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Netiquette Training: Whose Responsibility? CPSR Chapters and Regional Directors

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Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility

Netiquette Training: Whose Responsibility?

[CPSR Newsletter, Summer 1998, 16(3), pages 14-18.]

Jeff Johnson, CPSR/Palo Alto

In the last decade, the proportion of people in the United States who use e-mail and the Internet grew from a negligible figure to somewhere between 15 and 20% [1]. Since 1993, the growth in this percentage has been especially rapid. It is of course premature to say "everyone uses the net": 20% is far from "everyone". Nonetheless, in the United States and some other industrialized countries, the Internet has become a part of popular culture and is well on the way to becoming a mainstream medium of communication. Similarly, email and intranets are becoming common for business communication.

It is fashionable for old-time Internet users like me to complain about all of the "clueless newbies" who are now coming onto the Net. Why do people post to newsgroups or discussion lists messages that have nothing to do with the group's stated purpose? Why do people ask the same questions over and over again instead of consulting the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions document)? Why do they spend so much time, bandwidth, and energy sending vitriolic "flame" messages back and forth? Why do they send replies intended for one person to lists of thousands? Don't they know netiquette?

No, they don't. But it isn't their fault. How can they know, if no one has bothered to teach them?

My purpose in writing this article is threefold:

  1. To argue that widespread failure to educate new Net users about netiquette is having an adverse effect on the quality of life in cyberspace and is hindering the Net's value and growth,
  2. To promote existing guidelines for netiquette,
  3. To advocate the development of model netiquette guidelines that can be adopted or adapted by Internet access providers.

I'll begin by describing my own early education in netiquette.

Experiences with E-Mail

I have been an Internet user since early 1984, when I started working at Xerox. Unlike most computer companies at that time, Xerox made heavy use of computer networks and electronic mail.

Though email was new to me in 1984, it was not new to Xerox: researchers in Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) had used it since the mid-1970s. They had successfully spread email, and the culture that went with it, throughout the rest of the company. Part of that culture was a set of guidelines and "best-practices" for using e-mail and networks: called the Electronic mail Briefing Blurb. By 1984, it was required reading for new employees. It contained such suggestions as the following: reply only to a message's sender rather than to everyone who received the message, wait a day or two before replying to an e-mail message that makes you mad, don't send anything via e-mail -- especially to a list -- that you wouldn't want public; and so on.

Although the guidelines in the Briefing Blurb were neither extensive nor comprehensive, they made a big impression on me, and have stuck with me over the 14 years that I've used the Net. I believe that they have served me well. I have worked at several companies since, all of which used email and provided access to the Internet, but none of them provided such guidance to newcomers.

Today's Need for Netiquette

Traffic laws are not enough to keep roadways operating smoothl; without conventions and guidelines for good driving, streets and highways would be bedlam. Similar conventions operate in other domains where people interact. Roberts' Rules of Order were devised to conduct important meetings smoothly and fairly. Hunters -- beyond legal restrictions -- have conventions to avoid shooting each other. Whatever laws and legal policies apply to cyberspace -- hopefully mostly the same ones that apply to other forms of communication -- law alone will not suffice to make online communications attractive and useful for the general public.

People who send abusive, offensive, or off-topic e-mail must take responsibility for their own words and actions. But those of us who promote universal access to cyberspace must also bear some responsibility for educating newcomers -- especially young people -- about productive, harmonious living in this formerly exclusive realm.

Some readers may feel that I am advocating a paternalistic program to teach "newbies" what is and is not acceptable behavior. On the contrary, mutual benefit, not keeping newbies in their place, is the goal. Tens of thousands of person-years of experience with the forerunners of today's Internet, company intranets, civic nets, and online services have produced a great deal of accumulated knowledge and wisdom about what works well in cyberspace and what doesn't. Those who built, operated, and used, for example, the Xerox company intranet, the Arpanet, the Cleveland Freenet, FidoNet, the WELL, Berkeley Community Memory, UUCP net, CompuServe, Santa Monica Public Education Network, and French Minitel in the seventies, eighties, and early nineties learned things in the process. It would be foolish not to share this knowledge with new, mainstream users of the net.

The predominant approach today seems to be to assume that newcomers to online communication will somehow automatically know or quickly learn netiquette. For a number of reasons, this is not surprising. First, it's easier to ignore the problem and hope it solves itself. Education and training take time, effort, money, and commitment. Second, a null approach is consistent with the "cyberspace-as-electronic-frontier," "everyone-for-themselves" mindset that many long-time netizens cling to despite the fact that today's Internet is far beyond the frontier stage. Third, people tend to believe that their own cultural conventions are "natural" and "common sense" and therefore should be obvious. They have forgotten that the conventions of cyberspace are not universal and were learned, through either explicit instruction or "the school of hard knocks." These observations help explain the predominant "do nothing" approach, but they do not excuse it.

