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2/20/2003

Manners Matter Online

Kate Traynor

Participating in professional e-mail newsgroups gives pharmacists the opportunity to keep up on important issues and quickly exchange ideas with colleagues. By following the basic rules of Internet etiquette—better known as netiquette—e-mail list members can greatly enhance the flow of information in their virtual community.

Netiquette means more than just maintaining a civilized tone in e-mail exchanges. In fact, outright discourtesy among newsgroup members of professional lists may be more the exception than the rule.

Just the text, please. Dan Gillis, Pharm.D., a clinical pharmacy specialist at Princeton Baptist Medical Center in Birmingham, Ala., said one of the netiquette issues that most affects him is the receipt of newsgroup messages, or posts, formatted in hypertext mark-up language (HTML).

HTML-formatted messages can display colors, images, and text attributes that add visual emphasis to the content. But some computer programs that run newsgroup software—including the program ASHP uses for e-mail groups—convert HTML tags into text and symbols that render the message nearly indecipherable to participants whose e-mail software does not support HTML.

Gillis said the problem gets even worse for people like him, who subscribe to the digest version of a newsgroup. They receive one large, combined e-mail message each day instead of individual messages from list members.

The solution to this problem is for list members to change their e-mail program's settings so that it sends messages as plain text instead of in HTML format. Although the idea of changing the settings can be intimidating at first, the process is fairly simple for most e-mail programs. If the instructions for an e-mail program are not readily available, Web sites, such as Expita.com, show how to send plain-text messages from many e-mail programs.

Other important netiquette issues are described below.

NOT SO LOUD! Typing an e-mail message, or even just a subject line, entirely in capital letters is known in Internet circles as shouting. Such messages are hard on the eyes and difficult for newsgroup recipients to read. The use of capital letters for the parts of a message that the sender believes need special emphasis is tolerated in the Internet community, but the practice should be kept to a minimum.

An alternative to using capitals is placing asterisks *before and after a phrase* for emphasis—this is the e-mail equivalent of italicizing the text or using boldface type. Underlined text is sometimes represented by the use of underscores _before and after_ the words that require emphasis.

Smaller is better. Responding to a list message by including the full text of the original and the entire set of related posts can result in an e-mail transmission that snowballs, with each subsequent response growing larger as new comments are appended. Large messages take longer than smaller ones to download and more time to read.

Good netiquette calls for cutting out extraneous text, retaining only an attribution to the source and the specific information to which the message-sender is responding.

Get personal. Not all responses need to be sent to the list's entire membership. If a post prompts a member to say, in essence, “me too,” the responder should consider sending the message as a private e-mail.

This suggestion can also apply to inquiries for additional details about a post. The back-and-forth messages that sometimes ensue may be better suited to a private e-mail exchange instead of an airing before the entire list community.

Be kind to newcomers. As technology evolves and people become increasingly comfortable using the Internet, newsgroup veterans are likely to encounter newcomers who know little of netiquette and may not be computer-savvy. People on both sides of this digital divide need to be patient with each other when discussing netiquette issues.

“Nowadays, people want their computer to be a tool,” Internet veteran Gillis said. “They don’t want to have to be a computer person” to join an Internet community. When netiquette conflicts arise, Gillis said, he hopes that they can be handled in such a way that newcomers “don’t think that a bunch of computer nerds are trying to bash them over the head.”