Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Return to Civility- A Code for Online Artists

This is an abridged, presentation copy of a paper recently written for Art History: Virtuality and the Public Sphere.  It focuses on the importance of netiquette, particularly for artists, and the driving force behind this paper is community building.   If you are interested in reading the entire paper, including removed citations and explanations, it can be viewed here.  

 A Call to Civility in the Internet Era


In the untamed wilderness that is the Internet, brute force vigilantism and cocky anonymity have joined forces to become the prominent form of online interaction.  Faceless millions engage on a variety of social networks, hiding behind avatars that reveal little of the person behind the screen.  In this depersonalized data form, it is easy for one to forget that these millions of interactions are between humans and not computers.  With a screen or two mediating every interaction, everyday civility is often neglected for brash brevity and gut reactions.   This is why good netiquette is extremely important, as common courtesy serves as grease for the wheels of communication.  

There are a multitude of netiquette guides available online, from Emily Post’s guide to UseNet to Virginia Shea’s more general netiquette advice to several social media blogs dedicated to advising small businesses in their digital branding.  Unfortunately, in many small online communities, etiquette and netiquette can be forgotten or are just not applicable.  In the online arts community, existing standards of netiquette, while a good starting point, are not enough to keep social interactions cordial.  As of yet, there is no existing guide for how to respond to unsolicited art critique from an unknown source, how to approach an artist that one greatly admires without seeming like a sycophant, nor how to politely remind one’s client for the tenth time that money is a necessary part of the transaction.  Without a person to associate with a user handle or avatar, online art communities function quite differently from reality based art communities.  I believe it is time to revisit netiquette through the eyes of an online artist.  I propose not just a list of dos and don’ts, but rather a code for artists online to attempt to live by, a code that takes inspiration from a variety of sources ranging from the 18th Edition of Emily Post’s  Etiquette to the United Nations Charter of Human Rights.  My goal for this code is the formation of online art communities geared toward serving both the novice and the professional as well as sowing seeds for generations of online artists to come.

The cold click of the keyboard and the cool glow of a monitor are a poor substitute for actual physical human interaction and a poor environment in which to learn social graces.  Anonymity and depersonalization tend to be side effects of this convenient information and communication hub, providing plenty of dark crevices for hostility to fester.  Backwater forums attached to nearly defunct websites can provide an echo chamber for socially unacceptable practices such as pedophilia, bestiality and neo-Nazism, giving participants’ encouragement, acceptance, and tools to continue in near secrecy.  Behind a veil of anonymity, web browsers such as Dark Net and Tor allow users to surf the web with far fewer repercussions, and have become the browser of choice for child molesters and drug dealers as well as for the world-wise tech savvy.  

 A Return to the Golden Rule

Proper etiquette may seem like a poor panacea for such digital social ills.  Etiquette is a combination of five important traits- respect, consideration, honesty, graciousness, and kindness which are relevant to all human interactions, virtual or reality based.  Etiquette and netiquette are both based on the Golden Rule, the social firmament that many religions are rooted upon.  The Golden Rule is as secular as it is divine, as humanist as it is theist, and as simple as it is all encompassing.  

“Do Unto Others as You Would Have Done Unto You”

We experience this message on a daily basis, and have heard this mantra since infancy.  Repeated by mothers and grandmothers, fathers and grandfathers, teachers, scout leaders, preachers and mentors, trite cartoon morals and afterschool specials, the Golden Rule extends beyond basic etiquette.  It extends far beyond proper utensil choice, beyond when to send out thank you notes, far beyond who sit next to whom at parties.  The Golden Rule underpins the best of human interactions, the fairest laws and declarations, the most progressive of movements, and cuts to the very core of what it means to be a human.  At its very heart, the Golden Rule is about respecting the rights of other humans as much as one would desire that for oneself.  When we adhere to the Golden Rule, there is a tendency toward cooperation and progress, toward understanding and love.  When we stray away, we veer towards hostility and destruction.  The Golden Rule has the ability to guide people up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and brings man from base survival to innovation and invention, through the communities built with other humans.  Respect and understanding have the potential to satisfy the highest need on the Hierarchy, the need for self-actualization.

The Preamble to the United Nations Charter of Human Rights states:   
“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people...
Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,
Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,
Now, Therefore, THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaim THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that ever individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction”. ("United nations charter," 1948)
This preamble always returns to one core principal- respect for other humans.  It is this respect that allows for peaceful co-existence, for the acceptance of differing beliefs, and for the progression in human relations.  Without this respect for human beings or without the ability to recognize fellows as being human beings, communities may begin to falter and fall apart.  Behind screens of LCD and glass, it may be easy to fall into a Turing Trap; one may wonder where the machine ends and the person begins.  As of yet, it is still safe to assume that one is dealing with humans, and should strive to respond with humanity during Internet encounters.

