Our Net worth

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 May, 2009, 12:00am

There are two 'mes' - the one you meet on the street, in a bar or, less frequently than I would like, at the gym; and the one that hunches in front of a computer for hours at a stretch. They are separate people. The former is easy going and a little shy - a listener more than a talker. My online face is extroverted and opinionated, mouthing off on impulse without much thought for the consequences.

I am not schizophrenic or bipolar. My mental health, to the best of my knowledge, is within the range of normal for people who have desk jobs. Nor do I believe that I am unusual. A quick look at the social networking of technology savvy people elsewhere would seem to show I fit in perfectly.

In fact, after a little research, it is obvious that there are many people whose internet and mobile-phone behaviour is far worse than mine. Facebook pages are full of information that is far too personal. Messages from Twitter - tweets, as they are called - bombard with often inane updates. E-mails are full of expressions of anger and outrage that I doubt the senders would ever utter beyond the confines of their homes.

It is obvious that the liberating democracy of technology has been taken too far. Common sense is being cast aside by people who erroneously think that a computer screen provides them with anonymity. Insults fly too freely; names and addresses are given out without forethought as to who might read them. Permission is clearly not being sought for the posting of videos and pictures.

You don't have to look far to see the consequences. Chat-room stalkers have long known that they can be reached by the long arm of the law. It will become apparent to file-sharing pirates if France's senate approves a bill that will ban them from the internet if they are caught downloading copyright-protected movies and music. The Hong Kong computer technician who, on Wednesday, was given an 8?-month jail sentence for distributing actor Edison Chen Koon-hei's personal photo collection now also understands the limitations.

An advertising campaign is under way in the US to tackle the growing incidence of teenage suicides from bullying - a large proportion of it coming from cyberspace. Telling someone that they are ugly, unfashionable or no longer your girlfriend or boyfriend has never been easier. Once, you had to take the awkward step of seeing them in person; now, all you have to do is send an e-mail or text message, or use one of the myriad other social networking tools that the internet provides. Besides, there is no better comeback for a cheating ex than putting that video of him modelling your underwear on YouTube, right?

Wrong, US manners, etiquette and protocol expert Susan Fitter Sloane told me yesterday. The internet is a public forum and what is put on it can be seen by anyone, anywhere and at any time. Her rule is simple: if you wouldn't say it to someone's face, don't put it on the internet - tell them in person. In the name of privacy, she doesn't even have family pictures on her Facebook pages.

There is a term for manners on the internet: netiquette. It is not new - Silicon Valley veteran Virginia Shea wrote a book with that title in 1994. It should be mandatory reading for anyone who gets behind a computer or texting screen. There is no reason why this should not happen, as it can be read for free at the Albion Books website, www.albion.com

Ms Shea devised 10 core rules for internet use that are more apt now than they were back in those pre-Google, pre-Facebook, pre-Skype days of her writing. They are 1: remember the human; 2: adhere to the same standards of behaviour online; 3: know where you are in cyberspace; 4: respect other people's time and bandwidth; 5: make yourself look good online; 6: share expert knowledge; 7: help keep flame wars under control; 8: respect other people's privacy; 9: don't abuse your power; and 10: be forgiving of other people's mistakes.

In a technology-driven world, where we are constantly connecting with others, these are wise rules to live by.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post