Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Netiquette and etiquette: the public and the private

(Sometimes I feel like playing Miss Manners. Oh, the irony of it! Must be the old age...)

Bad-mouthing fellow human beings is kind of fun, and tends to reinforce group bonding or whatever. When one is in the company of one's fellow Democrats (Republicans, atheists, Jews, women, polyamorists, RPG players, urban people, university students, programmers, humanities students, whatever) people tend to make stronger statements about the outside groups than would be strictly polite, and stronger than they actually believe in.

It's OK. As long as you don't everdo it, people usually understand that you don't really mean anything bad. Sometimes people fuck up, and say something like that in the presence of somebody who should not be hearing it. In this case they are usually embarassed and apologize, and the apology is usually accepted. Happens to most people sometimes, I guess.

What I want to know is what makes some people think that things like that are OK to say on a public forum?

I don't mean the people who just genuinely think that for example all Republicans are assholes, and want to say so everywhere they go. I mean the people who would normally not say so in mixed company, but somehow just don't realize that public Internet forums usually constitute mixed company.

I have always been amazed at the number of people who seem to have problem understanding such concepts as "public", "private" and "acquaintance" when applied to the Internet. It's not exactly rocket science, people. Here are a few points:

1. Usenet newsgroups and open web forums often have regular participants, and feel like they are some kind of a living room where people who know each other just talk about things, but they are not. Anyone can read them. This not only means stalkers, your employer, your grandma and other dangers that media often warns us about, but also just a whole bunch of strangers who do not know you. Same goes for blogs, personal webpages, Youtube profiles, etc. You have to be careful what you say.

When I say to my real-life friends (either in person or on our own IRC channels) that I would like to sodomize some particular person with a hot poker, they have a reasonably good idea of whether I a) am totally kidding, b) find the idea of sodomizing the person with a hot poker emotionally pleasing, but absolutely do not intend to do it for a number of legal, moral or logistical reasons, or c) am heating the poker up right now. If they don't, they can ask me and I'll answer. If I post anything like that in my blog or in a newsgroup, I have to be very clear that I don't really intend to do it, or else somebody really will take me seriously. And if they will, it's not their failure. It's mine.

2. When you read some forums, the regular participants start seeming like you know them. If you are not a regular or even occasional participant, however, they don't feel the same way about you. You are a total stranger to them, and it will take some time and some posting to become known to them.

3. If often feels like you know the people with whom you hang out on some Net forum like your real-life friends. You really don't. Or rather sometimes you do (sometimes they are in fact your real-life friends whom you know in person, sometimes you get to know them so well on the Net that they become your real-life friends even if you've never met in person), but usually you don't.

They are people with whom you talk, usually on some particular topic. They tend to be a much more heterogenous bunch than the people you know in real life, even if those are a rather heterogenous bunch as well. Don't assume anything. The overly-strong statements meant as a group-bonding thing are a really bad idea there, especially if they are not closely related to the topic of the forum. That path leads to flame wars and general yelling.

4. If you do say something improperly strong in the presence of people who should not have heard it, and they pointed it out to you, the right thing to do is backpedal and apologize, at least if that's what you'd normally do in real life. (If that's not what you'd normally do in real life you are probably not the target audience of this post anyway.)

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