Netiquette is a collection of social conventions which dictate the way in which people interact with each other on the Internet. The term is a portmanteau of “net,” short for “Internet,” and “etiquette.” Like social etiquette in real life, the rules of netiquette are commonly in flux, and they may vary significantly between different groups of Internet users and across different cultures. Some websites even post their own netiquette guidelines under headings such as “rules” or “comment policies” to provide directions to their users.
Original rules in the early days of the Internet were designed to facilitate clear communication. They revolved around adopting conventions which would make it easy to read newsgroups, emails, list serves, bulletin boards, and so forth. For example, users were discouraged from typing in all caps, as it looks aggressive, and they were told to keep signatures attached to emails and messages simple to avoid cluttering the screens of users trying to read. As the Internet became more complex, the rules of netiquette also evolved.
Different websites may have different standards. On some websites, for example, users have an anything goes policy, which can include personal attacks, libelous statements, and the distribution of unsavory material. Other websites exert more control over the content posted by users, attempting to keep conversations clean, germane, and interesting. Moderators may be used to enforce these rules, and people who routinely violate netiquette can find themselves banned from a site.
As with social etiquette, a focal point of netiquette is treating other people with courtesy and respect, whether people are users on a bulletin board or commentors on a newspaper's web site. For people who use the Internet for professional communications, a high level of professionalism is also expected. Professional netiquette discourages the use of emoticons, also known as smileys, and places an emphasis on spelling and punctuating correcting, formatting communications clearly and professionally, and avoiding small talk, gossip, and other distractions. Essentially, etiquette for electronic business communications is identical to that of real-world ones; if something would look inappropriate in a printed letter, it would be wrong in an email.
Some infamous violations of the rules of professional netiquette have occurred, in the form of emails sent to the wrong people, or documents which were intended to be private, but ended up being mass distributed after recipients took offense at their content. Some of these incidents have simply shamed the perpetrator, while others have results in resignations and firings. Individuals who violate the netiquette observed by a community can be banned or ostracized by other users, just as people who fail to observe etiquette in the real world may be given the cold shoulder.
Because the rules can be so variable and confusing, people who are not sure about how to behave on a website may want to take advantage of the published site policies to gather information about how users are expected to behave. They can also examine examples on the website to see how people act, and they can always fall back on the ancient tradition of treating others as they would wish to be treated. In the realm of email, instant messaging, and other private communications, people may want to consult company guidelines when corresponding professionally, and consider using netiquette guides when dealing with personal communications.