A Class on the Net for Librarians with Little or No Net Experience


"If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home."

-- James A. Michener, 1982

As with every other form of communication, there's a code of proper behavior for talking on the Internet -- it's called "netiquette". Knowing and following proper "netiquette" is extremely important because of the ease of communicating almost instantaneously on the Internet. When you find yourself with the ability to respond immediately and in a semi-anonymous fashion to the remarks of another, you may also discover within yourself an uncomfortable tendency to "shoot from the hip" verbally, and that can cause problems.

Because you have the ability to answer an email or discussion list message a moment or two after receiving it, you may find yourself forging straight ahead, without taking time out to consider how your remarks are likely to be received at the other end. Then, there's the problem with humor -- clever asides, gentle sarcasms, and friendly kidding are sometimes lost in the transmission, because the receiver of your message can neither hear your voice nor see your expression. Furthermore, he may not know you at all, and thus not be familiar with, or attuned to, your individual manner of speaking or "quirky" sense of humor.

Many an argument on the Net has been started over a small and simple misunderstanding that could easily have been avoided. If not squelched early, the argument could provoke a "flame," a particularly nasty verbal attack on somebody in response to what he or she has previously written. Sometimes, an exchange of flames can erupt into a "flame war" that can go on for days and clutter mailboxes with unwanted and unnecessary pieces of mail serving no useful purpose.

That's what this lesson is all about -- observing the rules of proper Netiquette in order to calm the conversational waters, promote safe navigating, avoid treacherous rocks and shoals, and reach safe harbor.

Here's some basic rules of Netiquette that you should know and follow:

  1. Never communicate in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. On the Net, this is *shouting* and it's considered rude. Without being able to see expressions or hear voices, there aren't many ways to express strong opinions in Net correspondence; so ALL CAPS has been designated for this purpose. Besides, if you've ever tried reading a document written in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, you'll know immediately how it can strain your eyes. Staring at a computer screen all day is hard enough to begin with, so don't make it harder. If you want to emphasize a word or phrase, ALL CAPS is fine, or better yet -- separate it from the rest of the text by using the * at either end, *like this*.

  2. Always fill in the subject line in your correspondences to others on the Net; this is considered polite. If the original subject line was "Gopher Subject Tree Sites," make sure your reply says "Re: Gopher Subject Tree Sites, or mentions "Gopher Subject Trees" somehow as a reference. That way, the recipient of your message will know what to expect. If you are communicating to a discussion group or listserv, members then have the option to read or to discard your message without reading it -- an option they may choose if it's a subject in which they have no immediate interest. Keep your messages short and to the point. Remember, some of us have other things to do with our lives. (That's a joke; don't flame me! ;->)

  3. Respect the character of the list and try to stick to its designated subject. If the list is one devoted to discussing reference issues, members may not be willing to consider problems associated with various types of hardware and technical support. When you first subscribe, don't jump into the discussion right away but listen for awhile before you post. Members may have only recently finished discussing your topic when you broach it again, and they may resent your coming in and dragging them back over ground they just covered (that's what those archives are for!).

  4. Answer individual requests individually, and submit relevant responses of global interest to the list. Some large lists ask members to do this, in order to keep correspondences to a manageable level.

  5. Don't type anything on your screen that you wouldn't tell someone face-to-face. Remember, there are *people* out there on the Internet, and sometimes they get cranky and take what you say the wrong way. If you're rude, or if your words appear to be rude, you could start a "flame war" and end up being flamed yourself. That's not a pleasant experience, and it creates unwanted litter on the information highway.

  6. If you are replying to a previous posting, always quote or paraphrase the part you are replying to; do *not* include the entire original message in your reply. Take the time to delete, cut and paste so that only relevant parts of the original message remain. This is important because it's tedious to re-read the entire original message in someone's else's reply. However, inserting a clue, or reference point, is appreciated, especially if the reply is delayed or if it arrives before the original message does (this happens!).

  7. Avoid being labelled a "ditto head." If you have nothing more than a "me too" to offer, don't post at all. Unfortunately, the worst offender is often the one who includes an entire previous message in his posting, and then adds a single line: "I agree." To top it off, he's likely to be the sort who will append a monstrous signature to his posting (more about "sigs" in a moment).

  8. Don't talk out of school. Email is not secure and someday, you may be dismayed to learn that the words you sent to one recipient, even in confidence, have been forwarded to the multitudes. :-(

  9. Be very careful not to make statements that could be interpreted as official pronouncements of your organization or as offers to do business. In his online workshop, "Roadmaps," Patrick Crispen quotes his dad, the Rev. Bob Crispen, as saying, "treat every post as though you were sending a copy to your boss, your minister, and your worst enemy." Excellent advice; please try to follow it.

  10. Remember, no one can see you or hear your tone of voice. If you're not sure how your remarks will be received, insert an emoticon, i.e., <g> for "grin," or a "smiley," like the few you've been seeing throughout this lesson. To read the smiley, cock your head slightly to the left and you'll see a face. For example, here's a wry "winky" smiley for those times when you make a comment you hope the recipient won't take too seriously: ;->

And here's a mini-list of smileys to get you started. (BTW, you can create smileys either with or without the nose ... it's a private, personal, and individual decision that only can be made by you. Your smileys may either look like this, :-) or like this, :) It's your call. I prefer the nose, so here goes:


In order to save space and give your fingers a break, there's also an accepted list of abbreviations, or *Net-Lingo* you can use:

Finally, if your organization allows you to create a signature file for yourself, don't overdo it. If you do, you'll not only be guilty of taking up too much bandwidth, you might also end up as another example in the files of the Usenet newsgroup, alt.fan.warlord, which delights in ridiculing big .sigs. Five lines or less should be sufficient for any .sig file.


Find and read "The Net; User Guidelines and Netiquette," written by Arlene Rinaldi, Florida Atlantic University. This is the best handout on netiquette I've seen yet. It includes "best-behavior" advice for email and files, USENET, listservs, Telnet, and anonymous ftp. It also contains the Ten Commandments for Computer Ethics. It is available on the web at:



* "BCK2SKOL" is a free electronic library classroom created by Ellen Chamberlain, Head Librarian, University of South Carolina Beaufort, and Miriam Mitchell, Sr. Systems Analyst, USC Columbia. Additional support is provided by the Division of Libraries & Information Systems, University of South Carolina Columbia.

Your feedback and support for BCK2SKOL are appreciated; please email link updates, suggestions and comments to: eechambe@gwm.sc.edu

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URL: http://www.sc.edu/bck2skol/fall/lesson11.html