Last updated: January 24, 2020
Learn Netiquette: How To Be Polite on the Web
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Being nice on the internet is sometimes a challenge, even for a mild-mannered netizen. According to the UK's Ministry of Justice, in 2014, each day, the courts convicted 5 people for trolling. In a YouGov survey, 28 per cent of Americans admitted to being intentionally rude online, with young men being the most prolific offenders.
Netiquette isn't a recent consideration, and trolling is not new. In 1995, Sally Hambridge published RFC 1855, a memo that set out guidelines for online behavior. Despite being 20 years old, RFC 1855 still holds value, and a lot of its contents can be applied to the way we use the internet today. There are also plenty of new aspects of netiquette that you need to know about.
A Close Look at RFC 1855
RFC 1855 is more than 20 years old, and its recommendations look rather quaint by today's standards. But it lays out many of the conventions that today's millennials know to be second nature. Crucially, though, it needs more work to cover the rapid advancement of the internet in our lives.
There are three pertinent sections that are worthy of a second look. Here's our attempt at creating a modern version for today's social media age.
RFC 1855 says that there are accepted conventions for sending information and conversing with people using messaging services, including:
- Use common courtesy when communicating with people you do not know well;
- In the absence of body language, you need to use clear language to get the right tone across;
- Check who owns of the contents of your communications; at work, it may be your employer;
- Assume there's no security when communicating via email;
- Respect copyright, online and offline;
- Pay attention to accurate attribution (and respect the contents of original, forwarded messages);
- Refrain from forwarding chain letters, which the author says are "forbidden on the internet";
- Avoid getting involved in 'flame wars'; wait to respond until the next day;
- Read all of your emails before you respond, to ensure that you're responding to the most recent message;
- Avoid sending personal messages to group email addresses;
- Remove recipients from the CC box if conversations become more direct;
- Don't send unsolicited requests for information;
- Respect people's local timezones and cultural preferences;
- Use the word "long" in the subject line if your email is more than 100 lines, but try to write far fewer;
- Familiarise yourself with ways to report dubious messages;
- Avoid uppercase; use symbols and smileys;
- Don't send non-ASCII attachments.
Right away, we have some clues as to the era in which RFC 1855 was written. We don't need to worry about email formatting and attachments any more, and we don't need to warn people about long emails. (There's a huge section about real-time chat that we haven't even listed, because the technical guidance has become almost completely redundant.)
At the same time, there are some points in this section that are still very pertinent. Security, copyright, ownership, and encryption are valid considerations today, as they were two decades ago.
Updates to 1855
Here's how we'd update the guidance for email:
- Respect local laws relating to unsolicited or mass email distribution;
- Unsolicited requests for information are commonplace; providing you're polite and courteous, they are no longer frowned upon;
- Write as much as you like. But remember: short emails are more likely to get a response;
- Use HTML. Go crazy. There's no need to use symbols for emphasis any more, but uppercase is still a no-no for readability's sake.
Looking beyond email, we have a range of other one-to-one communication options: messaging apps, live chat, even VOIP and video calling:
- Only send contact requests to people you know;
- Avoid switching between different platforms to speak with the same person, unless you have a specific reason to;
- Keep text communication short — a sentence is usually enough;
- Launch a text chat to introduce yourself before launching straight into a voice or video call;
- Unless you are messaging a friend, give the conversation your full attention;
- Wait for a reply to a message before sending another;
- Keep text styles to a minimum to aid readability;
- Set appropriate, clear and representative avatars when creating your account;
- Refrain from sending personal photographs to people that you do not trust;
- Start a video call only if both parties are agreed;
- Supervise children's activity on one-to-one messaging services;
- When sending photos and video, use either landscape or portrait mode consistently, according to the conventions of the platform you are using;
- Close the conversation politely, as you would end a telephone call.
This is a significant area of change for all internet users, and RFC 1855 just about scratches the surface of one-to-many communication — something we now call "social media." When the document was written, the primary method of group communication on the internet was the newsgroup. Indeed, a huge swathe of the document is dedicated to correct newsgroup abuse.
Newsgroup discussions used to be common currency on the internet, but with a few notable examples, spam and social media has made the newsgroup a less useful and less popular resource. That isn't to say that we can't interpret parts of the document as being useful, but a lot of it has been made redundant.
To a lesser degree, the document covers internet relay chat (IRC), which is closer to real-time social media discussion.
First, here are some of the points that are still salient today:
- Consider the fact that your messages are going to be exposed to a massive audience;
- Do not set up accounts with the attention of impersonating other people;
- Short messages will generally result in a more impactful discussion;
- Platforms can't generally be responsible for the behavior of users;
- Likewise, users don't represent their employers, unless their account is specifically for business;
- Pointing out grammatical errors rarely furthers an argument;
- Some employers will object to your use of one-to-many communication tools;
- If you're responding to someone, quote small chunks — not the entire message;
- Argue about issues, not about people: refrain from ad hominem attacks.
