Has the flood of Facebook users made Netiquette irrelevant?


As part of my MA in Online Journalism, I was tasked to join new groups to widen my journalism network. As part of this assignment I have looked into online groups.

When people meet in groups there needs to be an understanding of the conduct expected by group members. It doesn’t matter if the groups meet offline or online, there needs to be a list of rules to enable everyone to get the most out of the conversation.

For the real world there is Debretts,  for the Internet there is netiquette.

Although as more people gain online access it is possible that netiquette has all but disappeared.

What is netiquette?

The word netiquette is a combination of net (or network) and etiquette. It is a guide to respecting other users’ views and also to ensure courtesy when posting your own views online.

Back in the days of slow, dial-up modems it also helped to reduce time and money by removing any unnecessary comments. If someone did post something that breached the group’s netiquette they were soon told about it by being flamed. Which, ironically, increased the amount of data needed to be downloaded.

Each group, mailing list, bulletin board or Usenet had its own rules, but there was a common thread between them.

For example, three common types of comments that would have resulted in flamers hammering at their keyboard were:

  • Questions where the solution could easily have been found elsewhere
  • Repeating a comment already made by someone else
  • Spamming the group

A ten commandments of netiquette was published by Danville Community School Corporation.

What is a Flame?

Looked at in isolation, flaming another user could be seen as a form of cyberbullying.

Nobullying.com in an article published in 2014, said:

“Flaming is another word for a written version of verbal, emotional and even sexual abuse”.

But is this is using an ‘old’ internet expression to explain the bullying and abuse that is now common amongst school children. There isn’t anything clever or informative about these comments, it is just bullying. It is a symptom of the explosive growth of young internet users.

To highlight the difference between bullying and flaming, Stephanie Buck in her Medium story ‘Remembering the 90s flame wars: a simpler time of cyberbullying’, said:

“Unlike trolling, cyberbullying, and harassment, all of which imply abuse today, a good flame was first considered routine dialogue — sometimes even an art form”.

Where have all the /root boys gone?

As an experiment, I posted a call for help to a Slack.com group I had just connected to.

Post to journocoders slack.com page
Post to MA Online Journalism Slack.com page

In the 80/90s these would have generated comments that would, in no uncertain terms, have pointed out the error in my judgement to post such a request.

But nothing came my way. Either no one can be bothered to comment on such posts, or perhaps no one ever visited the group between physical meetings.

I also tried a similar version posted in a group of fellow students for a comparison. Still nothing. This was very disappointing, although I wasn’t sure that I would have been able to handle the feedback.

So has the art of a good flame died along with dial-up modems? I looked at Facebook to find out.

Facebook is the new Usenet

The old bulletin boards and Usenet groups of the past have effectively died out. It is so much easier to set up a group on Facebook and similar sites, that the old skills needed to maintain the old systems are no longer required.

A Facebook or a Twitter feed might have an early internet user in a constant state of exasperation. There are multiple shares of the same news story or cat video, bad grammar/spelling, political statements and sometimes just comments of such stupidity (like my attempt of getting flamed) you have to wonder if the person knows how to do up their own shoe laces.

Such posts do, on occasion, draw the attention of those how feel that they need to say something. However, as these new internet users do not have the skills of the early adopters mentioned by Stephanie Buck, flaming attempts can go wrong and the flamer comes off worse. Such as when the White Moose Café in Dublin took on the vegan community.

So does someone have the right to post whatever they like on their own Facebook page or Twitter account, without the fear of bullying? I feel that they do, after all if you don’t like what they say you don’t have to be connected to them.

Actively trolling someone to tell them what you feel about them isn’t flaming, it’s stalking and bullying.

Noobs are annoying

However, when you are a member of a Facebook group you don’t get the automatic right to publish your thoughts. Unless, of course, that is the point of the group.

I am a member of many industry specific Facebook groups. As an early internet user, I do get frustrated by the general disregard for the old ways of conducting yourself on-line.

No one seems to check if someone has already posted the topic, or look through the archives to see if the question has already been answered. Even checking the thread to see if someone has already posted what you want to say seems a waste of time to group members.

Skilled flamers from the past would never be offline.

Do Facebook groups need moderating?

I do shout at my screen when someone else has posted someone that I feel has broken the rules of Netiquette, but I don’t comment. There are two reasons:

  1. Most of the group are internet newbies and have no idea that they are behaving so crassly. I would soon be shot down by those defending the perpetrator
  2. It’s not my group. The moderators should handle this, if they want to

A village group

Lucy Harper is one of the administrators for the Cranfield Community Group on Facebook. The group’s management was changed late in 2016. Lucy said:

“In my opinion, it’s vital for a community group to be run by local people, for that reason [crime wave].”

Every member was checked against the rules set by the new management. Those who failed to meet the rules were asked to depend their membership. In the past anyone was accepted as a new member, now requests have to be backed up with evidence that the applicant has connections with the village.

“Now, if the three admin don’t know of the person, someone one of us does know must vouch for them…(we do know a vast number of villagers between us). We only allow people with profile pictures, and those we can contact/message.”

As well as protecting group member’s security, Lucy is also using her experience of being a member in another group to ensure that Cranfield Community is relevant to the members.

“Prior to this group, there was a previous village page, which ran for about 12 months with no admin.
“Members were allowed to add other members, and anyone did & said what they chose. It became a free-for-all, with the added bonus of spammers, posting porn.
“I would imagine the same would happen to this group, if it was unmoderated.”

An unmoderated group

Items for sale in Milton Keynes is a closed group, but there isn’t a moderator. Anyone can apply to join and anyone can accept the applicant. It has over 30,000 members.

The pinned post on the groups home page soon shows what happens if there isn’t some form of moderation.

Another example is shown below:

A post in an unmoderated Facebook group

So moderation is still important.

What about groups for professionals?

An administrator of a Facebook group for industry professionals said:

“We purposely do not constantly nag everyone about rules as we prefer to let adults have the opportunity to behave and any bad behaviour reflects badly on those doing it.

“The vast majority of posts are constructive.  Many of the moaning posts are valid and result in changes for the better.  What’s more, for us to delete moaning posts opens up a whole other can of worms around Censorship.”

It is not just opening another can of worms, there is also the time need to apply strict netiquette. You would like to believe that professionals would handle themselves in a manner that would enhance their reputation amongst their peers, but this isn’t always the case.

“Our time is precious, so any member who causes us too much hassle; taking up too much of our time, is putting their membership of the group at risk.”

RIP Netiquette?

Netiquette is still important for the smooth running of online groups, just as etiquette is when holding a physical meeting.  Members still need to be civil to each other if they want to remain in the group. Anyone who isn’t will soon be notified by an administrator.

So, netiquette hasn’t disappeared; it has just evolved. Unfortunately, some, such as myself, have not changed with it. As one group admin told me:

“Just scroll on if you find a post annoying.”