Rethinking 'Netiquette'

Disruptive technology was defined in 1997 by Harvard Business School's Clayton Christensen as a simpler, low-end technology that can develop below radar to destroy established business models (e.g., the PC).

But another kind of disruption comes to mind. Hold on, though, I've got to answer an e-mail message on my Research in Motion Ltd. BlackBerry. Hey, at least it's not beeping. And my mobile is set to "stun." What do you mean "rude"? I'm multitasking!

Network etiquette is, for most of us, old hat. The Internet Architecture Board codified the elements of "Netiquette" in 1995 (see www.dtcc.edu/cs/rfc1 855. html), reminding us that UPPER CASE LOOKS AS IF YOU'RE SHOUTING and to watch cc's when replying.

With the onslaught of wireless devices, we are again challenged to arrive at norms for social behavior. Pagers came first. Please turn them off before the concert starts. Then cell phones. Again, quiet, please, including in restaurants. But in meetings, the phone sits on the table. When it (hopefully) vibrates, up we get and, answering the call on the way out the door, try to minimize the disruption.

If the group is sufficiently small, close or informal and the call sufficiently urgent, one can easily apologize: "Please excuse me while I take this call." In bigger, more formal meetings, it's often useful to establish guidelines at the outset.

One cannot easily hide the fact that one is talking on the phone. But wireless e-mail is stealthier and thus more pernicious.

Wireless e-mail is liberating. Now I can easily communicate just about anywhere, anytime. I can be more responsive to my colleagues and clients, moving a transaction forward or answering a question in near-real time instead of waiting until I'm back at my desk. For records purposes, my BlackBerry bcc's my regular e-mail account, so with a bit of attention I can keep track of where things left off.

The BlackBerry helps me communicate better with those who are not present. But what about my family, co-workers and others who are with me face-to-face? Life is about setting priorities. It is also about cultivating and sustaining personal relationships.

So, I'm in the meeting and the conversation lags, taking a detour from my concerns. I look down and am suddenly captured by an interesting or important-looking message header. Silently, I click it open. Hmm. My eyes dart around the table. Time for a reply. But I can't see the screen under the table. I lean back in my chair and start thumbing my response. I glance up to catch a glare from my colleague who needs help on a point, but I'm not in the rhythm. I'm not multitasking, I'm using others' time. Is it worth it?

As the network extends deeper into our lives, we'll continue to wrestle with balancing the values of remote and present connectedness.

McConnell, former chief of information policy and technology at the Office of Management and Budget, is president of McConnell International LLC (www.mcconnellinternational.com).

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