Sunday, April 10, 2011

Proper Netiquette Is for Keeps

“Young man, if I catch you doing that, it will go on your permanent record.” Certainly these words were leveled at me (more than once) to try to make me behave by instilling the fear that my mischief-making would have lasting consequences. (I don’t think it worked, most of the time.) We know now that these threats are largely empty, as kids are protected by laws prohibiting disclosure of most youthful transgressions. But even if kids are shielded, real life on the Internet holds more perils of indelibility.

For example, comments you post on a forum can stick around for a long, long time. If your online identity is close to your real one, or if it’s thinly veiled enough to discover who you really are, you have to be very careful of what you say. But don’t misunderstand me: As one who does not separate his online identity from his real-life one, I can tell you that that is a good thing. You think real hard before you speak—just as we’ve learned to do with emails and talking to people face to face. My posts are better for it.

Too often people use aliases to behave badly on message and comments boards. If they had to use their real names, posters would be a lot more polite, for a start. An anonymous alias, as a device for non-face-to-face communication, is a recipe for bringing out the worst in some people. And it only takes a couple of bad apples to really stink up a barrel of forum posts.

Sometimes even good people post bad things. Case in point: A poster for a forum I administer contacted me in my admin capacity to change his screen name. The reason? The screen name was close to his email address, and he’d said some embarrassing things he didn’t want around in perpetuity, and tied to his email. He was sincere and apologetic, so I changed his name for him. On many forums, screen names are dynamic, so all posts created under someone’s old screen name will change to the new screen name. But what didn’t change were his words that were quoted by others. Those are static text strings that get “flattened” when someone copies or quotes another’s post. Screen names that are part of a quote stay intact. So this guy is going to have to live with his posts being held up as an example of bad behavior.

It’s a good lesson in taking responsibility for your actions and for the long term effect your words can have. The original idea of screen names is that they allowed you to assume an anonymous role—so you could travel cyberspace without worrying about being targeted for posting unpopular beliefs. It’s an almost fanciful notion—a sort of masked ball where different aliases all engage in uninhibited expression. That was the theory, anyway. But I’ve found it’s a short trip from masked ball to hooded mob. One of the advantages of Facebook is that you’re not anonymous. It encourages more civil behavior than you find on a forum. So the moral is, imagine people know who you are before you post. Avoid ad hominem attacks. Be constructive, helpful, and kind. And think before you post.

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