The Uses and Limits of Netiquette Guides
in Attempting Civility on the Internet

Nick Carbone
The University of Massachusetts, Amherst

My own casual reading of stories about the internet suggest two dominant types, the hype and the gripe. In the hype the story is slanted to the wonders of abundance and possibility the internet offers, its vast information and the way it can bring people together. In the gripe the complaints focus on concerns that the internet will weaken real world (as opposed to virtual or online world) communities on the one hand, and degrees of shock that the internet did not live up to its hype on the other.

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Inadequacy of Miss NetManners | Conclusions? | Works Cited
Prescriptions on Style | Conditions for Mis/Understanding | Prescriptions on Emotion

The counter-hype pieces which express surprise sometimes focus on costs of access, or the difficulty of using the internet, but most often they seem to focus on the wildness of the net and dangers associated with that. The worst of these are lurid accounts of cases of pornographers, or pipe bomb plans being sent around and about, or of the net as the home of hackers who destroy business data and steal secrets electronically.

Yet what is more interesting are the articles which look not so much at how the internet is being used to commit acts which are already crimes, but those which express distaste for the internet based on the behavior of net participants in every day exchanges of e-mail or meetings in chat areas. I can understand shock, even when it is cynically displayed as a hook in a lurid story, about the dangers of porn, bombs, and hacking because it is part of long tradition of tabloid journalism which even news sources which wince at the tabloid moniker sometimes engage in. On the other hand, denouncing computer mediated communication (CMC) for bad manners, flame wars, and poor netiquette, in an age when Congressional debate includes epithets like "fag," "homo," and "nazi," to name a few, betrays a kind of cultural duplicity.

The Internet connects people. People bring to it all the same convictions, prejudices, fears, hopes, and tolerance levels they bring to any other arena they enter. What CMC does which is different, is remove some of the inhibitions which are normally in place. E-mail uses text only; no voice, no visual, no actual presence, only a virtual incarnation that cannot be seen or heard. The distance, the relative ephemeralness is liberating--in good and bad ways--for many people. CMC is less really about computers per se than it is about how computers alter the nature and tenor of human transactions.

These concerns with day to day human transactions, with civility--or what many writers see to be the lack thereof-- are not lost on people who are on the Internet. As one writer (Schwartz) put it while commenting on the lack of civility on discussion lists, netizens (Internet citizens) will "twist themselves into knots" deciding how to deal with behavior considered an affront to the community. Dibbell has described the trauma and difficulty LambdaMOO had in dealing with a case of cyber-rape--one character in the MOO continually portraying himself as sexually molesting and mutilating other characters. Seabrook eloquently described his reaction at receiving a flame--a particularly invective message--after his profile of Bill Gates ran in the New Yorker. Anyone who has been online when an argument has broken out and gotten nasty, knows the discomfort that can be caused by electronic rages.

Behavior on the Internet is not only regular concern of people on the net, but also a feature of guides written for people who are just learning about the Internet. The topic is usually addressed under a heading called Netiquette, a portmanteau of internet etiquette. Netiquette guides and advice are a cottage industry. Not only is the topic covered to varying degrees in books on how to use the internet (for example Krol, Kehoe, Clark), but it also receives its own treatment in books devoted to nothing but netiquette (Shea) and in online sources such as acceptable use policies (AUP), tutorials such as Patrick Crispen's Roadmap series or guides teachers write for students, and volunteer online guides such as Arlene Rinaldi's netiquette guide or Robert Slade's "Roberts Rules of Internet Order."

The guides are so common, of course, in part because proper netiquette, as defined by the guides, is not common enough on the internet--people do not behave the way the guides say they should. The phenomenon is analogous to diet books and aids; they sell so well because they are not successful, for the most part, in what they claim to be able to do. That is, if they worked, and people got or stayed thin (the usual goal as opposed to healthy), they would not keep buying the books and aids. Of course diets and diet aids do not work for reasons that are vastly different from why netiquette seems to be so lacking on the internet. At the heart of both, however, is the matter of habits and lifestyle, though on the internet it is not so much lifestyle as net presence, or net-style.

As one who's looked at diet books on and off in the hopes of being able to see my belt buckle without having to part my stomach, I've come to appreciate the difficulties of maintaining a healthy weight. It's not just a matter of maintaining a diet, it really gets to changing all the habits of that go into living with food--waking up in time to have a good breakfast, getting away from the keyboard and the desk and the books long enough to exercise, reminding myself that the hunger pangs which come when I park on a couch with a remote are not so much biological as Pavlovian. What a diet really does is work to change not just weight, but also personal habits and practices and metabolism and the internal triggers which drive one to eat a snickers bar at 9 a.m. The changes are deep and hard to make.

My own sense is that netiquette guides are too prescriptive, bound too much by rules which do not take consider as fully as they should the reasons so much of the netiquette they advocate is so often broken. This essay will look at two areas--prescriptions on how to handle emotions; and prescriptions on writing style--that netiquette guides seem especially unable to effect, and why that might be.

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Monday, February 17, 1997 at 3:46 PM
From: eric

just testing this critter