Just as we expect other drivers to observe the rules of the road, the same is true as we travel through cyberspace. That's where netiquette, a term allegedly coined from either network etiquette or Internet etiquette comes in handy.
To guide you through your online communications, keep these pointers in mind:
1. Use Easy to Read Formatting
Whether you’re writing emails or posting in a forum, when writing for online audiences it’s important to make your writing as legible as possible. Screens come in many different sizes and configurations. An email with fancy formatting that you compose on your desktop computer may be impossible to read when the addressee opens it on their smartphone.
You should avoid writing IN ALL CAPS. It makes it look like you're SHOUTING. Instead, use bold or italics to add emphasis.
Also, avoid using busy background graphics or light text on a dark background, which can cause eye strain. Dark text on a light-colored background is the standard because it’s what most people find easiest on the eyes.
In addition, avoid writing email or posting messages in blogs, newsgroups, forums, chat rooms and other online venues using all capital letters. IT LOOKS LIKE YOU'RE SHOUTING! Not only that, it's difficult to read. Instead, try using bold or italic formatting to emphasize important words or phrases.
2. Add More Meaning With Emoticons
When you talk with someone in person, your words only carry a small part of your message. The tone and inflections of your voice, your body language and gestures, and your facial expressions all convey great meaning as well. The same sentence can have many different meanings depending on how it’s said.
Emoticons provide emotional cues that help ensure your message is properly understood.
Communicating online through written word alone can be difficult because of those missing cues. To add personality and humor to your messages, you can use smileys, also known as emoticons: expressions you create using the characters on your keyboard.
Here are some popular smileys in different formats:
- Smiling: :) :-) (:
- Winking: ;) :-) (;
- Laughing: :D :-D
- Sticking tongue out: :p :-p :P :-P
- Sad: :( :-( ):
- Angry: >:(
There are many more smileys out there, and many variations on each one (such as using 8 or X for the eyes).
3. Keep Your Communications Focused
This is true whether sending email or posting messages online. Few people like reading lengthy text on a computer screen. Research on online reading habits shows that people tend to scan a length of text for the important bits, instead of reading everything word by word.
People today are inundated with so much online content, it would take years to read it all. Before reading a long email or article, they’ll scan it to look for the important information they need. Then they might choose to go back and read the whole thing.
To make sure you get your point across, keep your messages short and to the point, and format your communications to be more easily scannable. That way you know your readers will get the important information they need.
You can do this by using shorter, simpler sentences and paragraphs, and highlighting important words or phrases with bold formatting to draw the eye.
4. Use Internet Slang Carefully
Not sure what an abbreviation means? Look it up!
Acronyms are most useful when your space is limited, such as when you’re texting or using Twitter. When writing longer form messages, such as emails or forum posts, too many acronyms can make it difficult to read.
Try to stick to the most common acronyms to make sure your meaning is clear. Here are a few of the most long-standing and well-known acronyms that are generally safe to use for any audience:
- LOL: laugh out loud, laughing out loud
- ROTFL/ROFL: rolling on the floor laughing
- BTW: by the way
- IMHO: in my humble opinion (A good one to keep handy in case you're worried about offending someone)
- BRB: be right back
- IRL: in real life
- NP: no problem
- TMI: too much information
Different online communities often have their own unique acronyms and jargon. For more help with abbreviations, consult a dictionary of Internet Slang.
5. Consider Everything Public
Remember that comments you post to a blog, newsgroup, forum, social media, or website and write during a public chat session is publicly available. You never know who's reading it or who may copy and spread it around.
When you post something online you're trusting others to use that information responsibly. Don't post anything that can come back to haunt you.
Electronic communications may seem ephemeral, but when you hit the Delete key, they don't go away. In all likelihood, your missives are stored on a mail server and can be retrieved. Think twice before you send email. Consider all your electronic communications to be public and act accordingly. The same holds true for comments you post. They usually can't be retracted and live on and on.
Before posting, publishing, or sending, consider whether or not you’d be comfortable with your family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and boss reading it. If not, don’t send it – delete it.
6. Get to Know the Community
Every online community has its own way of communicating. The same message should be expressed different depending on whether it’s in an email or a tweet, or a post on Tumblr, Reddit, or an online forum.
Different communities have different rules and preferences. Some are very strict about requiring you to stick to the topic when posting a message while others might encourage and enjoy off-topic messages. Some only respect posters with correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation, while others take more license with the language and use their own acronyms and jargon.
It’s often best to “lurk” in a community for some time before posting, so you can learn these unwritten rules. Lurking means to read posts without posting yourself. Once you have a feel for the community, you’ll know how to best contribute.
7. Don’t Spam
Spamming can quickly lead to another unpleasant Internet practice, flaming.
Spamming can quickly lead to another unpleasant Internet practice, flaming. What is flaming? Sometimes you might offend someone unintentionally. Be prepared to read some angry responses or be treated rudely in a public discussion. This is called being flamed. If you retaliate, you may spark a flame war. To contain the heat, the best response usually is no response at all, or a heartfelt apology and withdrawal.
8. Write Useful Subject Lines
When sending email, make sure that the subject line accurately describes what the message is about. Using vague subject lines like “Hi” or “Meeting” make it difficult for recipients to organize their email and keep track of important discussions. Instead, try using a more specific subject like “Concert on Saturday the 15th?” or “Notes from Monday’s meeting.” This will help your recipients to identify time-sensitive emails and more easily find the information they’re looking for.
The most important part of any email is the subject.
9. Follow the Law for Commercial Messages
Commercial messages are subject to strict laws depending on your legal jurisdiction. In the United States, commercial email messages are subject to the CAN-SPAM Act. Canada’s anti-spam legislation governs how businesses can use electronic channels for marketing, the European Union has its Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications, and many other countries have similar laws. Make sure you’re complicit with applicable laws when sending commercial messages online.
10. Learn From FAQs
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) are handy documents to read before asking questions. FAQs are often available for websites, forums, software, etc. They usually cover common questions regarding how to use a website or service; billing, shipping, and return policies; community rules; and more. Always consult them whenever available.
Netiquette isn't something you learn overnight, so don't let your fear of not knowing online protocol hold you back. For more tips, visit Wikipedia's netiquette article.
Responsibility in a Virtual World
Think you've mastered the basics? Put your knowledge to the test.
As the Internet continues to evolve, so do the issues that influence the way we use it. From privacy and freedom of speech, to honesty and consideration in the way we interact with others, we all have a responsibility to preserve and protect its unique character. That means recognizing that while the medium in many ways is a reflection of the physical world, in other ways it is fundamentally different – manifesting unique customs and practices.