by the Rev. Bob "Bob" Crispen
(Patrick Crispen's daddy)
One of these days you're going to get tired of Web surfing or listening
in on LISTSERVs, IRCs, Usenet newsgroups or whatever, and you're going
to want to say something yourself. At that moment your life will
change. Let's see if we can't make that a change for the better.
Everyone is tempted from time to time to evangelize, to stride boldly
into the enemy's camp and throw down the gauntlet. We will never see
the end of people who pop up on comp.sys.intel praising Macs and
Amigas; who send mail to the SKEPTIC list that flying saucers really,
truly do exist; who enlighten the Buddhist newsgroups that they're all
bound for hell, and on and on.
In the entire history of the net, no one has managed to do this without
looking like a complete idiot. If you believe you are the one person
who will succeed where millions have failed, then you're ready to learn
There is nothing you can say that won't offend somebody:
>It's a bright, sunny day today.
You filthy *@!?$, what have you got against Seattle?
Flames (violent verbal expressions of disapproval), misunderstandings,
overreactions, and hurt feelings are par for the course. Four lessons
(1) Hedge your bets. Rather than saying, "Metal rules! Death to all
that appose!!" try saying "In my humble opinion (often abbreviated
IMHO) metal bands perfectly express my feelings, choices, and
lifestyle. Your mileage may vary" (another net cliche', less
frequently abbreviated YMMV). By the way, BTW is another frequent net
abbreviation, for what it's worth (FWIW).
(2) Apologize. When misunderstanding is the culprit, and especially if
you respect the person who misunderstood, take the blame on yourself
for being unclear, apologize, say what you meant more clearly (if
appropriate) and put it behind you. As in real life (remember that?)
people who are quick to anger are often equally quick to forgive.
(3) Avoid flame bait (conduct which gravely offends the norms, mores
and folkways of a particular group). "Now wait a minute!" you
"Do you mean that something that's accepted behavior on one list or
newsgroup will draw dozens of stinging, ridiculing comments in
another?" I sure do. What can you do? Lurk a while before you post.
Read what's said like an anthropologist, trying to discover what the
big no-nos are. The beginning of a school term is a wonderful time to
do this, as you will observe the clueless newbies who weren't smart
enough to read this paragraph being torn to shreds. There are
some things you should NEVER do, and we'll list them in a minute, but
let's get to the last bit of advice.
(4) Bow down to the group's gods. In every Usenet newsgroup and
listserv mailing list there are old, grey heads who have earned the
respect of everyone in the group. For example, amongst the subscribers
to the list discussing the late American bandleader Stan Kenton are the
producer of a Kenton box set and the authors of definitive Kenton
biographies and discographies. You are entirely ignorant compared to
those people. Never pretend you're anything else. They would dearly
love to help you -- to answer a question, help you find a rare record
-- but you'll always come out second best in a head-butting contest
Still other group members have earned their status through long
service. Friendships have developed over many years, and marriage is
not unknown. By commenting abusively to or about one of these gods,
you'll earn not only her enmity, but the enmity of all of her friends
-- which may be everyone in the group but you!
Dos and don'ts (or how to avoid most flames):
(1) DON'T include the entire con- (1) DO cut mercilessly. Leave just
tents of a previous posting in enough to indicate what you're
your reply. responding to. NEVER include mail
headers except maybe the "From:"
line. If you can't figure out how
to delete lines in your mailer
software, paraphrase or type the
quoted material in.
(2) DON'T reply to a point in a (2) DO quote (briefly) or para-
posting without quoting or para- phrase. If the original "Subject:"
phrasing what you're responding to line was "Big dogs" make sure yours
and who said it. Reason: a dozen says "Re: Big dogs". Some REPLY
postings may occur between the functions do this automatically.
original message and your reply. By net convention, included lines
At some sites your reply may get are preceded by ">" (greater-than
there before the original. signs). Some mail editors and
newsreaders do this automatically.
Others require you to do it manu-
ally or set the "indent character"
(3) DON'T send a message saying (3) It's always a risk to start a
"Why doesn't anybody say new topic (often called a thread).
anything about X?" or The group may have just finished a
"Who wants to talk about X?" long, bitter war about that very
subject. But if you want to take
the risk, SAY SOMETHING yourself
about the subject you're raising.
(4) DON'T send lines longer than (4) Some mail editor tools only
70 characters. This is a kindness SEEM to insert line breaks for you,
to folks with terminal-based mail but actually don't, so that every
editors or newsreaders. Some mail paragraph is one immense line.
gateways truncate extra characters Learn what your mail editor does.
turning your deathless prose into
(5) DON'T SEND A MESSAGE IN ALL (5) DO use normal capitalization.
CAPS. CAPITALIZED MESSAGES ARE Separate your paragraphs with blank
HARDER TO READ THAN LOWER CASE OR lines. Make your message inviting
MIXED CASE. to your potential readers.
(6) DON'T betray confidences. It (6) DO read the "To:" and "Cc:"
is all too easy to quote a personal lines in your message before you
letter in a posting to the entire send it. Are you SURE you want the
group. mail to go there?
(7) DON'T make statements which (7) DO treat every post as though
can be interpreted as official po- you were sending a copy to your
sitions of your organization or boss, your minister, and your worst
offers to do business. Saying enemy.
"Boy, I'd sure like to have one of
them Crays" could result in a
truck at your loading dock and a
bill in the mail even larger than
your student loan.
(8) DON'T rely on the ability of (8) DO remember that no one can
your readers to tell the differ- hear your tone of voice. Use emo-
ence between serious statements ticons (or smilies) like :-) or ;^)
and satire or sarcasm. It's hard -- turn your head counterclockwise
to write funny. It's even harder to see the smile. You can also use
to write satire. caps for emphasis or use net con-
ventions for italics and underlines
as in: You said the guitar solo on
"Comfortably Numb" from Pink
Floyd's _The Wall_ was *lame*? Are
you OUT OF YOUR MIND???!!!
(9) DON'T make a posting that says (9) DO remember the immortal words
nothing but "Me, too." This is of Martin Farquhar Tupper (1810-
most annoying when combined with 1889): "Well-timed silence hath
(1) or (2) above. Ditto for "I more eloquence than speech."
A word to people living in the United States: the net is
international. If you tell a Belgian she's being unAmerican, SHE ISN'T
OFFENDED. OF COURSE she's unAmerican; you're unBelgian. She doesn't
care about being lectured on the First Amendment and American values.
She doesn't HAVE a First Amendment, and she thinks Belgian values are
BETTER. We Americans have made fools of ourselves by forgetting this
everywhere else. Let's try to behave a little better on the net.
Finally, many groups have had the sense to write down some of their
norms and folkways in a frequently asked questions (FAQ) list along
with (what else?) the answers to frequently asked questions. Many
Usenet FAQs are posted monthly or so on the news.answers. Listowners
of listservs are often quite willing to mail you the FAQ for the List.
In fact, they may have already told you where it is in the letter you
get welcoming you to the list.
With all we've said above, and with all the help newsgroup moderators
and listowners are providing to newcomers, it almost seems like you'd
have to work at it to go charging in with your mouth open and your eyes
and ears shut, thereby aggravating and alienating some otherwise
perfectly nice people. The good Lord gave us two eyes and two ears and
one mouth to remind us of that very thing. But he gave us ten fingers,
and here we are.
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