Shorthand for Internet etiquette, netiquette was the key to civility on Internet newsgroups, e-mail, listservs, chat rooms, and other Internet communications. Like etiquette, there was no official enforcement of netiquette; rather, Internet users were generally expected to abide by these basic rules—and were likely to be castigated by fellow users if they deviated from them.
The two key reasons for the development of netiquette protocol were speed and anonymity. Because the Internet was so fast, typing, pointing, and clicking often resulted in careless sloppiness, unintentional blunders, or hasty belligerence. The rules of netiquette were designed to slow people down and help them ensure that the message they plan to send is in fact the message they mean to convey. The anonymity of the Internet provided ample opportunity for users to be rude and insensitive, and the goal of netiquette was to provide a basic framework for minimizing this temptation.
Typing in all capital letters, for instance, was considered akin to "shouting" on the Internet, and was as discouraged on the Internet as yelling was in daily conversation. Informal language, humor, and sarcasm, according to the rules of netiquette, were best left for messages between those who know each other very well, since the spin a writer may have intended to apply may not be the one the reader derives. However, sometimes it was still necessary or advisable to influence the reading of a message through the demonstration of emotions. Since vocal inflections, gestures, and other clues to the emotions and semantics of conversation don't translate over the Internet, users developed a series of "emoticons," or "smileys," to relate emotions and give readers a clue as to the interpretation of a message. For instance, should a user wish to convey a light-hearted tone to a sentence, he or she could append certain characters to indicate a smile; conversely, there were also ways to indicate displeasure, via characters that indicated a frown.
On the most basic level, netiquette asks that users pay attention to ordinary rules of grammar, spelling, and other letter-writing decorum. The Internet's speed is, of course, one of its most prized benefits, but the downside is that many users tend to fire off messages without checking them over for readability. On listservs and newsgroups, in particular, such attention is important in order to establish one's credibility.
Users of newsgroups and listservs are also discouraged from posting chain letters as well as messages that are off the topic to which the group or list is devoted. Perhaps most bothersome to newsgroup and listserv members, and to ordinary e-mail recipients in general, is "spam," or junk e-mail (usually unsolicited commercial e-mail).
Extremely aggressive attacks over e-mail or in newsgroups are known as "flames," which take cover in the anonymity of the Internet to heap electronic abuse on an individual. While flaming is strongly discouraged, it is impossible to control completely, and thus netiquette rules encourage victims of a flame attack to avoid the temptation to get even by reciprocating the flame and launching a "flame war," which, like military warfare, can quickly escalate in scale and draw in more participants.
Some rules of netiquette have had less to do with content and tone than with consideration of technological capabilities. For instance, before sending off an e-mail with a large attachment, polite Internet users should consider the time it will take for the recipient to download it, and how much space in his or her mailbox or hard drive the attachment would fill. This is especially true when sending messages to a list, where the recipients' capacities vary greatly.
The online sins that netiquette was intended to prevent fall into two categories: the intended and the unintended. The former, of course, were those blunders that, however innocent, carry negative consequences for those involved, as when a user accidentally sends a personal e-mail to a listserv or fails to indicate that a message was meant to be taken as a joke. The latter included the uglier forms of Internet communications, such as sending obscene, insulting, or threatening content under the cover of the Internet's anonymity. In both cases, netiquette's primary utility was the nurturing of a civilized, orderly space for individuals, communities, and businesses to feel free to maximize the Internet's potential value.
Harper, Doug. "How's Your Netiquette?" Industrial Distribution, November, 1999.
Selway, Mark. "Netiquette for Beginners." Accountancy, April, 1999.
Sloboda, Brian. "'Netiquette'—New Rules and Policies for the Information Age." Management Quarterly, Winter 1999.
Solomon, Gilbert. "E-mail Etiquette." Medical Economics, April 23, 2001.
SEE ALSO: Spam