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Remember Nettiquette?

November 2, 2009

Remember Nettiquette? The idea was that if everyone who used the Internet followed a set of conventions then everything would work smoothly and there would be no conflict. It was a perhaps naive idea even back when the Internet was a fairly obscure place frequented by a small self-selecting group possessing some shared technical knowledge. The notion has pretty much dropped from discussion now that everyone and her grandmother is using the Internet — and often not even aware that that’s what they’re doing.

The Internet from the beginning was based on trust, cooperation and consensus. If you missed it, check out Steven Crocker’s reminiscence in the New York Times, “How the Internet Got Its Rules”. A brief excerpt:
Everyone understood there was a practical value in choosing to do the same task in the same way. For example, if we wanted to move a file from one machine to another, and if you were to design the process one way, and I was to design it another, then anyone who wanted to talk to both of us would have to employ two distinct ways of doing the same thing. So there was plenty of natural pressure to avoid such hassles. It probably helped that in those days we avoided patents and other restrictions; without any financial incentive to control the protocols, it was much easier to reach agreement.

As financial and other incentives became stronger the spirit of cooperation and consensus waned. Today SPAMers, botnet operators, perpetrators of DOS attacks, government censors, content providers and ISP’s do not feel bound by nettiquette, the RFC process, or any restrictions other than “what can I get away with?”

I was recently struck by a parallel to the Internet situation. In a series of articles on the problems related to too much boating traffic and development on Candlewood Lake in western Connecticut, the News-Times interviewed the commodore of the lake’s last yacht club who lamented that people didn’t know or didn’t follow the “rules of the road”. Maritime “rules of the road”, having been developed over hundreds of years, are quite complex and at times obscure compared to the rules of netiquette. But the dynamic seems identical: The rules held as long as they only needed to govern the behavior of a relatively small, self-selecting and technically proficient group. To that group, the need for and benefits of the rules seemed self-evident.As soon as anyone with the price of a speedboat could get out on the water the rules fell aside.

I’m sure others can come up with similar examples.

So how do we adapt when our domain — be it the Internet, the water, or anything else — stops being private and clubby and starts being more subject to the general rules of public behavior? I’m not offering any answers, just hoping that it’s helpful to frame the question.

(Originally posted at

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