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Netiquette: The next big challenge

Time and again, I am seeing online participatory forums reduced to public arguments which lead to a reduction in participation (and subsequently constructive discussion) in otherwise positive online communities.

Most of the arguments are about what content is 'appropriate' for inclusion in a particular forum. This is hardly surprising, but it does not bode well for our digital future.

Broadband networks will enable more people to connect online in ways which are yet to be devised. But as with most innovations, the limits to connectivity are not all related to technology. I have argued elsewhere that technology is not entirely deterministic; nor is it entirely constructed by society.

Technological momentum is a middle-of-the-road theory which suggests that both technology (and its potential uses), and society (and the way society uses technology), each have an impact on the possible futures and uses of broadband technologies.

But in most of the relatively 'localised' social networks I have observed, recently there have been many bouts of conflict. This suggests that the momentum of technology has advanced, while society and its uses of the technologies are yet to evolve. I would argue we are on the cusp of a change in how we, as humans, interact, as the evolving public e-sphere empowers the voices which for a long time have been excluded from a public hearing.

How we proceed will determine the extent to which our increasingly collective views of enabling an empowered society are more than just rhetoric.

In many regards, there was some merit to the 'old ways'. Content was filtered by the hierarchies which govern the provision of information. Easy to control when you are a one-way broadcaster, but much more difficult to control when you are involved in an any-to-any conversation.

In the past (at least increasingly since 1975!), content which was viewed as racist, sexist, or in any way viewed (by the majority, or at least the law) as discriminatory, was simply excluded. Open up the communications network to the masses, and the situation changes dramatically.

As more people are exposed to the rigours of public life (which broadband and new media participation ensues), the need for an institutionalised sense of Netiquette is fast becoming a priority. Incorporating 'Netiquette' in educational curricula is a necessary next step.

One of the biggest impediments to an ideally inclusive digital future is how our educational institutions will deal with the challenge of emerging ideas about Netiquette. The extent of exclusion from earlier ideas of the 'public sphere' is well documented. But the voices which will be heard in the emerging 'public e-sphere' will be hard for the old hierarchies to hold back. Historically, education is the most effective way to deal with such challenges.

The emerging ideas about 'Netiquette' will require a great deal of soul-searching if the traditional gatekeepers are to play a useful role in the digital future. At this stage, it is difficult to imagine a future without gatekeepers. Nonetheless, it is obvious that the 'rules of entry' through the information gates must be changed for the better if we, as humans, are to benefit from the potential provided by modern communications technologies.