

Continued violation: A lot of unexplained giggling when the sender walks by the water cooler. In an extreme case, the sender is fired for sexual harassment.

Good netiquette: If you aren't sure about the security of e-mail on either end of such tender correspondence, send a Shakespearan sonnet instead of something more steamy. And never, ever, send a mash note to someone who doesn't want it.


Places on the World Wide Web for information on ``netiquette'' include:

Excerpts from Virginia Shea's Book ``Netiquette'':

Life on the Internet: Netiquette:

Arlene Rinaldi's Netiquette Page:


Dear Emily Postnews:

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