Updates to 1855
Next, let's look at some notable differences in netiquette now, and netiquette back then. In fact, some of the points in RFC 1855 have swung almost the opposite way.
Here are a few:
- Jump straight in to a discussion if you have something to say;
- Use social networks for marketing, if convention allows; spamming is unacceptable, but tasteful advertising is tolerated (or encouraged) on some platforms;
- Don't post your personal contact information on a public platform;
- Moderate your tone, according to the platform you're using.
From Flaming to Trolling
Finally, let's look at the biggest area of change: conflict. The pace of communication on social media is far faster than it was on any newsgroup, and this allows tensions to ratchet up very quickly. Additionally, it's far easier to be anonymous on social media today, which means that conflict, insults, and malicious communications are more prevalent than they have ever been.
RFC 1855 moves quickly through the subject of flame wars, but this would warrant a lot more attention in our modern, updated version of the document. On social media, deliberately flaming and antagonizing others has earned its own moniker: "trolling."
In this context, the word "troll" has actually had different meanings over the last decade or so. Originally, a troll was someone who was looking for a response to a post on social media. Now, thanks to the media, the term is specifically used for people looking for a
And this deserves a section of its own:
- Avoid "feeding the troll" — responding to any user that is posting comments that could be perceived to be antagonizing others;
- Learn to recognize patterns of behavior that are designed to intimidate others;
- Beware of "sock puppets": fake social media accounts where one person poses as someone else;
- If you find yourself arguing with others online, re-train yourself to disagree politely and respectfully;
- Block users that are targeting you, or causing conflict repeatedly;
- Report threats of violence to the platform owners and the police;
- Understand that trolls get a kick out of conflict, and they know how to trigger people. Learn to walk away.
We know that trolling has shades of gray, and we want to strike a balance. Some people are considered trolls because they consistently present an opposing view to a group. At the other end of the scale, other trolls post threats of physical violence that are credible and possibly also criminal.
One is intentional, one is not, but both can be upsetting, and that's the key. Recognizing the behavior, and calling it out, should be considered part of a netiquette guide in both cases.
Section 3: Informational Services
RFC 1855 groups pretty much all non-web services into "informational services." Within this section, it looks at FTP, the web, Telnet, Gopher and Wais. The protocols that we can use to find information are similar, but the vast majority of people only use the web, and a new medium — apps. If you have a web hosting account, or you're employed to look after IT systems, you'll almost certainly use others as well.
So what does RFC 1855 tell us that is still valid today? Here are a few points to pick out:
- Check ownership of material before you access it;
- If you have connectivity problems, check your own equipment before contacting the host;
- Take care with file extensions, since they can be used maliciously to disguise viruses;
- Read "readme" files first, if they are provided;
- Beware of older versions of software;
- If mirror servers are provided, choose the one closest to you;
- Test websites thoroughly across devices;
- Keep time-sensitive information up-to-date.
Updates to 1855
There are a few things that have changed considerably:
- Links to other sites are welcomed, generally speaking;
- Don't link to sites that are of a low quality;
- Avoid reciprocal linking between unrelated websites, or linking artificially between your own websites;
- Sites that act like an index to other sites are perfectly acceptable — they're called search engines;
- Make sure you have privacy policies, and cookie policies, if required in your country.
Clearly, the internet has changed a lot since RFC 1855 was first published. Our connections are faster, we spend more time online, and we are connected in so many new ways. As our use of the internet has changed, and technology has become embedded in our lives, we've also been exposed to more threats.
Viruses are a very good example of a relatively recent development. Shortly after the publication of RFC 1995, many users were running Windows 95 on their computers. Unfortunately, it had little defense against viruses, and presented a golden opportunity for hackers to experiment with malicious code.
Similarly, blogs — or weblogs, as we called them — were still some years ahead. There were ads, but they took up huge amounts of screen space; AdSense was not launched until 2003, and when it arrived, it changed both the appearance of the internet and the mechanics of the scripts that underlie it.
In fact, when you consider just how broad our use of the web has become, it's incredible how complex netiquette is now.
Viruses and Malware
As we mentioned, viruses have evolved with email and the world wide web. These days, we are all far more cautious to avoid them:
- If you receive spam, malware or other dubious communications, make sure you tell the sender, who may not be aware that they were sent under their name.
- If you receive an email, phone call or instant message from a business that contains inaccurate, generic or misspelled information, report the email to the business in question.
Interacting with Businesses
The vast majority of businesses now have a presence on the web, or an app. When communicating formally, there are some netiquette rules that most people follow:
- When you reach out to a business online using a public platform, remember that they may have limited resources to help you, since businesses are limited by privacy laws;
- Providing an order number or reference in your initial message is the best way to progress your question;
- Most businesses will not tolerate rude or aggressive complaints, so moderated language is key;
- If submitting a product review, or a feedback form, remember that the content you create may be used by the business;
- Explain your praise or grievance clearly in your first message to speed up resolution;
- Avoid using public reviews to express anger about unrelated issues that are outside the business' control;
- Check delivery prices and return policies before ordering online, and make this a habit before you buy anything;
- When using marketplace platforms, make sure you understand the rules of participation before you spend any money;
- If you run a business, some jurisdictions require you to publish clear contact information on your website.
