Bill Gates famously turned up at work one day and changed the entire direction of Microsoft. The apocryphal tale suggests that at that stage, in the early-1990s, Microsoft thought the Internet was only of minor importance. So the story goes, Bill Gates realised that the web was going to be much more powerful than originally envisaged by Microsoft and so overnight money was poured into the development of Internet Explorer. The story goes that from seeing the Internet as something “nice to have” Bill Gates transformed his company into an organisation where the Internet was central to the business.

Up until that time people had been muttering that Microsoft didn’t understand the Internet; if it did, they said, the monolithic company would have been involved from the outset.

Well, here we are 15 years later and it seems that Microsoft has shot itself in the foot again. They have announced they are working with a “finishing school” to produce a guide to online etiquette. What they don’t seem to realise is that rules for etiquette are socially constructed. What is right in one group, is not right for another. Hence what is “etiquette” in your home might not be “etiquette” in your neighbours.

Online, what is “etiquette” for one social network, or one company, or one nation, may not be “etiquette” on another web site or email system. Microsoft is right that we need to be aware of our audience – not offending some people with over-familiar emails, for instance. But to suggest that you can work with a “finishing school” to produce a guide to etiquette is a deep misunderstanding of what is happening online.

Finishing schools produce rules of etiquette for one particular social circle. What is right in that social network is certainly not right in another group of people. Rules of etiquette change and evolve as the group itself changes and evolves. Since the online world is changing rapidly the “rules” that were right today may not be correct tomorrow. Businesses will lose out if they try to stick to rigid online rules produced by Microsoft’s guide. More than ever adaptability is the requirement for online success – and that means learning new “rules” every day, not sticking to some pre-determined guidelines. Do that and you could well be using bad etiquette. Hence Microsoft’s idea may well work in the reverse way they are hoping to achieve.

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