Prescriptions on Emotion

Nick Carbone
The University of Massachusetts, Amherst

It will help to keep in mind that netiquette guides cover a range of topics: obeying rules of the access provider, conserving disk space, matters of style in messages, paying shareware fees, and other matters of which come up in cyberspace. One of the more highly regarded netiquette guides on line is by Arlene Rinaldi. For the purposes of referral and as an example of what I'll be discussing, here is a section from her guide on sending electronic messages.

The Rhetorical Dimensions of Cyberspace
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(Email, LISTSERV groups, Mailing lists, and Usenet)

  • Keep paragraphs and messages short and to the point.
  • Focus on one subject per message and always include a pertinent subject title for the message, that way the user can locate the message quickly.
  • Don't use the academic networks for commercial or proprietary work.
  • Include your signature at the bottom of Email messages. Your signature footer should include your name, position, affiliation and Internet and/or BITNET addresses and should not exceed more than 4 lines. Optional information could include your address and phone number.
  • Capitalize words only to highlight an important point or to distinguish a title or heading. *Asterisks* surrounding a word also can be used to make a stronger point. Capitalizing whole words that are not titles is generally termed as SHOUTING!
  • Limit line length and avoid control characters.
  • Follow chain of command procedures for corresponding with superiors. For example, don't send a complaint via Email directly to the "top" just because you can.
  • Be professional and careful what you say about others. Email is easily forwarded.
  • Cite all quotes, references and sources and respect copyright and license agreements.
  • It is considered extremely rude to forward personal email to mailing lists or Usenet without the original author's permission.
  • Be careful when using sarcasm and humor. Without face to face communications your joke may be viewed as criticism.
  • Acronyms can be used to abbreviate when possible, however messages that are filled with acronyms can be confusing and annoying to the reader. Examples:
      IMHO= in my humble/honest opinion
      FYI = for your information
      BTW = by the way
      Flame = antagonistic criticism
      :-) = happy face for humor

In many ways we're at a comical stage in our culture as we try to make sense of computer networked communication; some are as baffled by it and suspicious of it as Thurber's Ohio relatives were of electricity, or as Clarence Day's father was of the telephone. Others are head over heels agog with it. And still others manage to take it in stride, perhaps after some initial befuddlement. Befuddlement is not an unusual behavior for first time users, especially as they negotiate not only the grammar of their discourse but too the grammar of the screen (Selfe). That is, the technology of cmc is still too new to be transparent for many users (Although my anecdotal evidence suggests for younger people who are more likely to grow up with computers in ways older generations had not, this will be less an issue.); and getting to a MOO or into an e-mail discussion list means working through many screens, learning to read and understand the screens which bring you--assuming there are no errors along the way--to the point where you can then read or write the messages that make up the communications. On top of learning how to read the screen and learn the grammar (the language of the commands needed to run the software successfully), once a user gets to the text, that too is different than it would be in a letter or in a book.

As Moran (1995) notes, how a message is read depends in part on how a reader receives it, on how their e-mail or real-time interface both organizes the message and allows them to move through it. One of the challenges netiquette guides attempt to answer is in accounting for these differences in interface. For example, the view that a good netizen (internet citizen) always includes their name and more importantly their e-mail address at the end of a message--especially important when the message is sent to a list from which each reader may receive many messages a day--because not all e-mail readers reveal this information in their headers is an attempt to account for the diversity of interfaces. The address is important for readers to have in case they wish to respond to the writer directly. Leaving it off the end of the message is like calling someone on the phone who happens not to be in, leaving a message for them to call back, but not providing a phone number.

Caller i.d, a service in some dialing areas which displays and records the number from a which an incoming call was made, is not yet prevalent enough for most phone callers to leave messages requiring a call back without also leaving the number. Usually when a caller does not leave a message, it is because they assume the person whom they want to call them back already has it. The same is true, but even more so, in cmc. Oftentimes a user, especially a new user who has only used one kind of system, will assume that what they see is what others get. Many new users are concentrating on just learning their own software, figuring out their own screens and how to read them. These preoccupations make remembering netiquette--assuming they've been clued in about it--hard because so much of the world they are entering is still, in a way, abstract.

At this novice stage, it is impossible to imagine how others are seeing a message because unless the user has experience with a range of interfaces, the visual experience and reference is not there. When a letter is written by hand and placed in an envelope and mailed, the writer knows pretty much (give or take eye conditions) what the person's visual experience of the letter will be. Text written for books assume a uniformity based on print conventions. They'll be read from left to right, from top to bottom, and by turning pages. A writer can layout the text as they want the reader to see it knowing that the layout will not change. This assumption, one ingrained from years of writing with pen and paper, does not hold when sending e-mail, but yet it is one that most people bring.

While a user sees plenty of layers of interface, they don't see a human face, nor hear a human voice when they use cmc. This means communication is bereft of the visual and audible cues we integrate into our interactions with one another. We know from experience how to sense a shift in tone and how to react, almost imperceptibly sometimes with a shift in our own tone. This is both an advantage and weakness of using computer mediated communication--it frees us from the constraints of physical space, of our bodies and our perceptions of them as well as our perceptions of others. In classrooms CMC has been praised for its ability to help people who are shy, or diffident about speaking in front of a group to find a mode of expression that removes those barriers. Yet at the same time it frees people who might be inhibited, it removes a range of cues upon which discourse depends.

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