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The Art and Mystery of Online Etiquette

Since this issue of the Teacher Gazette focuses on eighteenth-century manners and deportment, you might wonder how it relates to twenty-first-century technologies. Consider this: an often-quoted primary sources for proper eighteenth-century etiquette is the George Washington's "Rules of Civility" which he wrote as a young man. Young George wrote, in well-copied form, 110 rules to govern his behavior in polite society. Two of these rules have a bearing on this month's Tech Tips article.

  • Rule 1: "Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present."
  • Rule 110: "Labour to keep alive in your Breast that little spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience."

All 110 of George Washington's "Rules of Civility" can be found at http://www.history.org/Almanack/life/manners/rules2.cfm.

Rule 1: "Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present."One of the wonderful features of modern society is the speed with which one can communicate with others. Whether it is via telephone, cellular technology, or email, contemporary tools allow a truly global reach for each almost anyone. The telephony models allow an "almost there" atmosphere while talking. You can almost see the expressions on the other person's face. The email model takes users into a much different realm of communication. The exponential growth of email clients around the world has had a dramatic impact on the way people work and play. Young Washington would be right at home with this new form of communication because he was well steeped in proper behavior within polite society. George would know his "Netiquette!" Alas, it would seem, however, that many email users do not regard cyberspace as "polite society." What we need are some reminders about "network etiquette—the etiquette of cyberspace."1

Etiquette is "the conduct or procedure required by good breeding or prescribed by authority to be observed in social or official life."2 The first thing to consider is that cyberspace, represented in this case by the Internet, is an "official life." While it provides for limitless expression of thought, it does so at a price. What the Internet does for speed and accessibility it lacks in face-to-face communication. Perhaps rule one on our Netiquette list should be to remember that the person you are writing to is a person. Consider if you would say to a person's face what you are about to send them via email. Virginia Shea makes the case that people sometimes behave on the Internet the way irresponsible drivers do on the road, as if the machine somehow grants them a degree of anonymity that permits rude behavior.3

Rule number two might be to consider the recipient's privacy and your own. Once you have written that little note and sent it off, it no longer is under your control. Someone once likened email to writing a letter, walking down to the local WalMart, and posting it on a bulletin board. You just never know who is going to read it. For some folks it has caused embarrassment, for others it has cost them their job. So reread your words and consider how they will be taken. Remember George's first rule about "respect."

Rule number three might be to consider carefully the use of the "CC" feature of email. Do all those people really want to read what you've written? As authors, we always consider our work worthwhile and important. Be objective, and pause before copying your message to an untold number of recipients. The same holds true for forwarding email. Are you considering the privacy of the original sender? Does forwarding email somehow remind you of that childhood game of "Operator?"Rule 110: "Labour to keep alive in your Breast that little spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience."Rule number four would consider the privacy of other peoples' email addresses. Are you annoyed when you receive a forwarded email listing the addresses of numerous unknown people… and it does so before you can even scroll down to read the message? When sending an email to several people, use the "BCC" feature of your email application. If you blind copy everyone, the recipients will not have to wade through multiple lines of email addresses. You will also be protecting your friends' privacy.

Rule number five would change tack and say to take advantage of your anonymity. Regardless of your age, gender, race, education, or weight, you can converse with anyone online on an almost equal playing field. It is almost equal because, while you can be anonymous about your features, you will most certainly be judged by your writing skills. Reread your work and use a spellchecker before you zip off your note. The proper use of punctuation and capitalization when writing also means a lot, so even though life is fast paced now days, spend that extra 30 seconds to edit your work and put your "best foot forward."

How would George Washington adapt his first and last "Rules of Civility" for the information age? Perhaps like this:

  • Rule 1: "Every Action done in the online Community ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present even though remotely so."
  • Rule 110: "Labour to keep alive in your Breast that little spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience and display it whenever you are tempted to be rude or inconsiderate with your online communications remembering that you never really know where what you write will end up."

For more information about Netiquette, Virginia Shea's website (http://www.albion.com/netiquette/) and book, Netiquette, are good places for both yourself and your students to begin.


This article was written by Dale Van Eck, Associate Producer Education Technology, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.


1Shea, Virginia. Netiquette. <http://www.albion.com/netiquette/>.
2Merriman-Webster Online. <http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?book=Dictionary&va=etiquette>.
3Shea, Virginia. Netiquette. <http://www.albion.com/netiquette/>.


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