Netiquette: the battle for civility on the world wide web


Photo by Jake Buntjer

Ladies and Gentlemen, class is in session; welcome to Netiquette 101.

We’re here to talk about something extremely important that really shouldn’t need to be discussed, but the vast screaming masses make it so. We’re here to learn how to be polite on the Internet.

When the Internet was started by the Advanced Research Projects Agency, I’m sure they never imagined that their tool to maintain government infrastructure during a crisis would blossom into such a powerful medium of communication. You have an entire world of knowledge at your fingertips when you open a browser, and most people forget how truly amazing that is because they have other ideas in mind: flaming, trolling and just being all around tools on the internet.

This shouldn’t be such a daunting problem. But anyone who’s spent more than five minutes on an Internet forum quickly discovers that it’s a hotbed of blind rage and idiocy. People let their hateful speech flow freely like it’s wine at a cheese convention, and slaughter the English language while they are at it.

There is no other way to solve this problem than at its source: the people. We need to take responsibility for our actions online and create less hate even if others, who were not so lucky to have these lessons, continue along in their trolling ways.
The first step is incredibly simple to say but very difficult to do: Be respectful of people on the Internet.

At first, this step is practically Herculean. When I first tried it, I fell off the wagon after a few minutes. It just feels like these idiots truly deserve a heaping helping of your ire and rage. They need to feel your righteous vengeance rain down on them with words they couldn’t possibly understand and grammatical structure never before seen on the web. Then I realized something: I wouldn’t say that to someone in person; I wouldn’t look a person in the eye and insult them if I didn’t know them. What gives me the right to do it online? Ask yourself that next time you think you can’t handle being nice on the Internet.

Anonymity is a powerful tool, one that is currently being used mostly for high-speed, wireless evil. Remember that even though there may not be a face on the post, it’s still from a person. Even if that person is saying stupid things, or being a general idiot, you still owe them the respect that is due to all human beings. I know it’s hard; I’m pretty sure I’ve come dangerously close to a full-scale aneurism trying to keep my passive-aggressive comments from escaping out of my fingertips.

The next step may feel dirty at first, but it must be done.  Mark posts for moderation.  The bad news is that, basically, you are a snitch. But the good news is that the Internet is not a maximum-security prison, so no one is going to sneak into the shower and shiv you in the kidneys. Plus, in the long run, you’ll be doing your cyber-neighbors a huge service. By marking posts, you can help the moderators remove any offensive commentary from the forum, making it a much nicer place.

It is important to note, however, that you should never mark a post just because you don’t like it. Free discourse is what should be encouraged, and people with coherent posts that lack profanity and aren’t intended to induce your bile should get to remain in the forum. Don’t get your panties in a twist just because someone doesn’t agree with you. Rather, engage in principled debate with them. You might make a new friend, someone you would not have met otherwise.

Now, my final tip for you folks about to venture off into the World Wide Web: Don’t take it personally!

This is the most important thing you can learn, hands down. When people are being idiots on the Internet, they are mostly just trying to get attention. They don’t particularly care what they say or who they offend. They are not gunning for you personally. They merely lash out at everyone, and you happen to be in the wrong forum at the wrong time.

Just learn to let the stupid things people post roll off your back. Learn to enjoy how bad the grammar is, and maybe even diffuse their anger by addressing their points with constructive criticism. Except with trolls­ ­– they don’t respond to constructive criticism. That’s why they are trolls.

The Internet is like a Mercedes with a brush guard; it is something meant to be beautiful and powerful but has been reduced to trash by ignorant people. It is a powerful tool of communication and knowledge, now reduced to an ethereal plane where grown children get their jollies by making other grown children weep.

The Internet is a crazy place, and sometimes it’s easy to get swept up in all the madness. Just don’t get carried away and remember that the person on the other side of that screen is a person too.  Try to remember that next time you see a stupid Youtube video or read a boring blog. It may suck, but a person made that, and you at least owe them the respect they deserve as someone who took the time to put themselves out there for the world to see.

I’ll leave you with Wheaton’s Law, perhaps the most important law of the digital age: “Don’t be a d***.”

One Response to "Netiquette: the battle for civility on the world wide web"

  1. Patrick Ross   April 18, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    It is a challenge to be respectful in response to “blind rage and idiocy,” no doubt! But it’s something I’ve been working on for a couple of years now, and it’s why I built the iCivility web site, so put a small voice out there that it doesn’t all have to be vitriol. I think you sum it up well with Wheaton’s Law, however!

    Reply

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