Mailing and Posting Etiquette

Following these few simple rules will enhance the regard in which your email and Usenet readers hold you, thus making you a more effective communicator.

Table of contents:

  1. Quote Judiciously
  2. Post In-line for Context
  3. Avoid Large Attachments
  4. Don't Broadcast Proprietary Attachments
  5. Don't Send Attachments Without Checking First
  6. Don't send HTML Messages Without Checking First
  7. Don't Include Bogus Legalistic Boilerplate
  8. More Sites

Quote Judiciously

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Email and the Usenet news system are store and forward message systems. There is no guarantee that your recipient will see any response you make to one of their messages while the topic is still in their short term memory. In addition, on a broadcast list or in an archive others will come into the conversation in the middle, and not have any memories of the past exchange to provide them context. To refresh memories and preserve context, we thus quote portions of the original message.

However, we quote only those portions of the original message that are relevant to the topic we're addressing. The goal is to get the message across, so the quoting should be tailored to that task.

There is almost never any need to quote someone else's post in full. As a matter of fact, full-quoting is usually considered quite rude, for doing so shows a studied lack of consideration on the part of the poster for their readers. While it's probably not the intent, full-quoting in essence says to the reader, "You are not important enough to me for me to bother trimming out these screenfulls of quoted text. You will just have to wade through them."

If you're interested in a fruitful and useful discussion, that kind of impression is probably not something you want to give, especially when you're just feeling lazy and aren't actually intending to be insulting. Instead, expend a little effort to show respect for your readers; trim well, quote judiciously.

Post In-line for Context

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When you quote, you're doing it to provide context. Requiring your readers to scroll down and then back, repeatedly (as they attempt to figure out what the heck you're talking about), is a rather difficult way for you to make the context available. Providing the context up-front will get you better results.

There's no way to build a threaded discussion with top-posting. Top-posting severely inhibits others from understanding the conversation, because the context of the conversation is out of order, as in broken.

It is far easier for your recipients to follow the ongoing conversation in a message that uses quotes in-line like this:

         > Quote of one point

         Your response

         > Quote of another point

         Your response to the second point

than it is for your readers to follow along if you use top-posting like this (thanks to Adam Brower by way of Patricia Shaffer):

         Oh! Now it makes sense to me. Okay! No more
         top-posting for me!

         > It's annoying because it reverses the normal
         > order of conversation. In fact, many people
         > ignore top-posted messages.
         > > What's so wrong with that?
         > > > That's posting your response before
         > > > the message you're quoting.
         > > > > People keep bugging me about
         > > > > "top-posting." What does that mean?

or as in this very touching example (from Clifton Sharp):

         "I'll see you at Linda's wedding."
         "Well, see ya soon."
         "Ten thousand a year."
         "How much?"
         "Got a really big raise this time."
         "Sorry to hear it. How's the job?"
         "She's not feeling well. Flu, I think."
         "Same as ever. How's yours?"
         "How's your wife?"
         "They painted her purple. They should call her the Prune Fart now."
         "Good. Did you hear what Martin and Sheila did to the Sea Breeze?"
         "Good, and you?"
         "Bill! How the heck are you?"

Top-posting makes your message incomprehensible to many of your readers. In normal conversation, after all, you don't answer to something that has not yet been said. Replying at the top confuses your readers, making any point you're trying to get across very unclear without them scrolling down and back repeatedly, searching to re-integrate context. That extra, wholly unnecessary work leads to reader irritation, or worse, to readers just not bothering with your words at all.

Since your object is to get your message across, help your readers follow by placing your words in context, not prior to the context. Doing otherwise, forcing your readers to go to extra work unnecessarily, is often irritating, sometimes interpreted as insulting, or in severe cases taken as attempt by you to show your "power". Any way you cut that, delivering your words in an hard to read manner doesn't help your case. Instead, post in-line to preserve context and respect your readers.

Avoid Large Attachments

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Since email and the Usenet news system are store and forward message delivery systems, anything you send is copied multiple times between machines on its way to the final destinations. Add in the broadcast nature of the Usenet and email lists, and you have your message copied multiple times to multiple destinations. This can result in a geometric expansion of disk and bandwidth usage that is truly frightening to behold.

In addition, not all your recipients will be connected to the net on a high-bandwidth link when your message arrives. This can result in your large message blocking up their access, preventing them from getting other work done until the download is completed. Worse, if your recipient lives (or is travelling) in a land where users pay by the minute or byte for network access (most of the world outside the USA and Canada), being forced to download a large attachment can cause a noticeable and quite annoying financial outlay.

To minimize the problems caused by all of:

simply send short text messages instead of large attachments. In those short messages, refer your gentle readers to a web or ftp site where they can download the content at their convenience, such as when they're on a faster net or rates are at lower, off-peak prices.

By not straining or breaking the store-and-forward delivery systems your recipients depend upon for other messages, and by giving them the option to get your large content when they have the best opportunity, you show them consideration. Your recipients will appreciate such respect, and be more likely to pay attention to you in a non-irritated frame of mind. So, for best results, send pointers instead of large attachments.

Don't Broadcast Proprietary Attachments

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Not everyone reading your message on an email list or Usenet newsgroup will have the same computer operating system or application programs you have. Sending your work in a format that others can't read, or including gratuitous attachments that have nothing to do with your topic or message integrity, merely serves to annoy.

Such irritation of your readers is unnecessary. To avoid it, do not broadcast attachments of files in proprietary formats. Instead, if you absolutely must send an attachment, use an open standard format.

