FutureU's Guidelines for Netiquette
By Gail Terry Grimes and Claude Whitmyer, co-founders, The University of the Future, LLC (FutureU™).
Copyright 1994-2023 by The University of the Future, LLC
Rules for Behavior in the Internet Culture
In a few short years from its inception, the Internet developed its own “virtual” culture, with its own standards of behavior and appearance. If you are vague on this notion, simply watch the language and attitudes conveyed in social media, messaging, and email messages. Over the years, some commonly accepted standards have evolved that may be worth paying attention to. These include:
- Be polite, thoughtful, ethical, and law-abiding. The Internet is a public place. It is wise to act accordingly. Civility, thoughtfulness, compassion for others, and a desire to help have important places in the online behavior repertoire. Learn the ropes of Internet Ethics and Privacy. Start with a search engine entry on “ethics and privacy on the Internet.”
- When you send an email, always include a subject line that tells the recipient what’s in your message. Keep your subject lines short; learn to think like a newspaper headline writer. And use the active voice. When the topic of an email thread changes, either edit the subject or start a new thread. Otherwise, you will lose the capability of easy message retrieval by subject in the future.”
- Include only one major subject in each email message. Don’t put a major project report in the same message with chit-chat about yesterday’s barbecue.
- Use paragraph headings. If the main idea in your message has more than one part, do your reader a favor by introducing each part with extra space and a heading.
- Manage who receives your messages. When you mail to one person, use private email. When you send a message to a group, post it to a group discussion app or “cc” your private message to the whole group. Send a message only to those who really NEED to see it. This reduces the workload for everyone. Consider using the “blind copy” or “BCC” field when sending to a group, especially if it includes people you don’t know; this function keeps everyone’s email address private and prevents scavengers from collecting group members’ addresses and using them inappropriately or selling them to companies that send junk email.
- Avoid embarrassment by checking your recipient list before sending. Let’s say Bob sends a message to Carol, who forwards it to you. You click on “Reply,” thinking your response will go to Carol. But it doesn’t; it goes to Bob. Not a serious problem, unless your response (intended only for Carol) reads: “What’s wrong with this Bozo, anyway?” Avoid the inevitable soap opera by always double-checking your “To:” line before you send a message. Better still, make a habit of never sending a message that might offend.
- Always check the FAQs before posting a question to a social media or learning platform discussion forum. Don’t waste other people’s time. Before you ask others for help, make sure your answer isn’t already clearly posted. This goes for comments on YouTube (etc.) videos too. If you’re in the habit of fast-forwarding through a video, don’t be surprised if the questions you post in the comments get ignored.
- Avoid using all uppercase letters. ALL CAPS LOOK LIKE SHOUTING TO THE READER! If you are aiming for emphasis and differentiation, use color, bold, italic, _underlines_ or *asterisks* or extra white space. Even if you intend to shout, *never* use uppercase for more than a few words; it’s just too hard to read.
- Watch your language. Informality is one thing, but multiple typos, misspellings, and sloppy construction are just plain rude. With auto-completion and apps such as “Grammarly,” there’s no real excuse anymore for bad grammar and spelling. And, profanity, however common in the spoken world, looks glaringly out of place in print. If your email or messaging app has a built-in spell checker, use it.
- Always respond promptly. If you have no answer, send a reply anyway, saying, “I’ll get back to you on this.” (Then flag the message so you don’t forget! Most email clients have reminders or reminder apps you can add that will aid you with this.) If you must, say, “Sorry, I can’t help you.” In any case, kindness dictates that you never ignore a message sincerely sent. (If it isn’t obvious, this doesn’t apply to spam, scams, or brazen sales pitches.)
- Limit your messages to one or two screens. If your message goes longer than two screens, go ahead and make it as long as you want, because no one’s reading it anyway.
- Be clear about your feelings. Use emoticons when appropriate. Keep in mind that irony, sarcasm, and other modes of “double meaning” almost never “work” online.
- Always re-read your message before you send it. Change anything your recipient might misunderstand. Modify spelling when it could affect your meaning.
- Include your name at the end of every message you send. Phone numbers are also a good idea. If you like to include an inspirational quote at the end of your messages, keep it short and to the point, and change it frequently.
- Give explicit agreement and disagreement. No one can see you nodding your head and grunting (or shaking your head) at your computer screen. Say, “I understand,” “I agree,” or if you think its important to disagree prior to a deeper discussion, you can say “That hasn’t been my experience.” (Way better than, “I think you’re wrong!”).
- Reinforce and encourage. In the absence of visual cues, people are sometimes left wondering. Say, “Well put,” “Good point,” “What a useful idea.”
- Avoid sending junk mail, chain letters, or jokes to a busy person. An email recipient is a captive audience, forced to open every message to find out what’s inside. For someone with dozens of messages to open, every extra click is a pain in the neck. If you must send jokes, do it infrequently or restrict them to outlets such as Facebook where people are used to wasting their time this way. This allows your intended recipients to choose whether or not to read the message.
