Sunday, August 29, 2010

Top Posting vs Bottom Posting

Discussion lists are email conversations you subscribe to, which also allow you to reply to threads or start a new one. I've been subscribed to a few web developer discussion lists for several years now. Each discussion list has its own rules and netiquette.

One of the major issues is top posting vs. bottom posting when you include quotes from the original post, plus replies to that post, in your own reply to a specific thread.

The main options are:

(1) interleaved posting (inline replying, in which the reply is woven into the original post)

(2) bottom-posting (the quoted portion appears first, followed by your own reply underneath the quoted material)

(3) top-posting (your reply appears first, followed by the original message and some or all replies to that post).

In some cases, people may trim the quoted material, selecting only the most salient points, or only the specific questions or answers they are responding to.

One of the lists I subscribe to is the webdesign-L discussion list, which states the following rules:

* Trim your replies. Avoid quoting the entire preceding post, and take care not to include the list footer.

When replying, quote only what is needed for context. While most people will not remember the previous message verbatim, you should assume that those interested have been following the thread and do not need to reread the previous post to understand yours. Quoting the entire message wastes bandwidth, annoys members, and makes the digest hard to read.

* Avoid over-trimming.

Include names, but not the email addresses, of persons being quoted, relevant URLs, and enough of the original post so that readers know to what and whom you’re responding. If you’re responding to several posts, or to the thread in general, please say so.

* Do not top-post; write your reply below the quoted portion(s) of the message to which you are replying.

Recently, some subscribers started a debate on discussion list netiquette and email clients. The moderator, calling himself List Mom, jumped into the fray to set the record straight. Here's how he explains his ban on top posting.

(See all the webdesign-l policies.)


Everyone has a different set of correspondents, with different sets of expectations and capabilities and tolerances.

If you grew up on pine and elm and mutt and even Eudora, you'll have an experience of email similar to that of those who hung out on Usenet, because that's where the people who wrote pine and elm and mutt and Eudora hung out.

Given that Usenet was the largest community of message swapping professionals ever created and set the standard for those to come in terms of etiquette, I tend to think that they might have just maybe gotten a few things right. They certainly documented their experiences with Netiquette, and whether you managed to see them or not really isn't the issue.

If you grew up on AOL, you have a high tolerance for idiotic quoting, because AOL's mail and forum clients had lousy quoting.

If you cut your teeth on Lotus Notes, you likely expect to top-post reply, because as I recall, Notes just appended the *entire thread* to the bottom of every message and reply, and didn't let you edit it, even to do the sort of interleaved quote/reply style of communication that lets you actually answer a question.

If you use Gmail, you'll default to top-posting and feel that interleaving is a waste of your time because Gmail makes it more difficult to do so.

Outlook users and others whose clients make it difficult to do proper quoting and nested attribution will find such practices foreign and will not be familiar with them.

Anyone who was introduced to email via (shudder) MSMail circa Windows for Workgroups will expect every reply to contain a WINMAIL.DAT attachment, because the programmers who wrote MSMail were huffing gasoline and had zero experience with email, reading standards documents, and so on. Though it was probably invisible to the actual users of MSMail, I can't recall. It certainly wasn't invisible to anyone else.

So, in a sense, you're right - etiquette is constantly evolving, which is another way of saying that since the Eternal September, there have been a few hundred million people come online who are ignorant of all that came before them, and to suit their bewildered and pathetic need not to have to understand history, programmers and product managers have striven to make it "easy" instead of trying to make it "useful", because easy sells the software and useful hurts at first.

By the time they've come to understand how painful using tools that suck actually is, the market has stupidified itself to the point where there isn't any real choice of decent software left, unless you're willing to do a lot of research and ignore a lot of misleading claims and experiment a bit with different mail clients.

I use mutt because it lets me treat email like I do any other text document, use my favorite editor, and so forth. It's how I've done email since the early 1990s, if you don't count a few years in Eudora, which was essentially the same experience but with more windows.

For me, it's how email *is*.

Anything else is a distortion, a failure of design, and a retrograde move to the eventual loss of civilized discourse to the pre-literate, drooling moronic exchange of funny cat pictures and videos of children biting other childrens' fingers by people who think every file is the same size because the icons are all the same size.

I don't know what systems you've used, and frankly don't care.

I started this list, back in 1997, back when the question of whether "HTML email" would survive was not yet settled, and ran it on Majordomo until 2003 or so, filtering out HTML mail and attachments and top posts and failed trims, and have done the same on Mailman since, and I set the policies based on the best practices as I understand them. Like it or not, the expectation is that you'll follow them.

If you don't, all you're hurting is yourself, because the people who I consider most worthy of respect here will think you're boorish at best and careless and rude at worst. But your reputation here is in your hands, the policies are well-documented, and that's the last thing I have to say on the matter in this thread.


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