The Inadequacy of Miss NetManners

Nick Carbone
The University of Massachusetts, Amherst

My sense of the misunderstandings that sometimes occur in CMC is that this is what is at stake--an act of faith that what one is communicating will be received and interpreted the way it was intended, an act which is not always successfully completed in face to face encounters. Only on the internet it is a bit more complex because one usually has no physical reference of the people they are responding to or writing to other than the ones they construct in their minds eye as they read the messages they receive.

The Rhetorical Dimensions of Cyberspace
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The delicate part of this interaction, of messages being sent from what many writers consider their core self, and of learning that they were not understood or appreciated by readers as the writer thought they would be, is sometimes expressed in anger or confusion or even by leaving a community. Of course the reasons for the failure might rest with the writer--they say something outrageous to the community; they may have been so hasty that a typo or grammar error changed what they intended; they may not have said enough, or have been to idiosyncratic. On the other hand, the reader may have been in hurry and have misread, or not have understood the full context of the remarks, or they may have misperceived the writer's intent, or they may have just been looking to pick a fight. And these are just a few of the things which can wrong.

Into this complex matrix of possibilities and desires, netiquette guides can be quickly forgotten. Sometimes they're simply inadequate. For example, one common piece of advice is to wait before replying to a message that's offensive; the electronic equivalent of counting to ten and cooling down. Yet the same guide might also dispense another common bit of advice--deal with things as they cross your screen. It's advice for time management. (Slade, "Book Review") The reality is that people often don't have the time to cool down. Netiquette guides are only, can only be, just that--guides. They can not anticipate or prepare a netizen for every contingency.

Sophisticated guides, such as Rinaldi's, Crispen's, and Shea's, attempt to account for the contraries. They begin from a point of understanding the complexities of the dynamic and at least acknowledge it before dispensing their advice. Shea even recognizes the value of flaming. She writes,

"Flaming" is what people do when they express a strongly held opinion without holding back any emotion. It's the kind of message that makes people respond, "Oh come on, tell us how you really feel." Tact is not its objective. Does Netiquette forbid flaming? Not at all. Flaming is a longstanding network tradition (and Netiquette never messes with tradition). Flames can be lots of fun, both to write and to read. And the recipients of flames sometimes deserve the heat. But Netiquette does forbid the perpetuation of flame wars -- series of angry letters, most of them from two or three people directed toward each other, that can dominate the tone and destroy the camaraderie of a discussion group. It's unfair to the other members of the group. And while flame wars can initially be amusing, they get boring very quickly to people who aren't involved in them. They're an unfair monopolization of bandwidth.

Many netiquette guides will contradict this wisdom and will consider any flaming bad, as too dangerous for fear of conflagration. For example, this excerpt from Slade's "Robert's Rules of Internet Order," is typical.

11. Keep your cool. Even if you have been flamed publicly, anyone with any brains will be able to see who the idiot really is. If you maintain a dignified silence, you may find that others will defend you. Always more satisfying.
Guides which take that never-ever-flame position, stand the same chance of success to that end as prohibition did in ending drinking. And yet the internet is full of Carrie Nations, list members who berate, or "wham" in the vernacular, transgressors of netiquette as they see it; they wield their version of netiquette like an axe.

Citing netiquette violations, by the way, is a favorite tactic in lists designed to be contentious, lists where people expect things to mean, such as those in many of the alt. hierarchies on usenet. The move is used to establish a form of moral superiority, but often has all the force of any farce, such as Newt Gingrich complaining about demagoguery and opponents who will say anything to derail his agenda.

There really is a place for flaming, just as there is in the off line world a place for anger and appropriate ways of displaying anger. Anger and vociferous disagreement do not necessarily need to lead to absolute uncivil discourse. One of the differences between Slade's advice and Shea's may lie in their conception of a flaming continuum. Slade's rules repeat the phrase "keep cool" ten times in 21 rules. The emphasis on remaining calm in the face of net-affronts, as opposed to Shea's acknowledgment that there is a place for flaming in net discourse would, I suspect, have something to do with their histories as netizens, where they have spent their time and what groups they have written amongst.

That is for guide writers and as well as net citizens (netizens), proper netiquette is as much a matter of where they work and play on the Internet as agreed upon understanding of what is proper netiquette. The same is no less true in day to day life. One does not, for example, expect the same degree of etiquette at a truck stop as they do to a four star restaurant; indeed it is often the case that the etiquette appropriate or practiced in one segment or place of culture is a source of parody or humor in others, often put to good use in advertising, but also as a way for different classes and ethnic groups to handle their anxieties about groups and classes to which they do not belong.

Given this variety, the next generation of netiquette guides may need to take a more 'multi-netural' approach. The root of the word etiquette comes from the French for ticket, it's a way to gain entree into a social sphere. Movies such as My Fair Lady or Six Degrees of Separation work in part because they capture how important social codes and cues are in how we form judgments and make assumptions. On the Internet the same distinctions are beginning to evolve among those on the Internet.

Different places on the Internet have their own codes. While guides try to account for this with "lurk before you leap" advice which suggest a person should get a feel for the discussion and its tenor and tenets of behavior, they put their emphasis on rules which are often out of place.

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