Message: 17
Date: 11.1.94
From: <nicholas@media.mit.edu>
To: <lr@wired.com>

Digital Etiquette

All Fingers
Imagine the ballroom of an Austrian castle during the 18th century, in full gilded splendor, glittering with the reflected light of hundreds of candles, Venetian mirrors, and jewels. Four hundred handsome people waltz gracefully to a 10-piece orchestra. Now imagine the same setting, but with this change: 390 of the guests learned how to dance the night before, and they are all too conscious of their feet. This is similar to the Internet today: most users are all fingers.

The vast majority of Internet users are newcomers. Most have been on it for less than a year. Their first messages tend to flood a small group of select recipients, not only with page after page, but with a sense of urgency suggesting the recipient has nothing else to do. Worse, it is so simple and cost-free to forward copies of documents that a single hit of the Return key can dispatch 15 or 50,000 unwelcome words into your mailbox. That simple act turns e-mail from a personal and conversational medium into dumping; it is particularly distressing when you are connected over a narrow link.

Some of us who have been on the Internet or its predecessors for a long time (a quarter of a century, in my case) pride ourselves on being available. The e-mail address above is my real e-mail address, and I make every effort to answer everything I receive. Therefore, I feel a right to be opinionated about its abuse as a communications medium. Netiquette is particularly important to me because I use e-mail during many hundreds of thousands of miles of travel each year, from foreign lands, in strange places, through weird positions (usually caused by an unfriendly telephone booth or hidden phone jack). One result is that I often see my e-mail at low and heavily error-prone bit rates. This strengthens e-character.

One journalist commissioned to write about these newcomers and their inconsiderate use of the Internet researched his story by sending me and others a four-page questionnaire - without asking first and without the slightest warning. His story should have been a self-portrait. Common courtesy suggests a short introductory request - as opposed to the wholesale and presumptuous delivery of questions.

In general, however, e-mail can be a terrific medium for both the reporter and the reported. E-mail interviews are far more satisfying for people like me, because replies can be considered at leisure. They are less intrusive and allow for more reflection. I am convinced that e-interviews will happen more and more, ultimately becoming a standard tool for journalism around the world, provided that reporters can learn some manners.

Ugly Habits
Some of the ugliest digital behavior results from having plentiful bandwidth and using it with careless abandon. I am convinced that the best way to be courteous with alphanumeric e-mail on the Net is to assume the receiver of the message has a mere 1200 baud and only a few moments of attention. An example of the contrary (a habit practiced to my alarm by many of the most seasoned users I know) is returning a full copy of my message with a reply. That is perhaps the laziest way to make e-mail meaningful and it is a killer if the message is long (and the channel thin). It takes so little effort to weave referents into an answer or cut and paste a few relevant pieces.

The opposite extreme is even worse, such as the reply "Sure." Sure, what? Similarly, the use of undefined pronouns is irksome when they refer to an earlier message. As distinguished from spoken conversation, e-mail has variable chunks of time (and space) between segments.

The worst of all digital habits, in my opinion, is the gratuitous "cc" which, among other things, gives new meaning to the word "carbon." It has scared off many senior executives from being on-line. The big problem with electronic cc's is that they can multiply themselves, because replies are all too frequently sent to the entire cc list. If a person is organizing an impromptu international meeting and invites 50 people to attend, the last thing I want to see is the travel arrangements of the other 49.

Never Do E-Mail through a Secretary
Some of my closest colleagues claim to be fully available on e-mail. What they mean is that a secretary prints out messages and transcribes dictation. (A senior member of the MIT computer science community gave me the limp excuse: "I can speak faster than I can type." Well, I can, too.)

Using a secretary is hardly the equivalent of being online, and it reduces e-mail to the state of being no more than a fast post office. Sitting at the keyboard yourself and staring at the message (either received or to-be-sent) is a process that engages a different ethos - a certain politeness, some humility, and an ability to be involved in a fashion only one step removed from a real conversation. You are accessible in a new and different way. (Senior management take note.)

It is so easy to send a short and kind reply that I find myself doing so all the time to people who would never get through the forest of secretaries who guard me from telephone calls and manage my meetings. Consider the total time required for me to dictate a short letter (which I do sometimes), to have it typed, to proof it, to sign it, and to have it posted (or, forbid, faxed). The elapsed time is surely no less than 20 minutes of total human time (probably more). By contrast, I can answer the same by e-mail in less than 20 seconds.

My e-mail box is not polluted. (This column may end that.) The reason, I believe, is that people really don't want to foul their own doorstep. At the Media Lab my e-mail responsiveness is a family joke: never more than a few hours, 365 days a year. People are careful not to abuse my accessibility, because it is like an open door. If there is too much noise outside, it is easy to shut it. Wired e-mail is usually considered and interesting, and I learn a great deal from it. (But often it is too long.)

If you are a newcomer to this medium, remember that some others are not and may live and die by it. The best netiquette advice I can offer you is be brief.

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[Copyright 1994, WIRED Ventures Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Issue 2.11 November 1994.]