The Internet - Netiquette, flames and kill files
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #24

When, last April, the law firm of Canter and Siegel decided to advertise their services on the Internet, perceiving correctly that it is a large market of fairly intelligent people with a decent purchasing power, the response was typical of the Internet culture. Canter and Siegel did not behave in an approved manner - they disobeyed Net law, which is formulated not by committees but by general agreement.

They did not post their advertisements on the few areas reluctantly created for such purposes by a population getting used to the gradual commercialization of the Net. They assumed rightly that people don't usually search for ads in business-only areas, and decided to force theirs down everybody's throats. Canter and Siegel posted their little notice to some 5,000 news groups, violating rule number one of netiquette - don't make off-topic posts.

As an advertisement campaign, it was a miserable failure. The mass-posting (spamming in cyberspeak) ensured that millions of people saw the ad, each time they entered a different area on the Net. This was, to say the least, extremely annoying. The millions responded with a combination of technology and hysteria. Some cybernauts created cancelbots (bot, short for robot, is a standard cyberspeak suffix for automata, such as the knowbots that hunt for knowledge) to search and destroy all Canter and Siegel posts.

Cancelbots are used very rarely in the extremely tolerant environment of the Internet. Tolerant, that is, to ideas and opinions of all sorts; but not to blatantly commercial and unwanted advertising.

This episode made the lawyers the most hated couple on the Net. And cyberspatial revenge was demonstrated when they received thousands of messages filled with garbage and insults, in a process aptly called mail-bombing. Mail- bombing can be disastrous for its victims. On large, free university mail systems they may be little more than an annoyance and a waste of disk space. On relatively small, commercial systems such as the one used by Canter and Siegel, the victims usually have to pay for the mail, and too much may clog or actually crash a network provider's machine. Luckily, you have to be really stupid or annoying to be mail-bombed.

You don't have to be stupid to get flamed, though. If you ask an inappropriate question in the wrong place, or if someone disagrees strongly with you, then you are likely to get numerous replies, often rude and in public. The best thing to do is ignore them. If you don't you may start a flame-war. Flames are such a common occurrence on the Net, that there are even specially created areas reserved for them.

Wise people don't flame. They use kill files. A kill file is something that is usually part of your mail reader software. It's basically a list of people whose posts you find particularly avoidable. Once they are in your kill file, you never see them again.

See! Life on the Net is so simple. You post something silly, you get flamed, you put the flamer in your kill file, and post again. Of course it's even simpler when you only post sensibly in the first place, and I'll discuss this in the near future.

Cyberspace has its own rules, its own culture. While it may appear a strange world to many newcomers, its tradition and etiquette are usually much simpler, if somewhat different, than the protocol in society at large. Moreover, the level of tolerance to thoughts, the near- complete freedom of expression, and the semi-anarchic and decentralized control make it an admirable model of human interaction.

It is possible that the Internet culture will adapt to the inflow of business and mainstream users. I'd like to imagine though, that it will be the business and mainstream culture that is itself changed by its meeting with cyberspace.

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