One of these days you're going to get tired of Web surfing or listening in on LISTSERVs, IRCs, Usenet newsgroups or whatever, and you're going to want to say something yourself. At that moment your life will change. Let's see if we can't make that a change for the better.
Everyone is tempted from time to time to evangelize, to stride boldly into the enemy's camp and throw down the gauntlet. We will never see the end of people who pop up on "comp.sys.intel" praising Macs and Amigas; who send mail to the SKEPTIC list that flying saucers really, truly do exist; who enlighten the Buddhist newsgroups that they're all bound for hell, and on and on.
In the entire history of the Net, no one has managed to do this without looking like a complete idiot. If you believe you are the one person who will succeed where millions have failed, then you're ready to learn about ...
There is nothing you can say that won't offend somebody:
>It's a bright, sunny day today.
You filthy *@!?$, what have you got against Seattle?
Flames (violent verbal expressions of disapproval), misunderstandings, overreactions, and hurt feelings are par for the course. Four lessons from experience:
(1) HEDGE YOUR BETS. Rather than saying, "Metal rules! Death to all that appose [sic]!!" try saying "In my humble opinion (often abbreviated IMHO) metal bands perfectly express my feelings, choices, and lifestyle. Your mileage may vary" (another net cliche', less frequently abbreviated YMMV). By the way, BTW is another frequent net abbreviation, for what it's worth (FWIW). Watch the abbreviations until you're sure of them, or you may have your readers ROTFL (rolling on the floor, laughing).
(2) APOLOGIZE. When misunderstanding is the culprit, and especially if you respect the person who misunderstood, take the blame on yourself for being unclear, apologize, say what you meant more clearly (if appropriate) and put it behind you. As in real life (remember that?) people who are quick to anger are often equally quick to forgive.
(3) AVOID FLAME BAIT (conduct which gravely offends the norms, mores and folkways of a particular group). "Now wait a minute!" you say. "Do you mean that something that's accepted behavior on one list or newsgroup will draw dozens of stinging, ridiculing comments in another?" I sure do. Think about it. Do you expect the people who post on "comp.lang.ada" (about the Ada programming language) to be anything like the people who post to "rec.pets.cats?"
What can you do? Lurk a while before you post. Read what's said like an anthropologist, trying to discover what the big "don't"s are. The beginning of a school term is a wonderful time to do this, as you will observe the clueless newbies, who weren't smart enough to read this paragraph, being torn to shreds. There are some things you should NEVER do, and we'll list them in a minute, but let's get to the last bit of advice.
(4) Bow down to the group's gods. In every Usenet newsgroup and LISTSERV mailing list there are old, gray heads who have earned the respect of everyone in the group. For example, amongst the subscribers to the list discussing the late American bandleader Stan Kenton are the producer of a Kenton box set and the authors of definitive Kenton biographies and discographies. You are entirely ignorant compared to those people. Never pretend you're anything else. They would dearly love to help you -- to answer a question, help you find a rare record -- but you'll always come out second best in a head-butting contest with them.
Still other group members have earned their status through long service. Friendships have developed over many years, and marriage is not unknown. By commenting abusively to or about one of these gods, you'll earn not only her enmity, but the enmity of all of her friends -- which may be everyone in the group but you!
DO'S AND DON'TS (or how to avoid most flames):
(1) DON'T include the entire contents of a previous posting in your reply.
(1) DO cut mercilessly. Leave just enough to indicate what you're responding to. NEVER include mail headers except maybe the "From:" line. If you can't figure out how to delete lines in your mailer software, paraphrase or type the quoted material in.
(2) DON'T reply to a point in a posting without quoting or paraphrasing what you're responding to and who said it. Reason: a dozen postings may occur between the original message and your reply. At some sites your reply may arrive before the original does.
(2) DO quote (briefly) or paraphrase. If the original "Subject:" line was "Big dogs" make sure yours says "Re: Big dogs". Some reply functions do this automatically. By net convention, included (quoted) lines are preceded by ">" (greater-than signs). Some mail editors and newsreaders do this automatically. Others require you to do it manually or to set the "indent character" to ">." Microsoft Exchange is the hardest to use if you want to correspond on the Internet. Unless you're a Word expert, you'll have to enter the ">" signs by hand and get rid of the mail header and indentations. Some versions of Exchange client put the cursor for your reply *before* the message you're replying to; how useless! Move the cursor so that your readers will see the message you're responding to first, then your response.
