Copyright 1999 by Michael Cerkowski
Distribute freely, but do not modify
Although this document was conceived as a guide for new
animal rights activists, the principles discussed can be generally
applied to virtually any activist working online. It is not intended to
be a list of absolute rules, nor is it meant to be a strict
characterization of my own posting style. It IS meant to be used as a
reference by people who have little or no experience with online
The Internet has been around in one form or another for
several decades. This, along with the somewhat parallel development of
dialup Bulletin Board Services (BBS's), has resulted in the evolution of
an Online Culture of sorts, with its own "nettiquette." For someone
posting online for the first time,
cyberculture can be confusing at best, and downright offensive at worst.
Since the Internet isn't going to change for the sake of new people
(known as "newbies"), it is important to be able to understand this
medium, and to use it to communicate effectively. Since the cyberculture
vocabulary extends to acronym-like abbreviations, and to
punctuation-based indicators of tone called "emoticons," I have included
a short list of the most common shorthand expressions, and a helpful
link, at the end of this document. While it is very important to
understand whether the post to which you are responding was intended to
be serious, or just tongue-in-cheek, the most vital aspect of online
activism is your own presentation; how you represent yourself and your
cause, and how well you communicate.
When you are posting online, people don't know what you
are like, how nice you are to your family, or how intelligent you are at
your job. They often don't even know your gender. Consequently, your
online identity consists almost entirely of what you write. I say
"almost," because many people adopt online aliases, either to help
protect their identities or to make a statement about who they are and
what they believe. This means that if you post under the name "MoltenDeath"
or "AK-47," you have lost quite a
bit of your audience's respect and empathy before you write a word. If
you want to use an alias, it's a good idea to pick one that isn't
The first time that you post in a newsgroup or other
online forum, it is important to think about what you want to say before
you click the "send" button. If you are angry, take the time to calm
down a bit before you respond. Your first post doesn't have to be
profound, but it's a good idea to avoid being remembered as "that jerk."
This is of course a good idea for all posts, not just your first one.
Depending on the situation, you may want to indicate that you have been
following the discussion, and perhaps
explain why you have decided to participate. That doesn't mean that you
are expected to tell the Story of Your Life in your first post, or that
anyone will appreciate it if you do.
It's generally better to slip into a discussion than to
crash it. That means following a topic "thread," and reading a few older
posts if necessary, before you participate. Try to get a sense of the
topic, and of the positions and personalities of the people involved in
it. This will help you to contribute something meaningful.
One of the worst things an activist can do in any
discussion is to lose his or her temper. This may not be obvious to
everyone; there are many people online who view personal insults and
inflammatory rhetoric (known as "flames") as a perfectly acceptable
everyday conversational style. Some people, often called Trolls, post
not to advance the discussion but to provoke angry responses. Don't fall
into the trap of fighting Fire with Fire; the only people who truly
appreciate that sort of "debate" are those who will never change their
minds, and those who make better opponents than allies. The better way
to win a skirmish is to be the one who remains calm, not the one who
comes up with the nastiest flame. If you do lose your temper, apologize.
When dealing with people who just can't be civil, humor, used in an
appropriate manner (not as a substitute for debate) can be effective.
Avoid "baiting," or deliberately provoking anger.
When debating matters of fact, avoid the pitfall of
posting your own opinion as established reality. If you believe that
something is true, but do not absolutely, positively know it to be true,
it's a good idea to indicate that by writing something along the lines
of "It's my understanding that..." or "I'm pretty sure that...". This
can save you enormous grief if you turn out to be mistaken. On a similar
note, remember the Monty Python "Argument Sketch": contradiction is not
debate. Support what you say with reasoned arguments, facts, or both.
When paraphrasing someone, never use double quotation
marks. Use single quotation marks, or none at all. Never edit a quote to
change the meaning, and if you do edit for length, indicate that you
have done so. Always indicate whom you are quoting.
There are a handful of descriptive terms that get
bandied about in online discussion groups. They describe tactics that do
not represent honest debate. Avoid stating that a person or source is
completely untrustworthy because they have lied in the past ("poisoning
the well"), appealing to emotion rather than intellect ("ad hominem"),
excusing behavior on the grounds that the opposition engages in it (tu
quoque), and avoid attributing a position to someone that they do not
hold, and then rebutting it ("straw man fallacy"). You may be accused of
engaging in these tactics anyway; be prepared to defend your posts in a
reasonable manner. Avoid using a double standard: judge your opponents
and their organizations by the same ethical yardstick you use to judge
yourself and the organizations that you support.
Even when arguing passionately, try to refrain from
using excessively dramatic language, and, especially, don't make
sweeping generalizations. The latter can be used to dismiss your
position out of hand, even if it is quite valid in a more limited sense.
For example, the statement "Many animals in slaughterhouses die in a
manner that isn't fast or free of extreme suffering" is a little
dramatic, but defensible. The statement "All animals in slaughterhouses
die a slow, horrible death!" is not accurate, and will, rest assured, be
used to discredit you.
The most valuable asset that an activist can bring to a
debate is an open mind. Listen to what your opponents are saying, and if
it repels you, think about it anyway. Even Trolls can present valid
arguments. Remember that no side is wrong (or right) about everything,
and that you can learn valuable lessons from your opponents. What you
learn can help you to grow as an activist and as a person. Try to give
yourself some time away from the fray on a regular basis; it will help
you to remain calm, sharp, and most importantly, sane.
When looking for facts to support your argument, one of
the absolute best places to look is in the material provided by
partisan, biased organizations *who support the opposing position*.
Quote a statement by PETA to support a pro-animal rights argument, and
the opposition will laugh. Quote a statement from one of their own
sources, like the NRA or AMPEF - one that presents facts that speak
against their own interest in this case -- and they will be hard pressed
to refute it. Relatively neutral sources, of course, are also excellent.
Remember that all sources are biased in one way or another, and don't
treat any advocacy group, no matter how close to your heart they may be,
as infallible. Above all, think for yourself!
IMO - in my opinion
BTW - by the way
AFAIK - as far as I know
LOL - laughing out loud
ROTFL - rolling on the floor laughing
:) happy, friendly, or joking
;) winking or joking
Many variations of these, and others, exist. They are
used to indicate tone and mood in a medium where those things are not
always readily apparent.
The use of asterisks to indicate *emphasis* (as italics
are used) may be desirable, because typing in all capital letters is
often considered to be SHOUTING.
More useful information for newbies can be found at:
Go on to Clyde Beatty
- Cole Bros. Circus
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