Social issues are those that arise when people interact with one another. While it is not our place or purpose to prescribe or suggest behaviours, we think it is appropriate to comment on our observations of differences.
Many stereotypes are keyed to appearance. When you are communicating with someone online and only online, you tend to form your sense of 'who they are' based on purely intellectual and verbal cues. No one need know your age, sex, race, nationality, skin colour, or any other aspect of you that doesn't come out in your writing.
This is very liberating to people who want it and know how to take advantage of it. A widely-circulated cartoon from July 1993 shows two dogs talking in front of a computer screen; one tells the other 'On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog.'
Sense of safety
Many people feel safer using written online messages than using the telephone or talking in person. From the earliest days of computers, psychological studies showed that people were usually more willing to type secrets into a computer than they were to tell somebody the same secrets. This is almost certainly an issue of safety or at least the feeling of safety. It is easy to hide, and you do not ever need to tell your correspondent where you live or what your real name is.
Intimacy and inhibition
People are less inhibited in electronic communication. From the earliest days of computer communication, researchers have discovered that most people are less inhibited in online communication than when sound is used. The immediacy of online communication encourages people to respond without thinking, and nearly every user of online communication has experienced the desire to write regrettable things. Do try to rise above it. Never write down something that you wouldn't want your mother to see, and that you wouldn't want published in the newspaper.
One byproduct of the feeling of safety in electronic communication is that cowardly acts are easier. You might not be willing to walk up to someone, say something offensive, and then run away, but the online equivalent, of sending an offensive message and then running away, is almost too easy. Experienced users of online communication tend either to develop the ability to ignore offensive messages or else, in our experience, to drift away from using public forums.
It is more difficult to keep something secret on the internet. It is easy to forward information around. If somebody sends you something, it's very easy to send it on to more people, or to store it in a public place. On the other hand, if you reveal someone else's secret, there is almost always a written record showing that you are the one who did it, so it is easier to find out who leaked a secret.
A community is a group of people who talk to one another because they share common interests. In years past, it was difficult to form communities unless people lived near one another. Radio, television, and telephones did not often do a very effective job of forming geographically-dispersed communities because they were either one-to-one instead of one-to-many (telephones), or else did not give very many people the opportunity to speak (traditional broadcast media). Indeed, the tradition of the 'letters to the editor' column in a newspaper, which are very widely read, is a recognition that there is value in letting many people speak.
Communities linked by online communication can be geographically diffuse and more specialized. Secular groups form regularly around mutual interests; all the participants need have in common beyond the interest that defines their group is language. It is of course possible to form communities that are not linked by language; look at the fans of Manchester United. And communities can form around nonverbal activities such as computer games or chess.
The communication of ideas requires language, especially when the correspondents disagree with one another. If the unity of the group comes from, say, liking Nintendo games, it is not necessary to use language to say 'I like Nintendo'. But if the unity of the group comes from a shared interest in the Book of Revelation, it is hard to express that interest without language. Perhaps someday automatic language translation will have become sophisticated enough to permit a community to form without a common language. For now, the common language is English. We think it's likely that the mechanism of the internet will cause most communities to form in English, and that, in time, other languages will become less heavily used.
Etiquette seems to be the accumulated learning of a culture about how one ought to behave in order not to offend or harm very many people. Different cultures have different concepts and rules of etiquette. But the internet is global, and cuts across cultural boundaries. Rules of etiquette have adapted somewhat to this new medium, especially in English-language communities, and become somewhat more global.
Naturally the etiquette of online behaviour will be no more perfect than the etiquette decreed for weddings or boat launchings, but there is developing a reasonably broad consensus about what constitutes acceptable behaviour.
Not everyone is able to use this medium. At the moment only a small percentage of the world's population has the resources, education, and opportunity to use internet communication. But the same was once true of literacy, telephones, automobiles, poliomyelitis vaccination, and other technological innovations. If the technology is genuinely valuable, the price will come down and thereby more people will be enfranchised.
At the end of 1997 there were 30 million computers connected to the internet with annual growth rates in every region of the world above 70% per year. It is more difficult to estimate the number of people using those computers, but a conservative estimate is 100 million people worldwide.
Every hour spent communicating online is an hour not spent doing something else. There is not yet enough experience or data to draw conclusions about the cultural effect that this will have, but there will be one.