Posted by: goalpath | October 14, 2009

Is Online Rudeness Becoming the Norm in America?

Recent studies conducted by the Pew Internet and American life Project, as well as the Synovate market research group, found that people are ruder online than in person. The studies point out that more than a third of those surveyed are quite aware of the fact that they use language or words online that they would not consider using in person. I am sure this is no revelation to anyone who spends even a small amount of time online, but it does point to a developing situation that could undermine civility in America and around the world.

It is obvious that when we communicate using technology, we isolate ourselves from those we are communicating with and that sense of anonymity drives us to overstep the boundaries of appropriate behavior. And yes, there are those who believe there shouldn’t be rules pertaining to proper online behavior and that anything goes when they go online. Even those folks who are shy and retiring in person can have major personality shifts when they go online. I suppose their perceived power online could be intoxicating to some.  

Is this behavior just a function of the growing online population? Can it be reversed? It’s probably too early to tell, but something should be done. Given we are dealing with the world wide web, government intervention is not an option. Maybe a grassroots movement to encourage civil discourse on the web would be a first step.

Below I have listed The Core Rules of Netiquette from the book, Netiquette, by Virginia Shea. Ms. Shea understands the problem and provides a really good set of rules that people can use to avoid being rude online. I have also included brief portions of Ms. Shea’s explantions for each rule.

Rule 1: Remember the Human The golden rule your parents and your kindergarten teacher taught you was pretty simple: Do unto others as you’d have others do unto you. Imagine how you’d feel if you were in the other person’s shoes. Stand up for yourself, but try not to hurt people’s feelings.

Rule 2: Adhere to the same standards of behavior online that you follow in real life In real life, most people are fairly law-abiding, either by disposition or because we’re afraid of getting caught. In cyberspace, the chances of getting caught sometimes seem slim. And, perhaps because people sometimes forget that there’s a human being on the other side of the computer, some people think that a lower standard of ethics or personal behavior is acceptable in cyberspace.

Rule 3: Know where you are in cyberspace What’s perfectly acceptable in one area may be dreadfully rude in another. For example, in most TV discussion groups, passing on idle gossip is perfectly permissible. But throwing around unsubstantiated rumors in a journalists’ mailing list will make you very unpopular there.

Rule 4: Respect other people’s time and bandwidth It’s a cliché that people today seem to have less time than ever before, even though (or perhaps because) we sleep less and have more labor-saving devices than our grandparents did. When you send email or post to a discussion group, you’re taking up other people’s time (or hoping to). It’s your responsibility to ensure that the time they spend reading your posting isn’t wasted.

Rule 5: Make yourself look good online I don’t want to give the impression that the net is a cold, cruel place full of people who just can’t wait to insult each other. As in the world at large, most people who communicate online just want to be liked. Networks — particularly discussion groups — let you reach out to people you’d otherwise never meet. And none of them can see you. You won’t be judged by the color of your skin, eyes, or hair, your weight, your age, or your clothing.

Rule 6: Share expert knowledge The strength of cyberspace is in its numbers. The reason asking questions online works is that a lot of knowledgeable people are reading the questions. And if even a few of them offer intelligent answers, the sum total of world knowledge increases. The Internet itself was founded and grew because scientists wanted to share information. Gradually, the rest of us got in on the act.

Rule 7: Help keep the flame wars under control “Flaming” is what people do when they express a strongly held opinion without holding back any emotion. It’s the kind of message that makes people respond, “Oh come on, tell us how you really feel.” Tact is not its objective.

Rule 8: Respect other people’s privacy Of course, you’d never dream of going through your colleagues’ desk drawers. So naturally you wouldn’t read their email either. Unfortunately, a lot of people would.

Rule 9: Don’t abuse your power Some people in cyberspace have more power than others. There are wizards in MUDs (multi-user dungeons), experts in every office, and system administrators in every system. Knowing more than others, or having more power than they do, does not give you the right to take advantage of them. For example, sysadmins should never read private email.

Rule 10: Be forgiving of other people’s mistakes Everyone was a network newbie once. And not everyone has had the benefit of reading this book. So when someone makes a mistake — whether it’s a spelling error or a spelling flame, a stupid question or an unnecessarily long answer — be kind about it. If it’s a minor error, you may not need to say anything. Even if you feel strongly about it, think twice before reacting. Having good manners yourself doesn’t give you license to correct everyone else.

Ms. Shea’s book is available online through Albion Publishing at  It should be mandatory reading for every one who goes online. Maybe, just maybe, we can encourage a higher level of civility on the internet and net etiquette can be resurrected.

I have written about this issue in the past, and I am sure I will write about it again. The internet is a wonderful tool for gathering information, social interaction and broadcasting one’s opinions. If we can keep in mind that there are human beings on the other end of the wire who might be interested in what we have to say, but won’t get the message if we shove it down their throat, maybe we can carry on civil dialog, get our ideas and opinions across to those folks and make some new friends at the same time.

What’s your take on this issue? Am I too much of a prude to expect proper behavior from those on the other side of my computer screen? Comment on Linkedin and/or on my web site, We are always looking for Baby Boomers with an opinion that don’t mind speaking out and can successfully complete a sentence.


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