COLUMBIA – The Internet can be a liberating place. Sites like Facebook and MySpace allow users to connect anywhere from across the street to across the country. Second Life gives users the ability to literally reinvent themselves and the way they present themselves to others online. Blogs, chat rooms and message boards give users a way to open up and connect, often anonymously, in ways they sometimes can't offline. Governing all these countless, normally faceless interactions are the informal rules of netiquette.
"Netiquette is the idea of a certain code of conduct when interacting in an online environment," said Tanys Nelson, coordinator of educational technologies at MU.
Do not change the wording of e-mails you forward. If it is a personal message, ask the writer's permission before sending.
Respect copyright law on materials you use.
Do not forward chain letters.
Typing in all uppercase letters indicates you are shouting.
Typing in all lowercase letters is considered mumbling.
Use smiley faces, known as emoticons, to help denote tone of voice. However, do not assume using an emoticon will guarantee that your intended meaning will be understood.
Using symbols puts emphasis on the word.
Flaming, or purposefully posting incendiary comments on a message board, is considered rude and might get you kicked off the site.
"Hijacking" a discussion board, or changing the subject of the original post, is frowned upon.
Reposting the same message multiple times, advertising yourself or advertising a business are all considered spam and might result in you being barred from a site.
Source: Internet Engineering Task Force
In other words: "Even though you're online and not face-to-face, you should still act in a way that is civil and respectful," Nelson said.
The idea of netiquette first emerged in a memo released by the Internet Engineering Task Force in 1995. According to its Web site, the task force "is a large, open, international community of network designers, operators, vendors and researchers concerned with the evolution of the Internet architecture and the smooth operation of the Internet." The organization works with other groups to establish standard Internet practices. The memo, RFC 1855, established guidelines for communications among individuals as well as among groups.
Often good netiquette comes down to what etiquette maven Emily Post called "a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others."
"It's about making sure people are respectful," Nelson said.
However, because of the anonymous, faceless nature of online interaction, enforcing the norms of netiquette can be difficult.
"I think people hide behind a keyboard," said Donell Young, coordinator of MU's office of judicial services. "They think, 'I can be as tough as I want to be on a computer.'"
Young's office is responsible for investigating alleged violations of the student code of conduct, including MU's Internet policy. Often, Young said, students use freedom of expression to defend themselves.
"Yes, you can say these things, but is it the right thing?" said Young, for whom the term "netiquette" was new. "Yeah, you have a right, but you shouldn't talk to people that way."
The lack of face-to-face interaction can also lead to violations of netiquette. It's impossible to interpret tone, body language and facial expressions when communicating online. This leads to confusion and misinterpretation when reading content online, particularly when the poster tries to use humor or sarcasm.
The key to overcoming this potential problem, Young said, is to take other viewpoints into account and to distance yourself from emotions, particularly anger, when writing something for the Web.
"The first thing you have to realize is that everyone is different. You have to respect that," Young said. "Just kind of step back, take the emotion out of it. Think, 'How would I feel if someone sent that to me?'"
Because netiquette is based on individual interpretations to unique situations, it can be taught in different ways. Julie Nichols, who is the manager of instructional technologies for Columbia Public Schools, said the district bases its netiquette curriculum — which really uses that name — on the state's recommendations, but each teacher uses a different lens.
"It's like asking how you teach an individual student how to read," Nichols said.
As the Internet became widespread and computers moved into the classroom, netiquette became increasingly important for educators.
"In the last two to three years, technology has been moving so quickly," Nichols said. "My department has been talking about (netiquette) a lot more."
Nichols' department helps develop ways to integrate the Internet into the district's curriculum. Nelson does a similar job for MU. Both cited the importance of establishing ground rules and norms for using digital tools in the classroom.
"Without (netiquette), you're not letting students know they are in an environment that is safe and conducive to education," Nelson said.
Teaching netiquette is important, Nichols said, so students know what is expected of them both in an academic setting as well as in a less-structured environment.
"You need to have your policies and expectations up front," she said. "We want to create positive digital citizens, both at school and at home."