In researching this article, I asked the operators of a San Francisco community network whether they provide new users with netiquette guidelines. Their reply exemplifies today's dominant approach: "No, we just assume everyone is an adult and hope for the best." Great. Even ignoring the fact that many new users are, literally, not adults, what does being an adult have to do with knowing social conventions? Do grown-up North Americans automatically know how to bargain effectively when they visit a street market in, say, Turkey or Mali? Do adult non-Catholics automatically know when to kneel when they attend a Catholic mass? Do Western business people automatically know how to negotiate effectively with their Japanese counterparts?

It's as if an American Yuppie were snatched out of his condominium and dropped into a Masai village in the Serengeti: he'd commit many gaffes -- perhaps even endanger himself or others -- before learning the customs and practices of his new tribe. His enculturation would be faster and less error-prone if the Masai villagers made an effort to help him learn, perhaps by assigning him a tutor. The same would be true of the reverse situation. Another example, closer to home, is that of an American visiting Germany. Shortly after U.S. President Jimmy Carter was introduced to German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, he reportedly called the Chancellor "Helmut", seemly unaware that Germans consider it quite rude to use first names except with close personal friends. How could Carter know, if no one told him?

Access Providers: An Informal Survey

In my opinion, Internet service providers (ISPs), online services, civic networks, schools, and businesses have a responsibility to pass on the accumulated wisdom about living in cyberspace to their new users. Apparently, many service-providers are unaware of that responsibility, disav ow it, or simply ignore it for lack of resources.

To check this assumption, I searched the World Wide Web sites of numerous online access providers for netiquette guidelines provided for their subscribers. If a thorough search of a service's website failed to locate anything akin to netiquette guidelines, I asked about it by email. Most of the services I contacted by email responded.

The services I contacted, underlined if they offer netiquette advice, were:

ISPs: Albury Local Internet (Australia),, Earthlink Network,, InReach Internet (guidelines are printed, not online),,, Netcom, Pacific Bell Internet, and

Online services: America Online, Compuserve, Institute for Global Communications (IGC), and The Well.

Civic Networks: Blacksburg Electronic Village, Heartland Freenet (Peoria), Needham Online (Mass.), San Francisco NeighborNet, and Seattle Community Network.

Only about half services provide guidelines for netiquette. Interestingly, Compuserve does not provide netiquette guidelines even though it is now a subsidiary of America Online, which. Likewise, offers no such guidelines even though it recently acquired (and dissolved), which did.

Of course, simply providing netiquette guidelines does not imply that service-users will see them. Although I've been an IGC user for over two years, I never knew of their netiquette guidelines until I researched this article. A contrasting example is InReach Internet: the first third of their 100-page printed user-manual is background information about the Internet's history, variety, and culture, including netiquette. My sense is that few of the service-providers underlined in the foregoing list actively promote their netiquette guidelines.

Most service-providers do have acceptable-use policies, sometimes called user agreements. But an acceptable-use policy is not a set of netiquette guidelines; it's a legally binding portion of a contract. Some acceptable-use policies include advice about netiquette, thereby blurring the distinction between recommended practices and contractual obligations. The Seattle Community Network (SCN) has a terse "Code of Etiquette" that is actually a legal user agreement; one encounters it on SCN's website only during the online registration process.

General Netiquette Sources

In addition to surveying network providers, I and Susan Evoy, Deputy Director of CPSR, searched the web for sites that offer general netiquette guidelines, and found many. Indeed, the number of netiquette sites seemed overwhelming until I realized that only a few contain original content; most are mainly excerpts from, or collections of links to, other netiquette websites. I classify netiquette websites that include significant original content as "primary" and those that comprise mostly excerpts and links and as "secondary."

As might be expected, many netiquette websites are hosted by colleges or universities. Schools that provide such sites include Augsburg College, Bucknell University, Florida Atlantic University, Indiana University, M.I.T., University College Dublin (Ireland), University of Illinois, University of Nebraska, University of Tennessee, and the University of Washington. However, only a few of these websites are primary (see the accompanying list of Netiquette Resources).

The University of Illinois provides an interesting case-study. Administrators there developed an acceptable-use policy and began actively promoting netiquette guidelines after a student was arrested for e-mailing a death-threat to President Clinton [2].

Florida Atlantic University hosts an award-winning netiquette website written and compiled by Arlene Rinaldi, a university network administrator. It is quite comprehensive, containing a great deal of original guidelines as well as links to many other netiquette sites. It may be the most widely cited netiquette website.

Another noteworthy university netiquette website is hosted by Indiana University: "Zen and the Art of the Internet," by Brendon Kehoe. A comprehensive guide to using the Internet, it includes netiquette guidelines.

The remaining netiquette websites we found are hosted by commercial content providers, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and individuals. They provide netiquette guidelines for using email, discussion lists, and newsgroups, and offer advice on maintaining privacy, recognizing Internet hoaxes, and communicating effectively. As with university netiquette sites, only a few offer much original material (see the accompanying list of Netiquette Recources).

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a loose organization of computer networking experts who devise Internet standards, hosts a Netiquette Tutorial developed by its "Responsible Use of the Network" working group. The tutorial provides a "minimum set of rules" for using the Internet. This website is probably the single most comprehensive website on the topic of netiquette.

For a humorous presentation of netiquette, you can visit the Emily PostNews site, hosted by ClariNet, an Internet content provider. Emily PostNews is a spoof of a newspaper etiquette column, providing intentionally bad advice in response to questions of netiquette. It was written by Brad Templeton, the founder of ClariNet and a member of the Electronic Frontier Founcation's (EFF's) Board of Directors. EFF itself hosts a website devoted to the use of "smileys" or "emoticons", such as :-) to convey feelings.

The most venerable netiquette advice on the web is provided by the RAND Corporation, a non-profit policy think-tank. RAND hosts an archive of technical reports by its researchers, one of which, written by Norman Shapiro and Robert Anderson in 1985, lays out the ethics and etiquette guidelines for using email [3].

Finally, our web-search turned up many references to and excerpts from printed books on netiquette and related topics. Virginia Shea's book Netiquette [4] vies with Arlene Rinaldi's website for the distinction of being the most widely-cited netiquette resource. In addition, there are several general Internet guides containing chapters on netiquette [5-7], and other books on related topics [8, 9].

Evaluation of Findings

The good news from our survey and Web search is that many Internet users and some net access-providers perceive a need for netiquette guidelines and have made attempts to make them available. The bad news is that the overwhelming majority of Internet users have had no exposure to such guidelines.

Our search turned up very few netiquette sites aimed at children. Given that so many Net newcomers these days are children, and that today's children are tomorrow's netizens, and given the NetDay projects and similar efforts to bring K-12 schools onto the Internet, one might think that netiquette education for children would have high priority and visibility. Alas, it does not.

The survey did not include employers that provide email and Internet access to their employees. This might seem a serious omission, since job-related online accounts today account for a major proportion, perhaps even a majorit y, of email and Internet users. However, I have worked as an employee or consultant at 12 different companies that provide employees with email and Internet access, and am familiar with many more. Of those employers, only two -- Xerox and RAND [3] -- provide any sort of introduction to netiquette. As with ISPs and online services, many employers that lack netiquette guidelines do have policies governing intranet and Internet use by their employees. But as we've seen, use-policies do not serve the same functions as netiquette guidelines.

Promoting Netiquette Guidelines

To promote widespread adoption and promotion of netiquette guidelines by email and Internet access providers, as well as netiquette education for users, CPSR could take the following three steps:

  1. Promote existing guidelines. It's important to make access providers and users aware of existing netiquette guidelines and of their value. CPSR could create a website organizing all important netiquette resources in a coherent way, with comments on each. Although there are many netiquette websites consisting of links to netiquette sites, most are idiosyncratic and poorly annotated. Once this information was compiled, CPSR could actively distribute it to ISPs, online services, civic networks, K-12 schools, colleges and universities, and businesses. CPSR could then conduct follow-up surveys to determine whether access providers were providing the information to their users, and if so, how. Alternatively, CPSR could pick a single existing netiquette source and promote it, for instance, the IETF Tutorial or the Shea book.
  2. Foster discussion of netiquette guidelines. Ongoing discussion is necessary because accumulated wisdom and best practices, by definition, are not static: experience continues to accumulate, new practices are devised and replace old ones, and new technologies render practices obsolete. When the Xerox E-mail Briefing Blurb and even the RAND guidelines for email etiquette were written, none of the following existed: chat rooms, the Web, Java applets, Internet cookies, Internet audio, push technology, and spam. Technologies yet to come that will prompt further changes in netiquette include easy-to-use encryption and cyber-cash. The goal of the discussions would be to refine existing guidelines and develop new ones. The strategy would be to provide fertile ground for generation and sharing of new ideas about best practices in online communication. For this step, CPSR's experience in organizing conferences and stimulating public discussion would be especially valuable.
  3. Develop model guidelines. CPSR could compile from the diverse collections of guidelines a model set that promotes our public-interest ideals, much as we did in developing a model email use-policy for companies [10]. The IETF Netiquette Tutorial would provide a good starting point. Writing books or booklets on netiquette to appeal to children and teenagers would also help foster sense and civility on the Web of the future.

Online Sources

Printed Sources

  1. Bikson, Tora, et al. "Universal Access to E-mail: Feasibility and Societal Implications", RAND Technical Report MR-650-MF, 1995, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.
  2. Denning, Dorothy and Lin, Herbert, Rights and Responsibilities of Participants in Networked Communities, 1994, Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press [reviewed in this issue].
  3. Dern, Daniel P., The Internet Guide for New Users, 1993: New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, ISBN: 0070165114.
  4. Krol, Ed, The Whole Internet Users' Guide and Catalogue, 1994, 1996, Wadworth Publishing Company, ISBN: 0534506747
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