Examples of open standard and generally available formats include plain ASCII (preferred for text), JPEG (raster graphics), and PNG (raster graphics).

Examples of proprietary and just plain rude attachments that are commonly, sadly, sent anyway include MS Office files, MS Windows executables, Appleworks files, and Netscape Vcards. Generally, many recipients of such a broadcast will be unable to open the proprietary and often secret file formats. Worse, many recipients will also find gratuitous proprietary attachments like VCF files a worse than useless waste of space.

If you want your words to be generally read and heeded by all your hopefully non-irritated recipients, you must avoid broadcasting proprietary attachments. If a broadcast attachment is absolutely necessary, send in an open standard format for the widest usability.

Don't Send Attachments Without Checking First

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Email attachments are a useful way to transfer information to individual recipients, as long as the attachment is not too large. However, this works only if the recipient is able to open and use your attachment.

If you send someone an attachment they can't open, either because they lack the proprietary application you used to create it, or because they're not allowed to open virus and worm carriers, you'll just irritate them. If they want the information despite your oops, they'll have to ask you to resend it in a readable or safer format. Worse, they may just throw up their hands, ignore you, and do without your help.

To avoid this problem, ask first before sending an attached file. Save yourself effort, and save your recipient time and annoyance. Send the attachment only if the recipient confirms they are ready, able and willing to open the format you plan to send.

Don't send HTML Messages Without Checking First

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HTML is for the Web, but email and the Usenet are not the Web. HTML in email or Usenet posts opens up scripting security problems for many recipients. Furthermore, HTML is unreadable, bulky gibberish for many email recipients, and for the majority of Usenet readers. You should avoid sending HTML messages unless you know in advance they are welcome and intelligible.

First, let's consider the Usenet. Simply don't send HTML posts on the Usenet. Doing so is considered highly rude. HTML bulks up the posting unnecessarily, plus is unreadable by the majority of recipients. The best advice: just don't do it.

Second, we have email. You shouldn't send HTML email unless you've confirmed in advance, as you do with other forms of attachments, that each recipient is able to, and allowed to open HTML email.

Your readers will have an easier time of it, and be more inclined to view your posts in a non-irritated frame of mind, if you avoid sending HTML messages unless you know all your recipients can and will be able to handle your HTML.

Don't Send Bogus Legalistic Boilerplate

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Including bogus legalistic terms in your messages, like those some brain-dead lawyers want everyone to put on their faxes, is a waste of everyone's time. It most certainly does not protect any proprietary information you might send. For protection, you need to encrypt.

The boilerplate false and insulting claims of confidentiality and privilege often take a form like this:

    This e-mail and any attachments are confidential and privileged.
    If you are not the intended recipient, please notify the sender
    immediately and destroy this message.  You may not store,
    forward, distribute, ... upon pain of legal action.

First, such boilerplate contains useless adhesions, meaning the explicit and implied threats they make are particularly annoying. If you send something via email, the recipients (are you sure you aren't sending to a mailing list?) and anyone else who sees your clear text postcard in transit can undetectably and with full deniability do whatever they want with the information written on it in plain view. Even casual users of email know email is not a secure communications medium. Thus the threats in typical bogus legalistic boilerplate are naught but an attempt at highly improper intimidation. Demands made in this manner will be regarded as evidence of a hostile attitude on your part by a significant portion of recipients. The threats will negatively affect how your recipients perceive the other ideas in your message.

Second, in the case of mailing lists (are you sure the address to which you sent isn't one?) or USENET posts, falsely claiming a message is "confidential and privileged" is simply too stupid for words. Trying to make your terms adhere to the entire world without a meeting of the minds is beyond wild. If confidentiality were an issue, you wouldn't be broadcasting the message, now would you? You almost certainly wish to avoid gratuitously insulting your recipients that way.

Third, such legalistic boilerplate a waste of bandwidth and disk space. Since they serve no useful purpose, such adhesions are certainly more of a waste than a typical 4 line signature (which often contains useful contact information for the sender). Showing respect for your recipients resources, by not including a signature greater than 4 lines long, will usually cause your message to be viewed in a more favorable light.

In the end, domains that habitually/automatically include such threats, gratuitous insults, and wastes of space on their users' messages likely end up blacklisted. Individual senders who think it's cool to play dress-up and include such bogus disclaimers end up having their messages automatically discarded, unread, by many recipients. Ironically, this is only giving the sender what they explicitly ask for, as the bogus disclaimers always seem to demand the message be destroyed.

Avoid those fates. Don't include bogus legalistic boilerplate on your messages. If you have a confidential and privileged message, encrypt it to the recipient's public key instead.

More Advice Elsewhere

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Ben Goren has an excellent essay (cached) on etiquette in general. It covers the "whys" before getting in to specifics about quoting and top-posting on mailing lists.

You might also want to take a look at Jeremy Reed's mailing list usage hints (cached). They cover a few more topics than this page does.

The FAQ for alt.html has a section pointing out how top-posting and full-quoting tend to go hand in hand.

Frank Tobin also has a good illustration of proper quoting (cached) in responses to email messages.

Sven Guckes shows some amusing examples of bad quoting style in his guide to email editing, with examples of typical mistakes (cached).

The news.newusers. questions quoting guide (cached) advocates good style as well.

Greg Lehey wrote a quite thoughtful article for DaemonNews (text cached) complete with illustrations and discussion about why some modern, pretty, but not necessarily highly functional email and news clients may be driving people to top-post plus full-quote.

Good luck!