You have a new computer. Welcome to the Internet!
Here's a little taste of what to expect from your new online newsgroup buddies, eager to share the ways of Netiquette:
"Either type in all capital letters and make people hate you, or grow up and type normally."
"You are doing nothing but wasting bandwidth and showing your enormous ignorance."
"Hey! Netiquette calls for a four-line maximum signature. This new one of yours is more than four lines!"
Never mind that online etiquette is changing as fast as technology itself. Never mind that you can stick five Netizens in a room and get five definitions of what Netiquette is. Never mind that many of these cyberspace guidelines (some go so far as to call them rules) were created as early as two decades ago by people who in no way resemble today's typical Net surfer.
This is Netiquette, newbie! Know it or face the wrath of Netiquette Nazis worldwide!
"There are people who do take it to extremes," said John Irwin, vice president of member services at Internet provider Earthlink. "They might enjoy flaming somebody."
For those who are having trouble keeping up, you're not alone. Nowadays, avoiding an online faux pas can be tougher than ever. Historians say fewer and fewer online newcomers are being briefed on online etiquette, leaving people to guess at what's de rigeur - or worse yet, make up their own mini-dogmas.
"I am not sure what Netiquette really means," said Jim Peugh, Webmaster for the North Orange County Computer Club in California. "It has changed.
"You used to get a lot of stuff from people who just didn't use capital letters at all, and I used to think that maybe that was the style. You don't see quite as much of that anymore, but you see other things taking their place."
For some, a Netiquette slip can be as innocent as accidentally -mailing a file in a format that the recipient can't read, hitting the caps lock key or forwarding a joke to a bunch of friends. For others, it's posting a newsgroup message with poor grammar and spelling.
Historically, Netiquette got its start at the legendary Xerox facility called PARC, or Palo Alto Research Center, in the mid-1970s, says Jeff Johnson, a San Francisco software consultant who recently posted an online dialectic on the state of Netiquette.
PARC's big contribution: e-mail etiquette, spread through the company in a set of guidelines called the Electronic Mail Briefing Blurb:
Wait a day or two before responding to an offensive e-mail.
Reply only to the message sender, not everyone on the sender's original list of recipients.
Don't send anything via e-mail that you wouldn't want to see in public.
By 1984, when Johnson arrived at Xerox, the Blurb was required employee reading, he says.
Meanwhile, at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, students were trying to figure out ways to express subtle humor in blunt black-and-white, Johnson said. So they started circulating "smileys" - laughing faces made from letters. They could be tacked onto the ends of sentences to prevent readers from getting offended and starting arguments:
:) ;) :P :)) : :)
Other Netiquette guidelines were taking shape, too. In the late 1970s, there were fewer than 100 companies and universities connected to the Net, and most of the users were also the system operators. So many of their rules aimed to preserve computer server space:
If you're responding to a posting, trim some of the original message.
Don't send mass, unsolicited E-mail.
Be sure that your Internet postings fit the topic of the discussion group.
"Many of the Netiquette guidelines were set forth due to consideration to others with different platforms, speeds, systems, money and services," said Arlene Rinaldi, a Boca Raton, Fla., woman who has posted an extensive Netiquette guide at www.fau.edu/netiquette/
After Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1990, Netiquette soon expanded to include Web sites. Putting in flashy graphics or music was branded a no-no, because most of the modems would take too long to download the pages.
Cut to 1998. Average modem speeds have increased tenfold. The people who use the Internet usually have nothing to do with the people running the access equipment.
And, according to Internet documentarian Robert X. Cringely, he of "Triumph of the Nerds" fame, the number of Net users is doubling every 100 days - a growing Net population that never had a say in all that rulemaking.
Therefore, even trying to enforce traditional Netiquette in 1998 is ridiculous, some say.
"All of a sudden you have this enormous influx of people who are not computer people," said George Margolin, an inventor and the vice president of the NOCCC. "Try a 17-year-old druggie and tell me how he is going to behave on the Net. The etiquette of the Net will be no greater than the etiquette of the general population."
A few ruLes for beginners
Here are some basic guidelines to making nice online.
Use e-mail instead of a public forum to reply to a newsgroup or Web site posting. You'll avoid angering purists who want to keep the Net clog-free.
Keep communication short and clear; you won't get nitpicked to death - at least, not so often.
Ignore "trolls," Net surfers who deliberately bait arguments by posting offensive messages. The resulting word wars tend to drag on.
Stay focused on the topic of whatever online forum you're in. If a newsgroup is about bicycling, don't talk about cooking. Then again, if you post something related that readers might enjoy - say, something on motor bikes - and someone jumps down your throat, ignore it. The world is full of armchair quarterbacks.
You can also try these Web sites, which offer traditional Netiquette guides:
Arlene Rinaldi's Netiquette guide:
Internet Use Guidelines: