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Netiquette is Good Netizenship

by Doran Barton

(Written in October 2004 for the Provo Linux Users Group mailing list.)

I’ve been online since 1990. That’s not as long as some people, but it’s a lot longer than most Internet users. During that time, I’ve seen countless discussions on how online discussions should be transacted, whether it be in Usenet newsgroups, mailing lists, online bulletin board/forums, etc.

These types of discussions usually break down into a small number of camps. First, you’ve got people (like myself) who yearn for the days of yore when all users of the Internet respected and adhered to the established conventions of netiquette. Then you’ve got the “liberation camp” folks. These people believe the Internet is the only truly free society and they can do whatever they want whether it be top-post, no trimming, etc. These people generally have issues with society in general. Another faction are just lazy either because they themselves are inherently lazy or because they have awful news/mail-reading software that requires an enormous amount of extra effort to obey rules of netiquette.

In the early days, most people got their Internet access through academic institutions. Netiquette was often enforced in an heavy-handed fashion by the network administrators of those institutions. That may seem far fetched to some today, but that’s how it was. If you started pissing people off in newsgroups, you might find your username and password didn’t work the next morning.

As a result, it was every Internet users obligation to learn how to be a good member of the Internet community. Understanding netiquette was a crucial part of this. Not exercising netiquette was simply a sign of incompetence.

By the mid-90s, however, things started to change. The commercialization and rapid expansion of Internet access brought a huge number of new users online. At this point, the new users were the majority. Most of them didn’t bother learning the well-established conventions of netiquette. Some of them did and realized why they were established in the first place. The rest wondered why the cranky old fogies care how they post.

Today, most people just tolerate the twits who top-post, don’t trim, and say they don’t care about netiquette or that “everyone else is doing it.”

There are still a significant minority of people who do care about the quality of online exchanges of ideas. There are mailing lists which are managed by moderators who ban subscribers whose messages fail to follow the guidelines of netiquette. Others (like me) make an effort to point out the virtues of netiquette compliance.

Take your favorite mailing list. Why do you subscribe? Probably because the discussions held on the mailing list are informative, entertaining, or otherwise enjoyable. It basically comes down to quality — the quality of the discussions.

The quality of an online discussion is largely based on content. That can be broken down to how well a participant understands grammar, spelling, etc. In order to produce quality content, you basically need to know how to write reasonably well.

If online discussions were just people posting their own individual essays one after another, then content would be the only factor of quality we’d care about. But electronic discussions give us more flexibility. When we respond to things other people say, we can include their original message—the one we’re replying to—in our message for contextual relativity. We do that as a favor to others who read the message — so they know what we’re referring to.

Including the entire message you’re replying to in your message places an inconsiderate burden on those who will read your message — especially if the original is a long piece. They don’t know which portion of the original message you’re responding to. They may have to spend more time reading through the original message to determine the context of your response. This burden lowers the overall quality of the message and tugs the overall quality of the mailing list downward.

You’ve got to trim if you care about the quality of your messages. You’ve got to trim if you value the mailing lists you belong to. You’ve got to do your part to be a good member of these online communities you belong to because, without good members, online communities aren’t worth belonging to.

It’s not unlike a lot of other things in life. You’re not required to dress up into your “Sunday best” for church meetings on Sunday. But most people do out of respect for God and others who attend. It is bothersome, even distracting, to see someone in cutoff jeans and a tank top in a Sunday service.

It is recommended that you use your turn signals to let other drivers know when you are changing lanes. You don’t have to. You can rationalize that it’s silly for you to expend the effort to toggle that wand up or down just to let other people know what your intentions are. A lot of people do it, but you can’t argue that it’s not inconsiderate.

Top posting is another perfect example. When people read discussions on a mailing list, they don’t want to try to figure out what people are talking about—they want the flow of information, from computer to brain, to be smooth, natural, and relatively effortless. Putting your responses before the content you’re responding to disrupts this natural flow. It’s distracting, bothersome, and irritating.

It lowers the overall quality of your response and contributes to a decrease in the overall quality of the mailing list.

Here’s an excerpt from a FreeBSD mailing list FAQ:

Please do not top post. By this, we mean that if you are replying to a message, please put your replies after the text that you copy in your reply.

  • A: Because it reverses the logical flow of conversation.
  • Q: Why is top posting frowned upon?

Finally, to offer some evidence this isn’t a solitary ambition of mine, I’d like to offer some references to other information that may be of interest to those who would like to learn more.

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RFC 1855—Yep, there is an official Request For Comments which includes netiquette guidelines. I guess you could say, if you top post and fail to trim, you’re operating "off-spec" and in violation of the relevant RFC.

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This is the FreeBSD mailing list FAQ that I quoted above.

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Samba mailing list etiquette recommendations.

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The Jakarta mailing list guidelines.

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OpenOffice mailing list guidelines.

All in all, there are LOTS of resources out there.