A new set of do's and don'ts rules of polite behavior is springing up to augment the etiquette that rules our off-line behavior. This new netiquette has quickly become a universally understood behavioral standard that transcends cultures, businesses and geographical boundaries.
Here's a brief look at some of the rules of netiquette that are becoming the norm:
1. Don't lie about who you are. In Computerworld.com's forums, one man recently took a very strong stance defending Microsoft Corp. Other forum members accused him of working for a company that partners with Microsoft but not disclosing that fact. Members said they recognized the man's arguments and writing style from other forums. After the brouhaha, the offender apologized for causing trouble and vanished off the boards.
Vanessa DiMauro, Computerworld.com's director of communities, points out another problem with a fake identity. People form relationships in discussion groups, and you don't want to end up in a position where you have to reveal that you're not the 24-year-old roller-skating blonde you said you were.
More important, DiMauro says, such a misrepresentation of identity is simply a violation of trust, and that's never good form.
2. Know when to shut up. These days, it's hard to determine when a conversation is over, according to Joseph Cothrel, vice president of research at Participate Systems Inc. in Chicago. He says we've all been in instant messaging or e-mail conversations that just keep going on and on. Do you really have to say "You're welcome" to the guy who just said "Thank you"? Sometimes it feels like everyone is trying to out-polite one another.
3. Know when it's OK to talk. When you first show up at a discussion forum, it's not always a good idea to plunge right in, Cothrel says. Take a look around, and read the forum guidelines and other posts to see how the community fits together. Jumping in with a harsh opinion won't create a good first impression, and the Web, like life, is all about making a good first impression.
4. Check your grammar. More and more often in discussion groups, members are chastising people who use bad grammar or misspell words. Cothrel says that nothing kills an argument for him like seeing a simple word misspelled consistently. He says you have to wonder: If people can't spell, do they really know what they're talking about?
5. Don't ask about e-mail you just sent. Don't buttonhole someone in the hall or telephone him five minutes after you send a lengthy e-mail and ask him what he thinks about it. Give him a chance to read it, digest it and reply via e-mail. According to Cothrel, more and more people consider discussions about e-mail messages a waste of time.
6. Follow threads you start. When you start a thread on a discussion forum, especially if you asked a question, follow that thread. And if you solve the problem you asked about, tell the board. Likewise, Cothrel points out, if the advice you received from the other members led you to a solution, be sure to tell them.
7. Don't use instant messaging for long messages. Betsy Waldinger, vice president at Chicago-based OptionsXpress Inc., spends a lot of her day working on an online customer-service chat system that operates a lot like instant messaging. She says it's important to send short messages and to break up long ones over many screens. If you don't, she says, you force the people on the other end to wade through an overly long message and you keep them waiting for an answer while you type.
8. Send a message before you drop in. At companies where instant messaging is part of the culture, Cothrel says, you should always send someone a note before dropping into his office. This gives the other person a chance to let you know if he's in the middle of something. It also saves you the trouble of walking over to his office only to find that he's gone home.
9. Log off instant messaging when you're not using it. I often leave my messaging program on when I'm not around and come back to find messages asking questions and other messages in which the senders ask why I'm ignoring them. One of these days, someone will send me an embarrassing message and there it will be on my computer screen, flashing for all to see. And it will be my own fault.
10. Never send an e-mail you wouldn't read in public. The night before his wedding, a Massachusetts state official sent a colleague an e-mail saying he wasn't sure he wanted to get married. Unfortunately, he hit Send All, and all state employees with e-mail accounts received the note. Boston Herald gossip reporters evidently received numerous forwarded copies, and they printed the message in the newspaper. Word is, the guy's fiancée married him anyway.
11. Think twice before forwarding e-mail. The jury remains out as to whether forwarding messages is acceptable. Obviously, it's sometimes necessary for business reasons, but people do it far more often than they need to. Philip Zimmermann, creator of Pretty Good Privacy encryption, has said he's not a fan of forwarding e-mails. How often would you even think of taking a handwritten letter you've received, making a photocopy, putting it in an envelope and sending it off to someone else? Zimmermann says the same thought and respect should go into forwarding e-mail.
Brian Sullivan writes for US Computerworld.