To avoid being involved in a flame war with someone in an electronic public square or a misunderstanding in regular one-on-one communication, follow this advice.
Showing Emotion. First and foremost, always be polite and considerate of the folks on the other side. Because you're missing the important visual and aural cues that add nuance to direct conversation, you need to learn how to show emotion online—not an easy task. Probably the most common trick to show emotion is :-). That's a sideways smiley face (tilt your head 90 degrees to the left) used to indicate humor or sarcasm. Since there's no smiley face on the keyboard, you have to "roll your own," using a colon, a hyphen, and a right-end parenthesis. You'll also see variations on the smiley. Sometimes people use a semicolon to indicate winking: ;-). Or a sad face will look like this: :-(. There's quite an art to the smiley face, and there are hundreds of variations.
Upper case is used for shouting, so don't use it unless you want to make a point. For example, if someone wanted to indicate that she was excited or mad, SHE'D SURE AS HECK LET YOU KNOW THAT!!!! Or, she could let you know what she was REALLY thinking by using caps in appropriate places. You can also introduce some online intonation by the use of asterisks in certain places. For example, "This *is* what I meant!" places emphasis on is.
Terse Responses. Terse responses can sound rude. For example, responding to someone's question with only a single sentence—"No, you can't do that!"—might make him feel as if he's inconvenienced you, that you can't be bothered to explain why he can't do something. If he asked you "live," in person, you'd probably explain. You don't have to be verbose, but a few extra sentences will go a long way to ensure that you don't hurt someone's feelings.
On the other end, if you receive a short message that leaves you wondering, "What did I do to deserve this?" don't lose too much sleep over it. Perhaps the sender was in a big hurry and didn't have time to explain everything fully.What may be worse than a terse response is no response at all. Don't expect an immediate response to your email or news queries. People tend to get bogged down in unread and unanswered electronic correspondence. You might get an answer in five minutes—but it also might take five days, or weeks. Just because you don't hear from someone immediately does not mean she or he thinks your message was unimportant.
Always Point a Loaded Mailer or Newsreader at the Ground. Just as you shouldn't drive when you're angry or upset, you shouldn't send responses to email and news articles when you're mad at someone. If someone has "ticked you off" and you're bound and determined to respond to a message or posting, go ahead and type your response—but don't mail it for at least a day. A delay may seem frustrating, but chances are that when you come back later to read your response, you'll be glad you didn't send it. And you should realize that many times people will say things just to yank your chain. The thing these folks want most to see is an emotional, tear-stained response from you. Don't give them that pleasure!You should also watch what you say in everyday situations. A good rule is never to send anything that you wouldn't mind seeing on the front page of a major newspaper. Online correspondence can be easily archived, retrieved at a later date, and sent out to a large number of people. Avoid saying anything insulting about someone or disclosing confidential information. Private, sensitive email messages, or even public flames, could come back to haunt you someday; in fact, they may "follow you around" for the rest of your life.
The security and privacy, or lack thereof, of corporate—and even private—email has caused quite a stir lately, and you've probably got a few concerns about the security of your mail. It's best to resign yourself to the fact that email is not very secure. Once you transmit an email message, its privacy depends on the security of the destination system, over which you basically have no control. Chapter 5 discusses computer and network security further.
As noted, you can't depend on email being secure. About the only thing you can hope for is that people will behave themselves and not snoop around in others' accounts, reading private correspondence. You should be careful not to violate copyrights by transmitting another person's work verbatim without permission. Additionally, everyone is under a moral and ethical obligation to respect other people's property and wishes. A common courtesy is to refrain from forwarding private electronic mail to anyone without the permission of the author. For example, you should be careful when you reply to a message sent to you personally—you may want to "cc" other people in your reply. Keep in mind, however, that the sender of the original message may not want his or her words forwarded to other people.
Because it is so easy to transmit information, you may be tempted, on occasion, to broadcast your message to the world. You should realize, however, that even though you are free for the most part to post and email anything, you are expected not to abuse this privilege by being inconsiderate. In other words, be selective in choosing newsgroups and email lists to receive your submissions. There are many recorded cases where a zealous Inter-prophet has broadcast his "end of the world" (or related) message to every newsgroup and email list he could find. While it may appear that little damage is done when this happens—it's only electronic information, right?—there are many people and organizations located on the "outskirts" (rural areas and foreign countries) who end up footing the bill for the extra traffic or online time such a message may incur. This consideration also applies to your correspondence with people. It's worth finding out what the recipient's situation local connectivity situation is before you blast him or her with a large email message or file.
Advertising. In reality space, we're constantly being bombarded with advertisements, subtle or obnoxious, everywhere we go. We're used to it, and we don't think anything about TV and radio programs being interrupted with a "word from our sponsor." On the Internet, however, direct advertising is considered by most to be rude and invasive. There are several reasons for this. The original users of the Internet community, the researchers and academics, disdain self-promotional activity, preferring to review and promote products and information in a scholarly fashion. The second reason has to do with the National Science Foundation's Acceptable Use Policy for the NSFNET, which once forbid blatant advertising and commercial activity on U.S. government-funded networks. The AUP has been relaxed somewhat since the proliferation of commercial Internet networks, but its legacy lives on.
There are still lots of ways to get your company's message across through more passive channels (such as providing a public information service). Just be aware that you're playing with fire if you initiate a direct email campaign; you'll probably be flamed for quite a while, and you're likely to do more harm than good for your reputation.
This section cannot cover every aspect of ethical behavior on the Internet. In general, you should rely on common sense and good judgment.
Now that you know how to use the Internet to communicate, you'll soon be adept at email and conferencing, LISTSERVs and chat. And no doubt you're ready to move on to explore some of the wondrous realms of information resources now at your fingertips. Stay tuned. The very next chapter looks at the information resources on the Internet, and shows you how to use Internet tools to tap into the world's online library of libraries.
Copyright © 1994 by Tracy LaQuey and Editorial Inc.