Guest column: Etiquette, monkeys and the Internet

  • Mark Gibbs (Computerworld)
  • 24 December, 1998 12:01

"Manners Maketh The Man" -- Motto inscribed above the gate of The Skinner's School in Tunbridge Wells, England.

I just got a voice mail message from one Ken Baker. Mr Baker, whom I assume to be a faithful reader, took exception to a comment I made in my November 23 column, "Throwing them into the black hole".

The column concerned Network Solutions Inc (NSI) and its use of spam. My comment was: "This is very bad thinking on the part of NSI and demonstrates a profound ignorance of Internet etiquette."

Mr Baker's voicemail accused me of "missing the point" because I suggested that Internet etiquette mattered. His point was "the Internet is a medium. There is no etiquette upon the phone lines, no etiquette of the cable lines . . . there's no etiquette on the broadcast television medium". Mr Baker further considers that "it is an elitist point of view that makes you believe that there is a [necessity for etiquette on the Internet]".

I have recently heard people express a similar view. The idea that etiquette is irrelevant on the Net or anywhere else is amazingly wrong and a fundamentally uncivilised position. Let's consider what etiquette means.

Etiquette: accepted or prescribed forms of behaviour, courtesies and ceremonies in society or a profession.

Get it? "Behaviour", "courtesies" and "society" are the keys here. Once you let courtesies go, you allow for and create conflict and aggression. In a discourteous environment, every contact is an imposition and all exchanges become confrontational. Society becomes uncivilised.

Want to see what kind of environment this creates? Go to New York. I have seen the most amazingly rude and aggressive behaviour in New York, and it is because people there tend to dispense with the courtesies.

The same applies in network environments. Look at what happens on corporate nets when people forget to be courteous -- flame wars. I spoke to a friend who is the president of a large company. He said he has to break up e-mail battles between staff on a regular basis.

What is interesting about these battles is that they would hardly ever occur if the combatants were face-to-face. This is a direct result of our monkey heritage (sorry to all the creationists out there). Just being physically near each other makes you more polite (a million years of evolution is whispering in your ear, "The other monkey might be concealing a club" . . . you can never be too careful).

Mr Baker went on to opine that the Internet "is a medium to be exploited by those that can, [and while] I don't necessarily agree with all the ways . . . it is American capitalism." I couldn't agree more. But why should that preclude courtesy?

In the case of NSI, it has to have been aware of the prevailing attitude about unsolicited bulk e-mail (UBE). People don't like it; it's that simple. People consider UBE to be intrusive and, by implication, impolite. And yes, you can distribute spam, and you may only get a handful of complaints. But those who complain will be just a small percentage of those who are annoyed, and creating a large population of people who are offended with you is normally considered bad business.

Etiquette and its foundations -- politeness and courtesy -- are not ideas to be tossed aside lightly. If you do toss them aside, make sure you know how all us monkeys will react and how that reaction will affect you and, ultimately, your business. After all, we might just meet face to face some day.