Basic Computer Etiquette
By Laurel Storm
You cover your mouth when you yawn, hold the door for people, give up your seat to the elderly and infirm, and don't talk with your mouth full, but when it comes to computer etiquette, you may as well be a belching, unwashed caveman. The digital world isn't that different though -- knowing just a few basic rules will do wonders to keep you from sticking your virtual foot in your digital mouth.
Do Unto Others
The basic rule of computer etiquette, or "netiquette," mirrors the golden rule that echoes through much of society. This rule has been expressed in many different ways, from the slightly obscure -- "remember the human" -- to the biblical -- "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and boils down to an extremely simple concept: be nice. There are no hermits in the digital age. Anything and everything you do online affects someone else, whether directly or indirectly -- it is up to you what that effect is.
Watch Your Tone
Speak with somebody face to face or on the phone, and your tone of voice helps the listener figure out what you mean. Online, it's not quite that easy: because of the lack of non-verbal cues, something you intend as sarcasm or as a joke could easily be misinterpreted, causing unintended offense. Emoticons, or smilies, can help clarify the meaning of what you're typing, but would be inappropriate in formal contexts such as business communication. Abbreviations and slang are also inappropriate in a formal context; typing sentences in all caps is interpreted as shouting, and is considered rude regardless of the context.
Avoid looking through other people's files and emails, regardless of how tempting the opportunity might seem. For example, if you are using a public computer and notice somebody's forgotten to sign out of their account on a website, sign the account out yourself without checking out its contents. Similarly, no matter how curious you might be about what the person next to you is doing on his computer, resist the urge to look over his shoulder -- it's just as rude as doing it with a book. When sending an email message to a list of recipients, it is polite to use your email client's BCC feature or set up a mailing list to avoid sharing everyone's email addresses, a violation of privacy.
Watch Before You Act
Much like real life communities, online groups have their own customs and expectations that many not be obvious. Although the social rules governing a community may seem simple at first glance, by jumping in with both feet you run the risk of encountering a hidden pitfall and making a fool out of yourself. Before speaking up in a community, you should always observe it quietly for a while -- an act known as "lurking" in Internet slang.
Laurel Storm has been writing since 2001, and helping people with technology for far longer than that. Some of her articles have been published in "Messaggero dei Ragazzi", an Italian magazine for teenagers. She holds a Master of Arts in writing for television and new media from the University of Turin.