Mobile Devices, Wearables and the Internet of Things
We now have the option of accessing the internet using all kinds of devices. Smartphones are the most common, but we also need to consider smart watches, tablets and connected devices, such as lights and appliances.
- Use speakerphone only when you are in a soundproofed environment;
- When you are engaged in conversation with a person, avoid looking at your phone screen, or interacting with your phone;
- Wearables should not gather personal data without explicit consent;
- Mobile devices should only transmit or save location data if the user has given clear permission;
- Don't expect your employees to access corporate networks on mobile outside their paid working hours;
- Data feeds from cameras and Internet of Things devices should only be accessed by the user and any third parties that they have chosen.
Marketing and Advertising
As our use of the internet has exploded, marketers and advertisers have figured out ways to join the conversation. Businesses must pay attention to netiquette rules to avoid alienating both existing and future customers:
- On social media, businesses should act as invited guests, and adopt the conventions of the platform they are using;
- Businesses should not send rapid-fire marketing messages, or impersonal messages designed to alert specific users;
- Content published on the web should be assumed copyrighted, unless another license is apparent;
- Remarketing and tracking technologies must respect the user's privacy rights and personal boundaries;
- Comment on blogs should not be used for spam or self-promotion;
- Users must have a way to opt-out of any marketing or advertising activity.
Cloud computing is a technology we all use, even when we do not realize it. Because the cloud is so massive, data can potentially be dispersed over a very large area. This makes the cloud legally complex, and there are some basic netiquette rules that can help:
- When you place data into cloud storage, assume that it is not completely private, unless your data is encrypted and you hold the encryption key yourself;
- Do not place business data into the cloud without permission of the copyright holder, or the owner of the intellectual property you are sharing;
- Do not share business data with contacts outside your organisation;
- At work, use only cloud technologies that are provided or approved by your employer.
In terms of modern netiquette, RFC 1855 gets us about half-way there. Considering this document was authored in 1995, it has retained a surprising amount of relevance. Naturally, Sally Hambridge could never have anticipated the huge changes that would unfold as the internet matured.
For most millennials in the western world, web netiquette is second nature. It barely needs to be taught, or expressed. But it's great that we have a document from the early internet that reveals how netiquette came about. Over the next 20 years, our revised netiquette guidelines will flex and change; some will be flipped through 180 degrees. It's all due to the evolution of technology, the rapid pace of change, and the way the digital world is embedded in our everyday lives.
Here are a couple of answers to frequently asked questions:
What are newsgroups?
Newsgroups are a predecessor to more modern discussion platforms, like Yahoo Groups and Facebook. They run on the Usenet platform, which can be accessed from many email clients, as well as Google Groups and dedicated newsreader software. Users post messages via email, and discussions can be read by anyone on the internet with the right software client. Some groups were also moderated.
When RFC 1855 was published, newsgroups were the primary platform for group discussion, and there were thousands of different groups acting as a useful resource. Over time, newsgroups have lost their relevance, partly because they became magnets for spam and unsavory content.
What Are Internet Trolls?
Trolls are people who may seek out, instigate, and generally seem to enjoy creating tension between themselves and other people. They can be anonymous but aren't necessarily. And not all trolls deliberately try to push buttons. Some of them simply take online debate a step too far.
However, if one user goes against the grain of group discussion, or deliberately sends offensive messages to someone else, there's a good chance that they are "trolling" — getting a kick out of the arguments that inevitably follow. In serious cases, trolls can be threatening or personal, and you are within your rights to seek advice from your police department if you feel a troll is a threat.
For these reasons, trolls are generally the most hated people on the internet.
What's a Flame War?
Flame wars are essentially arguments that are accelerated and exaggerated because they take place online. Without the familiarity and body language of real-life conversation, it's all too easy for a flame war to escalate and get out of control. Unlike trolling, a flame war goes both ways; each person finds it difficult to step away. But trolls are often the cause of flame wars.
Flame wars almost always take place in a public forum, such as a social media website, or in the comment section underneath an article or blog. Something private like an email exchange doesn't normally have the necessary accelerant for a flame war.
Further Reading and Resources
We have more guides, tutorials, and infographics related to using the internet:
- The History of Web Search Engines: read the fascinating story of a 5 decade trip to the modern search engine.
- The Ugly Face of Online Fraud: like everywhere else where humans exist, there are people who will try to scam you. Learn more here.
Ultimate Guide to Web Hosting
Regardless of what you do on the web, chances are good that you are going to want to have a website. And that means you will need to host it somewhere. Check out our Ultimate Guide to Web Hosting. It will explain everything you need to know in order to make an informed choice.