Netiquette (Digital Ethics)

Netiquette is a hybrid word combining “network” and “etiquette”; it essentially refers to the social code of the Internet.

As such, netiquette — how we communicate, treat others, portray ourselves, and protect ourselves online — is a question of ethics. Ethics, or moral philosophy, refers generally to how groups and individuals determine moral courses of action. Because ethics refers to the way groups and individuals relate to, treat, and resolve issues with each other, digital ethics then encompasses how users and participants in online environments interact with each other and the technologies and platforms used to engage. How does a online discussion board community handle flaming? Is it right to give support to pirating sites? What images are appropriate for re-tweeting? Just how private should privacy policies be when agreeing to Terms of Services?

As with any ethical issue or moral dilemma, there is contention and a variegated palette of opinions based upon people’s politics, personalities, and purposes. From a rhetorical perspective, digital ethics is approached by asking a series of questions relating to textual and visual communication:

  • What language and tone are appropriate for a given situation?
  • What are the guidelines that govern a given online community?
  • How are sources used, remixed, and/or altered for a given audience? How are these sources to be referenced or cited fairly?
  • How do users portray themselves online, whether through social media, gaming, avatars, or other means? How is online ethos developed and maintained?
  • How do users approach the increasingly blurred line between private and public? What constitutes (a) public?

There is no set way, no strict code of conduct for how to communicate or engage online any more than there is a strict code of conduct for how to hold a large, face-to-face conversation on campus (McKee 429). [1] There are, however, conventions to consider. It is useful to think of ethics as the “appropriate” methods for actions and relating to others in a given environment.  Guidance or governance for effective online communication exists only through general patterns of experiences that accumulate over time. Beginning emails with a respectful salutation or filtering images you are tagged in on Facebook are not examples of following rules that are inherently true; rather, beginning emails with a respectful salutation or filtering images you are tagged in on Facebook are useful conventions of digital ethics to abide by because of the patterns of responses to rude emails or inappropriate online photo albums: a lack of response and a lack of a job, respectively. In light of the conventional and theoretical nature of netiquette, under the larger umbrella of digital ethics, one should not aim to memorize a list of netiquette ordinances (although these can prove beneficial in some circles), but aim to understand through a rhetorical lens what digital ethics are and why they are important.

One of the most immediate reasons why digital ethics are important is because how we present, indeed construct our persona(s) effects the way in which our communication and intentions will be received. The notion that individual ethics impact our arguments is nothing new. Much of how we understand and categorize argumentation today stems from Aristotle’s “appeals,” which are generally understood as the means of persuasion — how we support our arguments for specific audiences. In Aristotle’s Rhetoric, we see that there are three overarching appeals used to classify how we argue: logic (logos), emotion (pathos), and the character of the speaker (ethos). (For further information about these rhetorical appeals, see “Rhetorical Appeals.”) These appeals are not represented hierarchically, not in any order of importance; no, Aristotle penned that the most articulate, effective communicators successfully weaved elements of all three appeals into their speech. Skilled orators were to provide logical proofs of their claims, embedding them in a larger concern to judge and alter the emotional disposition of the audience, all the while portraying themselves as credible, reliable authorities with only good will for the public. This rhetorical balancing act places as much importance on the logic and coherence of an argument as on the speaker uttering the argument. To appear credible, one must “display (i) practical intelligence (phronêsis), (ii) a virtuous character, and (iii) good will (Rhetoric II.1, 1378a6ff). [2] Ultimately, the validity of proof, of scientific and political claims, rests upon the character of the individual.

Of course, there needs to be some reinterpreting of the Aristotelian appeals for the modern communicator. No longer do we as humans construct arguments and share them sporadically in public symposia. Our understanding of rhetoric asserts that most of what we do and say are argumentative in some form, and the ubiquity of technology today means that what we do and say are more “public” than ever before. Communicators in the twenty-first century must constantly think about how to represent themselves in physical and online communities. Facebook profile pages, for example, represent a form of “building character,” not in the sense that people become emotionally stronger through overcoming adversity, but in the sense that profile pages on social media sites literally figure as constructions of the self, as digital representations of character — of Aristotelian ethos.

Who am I?

Click on the About link.

What social and political organizations to I ascribe to?

Check my Groups and Likes.

What activities do I engage in?

Browse my photo albums.

With whom do I associate?

Scroll my friends list.

What are my beliefs?

Read my status updates.

An important part of maintaining a solid digital ethos is critically reflecting on your choices of online self-representation and whether or not these choices reflect your goals as a student and as a professional. If your goal is to get a job after graduation, then your argument, as evidenced through your résumé, cover letter, and email correspondence, is that you are the best candidate for the job. Your résumé constitutes the logical proofs of your claim, while your cover letter may engage in altering the employer’s emotional disposition. If the employer wants to see who you are as a person, and whether or not they might want to interact with you on a daily basis for a lengthy period of time, they might want to know more about your character. Social media sites often reveal meaningful insights into a person’s character; and, if online self-presentation is a core component to rhetoric, then how well will your arguments stand?

[1] Aristotle. Rhetoric.

[2] McKee, H. (2002). “YOUR VIEWS SHOWED TRUE IGNORANCE!!!”: (Mis) Communication in an online interracial discussion forum.” Computers and Composition 19: 411-434.