- Respect the privacy of others. Never forward a message to a third party without permission from its author. By the same token, if you’re going to mention someone in an important email, think about including them in the CC of that message, especially when the discussion will impact them.
- Let apparent provocation go by without offense or attachment. Because body language, tone, and connotation are absent in computer-mediated communication, you may hear words in a way the writer did not intend. Remember the correspondent who received a missive that said, “I resent your message.” S/he responded with a flaming, “How dare you!” only to discover that the sender had intended to say “ree sent,” not “ree zent.” If a message triggers negative emotions in you, you may be more tempted to fire back an angry retort because the recipient isn’t right in front of you. Don’t.
Always assume the best, responding in a positive way and not at all until you recover your emotional neutrality. Write your “flame” message, if you must, but don’t send it. Let a day pass, reread your message, and then decide how to respond.
- If you must have a confrontation, do it in the real world. The written word is simultaneously permanent and open to interpretation. Hide behind it at your own peril. Instead, pick up the phone or pay a visit.
Special thanks to Joe Flower (http://www.well.com/user/bbear/) for help in brainstorming the above list.
The Intellectual Property Issue
The rapid growth of multimedia and its distribution through the Internet has created a high level of uncertainty regarding the interpretation of established intellectual property law. The courts are still in the process of interpreting trademark, patent, and copyright laws to apply them to new products and services such as movies, tapes, CDs, software programs, and finally the Internet and other electronic media. It is still unclear in many areas how trademark, copyright, and patent law will evolve so as to promote the progress and transfer of knowledge and technology. There is no doubt that law in this area will change radically in the coming years. And it seems highly likely that the ownership rights of the individual will only be strengthened by this challenge.
It is the opportunity and responsibility of everyone to act ethically in accordance with both the letter and the spirit of the law. The ethical and safe thing for all concerned is to commit to the protection of our own and others’ intellectual property rights. If we respect each other’s intellectual property rights we insure mutual benefit from the expansion of knowledge within our society. Always assume that original works are the intellectual property of their creator(s) unless otherwise stated in writing.
The collaborative spirit of the Internet needn’t be compromised either. People who receive grants or are on salary or are otherwise unconcerned with making a living can still give their intellectual property away. But for those who don’t have a grant or a salary or a trust fund, the Internet can be an important source of income. It makes it possible for thousands of free agents to thrive and contribute in ways they otherwise couldn’t afford to.
Intellectual Property Rules of Thumb
- You don’t need permission for documents or images that are in the public domain. But be certain a document or image is in the public domain before you use it (see What’s Public Domain?).
- Freeware can be distributed without paying a fee, but most freeware is still copyrighted and you are expected to abide by the license that is embedded in the product regarding distribution and modifications.
- Shareware is not free. You get to try it out, but after the trial, you are expected to pay.
- Permission to use copyrighted materials is usually easy to get and often free or cheap. Give yourself a budget and decide what you are willing to pay. If you don’t want to pay, don’t use copyrighted material. But always ask for permission.
- Websites are intellectual property. If you want to link to information on someone else’s Web site, get permission first, unless it is clear that they don’t mind. Many websites place a “Copyright” link on their home page that tells you the circumstances under which it is ok to link to them or use their information or images (see for example the trademark page for MeaningfulWork.Com).
Emoticons and Abbreviations
A picture is worth a thousand words. So is a smile. But how do you smile, or express any emotion, in an online environment where words are the primary means of communication? Cyber-veterans use emoticons, the simple symbols Internet culture has invented to represent feelings.
Emoticons are usually available as a feature of most messaging or email apps. When they are not, you can make your own by combining two or more keyboard characters from any standard computer keyboard to make a kind of pictograph turned on its side. Thus, a colon stands for a pair of eyes, a dash is the nose, and some other symbol becomes the mouth, creating a face that expresses visually what would take many words to say.
Take a few minutes to study the emoticons shown below. Also notice the list of abbreviations that are frequently used in online written messages.
|Tongue in cheek =||
|Big smile or hahaha! =||
|Unhappy or sad =||
|Really unhappy =||
|Very sad =||
|Not funny =||
|“Oh, nooooo!” =||
|By the way =||BTW|
|In my humble opinion =||IMHO|
|In other words =||IOW|
|Laughing out loud =||LOL|
|On the floor laughing =||OTF|
|Big Grin =||
Print this list of emoticons and post it next to your computer for easy reference. Make up your own emoticons or look for more online or in one of the many books about netiquette available from booksellers..
NOTE: Most group discussion, email, or messaging apps allow you to type a few emoticon keystrokes which are then automatically replaced with a graphic image. For example, on many systems
:) is replaced with something like 🙂 or
More and more platforms are simply including a library of emoticons that you can choose from.
Civility is a Choice
In summary, it is the responsibility of all to become familiar with the basic tenets of mutually acceptable social behavior online and the letter of the law, as well as the issues in areas where ongoing reinterpretations are occurring with regard to manners, ethics, privacy, intellectual property, copyright, fair use, and the public domain on the Internet.