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A guide to electronic etiquette

Guidelines for being polite on the Internet.

Originally posted to Helium Network on Nov. 25, 2007.

Being polite in online discussions is as straightforward as being polite in conversation. A good rule of thumb is not to write anything online that you wouldn't say to someone face-to-face. Don't threaten. Don't make sarcastic comments and then, only after the comment has been misconstrued, give the half-apology that you were "only kidding." Don't reveal private information about others. Remember that the people with whom you are chatting may be minors.

It should go without saying that you should not insult other people, whether the invective is schoolyard or highbrow. Criticizing the person who makes an argument, instead of the argument itself, is called an ad hominem attack. This could include calling someone a "liar" or a "Nazi," ridiculing him as "ignorant," "biased," or "bigoted," or dismissing him as "just one of those people." Contrary to what your gut might tell you in the heat of the moment, the other person does not benefit from your scolding. You are not a refining fire introducing his soul to a new enlightened state. You are only ruining the day of another ordinary person who probably already has enough to worry about. Furthermore, an exchange of insults (known as a "flame war") interrupts a forum's discussion flow and irritates third parties who have to wade through it.

In most cases, try to assume that your interlocutor or opponent shares your dream of a better world and just has a different way of approaching the debated issue. Instead of calling him a "bigot," meaning someone who intractably uses degrading stereotypes, try to show why the stereotype is false or hurtful. Often, he will soften his original claim, because he does not actually wish to cause serious offense.

If a rude interloper, who clearly is not dreaming of a better world, is deliberately bothering you, do not attempt to chase him away by berating him with his own brand of hostility. This will only encourage him to respond in kind. Instead, contact the forum moderator and ask to have the inappropriate posts deleted, or use a filter to block the offending users' posts from your vision and encourage other users to do the same. When the poster realizes he is being ignored, he may give up.

For academic or in-depth discussions, be aware of the average knowledge level of the group, and preface your opinions with sufficient background and supporting facts. Talking "over their heads" with jargon is only an exercise in narcissism. Instead of writing to show how smart you are, write to be read. Before you post, ask yourself: is this information useful to anyone? Your readers should be treated deferentially and with gratitude, as they have no real need or obligation to read your post in the first place. They can easily turn you off if they sense your arrogance or are confused by your material.

It is usually challenging to keep track of the written flow of questions and answers in an online discussion. Many people will make apparently disembodied comments such as "I agree" or "I can't believe what I'm reading," with no indication of the topic to which they are referring. A reader could spend hours tracing a sprawling online debate just to determine who is responding to whom about what. It is impolite to expect anyone to do this research. Before posting, take the time to quote or paraphrase the comment that moved you to respond. Attribute it with the author's username and date on which it was originally posted. You might also acknowledge or paraphrase some of the productive debate that has preceded, just as you would want your serious contribution to be acknowledged with at least a virtual head-nod.

Finally, if you wish to be admired, put in the effort to at least spell-check your writing, but do not tell others that you intend to dismiss the substance of their writing simply because they have committed spelling errors. Mocking someone else's dyslexia is elitist, and will lose you the company and insight of some interesting people.

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