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Common Sense Netiquette Rules

By Bruce Stewart, Help & How-To

The cleverly obvious contraction of "Net" and "etiquette" probably first made its appearance in the early days of the Internet, to help describe appropriate behavior on Usenet and electronic mailing lists. As the Internet eased the ability to communicate on a "one-to-many" basis, certain conventions became necessary to keep things running smoothly.

These basic precepts of online politeness started out as commonly agreed upon rules, such as not cross-posting newsgroup articles to unrelated groups and not advertising in newsgroups or mailing lists meant for discourse. Users were asked to not be inflammatory, think before they post, and the oldest of all—read the FAQ!

Common courtesy was expected of the online community and those who didn't comply would usually be publicly reprimanded. The worst contempt has always been reserved for those daring to push unsolicited commercial e-mail onto the rest of us; "spam" is considered the ultimate netiquette faux pas.

As the number of Internet users has skyrocketed, the need for agreed upon guidelines to online behavior is even more important. Usenet and mailing lists are still going strong, and those first rules apply now more than ever, but other common uses of the Net have their own rules of netiquette as well.

This article will cover the basics in e-mail and chatroom netiquette. We'll discuss some of the best and safest practices when using the Net and try and keep you from offending any of the old-timers along the way.

E-mail Netiquette

There's a handful of important e-mail conventions that would make everyone's life a little easier if we could all try and follow.

Use Meaningful Subject Lines
This easy practice will help keep you on good terms with even your most e-mail-swamped friends. A subject line can say so much, and many of us really like knowing if it's a joke, recipe, or some other non-urgent item that can be opened at our leisure.

Don't Type With ALL CAPS
Its been said too many times, but almost everyone finds reading text in all caps annoying, hence the reputation as online screaming. If you're not trying to yell in your online communications but you're typing in all caps, most people will think you are.

Quote Select Parts Of A Previous E-Mail
One of the most common breaches of netiquette is the repeating of entire e-mails or postings when replying only to a small portion. When replying to a long e-mail it is best to highlight just the minimum needed of the previous comments to preface your response with. This avoids multiple-reply e-mail discussions where the messages get so long to be unwieldy and impossible to read.

Be Mindful of Attachments
The ability to attach files to e-mail messages is a powerful thing. It can be of great utility, or a grand nuisance. A couple rules of thumb: be sure and send virus-free files, and make sure your recipient knows and is OK with the size and type of file you're sending before you send it. On the receiving end, don't open any e-mail attachments you're not expecting and don't know the origin of, even if it says, "I LOVE YOU."

Don't Spam
We said it before, but it's worth repeating. The worst online offense in most people's eyes is the dreaded unsolicited commercial e-mail. Don't let some marketing type talk you into the "power of online mass-advertising," you'll live to regret it.

Don't Pass Around E-Hoaxes
There is a tradition as old as the Internet of passing around bogus virus alerts, unbelievable stories, and fake news items. Try not to get suckered in—if it sounds too strange to be true, it probably is. If you get an e-hoax, check it out first before passing it on. Take a look at ZDNet's E-Hoax Central to learn the truth about the latest e-hoaxes, urban myths, chain e-mail and pervasive riff-raff circulating on the Net. Nothing feels worse than sending your whole company a fake virus warning.

Don't Pass Around Chain Letters
Another thing the Internet would be better off without is e-mail chain letters. They're not cute. Don't send them to your friends. Don't even send them to your enemies.

Don't Use Excessive Signature Files
It can be real useful to have contact information appended to your e-mail messages in a sig file. It can occasionally be cute to have a short, one-line quotation as your sig file. It is however unnecessary and bad form to use more than four lines for your sig file. Also sig files can get very tedious in situations where they are often repeated like newsgroup threads and multiple-reply e-mail discussions. In these cases, it's polite to omit your sig file after the first use.

Chatroom Netiquette

Many of the same conventions that apply to newsgroups and e-mail are also relevant in chatrooms. You're still just typing your thoughts and sending them to people, but in a chatroom, they're just a little quicker to respond.

Since there are a wide range of chatrooms available on the Net, it also follows that there are different standards of behavior depending on your particular group. Something that may be perfectly OK in one chatroom, like using profanity, may be totally unacceptable in another.

There are some universal conventions that will be good advice no matter where you're chatting.

Again, Avoid Using ALL CAPS
Still considered yelling. You'll be quickly scolded. Increasing your font size or typing in bold is just as bad.

Decide What Tone the Conversation Has Before Posting
Don't use offensive language or nicknames, unless you're in a chatroom that likes that kind of thing. Always avoid making personal attacks and calling names.

Don't "Flood" the Chatroom
Flooding is repeating messages over and over, or filling the screen with gibberish, in order to impede communication in the chatroom. This kind of behavior belongs back in grade school, and that's whom you'll be associated with if you like to flood chatrooms.

Don't Flirt with Everyone in the Chatroom
This should go without saying, but we've all had to endure far too many annoying chatroom come-on's. Save the promiscuity for one-on-one correspondences please.

Be Nice to Newbies
We were all there once. If someone stumbles into your chat, who is obviously new to this medium, show them some patience and help them get the hang of it.

Best Net Practices

Following the previous guidelines will go a long way towards establishing yourself as a good Netizen. Here are a couple of other practices that should keep your online dealings happy and safe.


  • You should always be aware of basic privacy issues in all your online dealings. To protect yourself, be very cautious of revealing personal information to people you don't really know. Be wary of people you meet in chatrooms who start asking you too many personal details, especially any details that relate to your personal finances.


  • Be aware that people are not always who they say they are online. That "23 year old single female," may not be 23 or female. If you are going to physically meet someone you've only known online, set up the meeting for a safe public place, and bring along a friend just in case the situation turns out to be not what you expected.


  • If you have children who are online, you need to be extra cautious about their privacy. Make sure your kids understand not to give out personal information to strangers, and younger children should be supervised in chatroom situations.


  • If you're doing business online with your credit cards always make sure the Web site is using a secure server to encrypt the transaction. This is an important level of security that will scramble your personal info as it travels around the Net, making it much harder for eavesdropping hackers to pilfer your credit card number. You can tell you are on a secure Web page if the url begins "https" instead of "http," and you will have a closed padlock icon in the bottom of your browser window.


  • One last important rule of netiquette for surfing the Web is not to steal other people's work. You have probably by now realized the ease by which any image or content can be copied from existing Web sites. While the line can sometimes get a little blurry for novice Web designers between taking inspiration from and stealing, it is definitely considered bad form (and may be illegal) to copy someone else's work directly. In many cases, artists will be happy to give you permission to reuse a graphic they have created, but please do ask for permission.

Most of these "netiquette rules" are really just common sense. Try and give people you meet online the same respect you would give someone in-person, and most of us will get along just fine.

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