The Internet is a relatively new medium--different from any means of communication that humankind has previously known. Some people have compared it to TV, a mass-medium, while others have noted its shared qualities with the telephone, a non-broadcast, two-way medium. Most computer users, however, conceive of the Internet as an amalgam of both these types, though it is different enough so as to not quite fit into any existing class. Even though the Internet is not yet very well defined, it is evolving at an incredible pace.
At the most rudimentary level, the Internet consists of millions of computers around the globe connected together by wire, fiber-optics, and satellite. These connections allow information to be quickly and easily exchanged between people and machines anywhere in the world. The network itself, however, acts only as a medium for applications designed to utilize it. Among the more common of these are electronic mail and the World Wide Web, though the Internet can be utilized in many more sophisticated ways.
E-mail, formally known as "electronic mail", works very similarly to U.S. Postal mail, only without any paper or human labor involved. It serves as a way of sending text or other data from one person to another via the Internet. The World Wide Web, more commonly known as "The Web", is a scheme that unites the informational resources of educational institutions, public and private organizations, and businesses from around the world. While not as widely used or as commonly available as e-mail, more and more computer users are discovering this unique way of information interchange.
In structure, the Web is as amorphous as the network itself; it is really nothing but a huge mass of documents located at various institutions around the world. Because these documents are all interconnected, inter-indexed, and inter-referenced, one can easily access information from several different countries in the period of a few moments. The Web and the Internet upon which it lives exist independent of geographic and political boundaries.
Because the Internet is such a new and unique medium, people are having difficulty making rules for its use. Out of sheer necessity, the users of the Net have, over the period of time since the network was born, tended toward certain rules of network conduct. This code of network ethics has been given many names over the years--the one that has seemed to stick, however, is "netiquette", a conjunction formed from "network etiquette."
The interesting and unique thing about netiquette in contrast to a hard-and-fast system of rules is that it allows room for interpretation. From the point of view of a Wabash Man, netiquette can be seen as a corollary of the Gentleman's Rule: "A Wabash Man, while using the Internet, shall conduct himself as a Gentleman and Responsible Citizen" There is nothing to stop someone from abusing the network. As with your daily actions with those around you, you will have to face the consequences of your behavior. If years of network use have produced anything resembling a system of order, it is surely embodied in what is here explained as netiquette. Adherence to the guidelines below will make your use of the Internet infinitely more enjoyable and productive.
Whether you are composing an e-mail message or writing your own WWW document, it is wise to assume that everyone in the world will read your words. Though e-mail is sent to only one person, it is very easy to forward an e-mail message to hundreds or thousands of people. Unless you have complete trust that the recipient of your mail will keep it confidential, assume complete exposure to the rest of the world.
The same rule applies to WWW documents, only to a greater degree. Anything put up on the Web is openly available for anyone in the world to see. That not only includes your professors and peers, but also the government, your future employers, students from other countries, your professors, etc. It is wise to be cautious with what you put on the Web. Since the people out in Cyberspace have only a small bit of information by which to judge you, it only makes sense to make the information as appropriate, representative, and informative as possible.
The Emotion Barrier
One of the biggest drawbacks of communicating electronically is the difficulty of communicating emotions through text. While our Wabash education has taught most of us how to convey academic or technical ideas in written form without incurring gross misinterpretation, it not necessarily prepared us for the challenge posed by the Internet's barrier to non-verbal communication. It takes a little more verbal finesse to accurately relay emotion, mood, and tone. Virginia Shea, in her article "Core Rules of Netiquette," expresses this idea: "When you communicate electronically, all you see is a computer screen. You don't have the opportunity to use facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice to communicate your meaning; words--lonely written words--are all you've got. And that goes for your correspondent as well. (58)" Derivatives of e-mail, which include USENET newsgroups, mailing list discussion groups, and bulletin boards, are all plagued by the emotion barrier. Overcoming it can be the biggest challenge of anyone attempting electronic communication.
If someone sends you an e-mail message that strikes you as just a little too critical, or you read a message in a newsgroup that seems a little too offensive, chances are that you're misinterpreting the intent of the sender. Perhaps the message that you are taking so seriously was intended to be taken sarcastically--or perhaps you have stumbled upon a newsgroup where no-holds-barred messages are tolerated, or even expected. Either way, it does no good to pour fuel on the fire of what could potentially become a "flame war," where a few people engage in pointless verbal warfare, usually as the result of a misinterpreted message or an undiscriminating author.
Remember the Human
One of the most common sources of intentionally offensive exchange on the Internet are those users who are unaccustomed to the anonymity the medium allows. In the Cyberworld, you are known by nothing other than your e-mail address. Many people interpret this as a free license to verbally assault anyone who rubs them the wrong way--knowing that any retaliation will be confined to the verbal realm as well.
