Computers: Do the right thing or prepare to be flamed

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The Independent Online
WHEN IN Rome, do as the Romans, writes Alex Goldsmith. Fine, but what happens when the place in question is unimaginably vast, invisible and divided into hundreds of different ethnic neighbourhoods, each with its own customs?

This daunting prospect confronts every newcomer to the global information newtork, Internet. There is no end of written material on the technical aspects of cyberspace, but little to guide you through its proprieties. Luckily for the Net initiate, a new book, Netiquette, has now filled this gap. Of course, there is plenty of material on 'Netiquette' already available on the Net. But by the time you have worked out how to download that Netiquette file, you could have posted dozens of breathlessly keen but basically stupid questions on Usenet newsgroups and been deluged with abusive 'flame' mail.

As the author of the book, Virginia Shea, points out: 'Some of the most unpleasant conflicts in cyberspace history have been caused by newcomers who joined the fun and, in ignorance, broken all the rules.'

It may seem strange that the Net should be rule-bound at all. No one is really in charge, after all, and the Net provides a forum for every conceivable human proclivity. But anarchies are always guided by rules and Shea's 160-page book provides plenty of handy pointers which even the veteran internaut would do well to ponder.

Most are common sense, but it helps to understand how the medium affects the message. Rule No 1, for instance, is: 'Remember the human.' There is something about communicating with others through the medium of a computer screen that people find liberating. But sometimes it means they feel free to harass and abuse.

Shea's rule says never send anything by E-mail that you would not say to your reader's face. Other rules are more specific to the Net. 'Lurk before you leap' urges people to familiarise themselves with a particular newsgroup before they post their first item. 'Respect other people's time and bandwidth' means, among other things, checking the 'FAQ' (Frequently Asked Questions) document before posting a query. That way you will avoid an 'RTFM' (Read The F***ing Manual) flame.

The book is good on software-driven Netiquette blunders - like accidentally cc-ing your entire company with a private E-mail note that explains, in detail, why your line manager is such an incompetent prat.

There is plenty of other useful material on flaming, romance, copyright and privacy. Altogether, the book is a salutary reminder that cyberspace is not some never-never land where anything goes. Those are real humans out there.

Netiquette; Virginia Shea; ISBN: 0-9637025-1-3 Publisher; Albion Books, 4547 California St, San Francisco 94118; info@albion. com; USdollars 19.95.

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