Screen secrets: an office user's guide: Helen Fielding on 'Netiquette': the new social codes of the computerised workplace

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'TERRIBLE misunderstandings can happen. You don't have time for second thoughts, you don't have to find an envelope and stamp and go to the post box - you just press a button and it's gone. The other person can't interrupt or calm you down like they can with a phone call. You just plunge on, while they're going purple. Slanging matches can flare up over the computer lines and go on for months. It's known in the jargon as 'flaming'. The American way of dealing with it is to begin the message with 'Flame on' or ' Flame off' - to show whether it really is an angry message, or whether it's intended as friendly, but could be taken as angry.'

Communicating over computer networks is a delicate business. The speaker above is a regular user of E-mail - the electronic messaging system which travels from personal computer to personal computer - talking about the etiquette, or 'Netiquette' as the jargon calls it, which has evolved. We must all pray that Back to Basics never blunders into the area of good manners and technological communication. It's one thing remembering a parental or Jesuit voice telling you, 'It's rude to look in other people's handbags / stare / talk with your mouth full / open other people's letters,' but exactly how rude is it to thank someone for dinner via the fax, hold a business conversation from a portable phone while in the bath, hack into a friend's computer files as an amusing joke, start an affair over the office computer message system, or send a message through the computer which could be misinterpreted as angry - without putting 'Flame off' first?

Perhaps we should all be sent pamphlets to explain. Questions of technological etiquette are multiplying. A startling 20 million computer users are currently in communication through various interlocking and rapidly expanding global links known as the Internet. Its traffic is increasing by 10 per cent every month. Most major companies in Britain now have a system which allows employees to send computer messages to each other at the touch of a button.

The British workforce is responding to this with impressive maturity. A glance around many offices will reveal gleeful employees giggling surreptitiously at their computer screens, exchanging meaningful looks across the room, and hurriedly storing whatever is on the screen when people appear behind them. People who wouldn't dream of opening a colleague's letter merrily hack into their correspondence and on-line affairs, distributing their billings and cooings round 200 other terminals to stifled snorts of merriment. In one TV news office the contents of an employee's howlingly smug diary: 'Mmmm, my piece went rather well today, I feel,' was printed out and posted on the notice board. In-house gossip files pop up in the system. Fake memos whizz to and fro, employees are disciplined for spending their working days in romantic correspondence with people they've never met in other countries. Wrong buttons are pressed. A message which began, 'Darling, at last we have a secure way to communicate . . .' was recently sent to an entire work group. Employees pull plugs on the system after carelessly sending hilarious messages slagging off the boss, to the boss. At one property company, an employee was sacked after accidentally sending a five-megabyte message to everyone linked to the network, which crashed the whole system worldwide at a cost of pounds 35,000. The real delight is that all this can go on while the workers are, to all appearances, sensibly tapping away at their proper jobs.

Extraordinarily, it may seem, companies are reacting to E-mail positively. George McMurdo of Queen Margaret College, Edinburgh, is one of the few British academics currently studying its effects. 'It's really just happening at the moment. I don't think it's known how many companies are using it in Britain. But it's perceived as good for morale and for breaking down hierarchies.' In removing the barriers of class, gender, accent, race, and the potential embarrassment of face-to-face contact, computer messaging has an emboldening effect. In the words of one user, it, 'makes the cleaner feel she can message the boss'. It flattens pyramids, it's seen as a means of improving communication generally, and ultimately a time-and-expense saver (sending computer messages is very cheap). Dr Rodney Armitage, head of IT at Price Waterhouse explains: 'People can play telephone tag for a week, trying to return calls and missing each other. It cuts out that sort of time-wasting.'

However, the communications revolution has left us floundering, rudderless, in an etiquette quagmire. In the States there is a great deal of top-level discussion covering these areas. Not so here.

'It's a new field, communications technology is moving ahead in leaps and bounds and the practical implications in terms of ethical conduct haven't caught up yet', says Stanley Kiaer of the Institute of Business Ethics who commissioned new research into the subject. For now, 'People just have to use their conscience and common sense.'

But perceptions of what's on and what isn't seem to shift once they get near a computer. 'People haven't yet associated the electronic environment with physical consequences,' says Gareth Ardern, director of the systems consultancy, Integration. 'Messages are sent so immediately that they lose all sense of responsibility for what they send, and they have no sense of association once it's gone.' 'The old rules don't apply. It's very James Bondy, quite childish,' says Rupert Goodwins of PC Magazine. 'If people manage to get into a secret file it seems all right because they feel clever.'

New patterns of contact emerge. The brevity and informality of the messages create more powerful direct communication than in a letter. The old, 'We are fully cognisant of your kind attention hitherto regarding this matter' nonsense is stripped away. 'People actually learn to write much better because they write as they speak,' says Goodwins.

Workers stumble across others in the network who share their tone or humour and form long 'threads' or conversations. Chris Gunn, a student at Queen Margaret College, Edinburgh, notices messages like 'Waaghi' or 'Plip plop' frequently being sent to whole user-groups. One journalist routinely messages his editor with a cheery 'F*** off' every morning. But irony, misunderstood, easily bursts into flaming, so a whole subculture of typographical 'emoticons', or 'smileys' - denoted as :Z) (turn it sideways . . .) - has sprung up to signpost the jokes, followed by a sub-sub-culture which eschews emotions as a sign of lazy and inadequate use of language.

It is a new etiquette in evolution. Some companies, where the chairman tires of getting 400 messages each morning including inadvertent invitations to the pub and assaults on his character, are taking up software packages such as Beyond Mail, which restore the hierarchy to a company by filtering E-mail access to certain individuals, and increasing privacy protection. Where British employers seem reluctant to introduce rules of conduct, a code may be emerging in schools. Tony Hill, systems manager at the Brit School in Croydon, issues clear guidelines to pupils using computers. They mustn't send messages to group addresses or members of staff without permission; use bad language or anything they wouldn't wish to be seen by a member of staff, and are not allowed to message people in the same room. They are also expected to take responsibility if someone else finds out their password. 'I wouldn't implement these rules in a company,' says Hill, 'because at the end of the day you have to expect adults wouldn't mess around.' Oh, tee hee hee :Z)

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