Online decorum: A long, hard day of being nice on the internet

Challenged to follow Debrett’s ‘Netiquette’, Twitterholic Grace Dent managed about 10 minutes

"On Twitter, be punctilious in replying to questions, requests or information," Debrett's quacks officiously in its new hardback Netiquette manual. Which means that we're off to a bad start, me and these Debrett's internet people.

Their rules, written in impossibly small font on dark plum paper are as practical to read as scrabbling in a Qumran tunnel to decipher the Dead Sea Scrolls. No real internet devotee – with their "efficient" attention spans – would endure more than 10 minutes with this book, which is a shame as I promised the editor I'd live with it for 24 hours. But after 10 or more pages of being berated about "texting a new mother" (oh no, never text, that's rude apparently, one must telephone new mothers, because everyone knows they love a long chat in the first days), or Debrett's rules on "having an over-glamorous avatar" (which is narcissistic apparently, because sure, like I'm going to make my profile shot me first thing in the morning resembling a seaside Alice Cooper tribute), I become rather cross.

Making a set of rules for the internet is impossibly hard. I should know, I wrote my own book about Twitter a year ago, which was based on four years of observations on the site. Any rule I set in place simply fired up a Twitter debate and a hundred variations were thrown back at me. Policing the internet is like herding cats.

"Always wait 24 hours before accepting a friend request to gather your thoughts," Debrett's says, undeterred. "Avoid sarcasm or subtle humour on the internet unless you know the reader will get it." Blimey, that's not just my Twitter account against the rules. That's my entire writing career. "Don't be a coward and say things in email that would be better said in person," says the manual. Hogwash. I'd argue a perfectly measured email making all your points crystal clear is a better use of your time than a three hour round trip to yell and burst into tears in someone's porch.

After a morning of referring to this book for advice, being punctilious and non-sarcastic in my tweets, I feel like walking to Debrett's head office with their Netiquette book on my head, shoulders back like a lady, and setting it on fire next to their "we heart Pippa Middleton" shrine. Who even uses the word "punctilious" anyway? Few people, I'd suggest, aside from Boris Johnson showboating on a podium and the berk who wrote this book, who clearly only uses the internet sparingly anyway, and then to clarify if the hunting ban is still in place or to track their Fortnum and Mason hamper.

By evening I have broken and retweeted a brilliant picture of a cat who'd sat on an iPad and accidentally snapped a shot of his lovely pink nose. To undoubted horror of Debrett's, I simply pressed "retweet" on this information without clarifying the name, weight or location of said cat. But, you see, I tend to see my Twitter account and my chats with 144,000 followers as "mainly a bit of fun", not an attempt to rival the Encyclopedia Britannia.

Other information in the book is simply wrong, such as: "Aggressive tweets are rude and will lose you followers." Oh how I wish this was true, but too many times I've seen some brutish wang hurl abuse at a celebrity and add thousands of "followers" in minutes. Idiots atracts other idiots like a magnet.

But by the end of the day, I've found the perfect use for Debrett's Netiquette. It's the perfect Christmas stocking filler for your enemy's parents. People whom have recently became vaguely web-savvy but need a helping hand. Golly, by Boxing Day they could be roaming Twitter ticking off people on the correct usage of less versus fewer, starting arguments with your Facebook friends for tagging unflattering picture of their little soldier or princess, and pointing out to Twitter couples that their publicly conducted romance does not "retain an air of decorum" (page 47). Or better still, taking heed of the "To blog or not to blog" section before firmly deciding "Yes, people need to read my no-holds barred, dense prose on my tireless battle with my leaky pelvic floor".

Of course the answer to the "to blog or not" question, 99 per cent of the time, is no. The world does not need any more rambling attention-seeking moans and subsequent dire counter-blogs and counter-counterblogs." In fact, everyone who spends their free time furiously blogging their woe – unless they're in a basement in Syria with something vital to report – should be forced to hand their laptops in at the Town Hall three times a week while they do star jumps in the park.

This Debrett's rule book has made me so cross I felt like writing another more hardline rulebook to counteract it. Instead, I wrote a furious piece for the newspaper, didn't reflect for 24 hours before emailing it to the editor and will be tweeting the link to my followers. I'm sure Debrett's would say I lack "decorum".

Rules for online decorum

1. Enjoy the silliness

Twitter is often people just being flippant, inaccurate or powered by emotion. Just being human. You don't have to batter with your sword of accuracy whenever you spot a mistake. No-one respects you for it.

2. You can’t reason with unreasonable people

Don’t waste your time on Twitter or Facebook trying to talk someone round who is clearly an imbecile. You may as well go outside and shout at the moon.

3. Don't pander to attention-seekers and drama queens

Be aware that you will meet people on Twitter who are addicted to internet sympathy and attention. Let the rest of the crowd deal with their dramatics.

4. Don’t be a dick

A thousand non-winnable debates on Internet freedom of speech, what is cyber-bullying and trolling could be solved by the rule 'don't be a dick'. If you are one, try not being one. It might cheer you up.

5. Go to bed

You don't have to stay awake every night until everyone on the internet knows you're funny and right. Try logging out and closing your eyes.

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