Media Circus: Miss Manners, up yours!

The original rule girl thinks she can teach us a thing or two about online etiquette. She needs to RTFM first.

Published February 19, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

a recent ad campaign for MCI touts the Internet as a world more civil than the real one. A world of ideas. A world without race, without gender. A virtual Eden.

Yeah, right. As MCI might have noticed if they weren't so busy trying to rip AT&T a new long-distance orifice, indecorous exchanges and foul suggestions have permeated chat rooms and Usenet groups since their inception. Though such uncouth behavior is considered standard, there are some basic rules: Don't SHOUT. Lurk before you post. RTFM. These rules and innumerable others, are spelled out in some detail in countless guides to Netiquette spread across the Net -- on Web pages, in Newsgroups, in every language imaginable. Break a rule, and the chances are someone will refer you to one of them, with a clear directive to Read The Fucking Manual.

Out here in RL, the preeminent chronicler of American etiquette for the last few decades has been the formidable Judith Martin, a k a Miss Manners. So it's not too surprising that Miss Manners herself would take on the daunting issue of etiquette in cyberspace. Martin's latest book, "Miss Manners' Basic Training: Communication" (part of a nine-book "Basic Training" series) attempts to nudge the Net away from barbaric flame wars and adolescent sex chats and into the world of civilized discourse.

Miss Manners deserves praise for her undertaking, one that ranks up there on the difficulty scale with Hercules' cleansing of the Augean Stables. But in attempting to crack down on Net users' boorish ways, she herself breaks the most fundamental rule of etiquette, online or off. "When thou enter a city abide by its customs," the Talmud says, and this lesson is repeated endlessly, in slightly different forms, in virtually every serious guide to Netiquette. Miss Manners herself has made this very point repeatedly over the years, encouraging her readers to do as the Romans do. Here, she manages to do the exact opposite. Demonstrating no real knowledge of (or even much interest in) Internet ways, she blusters into the middle of the party, an uninvited guest, and starts making her dogmatic pronouncements. (Just like a newbie!)

"Technology likes to play a Catch-Me-If-You-Can game with etiquette," Miss Manners writes. "'You don't have any rules for this,' it sneers, 'because we just invented it.' Then it goes tearing off into the future, laughing like crazy, under the cocky assumption that Miss Manners can't catch up."

Miss Manners declares that not only can she catch up, she already has. But by insisting that the Net has no rules, she shows she's not even close. Miss Manners is certain her well-founded, old-school rules for "excruciatingly correct behavior" are up to the challenge of flame wars, spamming and all-caps SHOUTING.


In her early chapter on "cyberspace etiquette," for example, Miss Manners devotes a mere five pages to e-mail, USENET groups and computer bulletin boards. She mentions "flaming" only in passing -- mainly, it seems, to suggest that she's heard of the term. The bulk of the chapter deals with such urgent issues as misaddressed computer labels and the rudeness of "personalizing" a letter.

The rest of the book follows the same basic pattern. Miss Manners tries to stay in cyberspace, but slips ever so hastily into more familiar territory: "The Written Word," "The Engraved Word." Looking down her nose at e-mail invitations, she recommends you write, address, stamp and mail a real monogrammed card every time you want to invite a friend to coffee. (Well, it might be quicker than sending the mail via AOL.) Though some good suggestions are scattered here and there, Miss Manners clearly remains much more comfortable with a goose-quill pen and scented paper than with a mouse.

This isn't an unforgivable crime. We expect Miss Manners to be slightly out of touch; that's part of her charm. Considering how basic manners have degenerated in society, it's no bad thing if our guardians of civility are a little behind the times. But Miss Manners' new book is less about using the tools of technology in a civil way than about eliminating them from your life. Telephone calls? Gentle reader, screen them. Beeper? Gentle reader, ignore it. E-mail? No need to respond right away. Miss Manners has clearly never worked at Microsoft (or Salon).

To realize just how out of touch Miss Manners is, one need only take a quick look at "Netiquette" by Virginia Shea. Published in 1994, this book is both a guide to using technology politely and a history lesson for people like me, who didn't really pay attention to the Internet until URLs started appearing on TV commercials. When Shea wrote her book, the Net was still in puberty, so to speak. She mentions things unheard of by most contemporary users -- like FTP sites, Mosaic and Lynx. Still, Shea's basic advice--to absorb the rules of the digital domain before speaking up, to show consideration for other people's privacy (and valuable time) and to share knowledge with others in a non-condescending way -- are insightful and helpful. They're also common sense. And they prove what once might have seemed inconceivable: that in the world of etiquette, Miss Manners could learn a thing or two.

E X T R A !

Precious bodily fluids

"Violence is male; the male is the penis; violence is the penis or the sperm ejaculated from it."

-- Andrea Dworkin, summarizing the "governing sexual scenario in male supremacist society" in her book "Pornography."

"Andrea Dworkin ... has written 10 books, including such seminal works as 'Intercourse' and 'Pornography.'"

-- Publicity material for Andrea Dworkin's upcoming book, "Life and Death: Unapologetic Writings on the Continuing War Against Women" (Free Press).

Italics added.

Feb. 19, 1997

By Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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