Basic Guidelines

The following netiquette guidelines result from two principles:

  • Online communication is highly public communication, though it often feels quite private.
  • Online communication is communication among people, though it is sometimes hard to remember that multiple live human beings are reading and reacting to your messages.

It follows from these principles that you should treat all your online communications as public documents. That means that you should proofread them carefully. It means you should make sure that they contain only what's essential. It means that you should try to imagine possible responses to them (from strangers, from supervisors, and from faculty). Above all, it means that before sending a message, you should take every step possible to insure that the message says exactly what you think.

It does not mean, though, that you should shy away from making controversial remarks or expressing unpopular opinions. Nor should you shy away from disagreeing with someone's stated views, though you should try to distinguish between a person's views and the person. (It's one thing to say that a view is wrong, and another to say that the person holding that view is stupid.)

Public discourse needs to be vibrant and alive as much as it needs to be polite, and maybe more. It becomes vibrant and alive when lots of people participate in it, and when they state their beliefs and arguments candidly, exactly, and respectfully.

Following are specific guidelines for sending or posting messages on FirstClass and on the Internet.

Tips for Messages on FirstClass & the Internet

Be careful when you select "reply." It's too easy to reply accidentally to an entire group of people, even though you intended only to reply to the sender. Before sending any message, always check the "to" and "cc" boxes, deleting all but your intended recipient(s).

Take time to understand the purpose of a conference before you post. Conference owners often provide an introductory message about the conference's purpose, and/or a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) file. Take the time to read these, as well as to read a variety of messages to ascertain the tenor of the discussion. The users of local and Internet forums often develop their own rules for communicating, and assume "newbies" will learn them before participating.

Obtain the writer's permission before forwarding a personal message or a message from a conference at Wellesley-but also be aware that there is no guarantee that all the readers of your own private messages will treat you with the same courtesy.

Write an appropriate subject line for your message. A good subject line alerts your reader to the nature of your message and makes it easier to find important messages again later. "How do I update my virus protection?" is a better subject line than "Help me!" If you are replying to a message or thread and notice that the original subject line no longer applies to your message, change it.

Avoid consuming unnecessary bandwidth. Instead of including pictures in your messages, post a URL for the picture. A picture embedded in a message can take from 50 to 500 times as much space as a short text and use up a great deal of the recipient's storage. If you do attach a photo to a message, use software to adjust a photo's resolution and/or size to make it a less bulky attachment.

Follow good citation etiquette. In your replies to messages in electronic forums, it will not always be apparent to others exactly which message you are responding to. For this reason, it is a good idea to quote part of that message so people have some context. At the same time, though, don't quote the entire message when only a few lines would suffice, and above all, avoid quoting an entire series of messages. Also, be sure to correctly identify whom you are quoting, both to properly acknowledge that writer and to avoid miscommunication.

Avoid typing large portions of your messages in uppercase. Words in all caps are usually read as shouts.

Use a signature if you wish, but use it judiciously. FirstClass permits a signature, typically 4 lines or fewer, that can include other means of contacting you - address, telephone number, etc. - as well as sayings or quotes that you might like to share with your readers. Again, such information is most helpful to your readers if it's clear and brief. Remember that if you use an automated signature, whatever is in your signature file will be seen by anyone who receives an e-mail message from you (including future employers and your professors). If you want to include more detailed (or personal) information about yourself, we suggest using FirstClass's résumé feature.

Think about tone. Recipients can't see your face or hear your voice when they read your e-mail or post. A statement that seems humorously ironic to you may be understood as biting sarcasm to others, or worse, taken literally. In casual messages, writers sometimes make use of emoticons (icons that indicate emotions) to show how the words are to be taken. For example, ;-) represents a winking smile to indicate that what you typed shouldn't be taken literally but as a joke. As you will see in How to Email Your Professor, however, we don't recommend using emoticons when e-mailing professors or in any professional context.

Larry Rosenwald, Professor of English, names his personal rules for setting a good tone in a controversial post.

WCPSC Faculty Director: Wini Wood
Maintained by: Anne Manning
Date Created: 25 August 2008
Last Modified: 25 August 2008
Expires: 31 December 2009