Whatever happened to online etiquette?

Filed under: — 2:56 am

At the New York Times, David Pogue asks Whatever happened to online etiquette? and comes up with a list of reasons for the decline of this etiquette: anonymity, cries for attention, parents failing to teach social skills, young people spending too much time online, and even the current political climate.

Pogue is one of my favorite writers, and I hate to see him become the latest to take up the net’s equivalent of an Andy Rooney “kids these days” rant. I agree with Gina at Lifehacker—David couldn’t be more wrong. Here are the facts as I see them:

1. People are jerks. Not all of them, but many. What Pogue calls “online etiquette” never existed—or if it did, it was just like regular etiquette: something some of us aspire too, and others ignore and mock. People were jerks on Bulletin Board Systems in the 80s and on USENET in the 90s, and people are jerks on web forums now.

2. More people, more jerks. I’ve watched many a USENET newsgroup and web forum grow from a friendly community of 10-20 people to a semi-friendly community of 100 to a cruel, vindictive pile-on of 300 or more. It’s not that large groups can’t work—just that the larger the group, the more controls you need to keep it constructive. When a group outgrows the controls in place, it fails to be a community.

3. Anonymity isn’t the problem. While people have been arguing since the 80s about the lack of face-to-face communication sending common courtesy out the window, people in online communities have proven time and again that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve seen anonymous communities that work just fine, and plenty of non-anonymous ones that were overrun by jerks.

4. Maturity matters. One thing Pogue is probably correct about is that sometimes younger people have a greater tendency to be jerks than those a bit more mature. This isn’t an absolute rule, but obviously most of us become more graceful at dealing with society—online or offline—as we gain experience. Sites that have a younger audience need more controls to stay on topic. Needless to say, some younger folks are more mature than some older folks. That’s why I emphasized maturity rather than age.

5. Content inspires community. Quoting Gina’s comment at Lifehacker:

Also, netiquette in public forums has a lot to do with the content around which the community is centered. Lifehacker’s posts set out to help folks, so in kind, our readers want to help us and each other back. Digg is a popularity contest of oneupmanship. Gawker is all about making fun of things, so its readers mock each other and it right back in the comments. Karma’s a boomerang.

The secret to healthy online communities is probably some combination of social responsibility, consequences, and a feeling of community, all of which depend on the size of the site, its content, and how the community is controlled. Are there moderators? Do they deal quickly and fairly with problems? Are there automatic controls to prevent some of the more obvious problems? Or are the moderators so outnumbered that they represent a tiny voice among the thousands? When Pogue looked at digg—an explosively popular, poorly moderated “peanut gallery” where the value is in the links and their rankings, and the discussions rarely add much value—is it any wonder his worst fears were confirmed?

What Pogue has probably noticed is that, as his writing presence grew from a tiny thing read only by techies to a mass-audience phenomenon, he’s getting more and more emails and comments from jerks. It’s easy to look at this and think that people everywhere are losing their manners—as my quotation site grew from zero visitors to hundreds of thousands, I’ve had the same thoughts more than once. But now that my wife and I run several different sites, we’ve learned that the smaller ones have less jerks, and different sites attract different sorts of audiences.

Also, as I’ve run my biggest site for 12 years, I’ve seen good and bad behavior come and go in cycles. If I had to make a guess at an overall trend for today, I’d say it’s positive. At 150,000 visitors a day the site still attracts plenty of jerks, but I’ve been surprised at people’s good manners lately. Even most of the people who dislike the site are communicating it with better manners these days.

Don’t take my word for it, or David’s. Find some good communities and stay away from the bad ones. Give humanity the benefit of the doubt. If you run a site, enjoy and encourage the valuable comments from visitors and ignore the jerks. I for one will wait until I’m a bit older before I start ranting about how much nicer people were in “the old days.”

[via Lifehacker]

9 responses to “Whatever happened to online etiquette?”

  1. Darren says:

    great post. I think it’s partly about the tone/voice that the person creating the site leads off with that actually sends a signal to others on what the vibe of a place is.

  2. jim says:

    Great post!

    I’d have to agree with Pogue. Online etiquette never existed save for a few guidelines – writing in all caps, abbreviating common sayings, etc…

    But I’d also have to agree that by creating and maintaining a community of like-minded and well-behaved members, a standard can be set that people will willingly follow and sustain.

  3. Doug Karr says:

    I wrote a similar post and named an award to provide those who don’t have etiquette = SNOBs.


    Regards! Doug

  4. Kevin says:

    I have to agree that a common online etiquette never existed, as really, online behavior (like offline behavior) is dictated by the community in which it occurs. Point 5 above is excellent, and in my opinon the most important factor in determining the atmosphere of a site.

  5. david pogue says:

    Well, I think you’ve nailed it. True enough: My post was inspired by a first-hand witnessing of Digg’s descent into backbiting brawls over two years or so. I figured it was changing with the times–but in fact, it may just have grown larger.

    As you correctly suggested, this syncs up with the perception that my own blog’s courtesy is declining–and again, its increased readership could be to blame.

    I’ll follow up with this–thanks for the insight!


  6. Michael Moncur says:

    Thanks for dropping in, David! And for inspiring what I wrote, even if I was arguing with you.

    I’ve had most of this in the back of my mind for ages, and the other day it all came out at the keyboard for some reason…

  7. Obbop says:

    Until shut down recently by the Yahoo droids, the comments section for the many news stories was great fun!!!!!!!!!

    Back-biting, naughty words, name calling, it was a free-for-all I and many udders reveled in.


    Then the anal-retentives, the self-righteous holier-than-thou mental midgets whined enough for the boards to be shut down.

    There is a place for every type of board clientele. If you don’t like the rougher ones, mosey around and find one of the warm fuzzy politically correct boards and infest it.

    There’s sumpthin’ for everyone out there.

  8. Michael,

    I couldn’t agree more. I deal with etiquette questions online which are directed to the off-line world and I find that there are three kinds of people when it comes to etiquette issues:

    1) Those that know good etiquette but choose not to behave properly, 2) Those that don’t know and don’t care, and 3) Those that struggle with it and look for answers.

    Folks like us need to keep up the good fight and keep reminding people that good etiquette is always the right answer! :-)

    • Ms. Cards Etiquette
  9. Billy Bryant says:

    Net’s equivalent of an Andy Rooney “kids these days” rant. Is killing me -thats dead on. and # 4 speaks volumes…so grow up out there and become the “Masters Of Social Grace” not unlike the Three Stooges. great post.

(c) 2001-2007 Michael Moncur. All rights reserved, but feel free to quote me.
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