Since the Internet is so flexible, however, those who really know how to use it can wreak "virtual havoc" upon your "virtual world." While they may not be able to hunt you down and dismember you, or even send you a letter bomb via U.S. Mail, it is not all that difficult for a hacker seeking revenge to effectively disable your link to the Net. One example? Imagine finding 10,000 new messages in your e-mailbox every day. Sound like a good time? Such a cruel form of revenge is surprisingly feasible--without all that much effort on the part of the infuriated avenger.
So what's the moral of this story? Simply stated, behave on-line as you would in person. Watch what you type and how you word potentially volatile statements. Assume that what you say will be taken in the worst possible way, and that if someone is upset enough by it, it will come back to haunt you.
Freedom of Choice
The most unique feature of the Internet is its user dependency. Since it is without shape or form, it can become whatever the user makes it--from an academic research tool to a source of digital pornography. In order to get anywhere on the Web you must choose where you wish to go. There is a plethora of information available online--way more than one person could ever read. Using available methods of searching the Internet and choosing certain pathways over others means that you are in control of what you see and hear. It is for this reason that the Internet has been allowed to exist uncensored for so long--and will remain so as long as its users understand its distinctive user-driven nature.
There has been a lot of talk among politicians as to whether of not the Internet should be censored by the government. As of the writing of this document, the government has not yet intruded. Because there is a substantial amount of questionable material available on the Net, however, it is up to the discretion of the individual as to whether or not he wants to access it. There is a simple solution to avoiding the cruder portions of the Net: don't look for them. Information is not going to just randomly pop up on your screen without you making a concerted effort to look for it.
Conversely, when posting to a discussion group or when writing anything which is intended for an unknown audience, it is expected that you will be discriminating in what you say. Profanity and pornography are by no means illegal on the Net, though they are usually considered rude and inappropriate. Again, though you won't receive a ticket from the Internet Police, you may bring upon yourself unwanted repercussions. Just imagine the Dean viewing everything that originates from your computer and judge what is appropriate in that context.
Respect Others' Time and Energy
Surprisingly, it's possible to post a well written, completely inoffensive message to a discussion group and still receive a negative response. It is very important to keep in mind that people are busy--not everyone wants to spend his time reading about your life or what is of concern to you. Other people are similarly wrapped up in their own affairs. When posting to discussion groups, or when sending e-mail to those you don't know, try to be as focused as possible. While a mindless verbal rambling may be just the thing to send to your girlfriend at DePauw, chances are it won't be received well by a newsgroup that is read by thousands of people.
As was mentioned earlier, you never know who will be reading what you write. The president of the college, or the President of the U.S., may decide to listen in on a newsgroup to which you post. Or perhaps someone will forward one of your e-mail messages to a potential employer. Either way, we would all like to think that we make a good impression. In the virtual world, though, an impression isn't made by a nice suit and a clean shave--you could be naked for all those out in Cyberworld care. Your writing, on the other hand, will be highly scrutinized. If you write well, you will likely come off as educated, intelligent, and respectable. If you compose hastily and sloppily, however, your audience may perceive you, perhaps inaccurately, as uneducated and unintelligent. If you want to make a good impression on those out in the Cyberworld, it's a good idea to make your writing look as professional as possible.
There are, of course, cases where careful composition is not necessary. A brief note to a friend may require only enough literacy to get your point across. In such cases, it is usually acceptable to leave out punctuation and disregard capitalization, simply so that your intended audience realizes the casual nature of the message. Beware, however, that any reader will likely take your message as seriously as you make it look. If you don't bother to make your message intelligible, chances are he won't take its contents very seriously. On the other hand, if you take a few minutes to compose thoughtfully, your reader may pay a little extra attention to what you have to say.
Finally, after all this advice on how to project yourself, here's a little on how to receive others: first and foremost, be forgiving. Just as you are trying to balance your valuable time with a desire to get your point across as respectably as possible, so are others doing the same. Sometimes it's all-too-tempting to tear someone apart for an obvious grammatical error, misspelling, or blatant display of stupidity. What we must keep in mind, though, is that what we are reading is only one small piece of the person on the other end, who is typing away just like we are. Perhaps he was uninformed--or in a hurry--or simply made a mistake. Regardless, each person is deserving of more than one chance before judgment is passed. If someone initially strikes you as inept, allow him another opportunity to confirm your judgment. And if you can't suppress a response, a kind word or two of advice in a helpful tone will leave a much better impression than a verbal barrage will. Always give the benefit of the doubt, and be kind with criticism.
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