Online Etiquette: Definition & Rules

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  • 0:00 What Is Online Etiquette?
  • 0:33 Expressing Tone in Text
  • 1:59 Grammar, Subjects, and…
  • 3:33 Technical and Social Etiquette
  • 4:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

What is online etiquette? How do you write an email without breaking the rules? Learn how to make a good impression and avoid putting your foot in your mouth when using the Internet.

What Is Online Etiquette?

When you go to a party, you think about etiquette whether you realize it or not. A work party is quite different when compared to a rave or a family party. Each of them have social norms and rules to be followed. For example, you can wear a bikini at the beach but not at the opera.

The Internet is exactly the same way. Depending on your audience, and how you're communicating, there are different rules to be followed. This is called online etiquette, or netiquette for short. Online etiquette is the correct or acceptable way of communicating or behaving on the Internet.

Expressing Tone in Text

Perhaps the hardest lesson to teach about Internet etiquette are the subtle things like tone. How do you best show emotions in your emails? Should you use sarcasm or make jokes? How can you express yourself so that people understand what you mean?

It's actually hard to perfect, and it takes a lot of practice. Communicating on the Internet often leads to misunderstandings. People will try to make a joke and come across as sarcastic and mean, or people will send a simple, perfunctory email and will be portrayed as cold. That's the very reason that emoticons, otherwise known as emotes or emojis, came to exist. They're a way of showing emotions or making it clear that you're joking, and they work well in informal communication as long as you don't use too many. However, they're not appropriate in formal emails. So what do you do then?

The best advice is to be really careful how you write. If an email is important and you have time, write a draft and read it back a few hours later, or even the next day. Find a balance between professional and relaxed, business-like but not cold, and make sure that your tone and meaning is truly clear from the words alone. When in doubt, avoid sarcasm, controversial opinions or jokes, and anything that could be misinterpreted.

Remember that everyone you're talking to is another human being. Treat them the way you would treat anyone you meet in person. One of the biggest mistakes people make on the Internet is saying and doing things they wouldn't do in real life, so don't be that person. If other people make etiquette mistakes, remember that they're human too!

Grammar, Email Subjects, and Signing Off

If you're used to writing letters or talking at people via text messages, writing an email can be a bit of an adjustment. Emails aren't usually as formal as a written letter, and they're certainly not as informal as a text message. So what's the correct way to do it? That depends on your audience.

If you're applying for a job, an email should almost be as formal as a letter would be. Definitely err on the side of too formal. On the other hand, if you're emailing a friend or family member, it's far better to be relaxed in those situations. An email is always more formal than a text message, and it's important to always use proper grammar and full sentences. Writing in all capital letters or overusing exclamation marks will immediately show you to be an Internet rookie. Text speak or netspeak (like ttyl or lol) is also generally frowned upon in emails. The occasional smile :) or wink ;) can be okay in an informal email, but not in any professional or serious situation.

Emails also have something that letters don't: a subject line. It's best to make these short and to the point. For example, 'Publicist Job Application' or 'Shows we should see in New York' both work fine. The subject line should help remind you too why you're writing. Remember not to ramble in emails, especially professional ones. People value their time, and they'll thank you for brevity.

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