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Netiquette - rules for online politeness

Netiquette – What to do if the boss follows you on Instagram?

Rules on how to behave online can be both good and bad for equality! Technology can give people access to meetings and conferences they otherwise could not attend. But netiquette (etiquette on the internet) can also make inequalities more visible.  Requirements to turn cameras and microphones on can create problems for those who do not have calm and presentable spaces in the home office.

A paper from London School of Economics and Political Science published in the International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction investigates how digital social norms and netiquette emerge, how they have developed over time, and how they are regulated.

“As societies become increasingly connected by technology, it will be crucial to understand the guiding frameworks and practices for digital interactions and digital communications going forward. Conceptualising Netiquette as digital social norms is the first steppingstone towards such an understanding.”

One example that researchers discussed with focus groups is What do you do when the boss follows you on Instagram? The questions is boundaries and social norms regarding connecting with colleagues, and particularly superiors through channels that were perceived as more private:

“There are particular expectations around what it means to be professional. Now, my bosses follow me on Instagram, which is a little bit strange. And it definitely makes me think differently about how I post content… I don’t think you can not accept your boss following you, right?”

The researchers find that netiquette is not simply a subset of offline etiquette. Instead, it has many of its own rules and cultures and although these are frequently influenced by offline behaviour and expectations, this is not always the case.  

“Indeed, digital social norms are increasingly spilling over to the offline. This is especially the case now that digital interactions have become more common than face-to-face interactions for some people.”

Written down explicit rules are bound to fail as netiquette dynamically adapts through behaviour, interactions, and contextual factors. As such, the paper conceptualises netiquette as digital social norms.

Discussion with the focus groups showed that netiquette is formed as a result of several intertwined processes, including individual learning through trial and error where you copy the online behaviour of someone who is more senior or tech savvy than you.

Digital social norms are also commonly developed through group learning, where people implicitly learn acceptable online behaviour through encouragement by peers (“Hey, we should turn our cameras on for this meeting”), and informal cues and group surveillance (discouraging someone doing something that could be perceived as rude in an online meeting by making a light joke of it).

Digital social norms can also change depending on the platform being used (email versus Instagram for example), power imbalances (whether the CEO is taking part in the meeting or not), and social relationships between the actors (how close you are with colleagues). What is acceptable in one online context might not be acceptable in another.

Just as certain memes or words from internet slang (like “lol” or “tl;dr”) have made it into our offline vocabularies, we may observe that behaviours considered appropriate or inappropriate under the light of netiquette will increasingly also influence offline interactions”, says paper co-author Dr Maxi Heitmayer from the Department of of Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE.


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