(3) DON'T send a message saying, "Why doesn't anybody say anything about X?" or "Who wants to talk about X?"
(3) It's always a risk to start a new topic (often called a thread). The group may have just finished a long, bitter war about that very subject. But if you want to take the risk, SAY SOMETHING yourself about the subject you're raising.
(4) DON'T send lines longer than 70 characters. This is a kindness to folks with terminal-based mail editors or newsreaders. Some mail and news gateways truncate extra characters, turning your deathless prose into gibberish.
(4) Some mail and news editors only SEEM to insert line breaks for you but actually don't, so that every paragraph is one immense line. Learn what your mail and news editors do by mailing a message to yourself (or posting it to alt.test) and reading the message in a couple of mail and news readers. Unix mail or Mail (they're different) and nn and Netscape Navigator's mail and news readers will usually let you read your message in a plain, vanilla form, the way others will see it.
(5) DON'T SEND A MESSAGE IN ALL CAPS. CAPITALIZED MESSAGES ARE HARDER TO READ THAN LOWER CASE OR MIXED CASE.
(5) DO use normal capitalization. Separate your paragraphs with blank lines. Make your message inviting to your potential readers.
(6) DON'T betray confidences. It's all too easy to quote a personal message by mistake in a message to the entire group.
(6) DO read the "To:" and "Cc:" lines in your message before you send it. Are you SURE you want the message to go there?
(7) DON'T make statements which can be interpreted as official positions of your organization or offers to do business. Saying "Boy, I'd sure like to have one of those new supercomputers" could result in a truck at your loading dock and a bill in the mail even larger than your student loan.
(7) DO treat every post as though you were sending a copy to your boss, your minister, and your worst enemy. I customarily end every message I send from work with "Speaking for myself, not my company."
(8) DON'T rely on the ability of your readers to tell the difference between serious statements and satire or sarcasm. It's hard to write funny. It's even harder to write satire.
(8) DO remember that no one can hear your tone of voice. Use emoticons (or smileys) like :-) or ;^) -- tilt your head counterclockwise to see the smile. You can also use caps for emphasis or use net conventions for italics and underlines as in: You said the guitar solo on "Comfortably Numb" from Pink Floyd's _The Wall_ was *lame*? Are you OUT OF YOUR MIND???!!!
Some mail editors (Exchange again) let you insert all kinds of special characters and put your text in boldface, italics or different fonts. Don't give in to the temptation to use those features unless you're certain that everyone whom you intend to read your message has the same editor.
(9) DON'T put a huge signature at the bottom of your messages.
(9) DO exercise some restraint. Remember that a large number of mail and news readers out there are set up to use proportional fonts, and your lovely ASCII art will look nothing like you intended it to on those readers. Remember also that there's a Usenet newsgroup(2) out there whose sole function is to make fun of people's signatures. Try not to appear there.
(10) DON'T send a message that says nothing but "Me, too." This is most annoying when combined with (1) or (2) above. Ditto for "I don't know."
(10) DO recall that you aren't obligated to reply to every single thing you read. Remember the immortal words of Martin Farquhar Tupper (1810-1889): "Well-timed silence hath more eloquence than speech."
A word to people living in the United States: the net is international. If you tell a Belgian she's being un-American, SHE ISN'T OFFENDED. OF COURSE she's un-American; you're un-Belgian. She doesn't care about being lectured on the First Amendment and American values. She doesn't HAVE a First Amendment, and she thinks Belgian values are BETTER. We Americans have made fools of ourselves by forgetting this everywhere else. Let's try to behave a little better on the net.
Finally, many groups have had the sense to write down some of their norms and folkways in a frequently asked questions (FAQ) list along with (what else?) the answers to frequently asked questions. Many Usenet FAQs are posted monthly or so on the news.answers (alt.answers, comp.answers) newsgroups. Listowners of LISTSERVs are often quite willing to mail you the FAQ for the list. In fact, they may have already told you where it is in the letter you get welcoming you to the list.
With all we've said above, and with all the help newsgroup moderators and listowners are providing to newcomers, it almost seems like you'd have to work at it to go charging in with your mouth open and your eyes and ears shut, thereby aggravating and alienating some otherwise perfectly nice people. The good Lord gave us two eyes and two ears and one mouth to remind us of that very thing. But then he went and gave us ten fingers to type with, and here we are.