A Brief History of the Internet

The Internet, the network of networks, is a “vast hardware and software infrastructure that enables computer interconnectivity”.  It is the Web that serves as the database, connecting resources with hyperlinks.  The Internet was first conceived in 1962, by J.C.R Licklider, as a “Galactic Network”.  Licklider is chosen to head the Advanced Research Projects Agency, the United States’ response to the USSR launching Sputnik into space.  In 1969, the first switched network was created by BNN.  Called ARPANET, it connected four different nodes- one at the University of Utah, one at Stanford, one at the University of California in Los Angeles, and one at the University of California at Santa Barbara.  The first email program came about in 1972, created by Ray Tomlinson.  That same year, Network Control Protocol is introduced, allowing computers on the same network to communicate, and in 1973 development of TCP/IP began, allowing computers on separate networks to communicate.  In 1974, the term “Internet” was coined by Vinton Cerf and Bob Kahn ("A brief guide," ).UseNet, one of the oldest networks served by the Internet came into being in 1979.  Two years later, CSNET 56 is released by The National Science Foundation to allow non-governmental computers to network, marking the first instance of public Internet access ("A brief guide,").   Prior to this, the Internet was the domain of governmental secrecy, a product of the Cold War.  Three years later, Emily Post wrote “Emily Post for UseNet” (Post, 1984), a guide to UseNet etiquette.  Post’s guide focused on 13 basic Internet etiquette rules:

 Emily Post's Rules for Use

  • Put all items in an appropriate group.
  • Reply via mail.
  • Exhibit care in preparing items.
  • Read followups.
  • Don’t be rude or abusive.
  • Avoid sarcasm and facetious remarks.
  • Use descriptive titles.
  • Cite references.
  • Summarize the original item in followups.
  • In posting summaries of replies, summarize.
  • Be as brief as possible.
  • Don’t submit items berating violators of these rules.
  • Don’t make people read the same thing more than once.
This guide focuses on basic etiquette tailored for Internet usage, and while some items maybe a little dated, the basic concept holds fast.  Post’s guide focuses on re-humanizing the dehumanized, bringing basic etiquette to the faceless, text based Internet of 1984.  Post’s UseNet post predates the first web browsers by nearly ten years, and users experienced an Internet very different from the iteration available to users today.  The Internet in Post wrote about was mainly texted based, experienced at a break neck speed of around 300bps (Post, 1984),a far cry from today’s speeds of  100mbps.  For modern users, the potentials of the Internet have increased greatly, and access to the Internet is available via smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop, and even on some household appliances Now many modern Internet users have easy access to printers, scanners, tablets, high definition monitors, and the opportunity for the digitization of art has increased greatly since the days of 300bps Internet connections.  Although the opportunities for online expression have increased, the dangers of dehumanization through anonymity have only been slightly mitigated.

 An Online Code of Conduct

It is with this in mind that I propose a code of conduct.  This code, based on existing structures of social interaction, inspired by existing etiquette and netiquette, is applicable to the general public, but is of particular interest to the artist utilizing the network of networks. This code is intended to serve as a guide toward a better online artistic community, aiding the seasoned artist as well as the beginner, and while adherence would be appreciated greatly, there is little penalty for the occasional failure, as forgiveness is a basic tenant.  The intention is not to garner more professional work, or a larger audience, but to foster a better general community for artists and students of art.  The reason for adopting this code is simple- one benefits from and participates in the community one has contributed to.  The quality of such a community is directly influenced by each participant and his or her contributions.


1.    One should attempt to contribute more to the community than one consumes, and ensure the distribution of freely available resources to the best of one’s ability.
2.    One should give necessary credit, and not attempt to steal the fruits of other’s labor.
3.    One should participate publicly in intelligent discourse whenever possible.
4.    One should promote the advancement of the art community in general, and their pet communities in particular, planting the seeds for a new generation of artists to flourish.
5.    One should reward and recognize hard work, in self and in others, and strive to avoid negating the honest efforts of self and others.
6.    One should help others in honest need whenever capable.
7.    One should not slander other artists, nor slander their work.
8.    One should not go down without a fight.
9.    One should be particular when venting in public spheres.
10.  One should be respectful to other artists, regardless of skill level, and should not tolerate disrespect of self or others.

The anonymity that our current iteration of the Internet fosters may encourage a lack of respect through the dehumanization of users and the depersonalization of experience.  Because users are interacting through a mediating terminal, it may become easy to forget that there is another human interacting in response elsewhere.  Many artists online create works intended for a yet unknown audience, which adds a level of disconnect between human artist and human consumer until the parties have established a more personal connection.

 The Five Pillars of Manners

There are five important traits behind manners and etiquette- consideration, respect, honesty, graciousness, and kindness.  If we strive to introduce these traits into our day to day interactions online, if we remember the human behind the terminal, I believe that we can stem the tide of dehumanization that anonymity may bring.  We may show consideration when we pause before hitting ‘send’ on a flammable email, when we properly credit another user for their work, or when we share our experience with our community.  We may exhibit graciousness when we allow insults to slide off our backs, when we ignore obvious trolls, and when we forgive the unwitting sins of younger artists.  We exhibit honesty when we use our own names rather than aliases, when we share our history with other users, or when we post about our work process.  Kindness is displayed when we create resources for other artists, when we aid the less experienced, or when we introduce similar online acquaintances.  Respect can be shown in a variety of ways.  By thinking carefully before posting, one is showing respect for one’s fellow Internet users by not cluttering the Internet with misinformation or poorly constructed discussion.  Careful thought may also mean a reduction in the amount of flaming, unnecessary and repetitive commenting, and reducing general Internet noise.  Much like litter in reality, this babble creates unnecessary visual noise, reduces the chances of one quickly finding what one is looking for, and makes for an unpleasant experience in that environment.  By carefully regarding the opinions of another, and carefully evaluating their work and the necessity for response, one is showing respect to the other user.